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Richard Solomon, Ping-Pong Diplomat to China

China scholar Richard Solomon, who was an essential component of the “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the thaw in relations between the United States and China, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After getting a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966, Solomon taught political science at the University of Michigan. He left in 1971 to join the staff of the National Security Council, where he was responsible for Asian Affairs and worked with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on the normalization of relations with China. Solomon joined the Rand Corporation in 1976. Ten years later Secretary of State George Shultz recruited him to the State Department to lead the policy planning staff.

President George H.W. Bush nominated Solomon to be the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1989. In that role, Solomon helped to negotiate the 1991 Paris Agreement which helped end a long-running conflict in Cambodia. Solomon facilitated nuclear non-proliferation discussions between South Korea and North Korea and served in 1992-1993 as ambassador to the Philippines.

To read more about China, Henry Kissinger, negotiations or Korea, please follow the links.

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 “If you’re serious… I’ll get you a scholarship to start studying Chinese”

SOLOMON: Through the influence of Lucian Pye (seen left), with whom I had taken a course in Asian politics in 1959. . . I became increasingly concerned with issues of political development in Asia. Then, when I decided to go to graduate school, I decided to focus on China issues because everybody and his brother was at that point focusing on Russia.

The China issue was hot, albeit in a different way. Through Professor Pye’s encouragement I decided to take a somewhat different route in terms of my professional training. . . .

During the first year of my graduate work, which took place in the fall of 1960 through the spring of ’61, I continued to focus on science and public policy. My continuing studies with Lucian Pye were of increasing interest, however, and a seminal event for me occurred in early June of 1961.

I went to Pye’s office to talk about my career direction, and what issues I should specialize in at graduate school. While we were talking, the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was Walt Rostow, who had been a professor at MIT and who specialized in comparative economics and economic history. At that point in time, he was running the Policy Planning staff for the Kennedy administration.

Rostow told Pye that intelligence information indicated that the Chinese were in the midst of a major food crisis, and he wondered if Pye knew anyone who could analyze some of the information that was beginning to emerge on how the Chinese were dealing with this food crisis.

Pye looked up, across his desk, and there I was suspended in the middle of a conversation with him about my career development. He said to Walt Rostow, “Well, we have a young man right here who might be right for this project. I’ll get back to you.”

A couple of days and several conversations later, Pye said to me, “Look, we really need someone for this project who has some Chinese language capability, because in part, the materials that are to be looked at are in Chinese. If you’re serious about going off in this kind of a direction, I’ll get you a scholarship to start studying Chinese.”

I’d been married just less than a year, and Pye’s proposal would send me in a substantially new direction professionally. So I took a deep breath and said yes. Pye got me a scholarship to go down to Yale University, which had an excellent Air Force program in Chinese language studies.

I spent the summer of 1961 at Yale studying the introductory Air Force course in Chinese language. . . . I spent two years in Taiwan and Hong Kong doing my dissertation research. After I completed my general PhD exams at MIT in June of ’63, I spent the summer and fall at Yale University doing more language study, and then I studied some history at Yale with Mary Wright.

Then, with my wife, I went to Taiwan in late January or early February of 1964. I spent the spring and summer months of 1964 engaged in intensive Chinese language study at the Stanford Language Program, which was then on the campus of Taiwan National University — “Tai Da” — in Taipei.

At the end of that period we moved to Hong Kong, where I began research on my dissertation. But I had established some professional research arrangements in Taiwan so I went back and forth between Hong Kong and Taiwan over the next year. . . .

“This was the precursor to Kissinger’s secret trip. It became known as ‘ping-pong diplomacy’”

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. This was the precursor to Kissinger’s secret trip. It became known as “ping-pong diplomacy.” (Solomon is seen at left playing ping-pong in China.)

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. . . .

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. . . .

I don’t remember exactly the date, but I guess it was during the ping-pong tour that President Nixon received the Chinese ping-pong delegation in the White House, and the event was televised. I remember standing in the background while they went through the ceremony.

