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Nixon's Trip to China
Records now Completely Declassified,
Including Kissinger Intelligence Briefing and Assurances on Taiwan

by William Burr

Posted - December 11, 2003

 

 

In their accounts of the historic February 1972 trip to China, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger focus on the February 21 meeting with Mao Zedong as well as the talks with Zhou Enlai on the Vietnam War, Taiwan, and the Shanghai Communique. Both kept secret one of the trip's more remarkable episodes -- Kissinger's top secret intelligence briefing to the Chinese on Soviet military forces arrayed against China. They also kept secret some of their talks with Zhou; Kissinger later claimed that Zhou "spent very little of our time on" Taiwan, but actually Nixon and Kissinger went to some length to mollify his concerns about the possibility of Taiwanese independence and prospective Japanese influence over Taiwan. (Note 1) After years of declassification requests and appeals, the National Security Archive publishes here for the first time the intelligence briefing to the Chinese and the complete texts of Nixon's conversations with Zhou, including the assurances on Taiwan.

Richard Nixon's trip to China in February 1972 was a critically important moment in the early history of the Sino-American rapprochement. Keeping Secretary of State William Rogers out of the talks, Nixon and Kissinger met privately with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai where they confirmed understandings on sensitive issues such as Taiwan and the normalization of diplomatic relations. Nearly ten years ago, the National Security Archive filed a mandatory review request with the National Archive's Nixon Presidential Materials Staff for declassification review of the memoranda of conversations (memcons) for the Nixon-Mao-Zhou Enlai meetings. While the Nixon-Mao memcon had been declassified separately among State Department records at the National Archives, the memcons of the Nixon-Zhou talks were finally released in the spring of 1999. Three of them, however, were released with a significant number of excisions. (Note 2) The National Security Archive promptly filed an appeal with the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, which rejected it two years later on the grounds that declassification would harm U.S. foreign relations and national security. The next step, taken in June 2001, was an appeal to the Interagency Security Appeals Panel (ISCAP), the "court of last resort" for the mandatory review process. ISCAP enhanced its already remarkable reputation by approving complete release of the memcons in the fall of 2002. Possibly because of understaffing, the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff delayed releasing the documents until 14 November 2003.

While the newly released information in the Nixon-Zhou talks is interesting, none of it was so sensitive that it could not have been released years ago. Some of the excisions had to do with U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union and the 1971 South Asia War but most relate to two preoccupations of the Chinese leadership: 1) fear of renewed Japanese expansion, and 2) opposition to Taiwanese independence. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period when Japan's export successes were catching attention throughout the industrialized world, not least in the United States where some industries were feeling the brunt of Japanese competition. As orthodox Marxists, the Chinese leadership easily assumed that economic expansion would develop into political and military expansion, a revival of the Japanese imperialism that had caused so much devastation in China only a few decades earlier. In keeping with this, Zhou expressed concern about the possibility of Japanese expansion into South Korea and Taiwan, with Nixon and Kissinger assuring him that as long as the United States had a security treaty with Japan, Washington would be in a position to check any Japanese tendencies toward militarism and political expansionism. With the U.S. committed to pulling its forces out of Taiwan, Zhou expressed anxiety not only about the revival of Japanese influence in its former colony, but also about the prospects for an independent Taiwan. The forces pushing for independence were small, but Zhou was nonetheless concerned and wanted assurances that Washington would not support any movement that was inconsistent with the concept of "one China." (Note 3)

Why security reviewers working with the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff sought to block complete declassification of these memcons is puzzling. Granting that some of the discussion remained sensitive during the 1970s, by the time that the Nixon project made the initial denials in 1999 and 2001, so much information had been declassified relating to the touchier portions of these documents that there could be no legitimate reasons to maintain their classification. Indeed, details on Beijing's concerns about Japanese expansion, possible Japanese influence in Taiwan and South Korea, and the Taiwanese independence movement had already been declassified in the Nixon National Security Files and State Department records at the National Archives. (Note 4) Concerns about harm to U.S. foreign policy were greatly exaggerated; its earlier decisions on the withholdings are a telling example of the overclassification problem in the U.S. government secrecy system. (Note 5)

