Ping Pong Diplomacy, April 1971 — Opening the Road to China
Following the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, a “Bamboo Curtain,” the Chinese equivalent of Russia’s “Iron Curtain,” was established, closing off China from the non-Communist world. The 1966 Cultural Revolution only served to strengthen the Communist Party’s commitment to isolation from the West. However, by 1971 China was growing desperate for foreign investment while the United States sought an end to the Vietnam War as well as ways to increase its leverage vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. These diplomatic objectives led to President Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China.
But before his February 1972 to Peking there was ping pong diplomacy. Sports had long been a diplomatic tool for the Chinese under the slogan “Friendship First, Competition Second.” Thus, on April 6, 1971, the Chinese national ping-pong team invited the American team to visit China while the two teams were at the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan.
A confluence of events led to the invitation. First, the President of the International Table Tennis Federation, H. Roy Evans of Wales, visited China soon before the World Championships that year and recommended that China use the sport to connect with the outside world.
Second, an American ping-player, Leah Neuberger was travelling with the Canadian team, and the Chinese government extended her visa approval to the entire American team. Finally, a chance meeting between American player Glenn Cowan and Chinese Zhuang Zedong sparked a brief instance of cultural exchange. Meanwhile, Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger were working secret channels with China.
After receiving the invitation, the American team had to make sure that accepting would not be against U.S. policy, and that they could assure the Chinese of a reciprocal invitation. The U.S. assured them that it approved of people-to-people contacts.
On April 10, the American ping-pong team became the first Americans to enter the PRC in 25 years. During their week-long stay in China, the team played exhibitions, toured the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, and took in a ballet. (Forrest Gump, as played by Tom Hanks, was a member of the team, as seen in this video clip.) This trip set the groundwork for Kissinger’s secret trip to China in July 1971, which in turn paved the way for Nixon’s visit the following February.
Richard Soloman at the time served on the National Security Council; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in September 1996. Michael Newlin was Permanent Representative at the US Mission to the UN and was interviewed by Thomas Dunnigan starting October 1997. Herbert Levin served as Japan Desk Officer at the State Department and was interviewed by Mike Springmann in March 1994.
William Cunningham was the Political Officer at Embassy Tokyo and was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning March 1997. Claudia Anyaso worked at the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and was also interviewed by Kennedy, in September 2009. Chas Freeman at the time worked in the State Department’s Asian Communist Affairs Office and later served as Nixon’s interpreter; he was interviewed by Kennedy beginning April 1995.
Read Winston Lord’s account of Nixon’s trip to China and Chas Freeman’s account of being the interpreter on the trip. Here is a Moment on when the U.S. de-recognized Taiwan. Go here to read about the Blood Telegram criticizing U.S. policy in Pakistan, which Kissinger and Nixon ignored as they pushed for a channel to China. Read other Moments on China.
Opening Serve — “Ping pong diplomacy was the culmination of quite a bit of diplomacy, some of it known to a few people, and much of it unknown”
ANYASO: We had had this breakthrough with Nixon who had opened up China but he didn’t do it all by himself. Before anything happened there was this ping-pong, table tennis team, that had gone to China, the first Americans who had gone to China. That was the breakthrough before the diplomats got involved. So as cultural types we were very interested in this sports exchange.
FREEMAN: When Kissinger and Nixon were in charge, in this early period, the Department of State was sort of on a steady-as-you-go course on China.
For most people in the Department, ping-pong diplomacy was minor but interesting evidence, from the Chinese side, of an interest in pursuing a relationship with the United States. In fact, it was the culmination of quite a bit of diplomacy, some of it known to the Department, to a few people, and much of it unknown.
And while the Warsaw Talks [discussions between the U.S. and the PRC on improving ties] in May of 1970 were canceled after our incursion into Cambodia, the final Warsaw Talk had sown some seeds. The U.S. had reached out to the Chinese, through the Romanians and the Pakistanis, in particular. And we on the Desk, without knowing quite what we were doing, were producing papers for Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing on July 9th or thereabouts, 1971.
