The outrage over President Donald Trump’s demeanor during his Helsinki sit-down with Russia’s Vladimir Putin resembles in many ways the reaction to the visit of another U.S. president to the capital of a foreign adversary.
It was early 1972 when the White House announced that President Richard Nixon would fly to Beijing that February for the first ever meeting between a U.S. president and Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese Communist dictator who is estimated to have been responsible for the killing of 20 million or more of his own citizens. Conservatives and others were outraged because Mao was seen, not inaccurately, as just as morally reprehensible as Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
It was the height of the Cold War between the West and the Communist world in general and the very hot war in Vietnam, where Americans were being killed by the thousands by weapons supplied by the Soviet Union and Communist China. Mr. Nixon had been viewed by friend and foe alike as the quintessential cold warrior and the news that he would meet with Mao came as a shock to just about everyone.
The media was ecstatic at the chance to cover a truly historic meeting even if many of them disliked Nixon. The “photo opportunities” inherent in covering a U.S. president touring Beijing, admiring China’s Great Wall and chatting with the Communist leader of hundreds of millions was a media dream. The visit blew everything else off the front pages in the lead-up to the visit, while the president was abroad and in the days following his triumphant return.
Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy guru, justified the trip by arguing that we could no longer ignore an adversary the size of Communist China. They believed an opening to China might indeed head off a future confrontation but were just as convinced that given the cracks in the Communist world at the time, sidling up to Mao would allow them to exploit the emerging problems between China and the Kremlin.
Though the president’s allies may have understood what Nixon and Mr. Kissinger were really up to, most found the very idea that a president of the United States would meet with as ruthless a dictator and enemy as Mao repugnant; this was a man who had the blood of millions on his hands, ran one of the most totalitarian regimes in the world and was a sworn enemy of the United States who had bragged that he had no fear of a nuclear confrontation with America because he believed the survivors who would climb out of the rubble would be Communists.
The Russian leader with whom Mr. Trump met earlier this month is no choir boy but seems like one when compared to Mao. We don’t know today whether we will look back on the Helsinki meeting as the disaster portrayed by Mr. Trump’s detractors or as a step toward a more stable and safer world, but like Nixon before him, Mr. Trump seems to view the world as a realist and seems dedicated to damping down the growing hostility between Russia and the United States.
Nixon’s conversations with Mao, like Donald Trump’s talks with Russia’s current leader in Helsinki, were not shared with the press or the public. The president’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, informed reporters when asked that it was really none of their business. When it was over, the media wondered if Mao had bested Nixon and many criticized Nixon’s seeming obsequiousness in his public exchanges with the Chinese dictator. Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey, a widely respected liberal journalist, expressed embarrassment at watching a U.S. president “kowtow” to an Asian despot.
The criticism came from his Democratic opponents, of course, but they were joined by conservative reporters appalled at his performance and what was seen at the time as the sell-out of Taiwan. That trip is today considered rightly or wrongly as perhaps Nixon’s greatest accomplishment as president. Hubert Humphrey and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, both of whom still had one eye on the White House, were apoplectic. Many on the right who were later afraid that Ronald Reagan was making a mistake when he sat down with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev decades later were convinced that whatever had been agreed to behind closed doors could only be bad.
It remains to be seen whether our current president’s efforts to build bridges to Moscow will succeed or fail, but those obsessing over the attempt should remember Nixon’s visit to Beijing and the accomplishments of previous presidents who had no fear of trying to reach agreement with our adversaries and enemies.
It’s part of the job.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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