The Week that Changed the World: Nixon Visits China

By Shannon White

February 2022 — This month marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s weeklong visit to China, a trip that resulted in the establishment of a formal diplomatic relationship between the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

The UC Berkeley Oral History Center’s collection contains several interviews discussing the event, as well as the political and public atmosphere that surrounded Nixon’s 1971 announcement of the impending trip. Included in these are the accounts of both Caroline and John Service, the latter a diplomat and member of the United States Foreign Service. The Services were among the few Americans welcomed back to the country in the early 1970s by Zhou Enlai, then the premier of the PRC.  

Nixon and Mao shake hands
President Nixon Shaking Hands with Chairman Mao, February 21, 1972 (Photo: National Archives. National Archives Identifier 194759.)

In Caroline Service’s oral history, she discusses the era of “ping pong diplomacy” in the early 1970s that occurred prior to the president’s visit to China. “We were all electrified one day. . . by seeing on television, reading in the paper, seeing pictures that the American ping pong team was going to Peking,” Service recalls of this turning point in the relations between the two countries. 

In this interview, Service also discusses the public perception of Richard Nixon at the time of the trip, echoing the popular opinion that only Nixon, as a staunch anti-communist with the support of his fellow political conservatives, could make such a move without widespread criticism. As Service says:

Now I have hardly a good word to say for Nixon. I have disliked him intensely forever, it seems to me, since ever he appeared on the political scene. Yet, I suppose that only a Republican conservative, reactionary almost, president could have done this. I do not think a Democrat could have done this. I think it had to be done.

In his oral history, Dr. Otto C. C. Lin, whose career is in Chinese technological innovation and entrepreneurship, offers his perspective on Henry Kissinger and Nixon traveling to China. When asked about the effects of the visit on Taiwan, Lin said, “Republicans were always considered friends for KMT [Kuomintang]. Hence, Nixon was considered a turncoat and Kissinger an accomplice of Nixon in betraying his friend, the ROC [Republic of China].” Ultimately, though, Lin says, “I think history would say that Nixon and Kissinger did the right thing to help open up China.” 

Cecilia Chiang, a chef and entrepreneur credited with popularizing northern Chinese cuisine in the United States, discusses in her oral history the buzz surrounding the state dinner attended by Nixon and Kissinger during their visit. “The menu was printed in all these newspapers in the United States and also the Chinese Newspaper,” recalls Chiang, “People called in. Called in from New York, from Hawaii, called me. ‘Can you duplicate that dinner? That dinner for us. We would like to just fly in just for that dinner.’”

Chiang remembers her surprise at the simplicity of the meal, stating that when she saw the menu, “I started to laugh. They said, ‘Why do you laugh?’ They put bean sprouts on the menu, because China is so poor at the time. No food, no nothing.” 

These interviews contain a wealth of insightful information concerning not just the presidential visit to China, but also the general political climate of US foreign relations in the 1970s. Caroline Service offers the perspective of a family who had by this point been involved in US foreign diplomacy for decades. Otto Lin leverages the Nixon visit in relation to the modern political, cultural, and economic landscape of China. Cecilia Chiang’s oral history provides a glimpse into the culinary landscape of China, a country still struggling with rationing and food shortages in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. 

Shannon White
Shannon White

You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria.

Shannon White is currently a third-year student at UC Berkeley studying Ancient Greek and Latin. They are an undergraduate research apprentice in the Nemea Center under Professor Kim Shelton and a member of the editing staff for the Berkeley Undergraduate Journal of Classics. Shannon works as a student editor for the Oral History Center.


About the Oral History Center

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public.

Oral Histories Used Here

Caroline Service: State Dept. Duty in China, The McCarthy Era, and After 1933–1977

Otto C.C. Lin: Promoting Education, Innovation, and Chinese Culture in the Era of Globalization Volume I: Oral History

Cecilia Chiang: An Oral History

Related Resources from The Bancroft Library

Cecilia Chiang is included in the Chez Panisse, Inc. pictorial collection. BANC PIC 2001.192.

Caroline Service letters to Lisa Green : TLS and ALS, 1950 Sept.–1995 April. Bancroft BANC MSS 99/81 cz.

Caroline Schulz Service papers, 1919–1997. Bancroft BANC MSS 99/237 cz.

John S. Service papers, 1925–1999. BANC MSS 87/21 cz.