President Richard Nixon’s trip to China is remembered today as a remarkable act of bravery, leadership and principle. But count on The Nation to asks the whys and the wherefores, the hows and whens. The magazine had long championed recognition of China and normalization of diplomacy—indeed, had resisted the attempt to “hold” China to begin with, and did not think of another country as something that was ours to “lose.” In this editorial, “Question Time” (March 13, 1972), the editors demanded an accounting for Nixon’s severe about-face: the same questions could be asked, in different terms, of every American leader since.
Now that the President and his traveling troupe have returned, we know what we could reasonably have assumed before he left—that the main importance of the journey was the fact that he made it. There are of course fringe benefits: a direct line of commucation; the hope of cultural, journalistic, educational and scientific changes; the possibility of eventual recognition and formal relations; and beyond that, trade and tourist opportunities….
What is conspicuously lacking—and it is odd that amidst the flood of comment it has gone unnoticed—is a clear, persuasive statement of the reasons for his turnabout. Part of the ethics of leadership in a democratic society is to display a minimal amount of candor; without it, communication becomes a travesty. The Executive is obliged to offer the people, for their understanding and possible comment and criticism, some idea of how he reaches decisions on key issues. In the present case, we are entitled to a statement of the evolution—assuming there has been an evolution—of Mr. Nixon’s thinking and a definition of the position he now maintains. For Mr. Nixon, personally this trip would seem to reflect a reversal of political veiws. Has he changed his mind?… He has not said that he mde a mistake when he embraced the position of the China Lobby. He has not said that he regrets the expenditure of all those billions in a vain effort to encircle, frustrate, annoy and possibly topple the Chinese regime…. He has not said that he regrets the basis of U.S. policy toward China, which was a prime factor in setting the stage for the war in Vietnam. What specifically does the President think today about such matters as these? Has U.S. policy been mistakenly geared to the idea of containment? Has that idea failed in the East, as it has failed elsewhere? Was it a mistake to make such extensive and binding commitments to Chiang Kai-shek, who is now in a position to accuse us of bad faith? Was it a mistake to try to keep China in the internatational doghouse for those twenty-two years?… Bismarckian, Metternichean politics will not work in a society like ours. That is why Vietnam blew up in the faces of Mr. Nixon’s and Dr. Kissinger’s predecessors. People want to know. In China and in the Soviet Union, they also want to know, but are shy to say so. Here, however, “why” and “how” and “when” are perfectly respectable words. It is the President’s obligation to hear them and to respond.
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