wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Margaret MacMillan

Nixon and Mao

As they parted, Mao told Nixon that he was not very well. Nixon reassured him that he looked good, and Mao replied that appearances could be deceiving. A Chinese cameraman who was filming the meeting had been worried about Mao's unhealthy pallor at the outset but was delighted to notice that, as the conversation went on, his face glowed to give the appearance of good health. With a last round of handshakes and photographs, the Americans took their leave. The historic conversation had been a curiously inconclusive one, with Nixon trying to lay the groundwork for future talks and Mao meandering about.

Once Nixon left, Mao changed out of his new suit and into his dressing gown and chatted happily with his doctor, who, checking his pulse, found it steady and strong. Mao approved of Nixon: 'He speaks forthrightly—no beating around the bush, not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.' He liked the way Nixon talked frankly about the benefits to the United States of an improved relationship with China. And, in a reference to his estranged Communist ally the Soviet Union, Mao said, 'He is much better than those people who talk about high moral principles while engaging in sinister intrigues.' In their subsequent meetings, Mao's admiration increased. 'There is a man who knows what he stands for, as well as what he wants,' he told the British prime minister, Edward Heath, in 1974, 'and has the strength of mind to get it.' He was never as impressed by Kissinger. 'Just a funny little man. He is shuddering all over with nerves every time he comes to see me.'

The Americans were equally pleased, if not more so. 'The P called me up,' Haldeman wrote in his diary. 'Obviously, he was very impressed with the whole thing, but didn't get into any details at that time.' What Nixon did want to talk about was how to deal with Rogers. He asked Haldeman to say that Chou had come by unexpectedly and asked specifically for Nixon himself and Kissinger to have a chat with Mao before the plenary session scheduled for later that afternoon. Lord later claimed that Nixon and Kissinger had assumed there would be a second meeting with Mao so that there would be an occasion for Rogers to meet him. Whether any of this convinced Rogers is doubtful. He was very angry and humiliated but took the attitude, according to one of his State Department subordinates, of 'Well, the president needs this, and he can decide who he wants.' Kissinger, in his memoirs, admitted that he should have insisted that Rogers be included. 'The neglect was technically unassailable but fundamentally unworthy.'

The Americans were deeply impressed with Mao. In his memoirs Nixon talks about Mao's 'remarkable sense of humor' and how his mind moved 'like lightning.' Mao was a man, Nixon told White House staff on his return, 'who sees strategic concepts with great vision.' Kissinger was even more effusive. Mao was a colossus among men, he said: 'I have met no one, with the possible exception of Charles de Gaulle, who so distilled raw, concentrated willpower.' As both Kissinger and Lord were fond of saying later, if they had walked into a cocktail party, they would have known at once that Mao was the most important man in the room.

Although the Americans were at first a little disappointed with the actual conversation, as time went by it began to take on mythic proportions, and even the most commonplace of Mao's observations seemed to have a deeper meaning. 'The more we began to think about it,' Lord recollected, 'the more we examined the transcript of the meeting, we realized that Mao had hit the key issues—the Soviet Union, Taiwan and Vietnam—in just a few sentences, sometimes directly and sometimes in an allegorical way, stating the basic Chinese positions, which gave us a framework to enlarge and flesh out over the 'next few days.' For Kissinger, Mao's scattered remarks were like the composer Richard Wagner's use, in his overtures, of motifs that he intended to develop later on. Or like the heart of China itself. 'Later on,' Kissinger wrote, 'as I comprehended better the many-layered design of Mao's conversation, I understood that it was like the courtyards in the Forbidden City, each leading to a deeper recess distinguished from the others only by slight changes of proportion, with ultimate meaning residing in a totality that only long reflection could grasp.' Mao, he told one of his biographers, was a visionary and Nixon a pragmatist, but those differences had faded into insignificance.