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On the Ground in China: Ambassador Nicholas Platt

Professor Robert Brigham, Ambassador Nicholas Platt, and President Hill

The 2012 C. Mildred Thompson Lecture, delivered on November 13 by former Ambassador Nicholas Platt, was at once a travelogue and a reflection on international relations.

As a State Department official during the Nixon administration, Platt was sent ahead to organize security personnel and other staff members in preparation for the president’s historic visit to China in February of 1972.

Platt, a self-described “gadget junkie,” took along a brand new Super 8 camera and captured not only footage of leisure time with his family but also the activities of the president, first lady, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the trip. These images provided a backdrop for his presentation.

The first scene showed the Spirit of ’76 arriving at the Beijing airport. Chinese Premier Chou En-lai is waiting at the foot of the stairs for Nixon to exit, and China’s honor guard is standing at attention.

“Everybody is absolutely fascinated by whether Nixon will shake Chou En-lai’s hand,” Platt said, narrating the footage.

Nicholas Platt speaks with a history student during a reception in the Aula.

He described the tension mounting as all wonder how the president will greet a leader of the country the U.S. has, for two decades, considered an enemy. But Nixon descends the stairs with his hand outstretched.

That handshake was just the beginning of the normalization of relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States. Today, Nixon’s trip is widely regarded as the most successful diplomatic achievement of his administration and is credited with shifting the balance in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. According to Platt, the trip satisfied Nixon’s geostrategic goal—to make the Chinese feel more secure—which eventually allowed the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam without the interference of China.

Another goal of the trip, Platt said, was “to change the perception of the American public about the country’s relationship with China.”

“The trip was very carefully choreographed from the media’s point of view,” Platt recalled. “Every morning and every evening, there was a telegenic event designed to be broadcast live to audiences in America, which had not seen anything about China for years.”

Professor Brigham’s Problems in U.S. Foreign Policy seminar, where Platt discussed U.S-China relations

While high-level talks about the U.S.-China relationship went on behind closed doors with Mao Zedong, First Lady Patricia Nixon—and occasionally, Kissinger and the president—was shown on American television visiting cultural attractions such as the Great Wall, the Ming Dynasty Tombs, and the Forbidden City, as well as hospitals and factories. Platt was there with his camera, too, and entertained the Vassar audience with his footage.

After Nixon’s visit, Platt stayed on in 1973 and 1974 to serve in the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing—the first such resident office in China in several decades and one he helped to establish. In that role, he would host several U.S. delegations, including the U.S. Olympic swim team and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first western orchestra to visit China since the communist government had seized power in 1949.

Platt argues that such “nuts and bolts” activities—along with trade, travel, immigration, legal issues, sports, and other activities overseen by the State Department—“became the relationship” with China and he said it was clear that these activities would come to have even “greater strategic value” than anyone in the Nixon administration could have imagined at the time. It paved the way to where we are today, he said.

“We now have a relationship [with China] that is so multifaceted. We send delegations of 200 people each year to engage in strategic dialogue,” he said. “And every day, 10,000 people get into airplanes and go in both directions between China and the United States, making movies, making investments, playing basketball…”

Sheila Maynard Platt, left, gives her take on international affairs—the ambassador’s spouse has served as consultant to the UN.

Still, Platt acknowledged a growing mistrust of China in the U.S. “People who think about policy and strategy are worried about where China and the U.S. are going. They worry that China’s growing so much in strength that it’s going to engulf us in some way,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is our relationship with China has helped China grow, and the fact that they have grown helps us. We’ve become so intertwined that it’s impossible to imagine the old Cold War confrontations taking place between us.”

To the question “Where do we go from here?” Platt said: “I think we need to continue to do our best to make this work. There’s a momentum here that cannot be denied, and there’s a natural security value in tactical trust.” He recalled a conversation with Alexander Haig, who had served as secretary of state during the Reagan administration. “We were discussing the benefits of collaboration versus confrontation, which is the classic argument we all have about where we go with China,” he told the audience. “And Haig said, ‘The safest place in the boxing ring is in a clinch.’ That is where we want to be, and I think that’s where we are now.”

The C. Mildred Thompson Lecture, sponsored by the History Department and the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, honors a Vassar alumna who went on to become a professor of history and dean at her alma mater.  

It was only one event during Platt’s weeklong visit to Vassar as the college’s first Ambassador-in-Residence. During the week, he also read from his 2010 memoir, China Boys: How U.S. Relations with the PRC Began and Grew; spoke to individual classes; met with history and Asian studies students and faculty; and advised students interested in careers in the Foreign Service.

—Elizabeth Randolph