Thursday, August 09, 2007

Nixon and Mao by Margaret MacMillan


I'm still posting about China. Lots of material to get to yet!

One of the books I read before going was Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World. Okay, to be honest, I read some chapters and skimmed a lot of the middle.

It's a good book, and the writing and research are both solid, but it covers a lot of old ground. That is, if you know something about the Nixon presidency, there are passages that won't tell you much; similarly about Mao and the two main lieutenants on either side, Kissinger and Chou En Lai. That said, if you know nothing about any one of these men, there is a chapter in this book that will very readably get you up to speed on the man's history up to 1972.

The ultimate disappointment is that the "week" didn't change the world -- the idea of the week did. Once Nixon said he would go and committed to it, the balance of power and trade began to shift in the world. On the actual trip, some amusing things happened, both sides were gracious at high levels and extremely curious at the level of ordinary Chinese and Chinese and American journalists. These make for some interesting anecdotes, but the truth is, Mao was in bad shape, he met Nixon one day and the rest was sight seeing.

When we were in China, someone told us a story about a tree that Nixon planted on his visit. Chou En Lai picked it out especially for the President and Nixon ceremoniously plunked it down in a hole in a park as a symbol of the growth of Sino-American friendship. It died. The person who told us the story implied that there was something about Nixon that killed the plant.

Another story is that Mao was getting extremely irritable throughout the meeting and finally asked Nixon if he minded if he (the Chairman) smoked. Nixon said, Go right ahead, and Mao proceeded to chain smoke two or three packs.

Anyhow, and good book on a particular historic moment, but better suited for those with less knowledge of either side (MacMillan is Canadian and maybe the book's audience lies in non-American, non-Chinese readers).

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