I knew it was being televised and I wasn’t exactly aware of the whole layout, but it turned out that I was standing behind Nixon. I was probably ten feet behind him, but because they had a television camera, my mother and my academic friends could all see me standing there, apparently right behind Nixon.

I was later cautioned by the White House people that I should watch my visibility, as this was Nixon’s show, and that I should stay out of the picture. . ..

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. . . .

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.

“Zhou En-lai came to the guest house and met with the whole group. I felt as if I’d died and gone to heaven”

The first time I went to China myself with Kissinger was in June of 1972. This was Kissinger’s fourth trip. He went secretly in July of ’71; he went openly for the first time in October of ’71; then he went with the President in February of ’72.

So the June, 1972 trip would have been his fourth. It was to follow up on, and to implement, understandings reached between the President and Chairman Mao and Zhou En-lai during the President’s trip in February of ’72, to try to carry forward the relationship with the Chinese, which was still very new, less than a year old.

It was very important to Nixon’s foreign policy, and of course to Chairman Mao’s, and the fourth trip was intended to try to carry the discussions and the relationship forward. My specific role was to support Kissinger and his immediate deputy, John Holdridge, in organizing exchanges of various types, cultural and academic exchanges with the Chinese. . . .

After we had settled into the guest house in the Diaoyutai compound, after we had been in the rooms for about half an hour, Zhou En-lai came to the guest house and met with the whole group. I felt as if I’d died and gone to heaven. Here I was, I had just turned 35 years old, and I figured life was all going to be downhill from that point, that is on my birthday.

Meeting Zhou En-lai, in China, a country I never thought I’d visit because of the Cold War, and having an interaction with the Prime Minister, was quite exciting. The entire American delegation met with Zhou En-lai in what the Chinese call the ko-ting, the guest reception area of the guest house.

Zhou (seen right) began by noting that there were some new faces in Henry’s delegation, and specifically said he noticed that Mr. Solomon was in China for the first time. The Chinese had obviously done their intelligence briefing work effectively. Zhou said he wanted to thank me, Mr. Solomon, for escorting the Chinese ping-pong team around the United States.

He said he wanted to know where I had learned to speak Chinese. I replied, in Chinese, “Oh, your ping-pong players taught me.” Kissinger’s head snapped around as I said it in Chinese, and in that Germanic voice he rumbled, “Well, I see we’re going to need a translator for one of my staff.” Later I got chewed out by one of my colleagues for speaking Chinese and in a sense upstaging Kissinger.

Henry was obviously put off by it, because the next morning as we were going to take a tour of the Forbidden City, as I came to the front of the guest house to meet with the group, Kissinger, who was speaking to Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanghua, saw me out of the corner of his eye, and he rumbled, “I forbid Mr. Solomon from speaking Chinese in my presence.”

And Qiao, who was a rather provocative character, turned to me and said something in Chinese that should have called for a response in Chinese, which I did not do. In any event, that was a very interesting personal experience being in China for the first time, and with Kissinger. . . .

“We were dealing with issues that were managed personally by Zhou En-lai”

That said, we were warmly received by Zhou En-lai and his people. The talks, which focused at that point on issues related to ending the Vietnam War, and the common threat faced by both countries from the Soviet Union, imparted a great deal of historical weight to the talks that Kissinger was carrying out with Zhou En-lai. . . I was not directly involved in those talks.

I was involved in the so-called “counterpart talks,” which focused on the effort to expand cultural and other exchanges beyond the ping-pong area. . . .

The Chinese bureaucracy was beyond our perception at that point. We were dealing with issues that were managed personally by Zhou En-lai and the entourage of senior officials immediately around him. It was an initiative that had the authority and the personal support of Chairman Mao. (Seen at left, Bette Bao Lord, Richard Solomon, Winston Lord, China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Han Xu, Henry Kissinger.)

So at that point in time the relationship was not institutionalized. It was very political, and managed at the top of the political system. In that sense we never really had to worry very much about the bureaucracy. We only began to feel its weight and its resistance when we established liaison offices in the spring of 1973.