The release of the Kissinger intelligence briefing to the Chinese on 23 February 1972 shows much better judgment. After it initially denied the Archive's mandatory review request in the spring of 2002, the Nixon Project released, in response to an appeal, the memcon of the intelligence briefing. Kissinger's intelligence briefings to the Chinese have long been a subject of discussion, but this is the first one to be declassified. Perhaps the ISCAP decision on the Nixon-Zhou talks made the Nixon Project and the National Archives less hesitant to declassify once sensitive documents, such as this one, that had long been overtaken by events. In light of their pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union at the same time, Nixon and Kissinger had understandable reasons for assigning a high classification to secret briefings on Soviet military forces arrayed against China. Now that so much information has been released on triangular diplomacy, however, this document was ripe for declassification, which the Nixon Project recognized, after some hesitation.


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Documents

Document 1: Memorandum of Conversation, 22 February 1972, 2:10 p.m. - 6:10 p.m.
Location of original: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, White House Special Files, President's Office Files, box 87, Memoranda for the President Beginning February 20, 1972

Newly Released Material: Pages 5 and 10-12 [New information appears in brackets]

The Nixon Project made several withholdings from this memcon, during which Nixon and Zhou reviewed the Taiwan issue, the U.S. military posture, Sino-American relations during the 1940s, and the Vietnam War negotiations. Key statements in the conversation (see page 5) were those in which Nixon provided the basis for what has been U.S. policy on Taiwan ever since. While Nixon said that the United States would not support "any" Taiwanese independence movement and asserted that Taiwan was "part of China," he also stated that Washington supported a "peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issues." These statements were in private; no president publicly declared non-support for Taiwanese independence until President Bill Clinton visited China in 1998. (Note 6) The government's excisions from this document set the tone for the other Nixon-Zhou memcons: With his concerns about Japanese expansion and Taiwan, Zhou worried that Japan would "move into" Taiwan or at least foment Taiwanese independence. Nixon assured that he would work against such an outcome. Recognizing China's long-standing opposition to the US-Japan security treaty, Nixon argued that Beijing should accept the treaty because it gave U.S. influence over Tokyo on such matters as Taiwan policy. Other passages that were excised include Nixon's statement on the U.S. hard anti-Soviet line during the South Asian war and the arrangements for Kissinger to give an intelligence briefing on Soviet forces threatening China (see document four).

Document 2: Memorandum of Conversation, 23 February 1972, 2:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Location of original: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, White House Special Files, President's Office Files, box 87, Memoranda for the President Beginning February 20, 1972

Newly Released Material: Pages 18, 19, 21, 31, and 39 [New information appears in brackets]

In this conversation, Nixon, Zhou, and Kissinger discussed the 1962 Indo-Chinese war, South Asian conflicts, U.S. politics and Sino-American normalization, the Korean peninsula, U.S.-Soviet detente, and Sino-Soviet tensions and their background. Some of the details initially withheld from this document also relate to Japan, with Nixon assuring Zhou that Washington would discourage any Japanese "military intervention" in South Korea. Nixon restated the point that close US-Japan relations were necessary to give the US leverage on Japan's policy toward Korea or Taiwan. Again, to mollify Zhou's concerns over Japanese expansion, Nixon made a general commitment that the U.S. would "restrain the Japanese from going from economic expansion to military expansion." Also withheld from the document was a brief exchange on Soviet "subversion" in Yugoslavia and the sailing of Soviets nuclear submarines through the Suvarov Straits during the South Asian war.

During the talks with Zhou, Nixon also made what amounted to a general security guarantee for China. Noting that during the South Asian crisis he had been ready to "warn the Soviet Union against undertaking an attack on China," Nixon went even further, declaring that the "US would oppose any attempt by the Soviet Union to engage in aggressive action against China." That Nixon and Kissinger had no idea what the United States could do to support the Chinese in a confrontation with the Soviets was necessarily unstated. Kissinger's NSC staff had once looked into the issue and only came up with a proposal for a UN resolution; the U.S. was not likely to go to war with the Soviets over China. (Note 7) Nevertheless, Nixon brought the issue up again, this time, during a toast at a banquet in Shanghai, Nixon declared that the "American people" were dedicated to the "principle" that "never again shall foreign domination, foreign occupation, be visited upon this city or any part of China or any independent country in this world." (Note 8)