For my part, I had read the record of the Warsaw Talks, as I had had to do in order to prepare for interpreting, and being aware of Kissinger and Nixon’s proclivity for grand strategy, I understood that a geopolitical geometry in which there were three powers, each hostile to the other two, but with one of those powers having no relations with one of the others, was an unstable situation. I saw that the U.S. would have to move to establish some sort of dialogue and a strategic understanding with China, if only to introduce some ambivalence into Soviet strategic calculations.
Although in that spring of 1971, through June and July, [Director of Mainland China Affairs] Al Jenkins kept his counsel, I, and a couple of other people in the office, had the sense that something fairly momentous was going on behind the scenes.
I didn’t actually know about the Kissinger trip per se, however, until it was announced on July 15, 1971, by President Nixon. There were a great number of other things going on, of course. Part of the business of attempting rapprochement with China was the dismantling of a series of niggling but longstanding trade and investment barriers, resisted fiercely by different elements of the bureaucracy that had acquired a vested interest in these things over the course of more than two decades.
SOLOMON: It was Mao and Zhou En-lai trying to signal to the world that they were prepared to deal with the United States. This was a counterpart to Nixon’s secret communications with the Chinese, which had been going on for some time. Partly through public statements like his Foreign Affairs article of 1967, and then through diplomatic communications that began in 1969 or ’70, Nixon signaled to Zhou and Mao that he was interested in engaging China. So there was signaling going on and the ping-pong diplomacy was part of it.
Q: During this time, we began to ease up on the China question– the first tangible evidence of which was the visit of the Chinese ping pong team.
NEWLIN: Yes, there began to be indications that we were.…
In 1970, George Bush arrived [as Ambassador to the UN]. It was his first time in national politics as well as diplomacy. He was closer to the White House, I would say, than he was to the State Department. He was very conscientious about following his instructions and he was diligent in doing his homework.
The first big thing that happened was the Chinese ping pong visit to the U.S. George Bush invited them to play ping pong at the U.S. Mission. The newspapers all carried pictures of him and the team. George may have been the senior U.S. official to meet with them.
Henry [Kissinger] told him in strict confidence on the eve of the vote on Chinese representation [in the UN], a very critical movement that he was going to make the trip to Beijing. George told me in strict
confidence that he was going to make the trip to China. I guess I was the only one he told; maybe he told others, I just don’t know. So I told him, I said, “Well, we will lose the vote, but nobody can blame you.” He said, “No, no. We’ve got the vote.” The awkward thing was that Rogers and the State Department did not know about the trip.
We changed to what amounted to a two-China policy. We supported Beijing as the representative of China but linked this to continued representation for Taiwan.
First Volley — “Tell them that if they decide to go, it will not be against United States policy”
SOLOMAN: In the spring of 1971, the world had been flabbergasted when Zhou En-lai invited the American ping-pong team that was in Japan to China; it caused a tremendous commotion.
CUNNINGHAM: [Rufford] Harrison was an official of the U.S. Table Tennis Association who at that time was the U.S. delegate to the International Table Tennis Federation. [pictured, Graham] Steenhoven was the president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association.
Harrison said that upon receiving this overture from the PRC that he called the American embassy during business hours and talked to someone who said that it was no big deal to go ahead. There was no registered surprise at all at the invitation. I have no knowledge of who he talked to. I was not the one to whom he talked. ….
This brings us to the 7th of April 1971. Three o’clock in the afternoon I am sitting in my office when the phone rings. It is a telephone call from Frank Donovan, now deceased, who was the press officer in USIS [U.S Information Service].
Donovan said to me, “Bill, the Italian press agency has just moved the story to the effect that the PRC table tennis team playing in the international matches in Nagoya has invited the U.S. table tennis team to visit China.”
I said, “Yes.”
Frank said, “Well, we are going to be asked about this. What should we say?”
I said, “Frank, just tell them we know about it.”
He said, “That is not enough. We’ve got to say more.”
By this time something had begun to percolate in my mind and I said, “Okay, Frank, tell them we know about it and that if they decide to go it will not be against United States policy.” I stopped and started to say, “Well, we can elaborate that a little bit.”
And Frank said, “That is enough. We don’t need to say anymore.” I said, “Okay,” and hung up.