Then, issues like what buildings we could occupy, and the kinds of facilities that they wanted versus what we wanted, required a certain amount of horse trading. Those issues were suddenly on the table, and Kissinger and Zhou, to some degree, had to accommodate the effects of bureaucratic influence.

But right up until Zhou En-lai’s death, and I would say right up until normalization in late 1978, the relationship between Washington and Beijing was so political, and so important to the senior leadership, that it really operated outside the workings of the respective bureaucracies.

“And Mao . . . said that he wondered why the American people were ‘farting about Watergate'”

Of course, the [Watergate] break-in people had been arrested on the very night of the crime, during my first trip to China, on June 17th, but it took some months for the whole thing to unfold. It wasn’t until early 1973 that I think it really became an issue in the U.S.-China relationship.

I think it was in early ’73 that we began seeing intelligence reports indicating that the Chinese thought that Nixon was under attack on “Watergate” because of his opening to China. Interestingly enough, the Russians were interpreting Watergate at that point as reflecting Nixon’s pursuit of detente with them. . . .

I remember that at one point in 1973 — I think we went to China twice with Kissinger in ’73, and I honestly don’t remember whether it was the first or second trip — Kissinger met with Chairman Mao, and Mao at one point, in his earthy language, said that he wondered why the American people were “farting about Watergate.”

Nancy Tang, the interpreter, was embarrassed by this phrasing, and she interpreted it to Kissinger as the Chairman saying that he wondered why the American people were “making such a fuss about Watergate.”

Zhou En-lai sort of needled her and said, “Well that’s not exactly the way the Chairman put it.”

And Nancy Tang then said to Winston Lord, “Well, your wife is Chinese. She can tell you what fang pi means,” which is the term the Chairman had used.

The point is that Mao was worried about Nixon’s political standing at that point in ’73. As I said, I don’t remember whether it was the beginning or the end of the year. His scatological way of expressing himself was a manifestation of his disparaging what was going on, and his expression of some concern about it.

Well, by early 1974 it became very clear that Nixon was seriously wounded politically, and that the focus of the President on international issues contracted. The sense of initiative and the sense of tremendous progress and excitement brought about by detente, by the opening to China, began to dissipate as the President’s preoccupation with Watergate deepened. . . .

Indeed the judgment was that [Kissinger] became Secretary of State in part because of the country’s desire for stability in the foreign affairs area. This was a time when the Cold War was still very intense.

So Kissinger’s power, ironically, increased, but the flexibility and the sense of focus on foreign policy initiatives really did contract. I can still vividly recall the most dramatic political event I’ve ever personally experienced: it was Nixon’s resignation and then Gerry Ford’s swearing in as the new president in August of 1974.

That was really a dramatic, and very moving, very painful, human event. I remember being in the East Room of the White House when Nixon and his family assembled for a farewell statement. Nixon put on his glasses in public for the first time, talked about his mother, and quoted Teddy Roosevelt. He was a mortally wounded political figure.

All of that was very dramatic stuff. It riveted everybody working in that environment. . . . Kissinger, again, was providing continuity. In staffing out Henry’s dealings with the new President at that time, the thrust of our communications to the Chinese, and all the others, was that there would be continuity in America’s foreign policy.

Once Ford was in, the issue for the Chinese became whether Ford and Kissinger would carry through on the Nixon policy of completing the normalization of relations. They viewed normalization as a commitment, an obligation to be completed during what remained of Nixon’s second term.

During the two or three Kissinger trips to China before the Ford summit trip in December of 1975, the focus was the effort by the Chinese to pressure Kissinger into completing normalization. My job was to staff out that process.

We were still writing memos on the assumption that the effort would be made to complete normalization, but the increasing message from the White House political people . . . was that the conservative Republicans would not support Gerry Ford in completing normalization.

So that became the big issue between the U.S. and China. Kissinger was trapped between what Nixon had led the Chinese to expect, and the limits of what Gerry Ford, a much less powerful leader, could in fact accomplish.

“The Chinese structured their negotiating around the manipulation of personal relationships

I made the judgment in the spring of 1976 that President Ford was unlikely to win a second term. That judgment was just an instinct, but I assumed that in that context I would probably be asked to leave the NSC by the new administration, and so I was unlikely to be in a position to help complete the normalization process.

