Piercing the bamboo curtain : tentative bridge building to China during the Johnson years
While a small flood of literature has ably demonstrated that the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970's was rooted in part in the evolution of U.S. attitudes and perceptions during the preceding decade, it has provided only a sketchy overview and has not adequately linked these critical developments to events which historians have hitherto taken to be a cause of deadlock between Washington and Beijing, namely the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution. Drawing on a wide array of recently declassified American archival sources, this study, the first full-length account of Lyndon Johnson's China record, traces the shifts in context at home and abroad that prompted tentative bridge building to the People's Republic. In assessing Johnson's role in the policymaking process, it also builds on recent works that offer a new perspective on his foreign policy leadership by looking "beyond Vietnam." Johnson's cautious reading of domestic sentiment and suspicions of Beijing's role in Vietnam certainly discouraged the administration from initiating any grand departures from the inherited line of containment and isolation, much to the dismay of several mid-level China hands pressing for new approaches. Yet Vietnam ironically created pressures for an accommodation of sorts between the two adversaries and encouraged American decision-makers who might not otherwise have been inclined to reassess long-standing strategy toward the mainland. Johnson's fear of Chinese intervention in the conflict and his attempts to mobilize public support for Vietnam by burnishing his peace credentials yielded symbolic and substantive alterations in China policy: a relaxation of the travel ban, the promotion of expanded contacts, and a shift toward conciliatory rhetoric. The outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 led to the deferment of further bridge building efforts. Johnson and his senior aides expressed persistent uncertainty over the direction of the mainland's turmoil and were increasingly distracted by Vietnam. Over the long term, however, China's internal upheaval set in motion a reappraisal of the country's political dynamic and threat potential. By late 1967, most China watchers concluded that revolutionary fervor had peaked on the mainland and that the regime's moderate elements, possibly inclined toward reconciliation with the outside world, had outmaneuvered hard-line Maoists. As official attitudes thawed, the attention of policymakers focused on what orientation a post-Mao regime might assume and whether or not the U.S. could facilitate this transition by further policy reform. In short, this period witnessed the establishment of many of the perceptual preconditions for the Sino-American rapprochement that unfolded during the Nixon years.