Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday July 19th, 2015


From the 1940s to the early 1970s the Taiwanese had the most powerful lobby in Washington. Once known as Formosa, Taiwan is the large off-shore Chinese Island which became home to Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek and the remnants of his nationalist army, after its defeat by Mao Zedong’s communist revolutionaries in 1949.

For more than two decades the United States refused to recognize Mao’s regime and provided major military and diplomatic support to the nationalists on Taiwan. No self- respecting American conservative harbored a shadow of doubt, that the freedom of Taiwan was an issue over which the United States would go to war with “Red” China.

However, on July 15, 1971 President Richard Nixon, whose anti-communist credentials were second to none, announced that he was accepting an invitation to visit the People’s Republic of China. James Shen, Taiwan’s Ambassador in Washington had been given this news only 20 minutes before hand. He immediately accused Nixon of selling out his country.

Nixon went to work to calm the critics within his own Republican Party, successfully enlisting the support of conservative leader Senator Barry Goldwater. Nixon also wrote to then California Governor Ronald Reagan to explain the new policy. Reagan later wrote to a friend,  “Personally, I think the Communist Chinese are a bunch a murdering bums,  but in the big chess game going on, where Russia is still head man on the other side, we need a little elbow room.”

Yet not all conservatives were so easily mollified. William F. Buckley, the influential conservative columnist, was among the American journalists covering the Nixon visit. In a PBS documentary, Buckley recounted his thoughts on sitting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, listening to Nixon”s toast to Chairman Mao. “There was, I kid you not, a fleeting reference to George Washington and his similarities to Mao Zedong. And then with his little glass in hand, he went and shook hands with everybody at that table. This was- this was kind of astonishing. These were people who had fielded and were supervising the Cultural Revolution - mass executioners.”

Buckley was further angered with the wording of the official communique, which recognized that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of China.

He told PBS, that on the flight home, “I made it plain to everybody that American conservatives were gonna raise holy hell if indeed this evolved into a dismissal of Taiwan.”

There is no doubt that Nixon was willing to sacrifice Taiwan, for the greater good of his new China policy. Once the most ruthless of commie haters, Nixon was willing to do a 180 on China, because he had reached a profound conclusion - communism was not one giant monolith, bent on world domination. There were distinct camps - one in Moscow, one in Beijing – often in competition with each other. Nixon and his then National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger reasoned that long term American national security interests would be best served, if the U.S. had  formal relationships with them both- in order to play one off against the other.

It did not matter that Chairman Mao was one of history’s greatest mass murderers. Nor was there any consideration that many of the thousands of American casualties during the Korean War had been killed and wounded in direct fighting against Chinese forces. Nor was the decision for Nixon to go to China affected by Chinese support of Hanoi in the then on-going Vietnam War. There was a hope that Mao might at some point, help to bring that conflict to an end, but that was never part of any bargain.

The conservative outrage over the “sellout” of Taiwan eventually abated and Taiwan continued to flourish economically. The American people were thrilled at seeing their president in China, and over time, the new policy would begin to bear fruit.

In May of 1972 the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the first ever Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. (SALT I) Meantime China, happy in its fully accepted place in the International community, began to emulate capitalism.

Nixon’s opening to China was a win-win policy. And the world is better off because of his and Mao’s decision to sharply break with the policies of mutual, perpetual enmity. That made direct confrontation between two nuclear powers less likely, while creating a stable relationship from which both countries have significantly benefitted.

All of that said, I am not proclaiming that America's new nuclear agreement with Iran is of the same magnitude. It is far too early to make such comparisons. The implementation of the Iran agreement is going to be very tricky - it could still fall apart if either side begins to balk at fulfilling its side of the bargain.  It will be months, perhaps years before we will be able to make such judgments.

Still there are major similarities.

The United States and Iran had virtually no official contact between the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the nuclear talks which began only 20 months ago. Their aggressive, mutual alienation have added greatly to Middle East instability.

Americans see Iran in terms of the hostage crisis of 1979; Iran’s involvement in killing American troops during the Iraq war; Iran’s threat to U.S. allies in the region, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Iranians remember the CIA overthrowing their democratically elected government in 1953. They bitterly recall America siding with Iraq in the 1980/88 Iran/Iraq War, when it provided Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with weapons, satellite intelligence, and ingredients for poison gas which Saddam used to kill and maim tens of thousands of Iranians. And they believe they were designated for regime change, when President George W. Bush linked them with Iraq and North Korea as part of the "axis of evil."

But none of that history is part of the agreement to keep Iran from developing a nuclear bomb for at least a decade. Like Mao’s human rights record when Nixon made his move, that history is irrelevant. The agreement must ultimately be judged on how effectively it blocks Iran’s path to obtaining a nuclear weapon - and on the fact that if the negotiated deal doesn’t work, the alternative is another major Middle East War.

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