Then I thought to myself, “I better be able to back this up. I know I have seen something in print somewhere to this effect and I think I am sure of my ground.” I started looking around and found in my bookshelf the statement I was looking for. It was in the annual report on the Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS] from the President to the Congress.
This is a series that Kissinger started up when he was the National Security Advisor, and there are three or four volumes in that series, one for each year of Kissinger’s tenure. The Department of State put out a parallel report, a thicker and more detailed report also for each of the same years after the presidential reports started coming out.
Well, there in the report of the President to the Congress was the statement that the United States is open to educational, cultural and athletic exchanges with the People’s Republic of China. Just one sentence to that effect.
I thought, there it is. Table tennis is a sport, an athletic event, and we have said that it is okay to have exchanges with them. They have invited the American team, and there is no policy reason why it shouldn’t go. I was right….
By this time I was getting a little bit assertive about this because having found this sentence I couldn’t see any basis for the Embassy to issue a statement saying the team can’t go or throwing cold water on that. It would be the wrong thing to do and would be denying the validity of a statement of the government and that would send the wrong signal to the Chinese.
[Public Affairs Officer in Tokyo Alan] Carter said to me, “You had better talk to the Ambassador [Armin Meyer, pictured].” I said, “Okay, I’ll go talk to the Ambassador.” So, I hung up and started out my office down the corridor to the Ambassador’s office….
He said, with more than a hint of exasperation in his voice, “All right, go ahead and put out the statement.”
I said, “Okay,” and turned to leave the office. As I was going out the door, I heard Meyer almost shout, “And, you know what you might do when you put it out is ask why they don’t invite the Republic of China [Taiwan] too. A bunch of damn Communists.”…
Meyer’s comment about inviting the ROC players to the Mainland reflected an awareness of a controversy in Nagoya over the participation of the Chinese teams in the table tennis championships. The Japanese were hosting this event and the PRC players wanted to attend, and I recently have found out that the Japanese wanted the PRC to attend because the Chinese were the world champions, and if they didn’t attend, the matches would be a dud.
Again, this was 1971 and the Japanese were trying to promote their position internationally and they did not want to have a table tennis match that was going to be a flop, meaningless because the world champions were not present. So, they had made a demarche to the Chinese to encourage them to attend.
But, I didn’t know any of this at the time. I did know that when the PRC indicated that they would attend, that then the question of the attendance of the ROC team became an issue. The ROC team, which had been invited, was then dis-invited from the matches and did not attend. I knew this subliminally, but I hadn’t been paying any attention to it. Meyer apparently was clued in to all of this and was familiar with it.
So, I walked out of the Ambassador’s office and back to my office and sat down waiting for the phone to ring. I waited for somebody to call and say that such-and-such a paper had noticed this story and wanted to know the position of the United States government, etc.
Nothing happened. Nobody called.
I was expecting the [Japanese] Ministry of Foreign Affairs to call up to ask what we were going to say. I finally called Frank and asked if any of the press had called. I think he told me no, nothing has happened. Then I began to worry a little bit.
I thought that when this thing bursts I want to make sure that we get the line out that I have authored and has been approved by the Ambassador, because it was beginning to dawn on me that it would be important in terms of the relationship with the PRC. In other words, I didn’t want the PRC to get a negative answer on this because that would cut against the public statements that had been made by the White House and the Department. I didn’t want somebody who was uninformed responding to this question either.
So long as it was a business day and we were in session we could be pretty sure the question would go to the right place and the answer would come out right, but beyond that I didn’t know. Only four people, Ambassador Meyer, Alan Carter, Frank Donovan, and I knew and had agreed how to respond. Also time was running and I began to realize I had better get a report to Washington on this, but at that point it was a non-story….
I called Graham Steenhoven, who was at the time the President of the U.S. Table Tennis Association. I told him who I was. He said, “Thank God you called. I have been trying to reach the American embassy and I can’t get a hold of anybody. We got an invitation to go to China and I want to know whether or not it would be against U.S. policy for us to accept.”
I said, “Mr. Steenhoven, I am aware of the press report that you had gotten the invitation, and if we are asked by the press, this is what we will say.” I repeated to him what I had told Frank Donovan. I read the two statements to him.
He said, “You are saying that we should go.”
