Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China in July 1971, in the words of his biographer Niall Ferguson, “fundamentally altered the global balance of power.” China was inserted into the US/USSR cold war calculation.

Other events 50 years ago shaped the world in which we live. During that distant May of 1971 youthful protesters camped out for three days in Washington demanding an end to America’s disastrous war in Vietnam. One hundred thousand, myself included, marched past the White House. In those days of turmoil 12 000 were detained, the biggest mass arrests in US history.

A month later military researcher Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, an explosive, previously secret account of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Ellsberg, a former marine, was charged with espionage but his case never went to trial.

Kissinger’s mission paved the way for President Nixon’s historic visit in 1972. China was slowly opening itself to the west. 

Before that, China was essentially sealed off from the outside world and paralyzed by the ten-year-long Cultural Revolution that had been launched by Chairman Mao Zedong. The disruption transformed Chinese youth into frenzied Red Guards waving little red books and sweeping through cities and villages denouncing “capitalist roaders”. 

China had been quarrelling, even fighting with Russia, its erstwhile communist ally. Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger’s interlocutor, sought an opening with Washington to mitigate the perceived Soviet military threat. For his part, Nixon needed China’s help to extricate America from Vietnam. It was a rare convergence of strategic objectives. 

Shortly after Kissinger’s visit, Lin Biao, Mao’s designated successor and instigator of his personality cult, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Mao. In September Lin and his entourage died in mysterious circumstances when their aircraft bound for sanctuary in Russia crashed in Mongolia. 

The Kissinger and Nixon visits accelerated China’s moves to restore order. Two years after Mao’s death in 1976, twice-purged reformer Deng Xiaoping came to power. Deng launched the market-based reforms that over four decades lifted 800 million people out of poverty, an achievement unmatched in human history.  

In August 1971 President Nixon closed America’s gold window, ending the fixed exchange rate system that permitted foreign nations to exchange dollars for American gold at a price of $35 an ounce. While it was sensible that Washington terminated an archaic, costly practice, Nixon’s August 15th announcement alarmed and disrupted global markets. Ironically within a few years the world moved to a system of flexible exchange rates where market forces determine currency values. It has been a great success. Economist C. Fred Bergsten calls flexible rates the “most fundamental reform of the international monetary system in the postwar period”.

Lenin observed, “There are decades when nothing happens, there are weeks when decades happen.”  Nineteen seventy-one was not a year in which decades happened; rather it was a critical year in which two countries—China and America—altered the trajectories along which they were travelling. 

Henry Kissinger, now 98, said in an interview with Niall Ferguson two years ago that the US and China “were in the foothills of a new cold war”.  Last year, as bi-lateral tension became further inflamed, he warned that the two countries had reached the “mountain passes” of a new cold war. Dialogue at the highest level, said Kissinger, is essential for the preservation of world peace. 

Dan Ellsberg, now 90, continues to warn of the perils of nuclear war. His recent book on the subject, The Doomsday Machine, is dedicated “to those who struggle for a human future”.

Dan Ellsberg, Barry Wood, 2019

As Lenin suggested, sometimes events unfold swiftly, other times slowly.

In the case of China, particularly, there have been dramatic reverses of direction within these five decades. In preparing this essay I took from my library shelf the little red book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, that was given to me at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1967.

These words are on the first page of its foreword:  

Mao Zedong’s thought is Marxism-Leninism of the era in which imperialism is heading for total collapse and socialism is advancing to world-wide victory. It is a powerful ideological weapon for opposing imperialism…

The author of the foreword was Lin Biao, the man who four years later was accused of plotting to assassinate Mao. I would guess that today’s entrepreneurial capitalists in China find Lin’s sentiments quaint, redolent of a different era.

How relatively quickly things change.  

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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