The Perfect Storm: Existing and Evolving American Perceptions and their Effects on the Beginnings of Sino-American Rapprochement, 1964-1970

Research Question(s): Were material, intellectual, or personal factors the most important to Sino-American rapprochement? Why did rapprochement happen during the Nixon Administration and not earlier or later? How can we examine Sino-American rapprochement through a “structure versus agency” lens?

The 1972 rapprochement between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China remains a pivotal moment of Cold War history: its effects are still felt today. This essay will demonstrate that American perceptions of China and their larger international environment were essential to guiding the United States down the path of rapprochement. Furthermore, much of the American intellectual framework for rapprochement, in the existing worldviews of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and domestic public views towards China, had already been established when Nixon became President. The decline of China’s Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict created new American perceptions in “triangular diplomacy” and growing Chinese moderation, which only further reinforced the initial trend towards rapprochement. Thus, Sino-American rapprochement was a “perfect storm” in which new and old perceptions combined at the right moment, eventually setting Nixon on the path to stand atop the Great Wall. 

Notable among the extensive historiography on this topic is Margaret Macmillan’s short summary of rapprochement, which effectively describes the specific details and larger international dynamics that led to rapprochement. However, her summary is much less focused on the ideological formations that led to rapprochement.[1] This essay shall seek to fill this gap. Another important piece of historiography and inspiration is Pete Millwood’s article (Mis)perceptions of Domestic Politics in the U.S.-China Rapprochement, which focuses on how intellectual/ideological perceptions, including inaccurate ones, affected and changed the process of rapprochement.[2] This essay will build upon Millwood’s work by examining perceptions predating the beginning of rapprochement. The focus of this analysis is how perceptions changed, and complexifying Millwood’s views on misperceptions in rapprochement. Finally, in exploring the role of perceptions, this essay will further support the role of agency in the classic structure-agency debate of International Relations, as perceptions are inherently tied to specific people and decision-makers. However, the examination of perceptions and their effects is difficult because oftentimes perceptions are not explicitly stated and must be inferred. Moreover, even when perceptions are explicated, it is impossible to determine whether they actually affected political decision-making. Thus, the essay will highlight perceptions that likely affected decision-making without making definitive statements.

Pre-1968 American Perceptions and Views Towards Rapprochement

In looking at personal perceptions, this essay will largely focus on Nixon and Kissinger for the leading roles they played within US foreign policy decision-making. Their role in Sino-American rapprochement was especially important because of the reforms they implemented within the American government bureaucracy. Due to Nixon’s dislike of “cabinet government” and his desire to run foreign policy personally, he actively walled himself off from the State Department. This practice was led to much of foreign policy decision making coming from the National Security Council (NSC), over which Kissinger maintained a tight grip.[3]

Looking at Nixon first, one can see the seeds of rapprochement emerge through Nixon’s very personality and worldview.  Historian David Greenberg makes the case that part of Nixon’s psychological ego was wholly consumed by his need to be a “world-historic visionary” and a “solitary prophet,” an image he cultivated throughout his interviews.[4]As Nixon once reflected privately: “Great men of action have always been of the meditative type. They have without exception possessed to a very high degree the faculty of withdrawing into themselves.”[5] This attitude was then melded to his desire to be a “peacemaker,” potentially originating from his Quaker religious beliefs and upbringing.[6] As such, it is possible these personality traits could have influenced Nixon’s need to pursue a policy as radical as rapprochement. However, as the scholars of international relations Richard Immerman and Lori Gronich caution us regarding the examination of leadership psychology, this point should not be overstated,[7] especially in lieu of more substantial evidence.

Whatever the cause of his support for rapprochement, Nixon had long-held beliefs regarding its possibility with China.[8] As early as his time as Vice President, Nixon was urging a surprising amount of restraint and moderation towards China, arguing for reduced trade restrictions to help pry China away from the Soviet Union.[9] These views toward China were further reinforced in Nixon’s time outside of office. During that period, French President Charles De Gaulle expressed to Nixon the need for the US to reach out to China while it was weak and the US was strong.[10] This meeting with De Gaulle was likely especially impactful due to Nixon’s noted reverence of De Gaulle, going so far as to call himself “RN” in imitation of De Gaulle’s use of the third-person.[11] As Immerman and Gronich write: “first-hand experiences, particularly those that take place at an earlier time in one’s career or are remembered vividly, can powerfully affect subsequent perceptions, images, and actions,”[12] likely even more so if it is with one’s personal hero. 

