[UPDATE: For the fully released version of these documents, see our updated posting.]

Record of Historic Richard Nixon-Zhou Enlai Talks in February 1972 Now Declassified

President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai
chat in the Guest House upon Nixon's arrival in Bejing on February 21, 
1972 (Nixon Presidential Materials Project/National
Archives).

During 21-28 February 1972, President Richard Nixon spent an extraordinary week in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The first U.S. president to visit China, Nixon was playing a central role in opening up a new political relationship with the PRC after decades of mutual estrangement. The highlight of Nixon's trip was his meeting with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong but its substance lay in a series of almost-daily extended conversations with Premier Zhou Enlai.1
Twenty seven years after these events, the National Archives has finally declassified the Nixon-Zhou conversations in response to a mandatory declassification review request made by the National Security Archive in 1994. Once highly classified--"Top Secret/Sensitive/Exclusively Eyes Only"--all but three of the documents were released in their entirety. Significant excisions appear in the Nixon-Zhou discussions of Taiwan, Japan, South Asia, and the Soviet Union.

Even with the excisions, these documents go well beyond the accounts of the talks that Nixon and his national security assistant Henry Kissinger provided in their memoirs.2 The memoirs summarized major points of discussion, such as the Vietnam war and Nixon's articulate defense of the U.S.'s military presence in the Pacific, but they never hinted at the discussions of India-Pakistan issues and their accounts of the talks on the Soviet Union were cursory. Significantly, they only hinted at the pledges on Taiwan that Nixon made to Zhou, e.g., not to support Taiwanese independence, to "discourage Japan from moving into Taiwan" as the United States reduced its presence there, and not to support "any military attempts by the Government of Taiwan to resort to a military return to the Mainland." Further, Nixon pledged to remove U.S. military forces from Taiwan in conjunction with the resolution of the Vietnam war. Although Nixon and Kissinger saw those and other assurances on Taiwan as essential for U.S.-China rapprochement, they insisted on secrecy to minimize problems with Taiwan, an old Cold War ally, and its political allies in the United States.

Cold War and domestic political considerations very likely made Nixon and Kissinger less than eager to disclose the specifics of the pledges on Taiwan or the candid discussions of Soviet policy.3 However, numerous excisions in some of the documents show that even today government security reviewers still see some of the information as diplomatically sensitive. Nevertheless, most of the excisions relate to information that U.S. government agencies have already declassified. For example, the first excisions on page 10 of the discussion on 22 February likely refers to an offer of an intelligence briefing on Soviet forces on the Sino-Soviet borders. That Nixon and Kissinger routinely offered the Chinese intelligence briefings has already been disclosed in declassified documents published by the National Security Archive.4 Moreover, excisions in Nixon's various statements on Japan very likely convey the thought that without the U.S. security presence in East Asia Japan could either move closer to China or Russia or develop an independent nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, recently declassified records of Nixon's discussion with Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1972 show him making this very point.5

The Archive will appeal the excisions made in these documents. Unfortunately, the process for security review of presidential materials is often protracted and it may take several years before less expurgated versions of these documents will become available. In the meantime, readers can now read these never before released documents on a milestone in modern U.S. diplomatic history.6

Location of originals: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Collection, President's Office Files, Memoranda for the President, Box 87, "Beginning February 20, 1972"

 

Document 1

Memorandum of Conversation, Monday, February 21, 1972 - 5:58 p.m.-6:55 p.m.

Plenary session during which Nixon and Zhou agreed on meeting arrangements: high level Nixon-Zhou talks on "basic matters" and meetings between Secretary of State Rogers and Minister of Foreign Affairs and their "assistants" on steps to promote normalized relations, trade, and scientific-cultural exchanges. One highlight is Zhou's recollection of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's refusal to shake hands at the Geneva Conference in 1954. Zhou further recalls that Undersecretary of State Walter B. Smith did not want to "break ... discipline" but also did not want to slight the Chinese so blatantly. Therefore, Smith held a cup of coffee in his right hand and "used his left hand to shake my arm."7

 

Document 2

Memorandum of Conversation, Tuesday, February 22, 1972 - 2:10 p.m.-6:00 p.m.

Discussion of Taiwan, U.S. military posture, Sino -American relations during the 1940s, and Vietnam war and negotiations. The first of several highly restricted sessions. As the meeting begins, Nixon assures Zhou that only five individuals on the U.S. side--Nixon, Kissinger, and NSC officials Alexander Haig, John Holdridge and Winston Lord--have seen the over 500 page record of Kissinger's secret talks with the Chinese during July 1971. The White House provided the State Department with only a sanitized record of those talks because it "leaks like a sieve."

