In the early 1970s, Mao Zedong's communist China loomed as an implacable enemy of the United States. The world's most populous country, it was also one of its poorest, convulsed by changes instituted by the regime that had led to widespread persecution and the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese.
The United States and much of the world still recognized Taiwan, not the mainland, as the seat of China's legitimate government. But the much larger People's Republic of China regularly threatened to invade its island neighbor, while simultaneously launching a brutal crackdown on Tibet. Beijing was also supporting North Vietnam and communist forces in Laos and Cambodia, both fighting against the U.S. in a bloody war in Indochina.
Despite this fraught foreign policy backdrop, there proved to be one thing that could unite the two adversaries: a common rival, the Soviet Union.
Henry Kissinger, who went on to serve as secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, was Nixon's national security adviser in 1972. He tells NPR's Neal Conan and NPR commentator Ted Koppel that the Nixon administration quickly concluded that tensions between Mao and the U.S.S.R. provided a potential opening for U.S.-China cooperation.
"The two previous administrations ... argued that there was a unified communist conspiracy, moving from Moscow to Beijing to Hanoi, that was threatening American security," says Kissinger. "We concluded very quickly that this was not the ... correct interpretation."
In his book, On China, Kissinger describes the delicate diplomatic dance that ultimately took Nixon to the mainland in 1972 — the first public interaction between Chinese and U.S. leaders in three decades.
"In each country, certainly in ours ... there were elements who believed that the relationship between the two countries would be irreconcilably hostile," says Kissinger. "So each side had the problem of how to make an overture, without, at the same time, embarrassing itself by a rejection."
The result was a series of surreptitious exchanges orchestrated by Kissinger and his colleagues, including an almost comical attempt by the American to pass on a message to the Chinese at a Yugoslav fashion show in Warsaw.
"[We] instructed our ambassador in Poland, which was the only place where there was any contact, and the only place where the Chinese still had an ambassador ... to approach the Chinese diplomat at the next social function," says Kissinger. "Our diplomat ... went up to the Chinese. The Chinese [diplomat] ran away because he had no instructions, and didn't know what to do."
Despite the sometimes awkward lead-up to the Nixon visit, the historic meeting became a turning point in U.S.-China relations. And the U.S., says Kissinger, must continue to exert the same amount of effort in its relationship with the world's newest superpower today.
"We are going to be the two strongest societies in the world. We're going to impinge upon each other in every part of the world," Kissinger says. "There are many problems that have arisen that can only be dealt with on a global basis. So how this relationship will evolve will be of crucial importance."