1972-1978  The Bamboo Curtain

exhibit section


In "the week that changed the world," Richard Nixon became the first sitting U.S. president to visit China. It was an extraordinary event that only an ardently anti-Communist American president could have accomplished.

Mao Zedong was in poor health, but still powerful and still suspicious of American intentions. Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping thought differently, however, and began to place economic progress above the Maoist goals of permanent revolution. The Chinese were also concerned about the growth of Soviet power. Nixon and Zhou signed the Shanghai Communique, a milestone document that described a new state of relations between the two countries.

China began to modernize the economy by dismantling communes and offering profit incentives to peasants, farmers, and factory workers. More flexibility and decision-making authority was granted to them as well. It was a difficult change, but by the end of the decade Deng and modernization were firmly in control.

At the same time, the United States faced a series of challenges, both at home and abroad. American society had begun to accept tens of thousands of Asian immigrants. Some were Chinese nationals from Taiwan; a few were mainland Chinese seeking refuge from persecution; others were Vietnamese fleeing the Communist takeover of their country. The United States also faced the challenge of ending the Vietnam War. The fall of Saigon in 1975 brought an end to that very tragic chapter in American history.

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exhibit section showing artifacts and photos
Artifacts on loan, courtesy of:
Painted fan
- one of the gifts received from the 1972 trip
--Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, Yorba Linda, California
Photographs - Nixon's 1972 trip to China
Memo - to Nixon from Kissinger regarding his meeting with Chairman Mao in 1973
--Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, College Park, Maryland
Booklet - "Journey to the New China" April-May 1972
--Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa
Tourist Materials - U.S. Liason Office Peking tourist information, post cards, and notepad, from Ford's trip to China in 1973.
--Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

The first visit to China by a sitting United States president was a momentous occasion. At odds for more than a century, "the Eagle" and "the Dragon" sought to find common ground. Millions of Americans were glued to their TV sets, getting their first glimpse of life behind the "Bamboo Curtain." Although the visit was extraordinary, many difficult issues remained.

One of the first public hints of improved U.S.-China relations came in 1971, when the American table tennis team accepted an invitation to visit China, ushering in an era of "Ping-Pong diplomacy." They were the first Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
But despite the thaw in relations with China, President Nixon kept the negotiations secret. It was only after Henry Kissinger's secret mission to Beijing, that Nixon announced that he would visit China the following year.

"The week that changed the world," as President Nixon called his historic 1972 visit, made for an eight-day television extravaganza, and a public relations coup for hosts and guests alike. American television audiences tuned in to a spectacular parade of Chinese images, the first they had seen in more than twenty years. Throughout the week, when not meeting with Chinese officials, the Nixons attended banquets, cultural and athletic performances, and toured such cultural treasures as the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, and the Great Wall of China. American reporters, shut out of the substance of the official talks, also took to the tourist trail.

On February 27, 1972, the United States and China issued a joint communiqué that pledged both countries to work for normalization of relations, and to expand people-to-people contacts and trade opportunities. Formal recognition, however, was still to come.



exhibit section showing artifacts and photos

Newspaper clipping (copy) - Saigon Post 4-7-75 with the headlines, "North Vietnam Can Be Defeated." Also included is an article about the death of Chiang Kai-shek.
Telegram - from Kissinger to the South Vietnamese ambassador regarding the evacuation of the embassy, 1975.
Helicopter Radio Transmissions (copies) - from the final moments of the evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon, April 29, 1975.
Photograph - former P.O.W.s, including John McCain at the far left, at a meeting in Saigon, 1974.
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Chaos reigned as the United States withdrew from Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. It had been the most expensive war in U.S. history and the Vietnam War had deeply divided the American people. Perhaps the United States had been taught an important lesson about its role in Asia.

On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese tanks. With American fighter planes flying cover and marines standing guard on the ground, Americans fled the city by helicopter after fighting off throngs of Vietnamese who tried to go along. The final stage of the evacuation stretched over 19 hours, and brought to an end U.S. involvement in Vietnam that had cost more than 50,000 lives and $150 billion dollars.

The beginning of the end came when the South Vietnamese Army withdrew from the Central Highland, leaving Saigon open to invasion from the North Vietnamese. The United States refused to provide additional aid. By the middle of April, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was transporting Vietnamese collaborators out of the country.

Each new day brought more chaos. On April 21, the South Vietnamese president resigned and fled. Saigon residents panicked, storming the U.S. embassy in search of refuge. By April 29, U.S. helicopters were flying non-stop runs, ferrying South Vietnamese friends to ships 20 miles out to sea. Even though thousands were saved, tens of thousands were left behind.

On April 30, just as the last U.S. helicopter was lifting off, the North Vietnamese Army swept into Saigon. Within a month, the name of old capital was changed to Ho Chi Minh City and the process of political re-education had begun. The Vietnam War was over at last.



The New China
exhibit section showing artifacts and photos

Artifacts on loan, courtesy of:
Pages from a People Magazine story (copies)
- about George and Barbara Bush, stationed in Beijing during Bush's tenure
as U.S. ambassador during the 1970s.
Photograph - George and Barbara Bush with their bikes near the Forbidden City in Beijing, 1974.
Language lessons (copy) - personal notes studied by Bush.
--George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas
Newspaper page (copy) - the Washington Post 9-10-76 regarding the death of Mao Zedong.
Newspaper - Ta Kung Pao September 16-22, 1976, regarding the life and death of Chairman Mao
--Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

As Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong passed from the scene, China struggled to redefine itself. The wiley pragmatist, Deng Xiaoping, finally emerged as the leader of a China seeking to modernize its economy and infrastructure. As Maoist slogans and red banners faded into history, Deng was firmly in control.

The most dramatic change in China after the Nixon visit was the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping, who became Vice Premier in 1973. With Zhou Enlai, Deng outlined the "Four Modernizations" for the four sectors of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. Flexibility and authority was granted to peasants, factory workers and scientists, replacing rigid Communist centralization.

After Zhou died in January 1976, however, hardline radicals maneuvered Deng from leadership and replaced him with a political unknown, Hua Guofeng. The political system had polarized into increasingly bitter and irreconcilable factions, still manipulated by the ailing Mao Zedong. Then his death in September 1976 brought to power Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and her three principal associates - nicknamed by Mao as the "Gang of Four."

Three weeks later, the Four were arrested and blamed for all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Freedom of expression briefly flowered on "The Democracy Wall" through posters and artwork that criticized the Party. This was soon repressed, however, but the "national uniforms" of blue cotton were finally discarded. In this political atmosphere, Hua Guofeng struggled against moderates and the rise, once again, of Deng Xiaoping.

By 1978, Hua called for strict adherence to Mao's ideology, while Deng re-proposed the Four Modernizations. Deng was able to place key allies in positions of power, and by 1979, Deng prepared to formalize relations with the United States.


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