Bookmarks Issue: 

The Week That Changed the World

A-Nixon and MaoDuring a 1993 interview, former President Richard Nixon said, "I will be known historically for two things": Watergate and China. While the fallout from Watergate is well known, Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, which eased decades of tensions between the United States and China, has remained essentially undocumented until now. Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian, brings to life an event that, at the time, seemed remarkable and impossible but that, today, seems inevitable. In narrating Nixon’s visit—from his anxious flight to Beijing, his practice with chopsticks, and his diplomatic negotiations, to his handshake with Mao—MacMillan relies on interviews and newly available documents to show how Nixon’s trip to China, a diplomatic revolution, helped normalize U.S.-Chinese relations. It also indirectly resulted in a thriving Taiwan, an economic boom for China, and the end of the Soviet threat and the Vietnam War.
Random House. 404 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 140006127X

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[I]t is a compelling story, enlivened by her acute eye for detail and her awareness of the importance of anecdote in keeping the story going and the reader’s attention unflagging. … The real gem of her tale is the analysis of Zhou Enlai, who emerges in many ways as the really critical figure, dedicated, sophisticated in the ways of the West, never disloyal to Mao or the Communist Party, but amazingly non-ideological to a degree that Bismarck would have admired." Paul Kennedy

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"What makes reading MacMillan all the more worthwhile is our current, moralistic penchant for refusing to talk to countries such as Cuba, Syria and Iran. Nixon and Mao reminds us that sometimes the national interest is best served by maintaining relations with adversaries—even dictatorships we consider utterly repellent." Orville Schell

Chicago Sun Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Margaret MacMillan’s engrossing and accessible history, Nixon and Mao, enriches our perspective and understanding of the many-sided characters of these events. … There is too little from the Chinese side beyond the interaction between Mao and Chou." John Cruickshank

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A]ccomplished historian Margaret MacMillan draws together the colorful strands of the drama, with all its inherent chanciness and tension. MacMillan is strong on diplomacy but weak on Chinese politics; yet she’s a fine writer whose illuminating account shows why it’s no wonder that the trip inspired an entire Western opera and a permanent place in our lexicon, as in ‘It was a Nixon-goes-to-China moment.’" Seth Faison

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Rather than tracing the roots of Sino-American reconciliation to the point at which they intersected, she flashes back to them from within the critical week itself. The intention may be cinematic but the effect is jarring. … Despite its shortcomings, Margaret MacMillan’s new book is the best place to go." John Lewis Gaddis

Critical Summary

Margaret MacMillan follows Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World ( 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2003) with another tale of a world-changing encounter. She draws parallel narratives of how the two world leaders met in a momentous (if stilted) handshake, and she peppers her analysis with fascinating details, such as what led to Mao’s 1958 decision regarding the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu and the American commitment to defend Taiwan. MacMillan’s use of flashback (the narrative begins with Nixon’s trip to Beijing and then moves backward to the months leading up to the flight) confused a few critics, and some wished for more nuanced analyses of Chinese and Soviet politics. Macmillan’s portrayal of key characters, including Henry Kissinger and Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, stands out. After meeting Mao Zedong, Nixon remarked to him that "history has brought us together." Thirty-five years later, it has brought them to MacMillan’s capable hands.