I said, “No, I am not saying that you should go. You are private American citizens and it is up to you to make up your minds for yourselves as to what you are going to do. You make the decision. I am not making it for you. The U.S. government is not going to tell you what to do about this. What I am saying is that the U.S. government has said that we are open to athletic exchanges with the People’s Republic of China.”
He said, “Okay. It won’t be against U.S. policy if we go.” I said, “No, it will not.” He said, “Thank you very much and hung up.”
Then I called Armin Meyer at his residence and said, “Mr. Ambassador, I have just now talked with Mr. Steenhoven, President of the U.S. Table Tennis Association, in Nagoya. He said, ‘If they go it is not against U.S. policy?’ and I said, ‘That’s right.’”
Meyer said, “Fine. Call Al Jenkins in Washington.”
Alfred LeSesne Jenkins was the Director of Mainland China Affairs at the time….Finally a very sleepy but recognizable voice answered the phone. I said, “Al, this is Bill Cunningham in Tokyo. The PRC has invited the American table tennis team to visit China after playing in the championships in Nagoya.” He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Ambassador Meyer wanted me to call you and tell you about this.” He said, “Yes.”
I said, “I have talked to the head of the table tennis association and told him that if they decided to accept the invitation it will not be in violation of U.S. policy.”
Al said, “That sounds about right,” and hung up.
I thought to myself, “My God, he doesn’t know what I said. He hasn’t gotten it because he very clearly hung up without reacting to the most important event in U.S.–China relations since the Warsaw talks began.” So, I thought now what do I do? Do I call him back? I was very worried because Jenkins would go into the office, and any telegram that I send or press report that gets there is going to be waiting for him when he arrives.
His telephone is going to be ringing off the hook and all kinds of people are going to be asking him what the hell is going on. The White House is going to be after him.
At this time I was still thinking of Richard Nixon and the White House in the anti-Communist hard-line mode. I didn’t know about the Kissinger back channel thing and I hadn’t really focused on the Foreign Affairs article Nixon wrote in 1967 either. I assumed that this news was headed toward an environment where it would be welcomed only on the Mainland China desk, and only there would there be people who could manage the implications and repercussions in constructive fashion.
This all sounds very peculiar thirty years later, but the political atmosphere in the Washington of the Vietnam era was highly charged and volatile with respect to dealings with any of the communist countries. I was really concerned now, but I figured I had to prepare a telegram to send out to report.
Second volley — “‘Can we invite them to come to the United States and tell them they will be able to come?’”
Then it suddenly dawned on me that Herb Levin, who had worked with me and was my China colleague, now was on the National Security Council staff in Washington….
He said, “Hah!” Great! Send your telegram, mark it this way, say this, say that, and I will take care of everything at this end of the line.”… I did a more in-depth, classified report on my conversation with Steenhoven in Nagoya. I had given Steenhoven my telephone numbers and told him to call me any time if he needed any help.
It may have been that evening that he called back and said, “Well, now, if we go to China, accept their invitation, they are going to expect a reciprocal invitation from the United States. Can we invite them to come to the United States and tell them they will be able to come?”
I said, “Well, that’s a problem. I will have to put that one up to Washington.”
Steenhoven was a very experienced man and had been in international table tennis activities for a long time and he was aware of the section of the McCarran Act, at that time the governing version of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.
It required a prior clearance by the Department of Justice of anyone coming from a Communist country to the United States to verify that it would be in the national interest to admit this person and would not represent a threat to the security of the United States, or something to that effect. So, I knew you couldn’t invite anybody from one of these countries to come to the U.S. unless prior approval had been obtained from the Department of Justice.
Well, how do you get prior approval from the Department of Justice if we hadn’t told the Chinese yet that we were going to accept their invitation and in return invite them to the U.S.
So, I said, “I cannot tell you that they indeed will be admitted to the U.S. if you extend an invitation. I understand the issue here, but I do not have the authority to answer your question. I will put it to Washington.” So, another telegram to Washington. Finally, about midnight I managed to get home and went to sleep.