All these earlier experiences built up to Nixon’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article “Asia After Vietnam,” a culmination of his existing views towards China and a framework for the future. This article contains the famous line, “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations…There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”[13] Thus, long before Nixon was elected in 1968, both his personality and existing perceptions of China primed him to be the President to pursue rapprochement. 

Beyond Nixon, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s personal beliefs also influenced the United States move towards rapprochement. Kissinger, as National Security Advisor, was so important that some assumed he was actually in charge of the Nixon Administration’s foreign policy.[14] Thus, examining his beliefs is necessary. Kissinger and Nixon shared a mutual Weltanschauung that incentivized and allowed for rapprochement. The first part of this worldview revolved around the growing internationalism of foreign relations. In a 1968 essay, Kissinger wrote that “For the first time, foreign policy has become global…Today, statesmen face the unprecedented problem of formulating policy for well over a hundred countries.”[15] Likewise, Nixon in his 1967 Foreign Affairs article encourages Americans to look beyond Europe, writing “history has its rhythms, and now the focus of both crisis and change is shifting. Without turning our backs on Europe, we have now to reach out westward to the East.”[16] Similarly, in light of the Vietnam War, both leaders recognized that traditional forms of American military dominance were no longer viable methods to achieve foreign policy goals. Instead, the new international landscape required a renewed focus on peaceful negotiation and traditional diplomacy.[17] For instance, Kissinger stated that “We are a superpower physically, but our designs can be meaningful only if they generate willing cooperation,”[18] while Nixon wrote that “other nations must recognize that the role of the United States as world policeman is likely to be limited in the future.”[19] In the context of Nixon and Kissinger’s truly international focus and recognition of the limits of force, rapprochement with China makes perfect sense. 

In addition, the larger domestic environment within the United States was also amenable to rapprochement. The United States’ continued war in Vietnam incited a domestic dislike of military intervention, which in turn forced decreases in military spending, and discredited the long-standing American policy of “Containment.”[20] These changes meant that existing US foreign policy was no longer acceptable to the public, further advancing Nixon’s new foreign policy outlook.[21] Furthermore, as Rosemary Foot describes, the American public had largely realized that despite the threat of China, it was now a permanent fixture of international relations that could only be dealt with through diplomacy and contact.[22]As such, a 1966 poll showed that more than half of Americans surveyed wanted to recognize China.[23] Further revealing the nature of changing views, during the 1968 Presidential Election, Nixon’s opponents, Nelson Rockefeller and Hubert Humphrey, also publicly stated their support for greater attempts at reaching out to China.[24]

By looking at Nixon’s personal views towards China, Nixon and Kissinger’s ideological worldview, and the domestic situation within the United States, it is clear that by 1968, the Nixon Administration had both the ideological consistency and enough domestic support for rapprochement with China. Events in China would only strengthen this ideological base towards reconciliation.

1968-1970 Changes within China and Changes in US Perceptions

Two major events within China helped further change and mold American perceptions towards the possibility and importance of rapprochement: the Sino-Soviet Border War of 1969 and the decline of the Cultural Revolution in 1968-1969. The first event was part of a larger Sino-Soviet Split that is beyond the scope of this essay, but to summarize: in 1969, two major clashes occurred between the Soviet Union and China in the Russian Far East and Xinjiang, which were serious enough for the Soviets to consider a nuclear first-strike and caused the Chinese leadership to distribute throughout the country to prepare for an eventual invasion.[25] The need to reinforce security after these attacks, in addition to the larger failure of China’s “World Revolution” approach to the Third World, created a need for China and Mao Zedong specifically to pivot towards the United States.[26] Thus, the Sino-Soviet Border War helped convince Mao to reach out to the Americans and begin the first step towards rapprochement: responding positively to restarting the Warsaw Talks.[27]

