Seize The Hour: When Nixon Met Mao, by Margaret MacMillan

The US, China and a handshake that changed the course of history
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The Independent Culture

The meeting between President Nixon and Chairman Mao is rightly seen as a high point and a turning point of 20th-century history. Their handshake marked the occasion when, after more than a generation of icily ignoring each other, the United States and China agreed that they should talk. Margaret MacMillan tells the riveting story of how this happened, and supplies the background necessary to understand the epic significance of that encounter.

Inevitably, the accelerating narrative - which peaks early with the tale of the meeting and stretches through to the nail-biting negotiations over the final communiqué - is more absorbing than the background. This may explain the slightly unorthodox structure of this history, in which the relatively short narrative is interrupted by chapters surveying, for instance, US relations with China over the centuries. There is a contrast in readability between the rather pedestrian background chapters, culled from secondary sources, and Nixon's week in China, woven largely from first-hand accounts.

The account of the diplomacy that made the hand-shake possible, in particular Kissinger's secret weekend visit to China while supposedly suffering from "Delhi belly" in Pakistan, deserves a prominent place in every course in international affairs. But there would have been no opportunity for diplomacy without the risk-taking commitment of Richard Nixon. MacMillan appears deliberately to separate Nixon the statesman from the "tricky Dicky" impeached over the Watergate break-in. She classes him with Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton for his knowledge of, and passion for, international affairs. This provides a timely corrective to the overwhelmingly negative view of Nixon that still prevails.

Not only does the book remind us of a time when the US and China were effectively cut off from each other; it warns of the potential for misunderstanding that lurks in their very different ways of looking at the world. It also illustrates the crucial diplomatic contribution that can be made by disinterested small countries, and the difference a national leader can make if he thinks imaginatively and strategically.

Nixon resigned; Mao died, and their successors had other preoccupations. In her final chapter, Macmillan alludes to later tensions and hints at a superpower rivalry to come. It is a pity that the historic handshake of 1972 did not yield an outcome to match the hopeful daring of the diplomacy.