Document 3: Memorandum of Conversation, 24 February 1972, 5:15 p.m. - 8:05 p.m.
Location of original: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, White House Special Files, President's Office Files, box 87, Memoranda for the President Beginning February 20, 1972

Newly Released Material: Pages 5, 11-15, and 25-28 [New information appears in brackets]

In this conversation, Nixon, Zhou, and Kissinger discussed the Shanghai communiqué, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam negotiations, the Korean War POW issue, Cambodia and the Vietnam War, South Asian conflicts, and the Middle East. Apart from a critical comment about India's ingratitude about U.S. aid, most of the newly released portions concern Japan and Taiwanese issues, ranging from the leak of a State Department memo on Taiwan to the Japanese to Kissinger's scorn over the "unreliability" of Japanese journalists. On Japanese foreign policy, Nixon again pledged to "restrain" any Japanese tendencies toward expansionism in the "interest of peace in the Pacific." When Zhou expressed concern about a possible Japanese military role in South Korea, Nixon assured him that Washington would use its "influence" to "discourage" Japanese intervention there. During one of the exchanges on Taiwan, Nixon commented that without having forces in Japan, the U.S. would have no influence over Tokyo's Taiwan policy -- the Japanese would not "pay attention." While he was trying to encourage Zhou to take a more positive view of the U.S.-Japan security relationship, the latter continued to hold by the goal of a "peaceful, independent, and neutral Japan." To the extent that Japan's successful economic expansion had become a worrisome problem, Zhou later suggested, it was an American responsibility: the United States had let Japan "fatten herself," now Japan is developing "too rapidly" and has become a "heavy burden on you" (a likely reference to U.S. trade deficits).

The largest excised section, focusing on the Peng Meng-min affair, reflects Beijing's concern about the Taiwanese independence movement. Bitterly opposed to the Nationalist regime imposed by mainlanders led by Chiang Kai-shek, native-born Taiwanese had created an underground pro-independence movement, which elicited sympathetic reactions in the United States. Peng, an international relations professor at National Taiwan University and a former diplomat, had turned into an opponent of Chiang Kai-shek's dictatorship and a supporter of independence. During the mid-1960s, Peng was arrested on sedition charges and sentenced to eight years in prison, but international protest led to the commutation of his sentence after he had served seven months. Peng remained under close surveillance but secretly fled to Sweden in early 1970, with the help of local supporters and the Swedish chapter of Amnesty International. While in Sweden, Peng applied for a U.S. visa so he could hold a research position at the University of Michigan's Chinese Studies program. The Nixon White House had been none too happy about Peng's visa application -- and Vice President Agnew opposed it altogether -- but Kissinger and the State Department decided that it was better to approve the visa than face "congressional and public criticism which would prove harmful to U.S. policy" toward Taiwan. Peng's status as a former participant in Kissinger's international seminar at Harvard may have softened Kissinger's attitude in this instance. The State Department granted the visa in September 1970. (Note 9)

Plainly, Peng's status grated on Zhou: he had already brought it up with Kissinger during the secret trip suggesting that the CIA was behind the escape. (Note 10) Zhou brought up the issue of possible U.S. complicity again during the talks with Nixon, but Kissinger denied it and observed that left-wing groups had helped Peng escape. In any event, both Nixon and Kissinger assured Zhou that they would not support Taiwanese independence, although they were careful to note that that they could not use force to halt it if it came to pass. As Zhou suggested, Chiang kai-shek could repress pro-independence forces because the idea of an independent Taiwan was as anathema to him as it was to Zhou. Peng remained a thorn in Beijing's side; after political conditions on Taiwan had improved, he returned and ran as the presidential candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. While Peng had little chance of winning, the campaign elicited a large Chinese naval demonstration and missile shots over Taiwan, one of the major episodes in the 1995-96 crisis over Taiwan. (Note 11)

Document 4: Memorandum of Conversation, 23 February 1972, 9:35 a.m. - 12:34 p.m.
Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files, HAK Office Files, box 92, Dr, Kissinger's Meetings in the PRC During the Presidential Visit February1972

