January 24, 2011 —
"Nixon asked Kissinger to go with him and Kissinger, in turn and to my eternal gratitude, asked me to accompany him."
So began U.S. diplomat Winston Lord’s nearly four-decade long relationship with China. Lord had a front-row seat to the historic 1972 meeting between Nixon and Mao that presaged the opening of U.S.-China relations, the subject of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China. The opera has its Met premiere, conducted by Adams, on February 2.
“Soon after we arrived in China, Zhou Enlai came back to our guesthouse within an hour or two after we settled there, and said that Chairman Mao wanted to see President Nixon right away,” recalls Lord. “This was a surprise. We thought that this would happen toward the end of the trip. But it was important because it showed that Mao was signaling to his own people and his own political leaders that he was approving of this dramatic opening right from the start.” Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People's Republic of China and one of Mao's closest confidants.
Today, U.S.-China relations hinge on economic and trade ties, regional cooperation, the issues of weapons proliferation, climate change and terrorism, as well as student and cultural exchanges. But it was not long ago that the two countries had almost no contact. “This was a dramatic event,” Lord said. “It’s useful for the people who were too young at the time to learn more about it, and to remind those who are older just how far we have come in the last four decades.”
On the heels of a more recent presidential visit—Chinese president Hu Jintao in America—listen in to selections from an exclusive interview with Lord as he recalls his initial impressions of China and meeting Mao for the first time. “The relationship we have today,” Lord added, “is one we could not have imagined.”
From 1969 to 1973, Winston Lord served as an aide to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Lord later became the State Department’s top policy adviser on China (1973 to 1977), the United States Ambassador to China (1985 to1989), and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during President Clinton’s first term.