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The Chinese Interpreter Who Said “No” to President Nixon

It is one of the most important Presidential visits in American history. Richard Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao led to a diplomatic opening with China and greatly altered geopolitics. Being a member of the official delegation was, of course, a great honor, and everyone did what they were asked to do by the White House. That is, except for Chas Freeman, who was the senior interpreter. You can read Winston Lord’s account of the trip and about how Freeman started from scratch and became fluent in Mandarin in an astonishing two years. Here, from his oral history, are remarks about his role as interpreter.

“The President orders you to interpret”

There were people who were very much in charge of different elements of it, but the prime fixation at that point was the domestic political spin. And Kissinger, whatever his merits may be, and they are, I think, numerous, is not a manager and is very poor on detail. The sort of logistics of the thing were being run by a White House staff that was concerned about the President, obviously, and not about anybody else, which is the way they’re meant to be.

At any rate, we got to Beijing. We went from the airport arrival ceremony to the Diaoyutai guesthouse. There were three interpreters: myself, as the senior interpreter; Cal Maehlert, who had excellent Chinese, who had been pulled out of Saigon for this purpose; and a fellow named Kovenach, who had been recruited by somebody or other for the purpose. We were an odd group, because Cal Maehlert was rabidly pro-Kuomintang and in fact a great personal friend of Chiang Ching-kuo [son of Chiang Kai-shek]. And right after the trip, he went off on a hunting trip in Taiwan with Chiang Ching-kuo….

It wasn’t until later that I was suddenly called over to the President’s villa in the Diaoyutai guesthouse, with the assurance I would be told what I was to do. Cal and Paul came along, and we were all put into a side room. The President came out, and I noticed he was wearing pancake makeup, and there was a large glob of Max Factor hanging from a hair in the middle of the groove at the end of his nose. But

all he did was shake hands, say he was pleased to meet us, and not tell us anything about what we were to do. So we went back to our villa, on hold.

There was to have been a banquet early in the evening, but Nixon went off unexpectedly to see Mao, excluding Secretary of State Rogers and everyone from the State Department.

Suddenly, a little after eight o’clock on the evening of February 21, the banquet having been moved down to about nine-thirty, I was called over to the president’s villa again. There was a bunch of people milling around, a couple of Chinese interpreters, Ji Chaozhu and Tang Wensheng (“Nancy” Tang), and a number of other protocol people, including some I’ve since gotten to know very well on the Chinese side.

Dwight Chapin came out and said, “The President would like you to interpret the banquet toast tonight.”

And I said, “Fine. Could I have the text, please, so that I can work it over?”

He said, “Well, I don’t know. There may not be a text.”

I said, “Well, I know there’s a text, there’s got to be. Chinese is not French or Spanish. One has to consider carefully how this is done if it’s to be done well. I’m sure there’s a text, and I’d appreciate your getting it for me.”

He went into the President’s office, and came out and said, “There is no text, and the President would like you to interpret.”

I said, “Well, I happen to know that there is a text. And really I must insist on having that text. I have something approaching a photographic memory; I just need to read it once.”

Dwight Chapin was the gatekeeper, the appointments secretary, I believe, for the President, later convicted of perjury. At any rate, he went back in again, and he came out, and he said, “There is no text, and the President orders you to interpret.”

And I said, “Well, it might interest you to know that I did the first draft of the toast tonight, and while I don’t know what was done to it in detail at the NSC and by the speech writers, I do know that some of Chairman Mao’s poetry was inserted into it. And if you think I’m going to get up in front of the entire Chinese politburo and ad lib Chairman Mao’s poetry back into Chinese, you’re nuts. So, either…”

He said, “All right.” And he took the text out of his pocket and gave it to the Chinese. And so they had it. Later, Ji Chaozhu, who did the interpreting, consulted with me on a number of points before he did it. Indeed it did contain some of Chairman Mao’s poetry, and it would have been catastrophic for me to do it.

So my first act as interpreter of Chinese (this was my debut as interpreter; I had never interpreted except in a classroom) was to refuse to interpret.

Nixon apologizes

As we sat through the banquet, I was at the head table with Nixon and Zhou En-lai and Kissinger and Ji Dengfei and Li Xiannian, later President of China, and, I think, Qiao Guanhua, who was, in fact, the brains in the Foreign Ministry, and Bill Rogers, of course, and Mrs. Nixon, interpreting for them, I could see the President glaring at me across the table, with his jowls down and a grim expression on his face, obviously mighty annoyed that I had pulled this stunt.

I have thought a lot about why he might have wished to conceal the fact that there was a text. The fact is that he had a habit of memorizing speeches, and he liked to appear to be ad-libbing them, giving them extemporaneously, which is what Dwight Chapin had told me he planned to do. And I think he was afraid I would stand up there with the text, which I wouldn’t have done, of course. In any event, he also had a predilection for using the other side’s interpreters, because they wouldn’t leak to the U.S. press and Congress. So all these things came together.

Two days later, after some other things had happened, he apologized to me. He called me over and said, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. That was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that.” And there were tears in his eyes. Then he did some other things that were by way of making amends. It was odd.

I did not smoke at that time. I had given it up nine years previously, when I was in law school. I remember Li Xiannian, then the sort of economic planner of China, later the President, offering me a cigarette. I took it, and I have smoked ever since. I was terribly nervous.