At three o’clock in the morning my telephone rang and it was Al Jenkins now fully alert saying, “We got your telegrams in here and we understand the problem concerning reciprocation and are working on them. We will be getting something out to you but we wanted to let you know that this will be managed.”…
In the morning then, about six or seven o’clock, either I got a phone call from Steenhoven…and told him that I had heard from Washington, that they were aware of the invitation and concurred in what I had told him and that they were also aware of the problem of the reciprocal invitation and this matter would be worked upon during the day and I expected to have fresh news later on.” He was excited about all of this.
I got myself to the office and I think sometime that day a suitably worded instruction came in from Washington with regard to the matter of clearance in advance of the invitation of unknown people who might be coming to the United States to play table tennis with Americans. I passed that information on to Steenhoven.
In other words, giving him the green light to go ahead and extend the invitation, he wouldn’t be embarrassed, somehow we will work this thing out. Then I started getting telephone calls.
I was asked by the [Japanese] Foreign Ministry, Hiroshi Hashimoto, who was the head of the China desk at that time, if this was a change in our foreign policy towards China. I said, “No, it is not a change in U.S. policy. Our policy has been publicly stated for some months.”…
At that point I did not know what the PRC wanted. I didn’t know the background of this invitation. I had no way of evaluating it. I didn’t know its significance and I didn’t want to scare them off and spoil the opportunity. I felt we had made this statement and said we were open to it for the purpose of precisely broadening contact with them and opening something up.
I thought that if the PRC got the impression that we had put the U.S. table tennis team up to it in some way or even encouraged them in any way, the Chinese would back off.
One has to understand the context of the time. After all, the Vietnam War was at its height and there was an extremely bitter relationship between the U.S. and China over the Vietnam War. The Warsaw Talks had been suspended for over a year. There was almost total non-communication between the two sides and there was an antagonistic atmosphere. The UN representation question was on the downhill.
So we were operating in very uncertain waters at that point and I didn’t want to do anything to disturb matters. I was very careful to avoid any sort of official identification with what the table tennis team was doing. I wanted to make it appear entirely and completely a private initiative.
Breaking the Bamboo Curtain
SOLOMAN: The ping-pong team’s visit was ostensibly organized by an outfit called the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, of which I had been a member for some years. It was basically an academic organization concerned with improving public education and understanding about China….
I had been on the NSC staff almost six months at that point, and I think people like Kissinger and Al Haig — his deputy at the time, although both became Secretaries of State — seemed to have developed confidence in me, so I was assigned to escort the Chinese ping-pong team around as the “eyes and ears” of the White House, and as a political adviser to some of the people from the State Department, USIA, and others who were helping to organize that tour.
The Chinese were still worried in the wake of the Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969, still worried whether [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev and company were going to go to war with them.
A lot of defense issues were being discussed that were as sensitive as any I can imagine our government talking about with anyone. I don’t think the State Department, or even the Defense Department, was privy to the content of those conversations. It was all bottled up in the White House, and I was not brought into those talks. Discussions also dealt with how to end the Vietnam War.
So a lot of exceptionally sensitive issues were on the table, some of which I was aware of but was not directly involved in — I frankly didn’t have a lot of background to deal with them.
[The trip itself] was extremely intense. It went beautifully because all the world was fascinated with China….The atmosphere in the States was quite positive.
Of course there was some opposition. Reverend MacIntyre and some of the strongly anti-communist groups were out demonstrating against the ping-pong team. On the whole, however, there was a very warm and fascinated response to things Chinese by the American public, whether it was panda bears or ping-pong.
We had all been worried about the possibility of going to war with China as the result of the Vietnam conflict, and suddenly this process of normalization had unexpectedly begun….
I was there to make sure that there were no foul-ups, and the government delegation that accompanied the Chinese players included FBI and CIA types for security reasons. We were obviously interested in learning as much about the mood and the views of the Chinese who had come over for this tour.
We were also concerned about security, and we believe there were some security threats to the delegation at one point. So the coordination among the Ping-Pong Federation, the academics, and the various government agencies was a very complicated matter.
The White House, apart from myself, had assigned John Scali — at that point, Nixon’s Director of Communications — to the ping-pong tour. Scali and the politicos in the White House were very much on edge about Kissinger gaining so much limelight out of China opening. They wanted to make sure that the credit went to the President, who had taken the initiative to send him to China in the first place. So there was that line of tension as well.
