‘Kissinger on Kissinger:’ An Interview with Winston Lord

By Zhang Juan, US-China Perception Monitor
October, 2019

The following transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

Zhang Juan: The full title of your book is Kissinger on Kissinger: Reflections on Diplomacy, Grand Strategy, and Leadership. Could you share your thoughts as to why the period of the late 60s and early 70s stand out as a period of successful grand strategy?

LORD: When Nixon and Kissinger took office, they faced a very difficult situation abroad and at home. It took a grand strategy to emerge from these situations and to establish successful foreign policy overseas. We were in a tense relationship with the Soviet Union, we had no relationship with China, and we were bogged down in a very lengthy war [in Vietnam].

Furthermore, at home, there were protests, riots, and assassinations due to the unpopularity of the war, and in order to show that American diplomacy could still be effective, Nixon and Kissinger crafted a strategy which sought to open up China. In doing so, this grand strategy would improve relations with both China and the Soviet Union such that it would pressure the North Vietnamese, who received aid from these countries, to negotiate seriously for a peace settlement.

The grand strategy worked very well, and, after a couple years, the United States reached a peace settlement with the North Vietnamese. This showed that American diplomacy was not hamstrung by the war and other problems, that we could be active on the world stage, and it also improved the morale of the American people. They could see that we were opening up a huge country, even though we had ambiguously withdrawn from a small part of Southeast Asia.

Zhang Juan: You once mentioned that opening to China was a classic win-win. If the U.S. had not first initiated the process, do you think Mao would have approached the Americans for reconciliation?

LORD: We were not certain what Mao Zedong’s approach would be. After all, China and America had fought in the Korean War and had not been in touch for 22 years. They were enemies, but when we saw the increasing tensions between Moscow and Beijing, particularly due to the border clashes in 1969, we thought that China might be interested in dealing with us to balance the threat from the Soviet Union.

China was also isolated diplomatically because of the Cultural Revolution, and we thought that China might be interested in opening up to the United States because it could lead them into United Nations membership, and subsequently allow them to expand relations with other countries in Asia and Europe.

As a result, we thought China had the incentive to deal with us, but we could not be sure, so that’s why Nixon sent Kissinger and myself to China in July of 1971 to make sure there was sufficient common interest in new relations to justify a Presidential visit the next year.

Zhang Juan: You attended the Mao-Nixon meeting in February of 1972. Besides you, Richard Nixon, Mao Zedong, Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, and two well-known Chinese translators were in attendance. This is quite an interesting story. Could you explain to readers how did you, a young diplomat in his early 30s, end up sitting in that meeting while the Secretary of State was not?

LORD: First of all, President Nixon and Kissinger dominated foreign policy from the White House, and the Secretary of State was generally not involved heavily in key issues, such as the opening to China. At that time, I was the special assistant to Kissinger, working on many issues, one of which was the opening. I was with Kissinger on the secret trip in July of 1971, and I was responsible for assembling the briefing books for Kissinger shortly before his arrival in China.

I was also the key aid to Kissinger on China. When Mao invited Nixon for the meeting, Nixon asked Kissinger to go with him, but did not invite the Secretary of State. In turn, Kissinger wanted me at the meeting because of my involvement in early meetings and to take notes. In fact, at the end of the meeting, Nixon told Zhou Enlai that I should be omitted from any public notices and pictures of the meeting, and to show only Nixon and Kissinger; this was to save the Secretary of State from further embarrassment. It was one thing for the Secretary of State to not be there when the National Security Advisor was there, but to have a third person, someone in his early 30s like me, would have been even more embarrassing.

Zhang Juan: During the meetings, what was your impression of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai?

LORD: My impression of Mao Zedong was that he was a very powerful man. We knew that he was responsible for many horrible things in China, but it was in our national interest to open up a new relationship. At that time, he was already not in good health, so our meeting lasted only an hour, but in the course of the meeting, he made several allusions and brief refences to key issues that outlined the Chinese strategy to which Zhou Enlai, in subsequent days, would elaborate on. At first, we were puzzled why Mao did not wish to engage in more substantive exchanges, but it was evident he was putting Zhou in charge of the detailed negotiations. Above all, even early after meeting with the Nixon, Mao was telling his people and the world that he considered this a successful visit already.