Equally important, and the focus of this essay, the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict created new American governmental perceptions about the increasing likelihood of success in rapprochement. In a summary of the first Warsaw Talks of the Nixon administration, Kissinger wrote that “The immediate Chinese purpose is to show the appearance of the ability to deal with us—primarily for Soviet consumption,” but that “having convinced themselves of the desirability of appearing to be able to make deals with us, they may find it easier to justify seeking the substance of understandings.”[28] In other words, Kissinger believes that Chinese moves towards rapprochement are only feints meant to improve its security against the Soviet Union, but that the existence of these very feints might inadvertently lead to real rapprochement.

More importantly, the Sino-Soviet Border War further reinforced Nixon and Kissinger’s view that the Soviet Union should take first precedence in American foreign policy, [29] using it as another argument to bolster rapprochement. . The Soviet Union had by-then caught up to the United States in the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles and thus had achieved strategic parity, which is why the Nixon Administration increasingly emphasized diplomatic solutions to the Soviet issue, as seen in its arms-control agreements with the Soviets such as the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks.[30]

In this context, the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict was crucial to creating the perception that reaching out to China could assist the United States in its goals with the Soviet Union, what is popularly known as “triangular diplomacy.”[31]As Kissinger himself concedes, he only considred this approach viable after  the conflict. Within the State Department at large, there was also a strong belief that the conflict would help achieve their goals with the Soviet Union.[32] For example, in a National Intelligence Estimate issued only a few days after the conflict in Xinjiang, the opportunity for Soviet détente was recognized: “In the light of the dispute…. The Soviets seem intent on attracting new allies… in order to ‘contain’ the Chinese. To that end Moscow has signified some desire to improve the atmosphere of its relations with the West.”[33] Likewise, National Security Study Memorandum 63 recognized that “the character of Soviet policy could change if Moscow comes to believe that the Chinese are on the way to breaking out of their largely self-inflicted isolation …the Soviets might decide that a serious effort to improve relations with the U.S., even at the expense of concessions on specific issues, was more likely to serve their interests.”[34] The importance of this document is that it recognizes the existence of a “triangular” relationship both implicitly in the quote but also explicitly later on in the document.[35]Furthermore, the document implies that as a result of recent clashes, the Soviets would be more conciliatory towards “specific issues.” This phrase is likely in reference to the SALT due to the document’s mentioning of SALT and of overlapping US-Soviet interests in “our mutual desire to avoid a nuclear war.”[36]

The second major event within China that encouraged rapprochement was the dampening of the Cultural Revolution, which convinced the Nixon Administration of the rise of “moderates” within China. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, China had adopted a radical foreign policy that favored “World Revolution.” This policy entailedg rhetorical support for conflicts across the world, while within China ambassadors were recalled and foreign missions like the British in Beijing were burned by radical Red Guards.[37] Yet, by 1968-1969, Mao had become so disillusioned with the Red Guards that he ordered the Chinese military to suppress them. This decision marked a turning point within the Cultural Revolution as a whole.[38] As such, Chinese foreign policy as began to moderate as China toned down its foreign propaganda, mended relations with North Korea and Cambodia, and resent ambassadors to the outside world.[39]In this context of larger moderation, Maoreleased two American prisoners and agreed to restart the Warsaw Talks as a response to American probes.[40]

For the United States, these factors showed not just a moderation of policy within China, but also the rise of moderate Chinese leadership, incentivizing the United States to reach out. Previously, according to one CIA report, the agency belived that “there is little prospect for change in China’s attitudes and policies regarding the US while the present leadership obtains…. Any US ‘overtures’ to Communist China would be primarily intended to have an impact on China’s post-Mao leadership.”[41] Similarly, a National Intelligence Estimate on China stated: “In the longer run, if Mao’s successors follow a more steady and pragmatic course, they are likely to have greater success than Mao in expanding China’s political influence and acceptance.”[42] In both documents, the Nixon Administration initially seemed pessimistic about rapprochement while Mao was still alive, but implied that a moderate faction could take power eventually. As a result of the Cultural Revolution, this view was then transformed into one where moderates didn’t just exist, but were also fighting back. For example, in an examination of the Ninth Party Congress, NSC analysts stated their belief of a divide “between Mao and the leaders who resist his revolutionary programs,”[43] while Nixon noted that “some of [the] top [Chinese] leaders were skeptical” in response to a briefing regarding the Cultural Revolution.[44]