So I made a decision to go to the Rand Corporation, on the assumption that as a non-career person I would be leaving the administration. . . .

I ran a big project the last three years I was there — 1983 to ’86 — a study of Chinese negotiating behavior based on my experience in dealing with the Chinese. That project resulted in a book-length study that was first published on a classified basis within the government, and then a decade later was finally made public.

Well, in that study the key point I made was that the Chinese structured their negotiating around the manipulation of personal relationships, what I called the “Games of Guanxi.”

Guanxi is a Chinese term meaning social connections or relationships. I said that the core of their strategy is to cultivate what they call an “old friend,” an official sympathetic to them, as their U.S. negotiating counterpart.

They felt that Kissinger had become one; Al Haig became one. The “old friend,” as their agent in the counterpart government, then was pressured to deliver outcomes of policy, negotiations, or aspects of the bilateral relationship that would serve their interests.

So the issue was, how did they cultivate “old friends” and then manipulate them in their negotiating behavior? The book assessed a range of manipulative strategies, enticement tactics, and pressure tactics that the Chinese used in managing relationships with their “old friends.”

“The IAEA inspections revealed that the North Koreans had been cheating in terms of producing plutonium”

Korea became a very interesting issue during my tenure as Assistant Secretary, and we were fortunate to have done some useful work. When I was still in Policy Planning, we became aware of the North Korean nuclear program. When I became Assistant Secretary, the issue became how we were going to deal with it.

Over a three-and-some-year period, we worked out a game plan with the South Korean president and his national security adviser, a man named Kim Chung-whee — whom I had known from my days at the Rand Corporation when he was an instructor at the Korean Defense University — for trying to draw the North Koreans into a negotiation on the nuclear issue.

We encountered determined resistance from the White House in getting involved in this, however. There was deep distrust of the North Koreans, as there was of the Vietnamese. The question was, could we even open a negotiation with these people?!

What happened, ironically, was that when President Bush announced the withdrawal of all surface nuclear weapons deployed abroad, he was focusing on a deal with the Russians as a way of getting their nuclear weapons under control. But that decision, by implication, also affected our deployments in Korea.

This was in 1990, I guess, so suddenly we had an initiative that enabled us to go to the North Koreans and say, “All right, we’ll guarantee you that there are no nuclear weapons under our control anywhere in Korea, but you have to come clean and allow for inspections by the IAEA of your nuclear program.” And for reasons we couldn’t fully discern at the time, they were under some real pressures to accept our proposal.

They finally agreed to make good on their commitment to the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow safeguard inspections of all their declared nuclear sites, an obligation they undertook — but had never implemented — when they signed a non-proliferation agreement with the IAEA in 1985.

That signature obligated them to safeguard all their nuclear facilities under IAEA inspection, but they resisted doing that. So with the Bush announcement of the withdrawal of all our surface nuclear weapons, suddenly they were under real diplomatic pressure. They lost their rationale for resisting submission to IAEA inspection.

And, in early 1992, we initiated direct political contacts at a rather high level with the North Koreans for the first time in decades. I was part of a delegation led by the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Arnold Canter. We met with a man named Kim Young-sun, who was very close to Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-song. . . .

One advance was that the North Koreans accepted IAEA inspection of their nuclear facilities. There were six inspections that actually occurred. They also signed two agreements with the South Koreans dealing with a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, and with reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. And we opened direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea that gave the North some added incentives to be less confrontational.

Subsequently, after I had gone to be ambassador in the Philippines, all that progress came to a halt for complicated reasons. The IAEA inspections revealed that the North Koreans, in fact, had been cheating in terms of producing plutonium. I think they panicked at the exposure of what they were up to, and suddenly they started throwing a lot of roadblocks in the way of the IAEA inspections.

And with the onset of the Kim Young-sam government in Seoul, and the death of Kim Il-song, the North Koreans backed away from opening up. So Korea remains an extremely volatile, dangerous situation.