I took my orders day-by-day from General Haig, who was at that point Kissinger’s deputy. I was basically there to try to keep peace among the various parties who were part of this traveling road show, and where there were problems to let General Haig know about it. I had to use my own judgment on the spot to make sure things worked smoothly, or to evaluate the tour’s effect in writing situation reports that would go back to the White House.
CUNNINGHAM: I realized that none of these people on the table tennis team has ever been to China and they don’t know what to expect. I thought to myself, I have to talk to them and give them some kind of a briefing. They may just think they are going to play table tennis over there. They don’t understand the significance of this trip. They don’t understand that they are going to be the first group of Americans to get into the PRC for a very long time.
Somewhere along the line I contacted Steenhoven or he contacted me, and I said, “By the way, we will have to validate your passports for travel to the People’s Republic of China because you have a prohibition in your passports for travel there.”…
Ordinarily, somebody who wants to get his passport validated would not have come to the chancery at the top of the hill; they would have gone to the consular office two blocks down the street. But, I had carefully instructed Steenhoven to come up to the chancery.…
I was under the assumption that something formal would be done to validate these passports for travel to the People’s Republic of China. There might be a seal attached and a signature of some kind, statement or what not.
Well, somebody did come up from the consular section with a felt pen and just crossed out words “those parts of China under the control of the Communist Party” and did not initial it or put a seal on the passport. Anyone could have done the same thing without coming into the American embassy. That was a bit of a letdown but somewhat beside the point.
Steenhoven was shown up to my office together with a man by the name of Rufford Harrison, who was the U.S. delegate to the International Table Tennis Federation. They came into my office and sat down. I had one hour only to talk with them about this event and explain the significance of it to them.
The first half hour was entirely consumed in responding to their questions about logistics of the trip — how they would be treated, how to conduct themselves, etc. — completely off the political subject all together. I was impatient to tell them, “Look, you guys are embarking upon a mission that is of very high importance to the United States and to our relationship with China.”
So, we discussed for a half-hour these mundane things about the food, water, hotels, shots, diseases, etc. I answered them as best I could. They were particularly concerned because it was after all toward the end of the Cultural Revolution and there were a lot of very visible manifestations of anti-Americanism in China and they were afraid of being attacked in some way by the Chinese. They didn’t know how they would be treated.
I said, “Look, you would not have been invited if they wanted to abuse you. You are going to be very well taken care of. The PRC has an excellent record of being extremely hospitable to anyone whom it invites and this is in effect an official invitation because sports in the PRC are under the control of the ministry of sports of the government. I think you will have a very enjoyable time.” They were much relieved by this.
In the conversation with me, Steenhoven said, “You know, they are going to give us gifts when we get over to China and we have to have something to give them in return. We haven’t got anything. We have handed out all the souvenirs that we brought with us at the tournament down in Nagoya. Can you help us in any way? We don’t even know what they might like.” I thought a minute.
At that time ballpoint pens were a big deal in China and if you could have an American-made ballpoint pen that was really great. Steenhoven and Harrison were thinking of going out and buying something in Japanese shops somewhere.
I said, “No, no, no. You want to have something that is American to give to them. Something that has an American brand name on it. That would be very significant because they haven’t got anything like that in there.”
“Where are we going to find that sort of thing?”
I said, “Wait a minute.” I called up the administrative officer of the embassy and said, “Danny, we have to get all of the American trademark ballpoint pens we can find anywhere in the Tokyo region to send with a group of people who are going China.”… I told Steenhoven that we would have ballpoint pens for him and I think there was something else I thought of too, but I can’t remember what it was now….
Then the storm really broke and everybody was after me to find out what was going on. The press, the Japanese Foreign Ministry were calling me. We were monitoring the Japanese press reports of what was going on with the table tennis team in China as well as the Chinese press reports. We were reporting all of this stuff. The American reporters all asked to go with the American table tennis team but they were not able to get permission from the Chinese and were terribly disappointed. The American press corps in Hong Kong had a similar turndown.
The consulate general and my good friends there were all geared up to interview these people going in and coming out and here they get an instruction from the White House saying to stay away and have nothing to do with these people.