Finally, due to Chinese outreach attempts towards the United States, the perception transformed into a fully formed belief of rising moderation within China, encouraging rapprochement. For example, Kissinger urged Nixon to reinforce their opposition to a Soviet attack against China in order to take advantage of the “behavior of Chinese Communist diplomats in recent months [which] strongly suggests the existence of a body of opinion, presently submerged by Mao’s doctrinal views, which might wish to put US/Chinese relations on a more rational and less ideological basis” (emphasis added).[45] The emphasized line demonstrates the belief of a moderate faction that was beginning to emerge following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Another piece of evidence comes from Secretary of State William Rogers. He recommended a variety of policies to reach out to China, reasoning that because “the Chinese leadership appears to be in some disarray, we may contribute to a strengthening of those who advocate moderation.”[46]

Thus, in response to the end of the Cultural Revolution, American foreign policy leadership created the image of rising moderates within China, rather than believe that Mao could urge for reconciliation. This case demonstrates Immerman and Gronich’s point regarding the durability of beliefs and how people “normatively interpret new evidence as conforming to our prior beliefs.”[47] In this case, earlier American beliefs of Mao as an opponent to rapprochement influenced China’s foreign policy moderation, which led to the belief of a rising moderate faction within China following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, despite being largely false in ignoring Mao’s role in rapprochement, this perception nevertheless encouraged the Nixon Administration to move towards reconciliation. This fact slightly problematizes Millwood’s analysis in that he focuses only on how misperceptions created issues towards rapprochement.[48] Thus, building upon an already strong ideological base, the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict and the decline of the Cultural Revolution reinforced and appropriated existing views to further compel American foreign policy towards rapprochement with China.

Existing ideological perceptions within the United States before the Nixon Administration were inclined towards rapprochement with China. This foundation was only strengthened following the Sino-Soviet Border War and the end of the Cultural Revolution. These two events reinforced and created new perceptions within the American Foreign Policy structure that encouraged further attempts towards reconciliation. Thus, the early stages of Sino-American rapprochement was a perfect storm in which larger structural changes within China supported existing American perceptions, creating an intellectual environment favorable towards rapprochement.

Works Cited:

Foot, Rosemary. The Practice of Power: US Relations with China Since 1949. Oxford: Oxford 

University Press, 1997. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Garver, John W. China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Goh, Evelyn. Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974 From ‘Red Menace’ to ‘Tacit Ally.’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Proquest Ebook Central.

Immerman, Richard H, and Lori Helene Gronich. “Psychology.” In Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, edited by Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan, 334-355. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Scholars Portal Books

Lieberthal, Kenneth. Governing China: From Revolution Through Reform. New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2003.

Logevall, Fredrik, and Andrew Preston eds. Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Ma, Jisen. The Cultural Revolution in the Foreign Ministry of China. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2004. Hathitrust.

Millwood, Pete. “(Mis)perceptions of Domestic Politics in U.S.-China Rapprochement, 1969-1978.” Diplomatic History 43, no. 5 (2019): 890-915. Scholars Portal Journals.

Nixon, Richard M. “Asia After Vietnam.” Foreign Affairs 46, no. 1 (October 1967): 111-125. JSTOR.

Phillips, Steven E., ed. China, 1969-1972. Vol. XVII of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2006.

Ross, Robert S. Negotiating Cooperation: The United States and China, 1969-1989. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Siniver, Asaf. Nixon, Kissinger, and U.S, Foreign Policy Making: The Machinery of Crisis

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Scholars Portal Books.

Smith, Louis J, and David H. Herschler, eds. Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969-1972. Vol. I of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2003.

Thomas, Evan. Being Nixon: A Man Divided. New York: Random House, 2016.

