The phrase "Nixon goes to China", "Nixon to China", or "Nixon in China" is a historical reference to United States US President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China, where he met with Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. The metaphor is often expressed as the observation "Only Nixon could go to China" or "It took Nixon to go to China".
As a political metaphor, it refers to the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among their supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if they had been taken by someone without those credentials. Although the example is that of a hardliner taking steps toward peace with a traditional enemy, which is the most common application of the metaphor, it could also be applied to a reputedly-cautious diplomat defying expectations by taking military action or a political leader reforming aspects of the political system of which they have been strong supporters.
Nixon's visit to China was of particular significance because it marked the beginning of a process of thawing in Chinese-American relations. Both countries had been estranged for many years since the U.S. was anti-communist and refused to recognize its government but maintained relations with the anticommunist Republic of China in Taiwan. Also, China had viewed the United States as its top enemy. Nixon, having had an undisputed reputation of being a staunch anticommunist, was largely immune to any criticism of being "soft on communism" by figures on the right wing in US politics.
The phrase had originated before Nixon's actual visit to China. An early use of the phrase is found in a December 1971 U.S. News & World Report interview with US Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield in a section summary lead that read, "'Only a 'Nixon' Could Go to China." The actual quote from Mansfield, which he prefaces by noting he had heard it said earlier, was "Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it."
In popular culture
The expression came in the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in which "only Nixon could go to China" is quoted by Spock as "an old Vulcan proverb." In the context of the film, itself an allegory of thawing relations between the US and the former Soviet Union, it is given as a reason why James T. Kirk, a character with a history of armed conflict with the Klingons and a personal enmity for them after his son's death, should escort their chancellor to Earth for peace negotiations with the Federation.
Similar historical events
- The author and historian Zachary Karabell compared US President Chester Arthur reforming the civil service system in the early 1880s to Nixon going to China since Arthur himself had been a product of the spoils system and helped get rid of it by the Pendleton Act.
- The decision of US President Dwight Eisenhower, a former World War II general, to confront the military-industrial complex.
- French President Charles de Gaulle's decision to end the Algerian War, withdraw from Algeria, and give Algeria its independence in 1962 has sometimes been described as a Nixon-to-China moment since de Gaulle's reputation and prestige as a French war hero in World War II helped win support for Algerian independence from most of the French public.
- US President Lyndon Johnson (a southerner from Texas) pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the US Congress. That is generally considered to be an act of political courage, as Johnson expected correctly that pushing it and other civil rights legislation would damage him and his Democratic Party with white southern voters.
- In Canada, a notable aspect of the 1985 decision of the Ontario government to extend full funding to Catholic schools was that the ruling Progressive Conservatives had been regarded as articulating the viewpoint of rural Protestants, who were often hostile to Roman Catholicism, especially on issues related to education. In contrast to Nixon's China policy, however, the decision led to political damage for the Progressive Conservatives, who were reduced to a minority government in the subsequent election, partly as a result of having alienated their Protestant base, despite the other political parties also backing the move.
- The actions of Israeli Likud Prime Ministers Menachem Begin (in giving up the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt in 1979) and Ariel Sharon (in withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005) are sometimes considered Nixon-to-China moments.
- US President Bill Clinton, a member of the traditionally pro-welfare Democratic Party, in 1996 signed legislation reforming the welfare system. 
- Jim Hoagland for the Eugene Register-Guard compared US President George W. Bush's embrace of multilateralism on Iraq in late 2002 as a Nixon-to-China moment. Some people likewise considered Bush's nuclear deals with North Korea, which he declared to be part of the axis of evil in 2002, in 2007 and with India in 2008 to be Nixon-to-China moments.
- U.S. President Barack Obama embracing Social Security reform in 2011.
- The decision of US Chief Justice John Roberts to agree with the liberal wing of the Supreme Court of the United States to uphold the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012). Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called Roberts's decision a "Nixon-to-China" moment.
- U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, becoming the first U.S. President to meet with any North Korean head of state while in office since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Considered Trump's "Nixon-to-China" moment.
- ^ Naím, Moisés (September 1, 2003). "Berlusconi Goes to China". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on April 8, 2005. Retrieved September 8, 2011.
- ^ "A Size-Up of President Nixon: Interview with Mike Mansfield, Senate Democratic Leader". U.S. News & World Report. December 6, 1971. p. 61.
- ^ The quote appears at 4:10 in this 4:59 clip from You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rW9WGibEF04.
- ^ Erdmann, Terry J. (September 23, 2008). Star Trek 101: A Practical Guide to Who, What, Where, and Why. Simon and Schuster. p. 230. ISBN 978-1-4391-1787-3.
- ^ Laurie Mercier (2009). Social History of the United States: The 1970s. ABC-CLIO. p. 372. ISBN 978-1-85109-923-8.
- ^ The Presidents- Andrew Johnson to Arthur 1865–1885. History Channel. 2005. Event occurs at 42:00–42:30. Retrieved December 30, 2012.
- ^ Karabell, Zachary (2004). Chester Alan Arthur. The American Presidents Series. New York: Times Books. p. 10 – via Internet Archive.
- ^ a b c Elkin, Larry M. (September 12, 2011). "On Social Security, A Nixon-To-China Moment". Wall Street Pit.
- ^ Girling, J. L. S. (1971). "Nixon's "Algeria"-Doctrine and Disengagement in Indochina". Pacific Affairs. 44 (4): 527–544. doi:10.2307/2756610. JSTOR 2756610.
- ^ Humes, James C. (October 23, 1998). Nixon's Ten Commandments of Leadership and Negotiation: His Guiding ... - James C. Humes - Google Books. ISBN 9780684848167. Retrieved August 17, 2019.
- ^ Ladley, Eric (August 2002). Nixon's China Trip - Eric Ladley - Google Books. ISBN 9780595239443. Retrieved August 17, 2019.
- ^ Greenway, HDS (April 28, 2009). "Hitting the 'Reset' Button". GlobalPost.
- ^ Sunstein, Cass R. (October 8, 2012). "In Praise of Turncoats, Richard Nixon to John Roberts". Bloomberg.
- ^ Hoagland, Jim (September 14, 2002). "Bush Delivers on All Counts in Speech, Now It's Up to UN". Eugene Register-Guard – via Google News.
- ^ Chapman, Steve (February 17, 2007). "George W. Bush's 'Nixon to China' Moment". National Ledger.
- ^ "American's Nuclear Deal with India: Time to Decide". The Economist. August 28, 2008. Retrieved August 30, 2008.
- ^ Krauthammer, Charles (June 28, 2012). "Why Roberts Did It". The Washington Post.
- ^ Freedman, Lawrence (April 30, 2018). "Trump-Goes-to-Korea Is the New Nixon-Goes-to-China". Foreign Policy.