If I’m not mistaken I think the instructions said that all contact should be confined to the channel that has already been established with the table tennis team, which meant me. I made an arrangement with Steenhoven that he would call me when he came back through Tokyo on his way back to the U.S. so that I would get a readout of what happened in China.
Of course, the Chinese publicized everything that went on very heavily. They treated this group royally with hearts and flowers all over the place and cheers everywhere they went in China. The Chinese table tennis team arranged for them to win many of the matches. They were fed very well. They arrived back in Tokyo on a Saturday evening.
LEVIN: We had been pleased at the generally positive public discussion of the possibilities of non-government contact and travel, so those people were able to go. We certainly had not anticipated that this would begin with a ping-pong team in Osaka.
It also happened to turn out fortuitously that the people on the ping-pong team, the coach and the manager and the players, were the kinds of Americans that you pray to be involved in something like this. As you know, you can have American sports figures who can be disappointing as personalities or representatives of the United States.
This was not true, this was just a wonderful bunch of people who had good common sense, and conducted themselves with dignity. It was fortunate, and we were very pleased. We couldn’t have picked a better group. Things moved from there.
As I believe was laid out in Henry [Kissinger]’s book, the formal contacts, the trip and so forth, this was done through the Pakistanis. A number of countries had offered to be helpful but the Pakistanis had good relations with both countries, they were discreet, and they were the actual channel.
CUNNINGHAM: Steenhoven called me at home and told me he wanted to see me — that he had an important message. They were leaving the following afternoon to return to the U.S. They were going to have to leave the Imperial Hotel around 11:00 in the morning to get out to the airport….
The first thing he said was, “They want to come to the United States and have accepted our invitation to come to the United States. Not only that, they gave me a message to take to the President.”…
They left Tokyo and John Richardson, who was Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Educational Affairs, flew out to Los Angeles and welcomed them at the airport. There was the evidence of the Department of State, the U.S. government, at an official level welcoming this gesture on the part of the Chinese. I think that was finally appropriate at that point.
There had been many other statements out of the Department of State and the White House in the course of the week or two that they were in the PRC. My experience with this whole thing was not over yet because then I had an endless stream of diplomats from the diplomatic corps coming around to interview me about how was our policy towards China changing.
What I was telling them was what I had said all along. This is just an athletic exchange. There is no political significance to it. The United States has said it is open to these things in the President’s and Secretary of State’s reports.
ANYASO: We wanted to build on that ping-pong diplomacy and so we set up a little task force in the Cultural Bureau of the State Department. We had a guy who had been the first Fulbright student in China, the very first student Fulbrighter was not to Europe but to China; I think it was 1948 or 1949. He was on our task force. He still wrote Chinese, he wrote his notes in Chinese characters and so he said, “What to do?” So we got a contract agency that had been doing exchanges with the Soviet Union and we talked to them about arranging some private student exchanges to China; that was another breakthrough.
SOLOMAN: Additionally, there was the Taiwan factor. Taiwan was very upset about the Nixon initiative, and while they didn’t overtly oppose the ping-pong trip or normalization, they saw themselves as extremely vulnerable.
Remember, Taiwan had been kicked out of the UN in the fall of 1971. When Nixon began the process of normalizing relations with Beijing, Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan didn’t know what this was going to mean for him.
I remember vividly a match that was played out at the University of Maryland during the ping-pong tour. This would have been sometime in April of ’72. The Taiwanese turned out a huge claque of their supporters who shouted slogans enticing the Chinese ping-pong players to defect to Taiwan. So this ping-pong tour got caught up in all of these internal political strains.
CUNNINGHAM: [The trip] did indicate a warming of the relationship between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese were indicating that they wanted a closer relationship. It was a significant development, but it was simply a people-to-people exchange, not something organized by the U.S. government in any way. It was spontaneous. ….
In the middle of July [15, 1971] on home leave I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen in California, and the evening news came on.
It was announced that the President would have an important statement to make. The President came on and said that he wanted to let us know that Henry Kissinger was just back from a secret visit to China and he has done this, that and the other [that he would go to China the following February].
I thought, oh my God, everybody I told in Tokyo that this was an ordinary people-to-people exchange will not believe me at all. That was one of several of what the Japanese call “Nixon shocks.”