Yang, Kuisong, and Yafeng Xia. “Vacillating between Revolution and Detente: Mao’s Changing Psyche and Policy Toward the United States, 1969-1976.” Diplomatic History 34, no. 2 (April 2010): 395-423. Oxford Academic.

Zanchetta, Barbara. The Transformation of American International Power in the 1970s. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Scholars Portal Books.


[1] See for Macmillan’s specific chapter within the larger edited work: Fredrik Logevall and Andrew Preston, eds., Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 107-125. Note, I chose to cite this work as one edited work rather than individual chapters to reduce clutter and save space.

[2] Pete Millwood, “(Mis)perceptions of Domestic Politics in U.S.-China Rapprochement, 1969-1978,” Diplomatic History 43, no. 5 (2019): 890-891, Scholars Portal Journals.

[3] Asaf Siniver, Nixon, Kissinger, and U.S, Foreign Policy Making: The Machinery of Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 45-47, Scholars Portal Books.

[4] Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 47-48.

[5] Evan Thomas, Being Nixon: A Man Divided (New York: Random House, 2016), 145.

[6] Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 49.

[7] Richard H. Immerman and Lori Helene Gronich, “Psychology,” in Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, eds. Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 347-348, Scholars Portal Books. 

[8] Evelyn Goh, Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974 From ‘Red Menace’ to ‘Tacit Ally’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 121, Proquest Ebook Central.

[9]Goh, Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 103-104.

[10] Goh, Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 106-107.

[11] Thomas, Being Nixon, 146, 198.

[12] Immerman and Gronich, “Psychology,” 342.

[13] Richard M. Nixon, “Asia After Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs 46, no. 1 (October 1967): 121, JSTOR. This quote is also mentioned or summarized in: Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 108; Goh, Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 108-109.

[14] Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 27.

[15] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, eds. Louis J. Smith and David H. Herschler, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969-1972(Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2003), Document 4,

[16] Nixon, “Asia After Vietnam,” 124. 

[17] Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 30, 32, 40, 109.

[18] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, eds. Louis J. Smith and David H. Herschler, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969-1972, Document 4 This quote is also found in: Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 110.

[19] Nixon, “Asia After Vietnam,” 114.

[20] Barbara Zanchetta, The Transformation of American International Power in the 1970s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 22, Scholars Portal Books. 

[21] Zanchetta, The Transformation of American International Power, 22-23.

[22] Rosemary Foot, The Practice of Power: US Relations with China Since 1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 101, Oxford Scholarship Online. 

[23] Foot, The Practice of Power, 100.

[24] Goh, Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 112.

[25] John W. Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 279, 281-282, 284-285.

[26] Kuisong Yang and Yafeng Xia, “Vacillating between Revolution and Detente: Mao’s Changing Psyche and Policy Toward the United States, 1969-1976,” Diplomatic History 34, no. 2 (April 2010): 399-401, Oxford Academic.

[27] Garver, China’s Quest, 290-293.

[28] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972 (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2006), Document 59,

[29] See: Zanchetta, The Transformation of American International Power, 27; Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 33.

[30] Robert S. Ross, Negotiating Cooperation: The United States and China 1969-1989 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 19; Zanchetta, The Transformation of American International Power, 21-22, 25-27.

[31] Logevall and Preston, Nixon in the World, 112.

[32] Goh, Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 131, 133.

[33] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 24,

[34] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 40,

[35] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 40,

[36] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 40,

[37] Garver, China’s Quest, 260, 269, 272.

[38] Kenneth Lieberthal, Governing China: From Revolution Through Reform (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2003), 115-116. 

[39] Jisen Ma, The Cultural Revolution in the Foreign Ministry of China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2004), 309, 315-316, 319, Hathitrust.

[40] Garver, China’s Quest, 293-294.

[41] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 12,

[42] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 95,

[43] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 11,

[44] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 25,

[45] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 37,

[46] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Steven E. Phillips, vol. XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 49,

[47] Immerman and Gronich, “Psychology,” 341.

[48] Millwood, “(Mis)perceptions of Domestic Politics in U.S.-China Rapprochement,” 890-891

Nathan Ye
University of Toronto