The shared antagonism toward the Soviet Union was a crucially important dimension of the Sino-American rapprochement, and to enhance Beijing's confidence in American power as well as to bring the two governments closer together, Kissinger wanted the Chinese to have the best intelligence information available on Soviet military forces. Kissinger's first disclosure of intelligence information to Beijing may have occurred in November 1971, during the Indo-Pakistan War. When meeting with UN Ambassador Huang Hua, he provided details on Indian forces arrayed against Pakistan and later offered him a more general briefing on the "disposition of Soviet forces." (Note 12) Huang did not take up that offer but General Alexander Haig, Kissinger's deputy, restated it when he met with Zhou in January 1972. Haig offered "unilaterally and without any reciprocity" on China's part "our assessment of the Soviet threat which exists against the People's Republic." He also told Zhou that when Nixon and Kissinger arrived in February, the latter would be "ready to to discuss the modalities of furnishing this information." (Note 13) The manner in which Haig made the offer relieved Zhou of having to reply on the spot, much less to say anything suggesting that Beijing wanted or needed such information.

After Kissinger arrived in Beijing on 21 February, he held a private talk with Zhou (after the Nixon-Mao meeting) where he offered to share "some information on dangers we confront in the military field." The next day, speaking with deputy foreign minister Qiao Guanhua, Kissinger observed that when meeting the next morning he would, in accordance with Nixon's wishes, provide "some information of a more sensitive nature." He further suggested that it would be "more beneficial" if someone with military expertise were at the meeting. As the Chinese had never asked for such a briefing, Qiao simply stated, "we will study that." When Kissinger observed that, "We will do that so that in any future crisis we both know militarily what the problem is," Qiao was more positive, saying "Good." As noted earlier, during the afternoon meeting with Zhou on 22 February, Nixon briefly mentioned the arrangements for a briefing that he had approved. (Note 14)

When Kissinger met with Qiao the next morning, in attendance was the influential Marshal Ye Jianying whom Kissinger had first met at the Beijing airport in July 1971. (Note 15) After some discussion of the Shanghai Communiqué and the importance of secrecy for the briefing, Kissinger gave a run-down of Soviet forces deployed along the Sino-Soviet border, including ground forces, tactical aircraft and missiles, strategic air defenses, and strategic attack forces. The briefing was detailed, with specific numbers of on Soviet divisions, aircraft, missiles, etc. Kissinger gave special attention to nuclear forces, providing considerable detail on four types of tactical missiles, including the explosive yield of their nuclear warheads. After Kissinger discussed the FROG, he admitted unfamiliarity with the names of the other two tactical missiles and did not bother to give them to the Chinese. The second missile was most likely the now well-known SCUD (or SS-1B) while the third unnamed system was probably the SCALEBOARD (or SS-12). The fourth, a naval cruise missile with a range of 300 nautical miles, was probably one version or the other of the SHADDOCK (or SS-N-3). Perhaps Kissinger did not know (or did not remember) that NATO military experts devised the often strange nomenclature for Soviet weapons systems. (Note 16)

When Kissinger concluded his presentation, he emphasized that except for Nixon and those Americans present, "nobody in our government" knew about it, even the "intelligence people" who had prepared the information. While Kissinger, through Nixon's approval, had the authority to disclose the information to the Chinese, undoubtedly Deputy of Central Intelligence Richard Helms would have wanted to vet the briefing in the name of protecting sources and methods. (Note 17) In any event, Marshall Ye expressed his gratitude to Kissinger, saying that not only was the information "very useful" but that it also was an "important indication" of the U.S.'s "willingness to improve our relations." This would not be the last of such presentations; they were regular features of Kissinger's visits to China until October 1975, when relations had soured and the Chinese rejected his offer of a "special briefing." (Note 18)

After the intelligence briefing, Kissinger reviewed U.S.-Soviet negotiations then in play on a number of issues, such as the European Security Conference (later known as the Conference on European Security and Cooperation), Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions, SALT, and economic agreements, among others. This was part of the Nixon-Kissinger confidence-building effort so that the Chinese would not feel that Moscow and Washington were in "collusion" against China but also had an opportunity to comment on the negotiations. When the Nixon Project originally released this material (pp. 14-23), it withheld the opening pages containing the intelligence presentation.


Notes

1. Richard Nixon, RN The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), pp. 559-580; Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Boston: Little Brown, 1979). Kissinger also minimized the importance of the Taiwan issue in his talks with Zhou Enlai during his July 1971 secret trip to China. See Elaine Sciolino, "Records Dispute Kissinger On His '71 Visit to China," New York Times, 28 February 2002, and National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, "The Beijing-Washington Back Channel and Henry Kissinger's Secret Trip to China," at <http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB66>.

