Nixon goes to China
The phrase "Nixon goes to China", "Nixon to China", or "Nixon in China" is a historical reference to United States President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China, where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong. The metaphor is often expressed as the observation "Only Nixon could go to China" or "It took Nixon to go to China".
As a political metaphor, it refers to the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among his or her supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if taken by someone without those credentials. Although the example is that of a hardliner taking steps toward peace with a traditional enemy, and this is the most common application of the metaphor, it could also be applied to a reputedly cautious diplomat defying expectations by taking military action, or a political leader reforming aspects of the political system of which they have been strong supporters.
Nixon's visit to China was of particular significance because it marked the beginning of a process of thawing in Sino-American relations — the two countries had been estranged for many years, as the U.S. was ardently anti-Communist and refused to recognize its government (maintaining relations with the anticommunist Republic of China in Taiwan to that point), and China had viewed the United States as its top enemy. Because Nixon had an undisputed reputation of being a staunch anti-Communist, he was largely immune to any criticism of being "soft on Communism" by figures on the right of American politics.
The phrase originated prior to Nixon's actual visit to China. An early use of the phrase is found in a December 1971 U.S. News & World Report interview with then-United States Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield, in a section summary lead that read "'Only a Nixon' Could Go to China". The actual quote from Mansfield (which he prefaces by noting he had heard it said before) was "Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it."
A popular use of the expression came in the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where "only Nixon could go to China" is quoted by Spock as "an old Vulcan proverb". In the context of the film, it is given as a reason why James T. Kirk, a character with a history of armed conflict with the Klingons and a personal enmity for them, should escort their chancellor to Earth for peace negotiations with the Federation.
Similar historical events
- Author and historian Zachary Karabell compared U.S. President Chester Arthur reforming the civil service system (in the early 1880s) to Nixon going to China, since Arthur himself was a product of the spoils system and yet he was the one who helped get rid of it (with the Pendleton Act).
- U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's (a former World War II general) confronting the military-industrial complex.
- U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (a southerner from Texas) pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the U.S. Congress.
- The actions of Israeli right-wing Likud Prime Ministers Menachem Begin (in giving up the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt in 1979) and Ariel Sharon (in withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005) are sometimes considered Nixon-to-China moments.
- U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1996 signed legislation reforming the welfare system in the United States.
- Jim Hoagland for the Eugene Register-Guard compared U.S. President George W. Bush's embrace of multilateralism on Iraq in late 2002 as a Nixon-to-China moment. Some people likewise considered George W. Bush's nuclear deals with North Korea (whom he declared to be part of the Axis of Evil in 2002) in 2007 and with India in 2008 to be Nixon-to-China moments.
- U.S. President Barack Obama embracing Social Security reform in 2011.
- On June 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberal wing of the Court to uphold the constitutionality of Obama's health care reforms. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called Roberts' decision "judiciary's Nixon-to-China".
- Naím, Moisés (September 1, 2003). "Berlusconi Goes to China". Foreign Policy. Retrieved September 8, 2011.
- "A Size-Up of President Nixon: Interview with Mike Mansfield, Senate Democratic Leader". U.S. News & World Report. December 6, 1971. p. 61.
- The Presidents- Andrew Johnson to Arthur 1865–1885. History Channel. 2005. Event occurs at 42:00–42:30. Retrieved December 30, 2012.
- Karabell, Zachary (2004). Chester Alan Arthur. The American Presidents Series. New York: Times Books – via Google Books.
- Elkin, Larry M. (September 12, 2011). "On Social Security, A Nixon-To-China Moment". Wall Street Pit.
- Greenway, HDS (April 28, 2009). "Hitting the 'Reset' Button". GlobalPost.
- Sunstein, Cass R. (October 8, 2012). "In Praise of Turncoats, Richard Nixon to John Roberts". Bloomberg.
- Hoagland, Jim (September 14, 2002). "Bush Delivers on All Counts in Speech, Now It's Up to UN". Eugene Register-Guard – via Google News.
- Chapman, Steve (February 17, 2007). "George W. Bush's 'Nixon to China' Moment". National Ledger.
- "American's Nuclear Deal with India: Time to Decide". The Economist. August 30, 2008.
- Krauthammer, Charles (June 28, 2012). "Why Roberts Did It". The Washington Post.