Document 3

Memorandum of Conversation, Wednesday, February 23, 1972 - 2:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.

Discussion of 1962 Indo-Chinese war, South Asian conflicts, U.S. politics and Sino-American normalization, the Korean peninsula, U.S.-Soviet detente, Sino-Soviet tensions and their background. Commenting on Kissinger's services as national security assistant--he takes "the long view"--Nixon observes that "I can't afford to have him leave, because the book he would write would tell too much." After Kissinger vows that he "will not write a book", Nixon qualifies his statement: Kissinger can write a book "but he must write poetry." Kissinger jokes: "Because of my German origin it would be 500 pages."

Document 4

Memorandum of Conversation, Thursday, February 24, 1972 - 5:15 p.m.-8:05 p.m.

Discussion of joint communiqué, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam negotiations, the Korean War POW issue, Cambodia and Vietnam war, South Asian conflicts, and the Middle East. This is one of the more heavily excised documents; among the excisions is what appears to have been an aspersion by Nixon against the Indians (see page 28). After noting the "drive" of the Germans and the Japanese, Nixon starts to make a comparison with South Asian populations; the rest of the statement is censored.

Document 5

Memorandum of Conversation, Friday, February 25, 1972 - 5:45 p.m.-6:45 p.m.

Discussions of Sino-Soviet relations, Japan, the Middle East and North Africa, and Portuguese colonial policy. During the discussion of the Soviet Union, Nixon notes that Moscow isí "pathological" on the subject of Sino-American relations; it is the "only major nation attacking this trip." After Kissinger adds that "Japan and India are not ecstatic," Nixon observes that "they can't do anything about it."

Document 6

Memorandum of Conversation, Saturday, February 26, 1972 - 9:20 p.m.-10:05 p.m.

Plenary session reviewing foreign ministers discussions. The conversation is more commonplace, except for Zhou's apology for the prearranged appearance of a group of children "to prettify" the Ming Tombs during Nixon's excursion there. Zhou acknowledges that the U.S. press coverage of the incident reported that the children "gave a false appearance." As Kissinger later recalled, Nixon handled Zhou's admission of a "cover up" gracefully and then warned him that U.S. journalists and Congressmen could "poison" Sino-American relations.8

Document 7

Memorandum of Conversation, Monday, February 28, 1972 - 8:30-9:30 a.m.

Discussion of joint communiqué, future U.S.-PRC relations, and the Vietnam negotiations. Nixon assures Zhou that no one outside a small circle would learn that they had discussed India, Japan, and the Soviet Union: "under no circumstance will we embarrass him or his government, by implication or otherwise, that those subjects were discussed."

 

Notes

1 . For the first publication of the Nixon-Mao talk, see William

Burr, ed., The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top Secret Talks with Beijing and Moscow , A National Security Archive Document Reader, (New York, The New Press, 1999), 59-65.

2 . For the memoir accounts, see Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 559-580; Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years (New York, Little Brown & Co., 1979), 1049-96.

3 . However, even in his memoirs of the Ford years, Years of Renewal(New York, Little Brown & Co., 1999), Kissinger provides little detail on the difficulties that U.S.-Taiwan relations posed for normalizing diplomatic relations with Beijing during the Ford administration.

4 . For offers of intelligence briefings, see The Kissinger Transcripts, 50-51 and 171. To Huang Hua, the PRC's ambassador to the United Nations, Kissinger said that "You don't need a master spy. We give you everything (handing over his file)."

5 . See memorandum of Nixon-Sato conversation, 7 January 1972, to be published in National Security Archive, Japan and the United States: Diplomatic, Security, and Economic Relations, 1960-2000, Part I, edited by Robert Wampler (Chadwyck-Healy, Alexandria, VA, forthcoming).

6 . These documents include discussion of the U.S.-P.R.C. "Shanghai Communiqué" issued at the close of Nixon's visit, which included controversy between the U.S. and the Chinese sides, but especially between the White House and State Department. References to State Department objections to some of the language on Taiwan in the draft communiqé surface in document 4, further declassification in the Nixon papers will shed light on more of the details. For accounts of the negotiation, see Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New York, Simon and Shuster, 1992), 404-405, William Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (New York, Hill and Wang), 305-06, and Kissinger, White House Years, 1074-1086, 1092-92, and 1094-95.

7 . Nixon recounts this in RN , at 565.

8 . Kissinger, White House Years, 1081.


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