2. See National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, "Record of Historical Richard Nixon-Zhou Enlai Talks in February 1972 Now Declassified" at <http://www.nsarchive.org/nsa/publications/DOC_readers/kissinger/nixzhou>.

3. For a thoughtful and important study of the Taiwan issue since the early rapprochement, see Alan D. Romberg, Rein in at the Brink of the Precipice: American Policy Toward Taiwan and U.S.-PRC Relations (Washington, D.C., Henry L. Stimson Center, 2003).

4. See, for example, see Kissinger to Nixon, "My Talks with Zhou Enlai," 14 July 1971, at <http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB66/ch-40.pdf>, and Kissinger to Nixon, "My October China Visit: Discussions of the Issues," 11 November [1971] at <http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB70/doc20.pdf>

5. See Jeffrey Richelson, William Burr, and Thomas Blanton, eds., "Dubious Secrets," at <http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB90/index.htm>.

6. Romberg, Rein in at the Brink of the Precipice, p. 183, where he quotes President Clinton's June 1998 statement that the United States "does not support independence for Taiwan or one China, one Taiwan or Taiwan's membership in organizations that require statehood." Clinton also stated emphasized the great importance of a peaceful resolution of the "issue between China and Taiwan."

7. John Holdridge, Crossing the Divide: An Insiders Account of Normalization of U.S.-China Relations (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997), pp. 34-35.

8. "Toasts of the President and Chairman Chang Ch'un-ch'iao at a Banquet in Shanghai," 27 February 1972, Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, 1972 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1973), p. 380.

9. Al Haig to Henry A. Kissinger, "U.S. Visa for Taiwan Independence Movement Leader Peng," 5 October 1970, and Al Haig to Kent Crane, " U.S. Visa for Taiwan Independence Movement Leader," 6 October 1970, both in Nixon Presidential Materials Project, NSC Files, box 972, Haig Chron Oct 1-[13] 1970 (2 of 2). Peng wrote a memoir, with a veiled account of his escape; see A Taste of Freedom: Memoirs of a Formosan Independence Leader (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972). For background, see also Nancy B. Tucker, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, 1945-1992 (New York: Twayne, 1994), pp. 114-115, and Taylor, The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2000), pp. 271 and 280-81.

10. See page 16 of memcon, 9 July 1971, at <http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB66/ch-34.pdf>.

11. Romberg, Rein in at the Bring of the Precipice, pp. 174-175.

12. Winston Lord to Kissinger, "Your November 23 Night Meeting," enclosing memorandum of conversation, 23 November 1971, National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Records of the Policy Planning Staff, Director's Files (Winston Lord), 1969-1977, box 330, China Exchanges (October 20-December 31, 1971); William Burr, The Kissinger Transcripts: Top Secret Talks with Beijing and Moscow (New York, New Press, 1999), pp. 50-51.

13. See document 24, in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, "Negotiating U.S.-Chinese Rapprochement," at <http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB70>.

14. See memoranda of conversation, 21 and 22 February 1972, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 92, Dr. Kissinger's Meetings in the PRC During the Presidential Visit February 1972.

15. For Kissinger's arrival at the airport, see Holdridge, Crossing the Divide, pp. 55-56. Ye was a member of the group of four marshals who had written a report to the leadership recommending a new approach to the United States; see Chen Jian, Mao's China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), pp. 245 and 248.

16. For details on the SCUD, SCALEBOARD, and SHADDOCK, see Barton Wright, Soviet Missiles (World Weapon Database) (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1986), pp. 368-370, 382-0386, and 488-494, and Thomas B. Cochran et. al., Soviet Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vol. 4), (New York, Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 171-172, 215-217, and 220-222, as well as information posted by the Federation of American Scientists at < http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/russia/theater/index.html>.

17. See Justice Department memorandum, 5 October 1999, at <http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/iscap/olc_opinion.html>.

18. Kissinger to President Ford, "Possible Approaches to Your China Trip," 24 October 1975, National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Records of the Policy Planning Staff, Director's Files (Winston Lord), 1969-1977, box 379, China Sensitive Chron Oct-Dec 75.

 

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