Mao was a complete contrast to Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou was a very elegant man and spoke at considerable length as opposed to Mao’s brief sentences. Zhou was extremely well informed on history and philosophy, and he knew his brief for the meetings extremely well, speaking without notes. He had great charm and charisma, and Kissinger said that Zhou was the most impressive diplomat that he had ever met. One interesting note is that, in the meetings with Mao, Zhou was always there, but always very deferential to Mao. Zhou made it very clear he was yielding to Mao to dominate these discussions. Zhou was an impressive leader, yet he was clearly a subordinate in the meetings.

Zhang Juan: President Carter established formal diplomatic relations with China. Did you see the normalization process as inevitable at that time or can normalization be attributed to President Carter’s strong personal push, much like President Nixon’s in 1972?

LORD: President Carter’s move was not as bold as President Nixon’s move to open up China in the early 1970s, but it still took considerable leadership and courage by President Carter to make the relationship official because it meant switching our diplomatic relations from Taiwan, who had been our ally for many years, to China.

This change was not inevitable. There were many people in the United States who opposed this move. President Carter made sure that we did not abandon Taiwan, however, so we maintained arms sales and unofficial political and economic relations. Congress also passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which was necessary to Taiwanese security and to continue unofficial contacts. Overall, this was greeted positively in the United States despite the pain we felt from putting Taiwan in an awkward position.

Zhang Juan: According to the book, one of the biggest concerns regarding opening to China was the possible Soviet reaction. Remarkably, the Soviet Union did not choose confrontation, and instead sped up U.S.-Soviet negotiations. Today, considering that the current U.S.-China relationship is not in good shape, some people say that this is pushing China back into Russian orbit. What is your take on these great power relationships today?

LORD: In recent years, China and Russia have become closer, but I believe it’s a friendship of convenience, not a strategic alignment. Both Moscow and Beijing want to oppose American dominance, both don’t want other countries interfering in their domestic political systems, and both have some limited convergence of interests over foreign policy, such as with regards to the Iran deal.

Their trade relationship is modest but has grown to $100 billion dollars. China welcomes Russian arms, and will someday need access to Russian water and energy, which are increasingly important issues for China. For all of these reasons, the two nations frequently vote together in the United Nations and conduct some military cooperation, but there are too many contradictions for a proper strategic realignment. Due to a history of suspicion, border disputes in Siberia, conflicting interests in central Asia, and the need for trade with the United States, Europe, and the rest of Asia, they cannot afford to become hostile with the rest of the world.

Zhang Juan: When I read the book, what struck me most is that the entire process was undergone in a clandestine manner. This is a huge difference compared to President Trump’s approach to foreign policy on Twitter. Do you have any thought on this?

LORD: Well, there was a particular need in the China opening and the Vietnam negotiations to have some secrecy so that we could have candid discussions and ensure there was a certain amount of agreement before we went public with our initiatives. Those aspects of Nixon’s foreign policy reflected a much more careful, strategic approach towards foreign policy than we see today.

Today is completely different. Nixon and Kissinger were more strategic than any other administration, but other administrations also had a much more careful process than we have now. Trump acts by instinct on Twitter, and he often makes quick decisions without consulting his advisors, and he often acts against their view without careful planning or preparation.

We need a more measured approach. We need a strategy; this is not changing our views all the time based off the President’s self-interest as opposed to national interest.

Zhang Juan: Throughout our interview, you keep referring to grand strategy. How do you see the U.S. foreign policy under the Trump era? What are the elements of a strong U.S. foreign policy?

Lord: There are three main elements that any administration needs for successful foreign policy towards not only Asia, but the world. And this is particularly true of our China policy.

First, we need to be strong at home. We cannot be in these constant bitter fights between the left and the right. We need to invest in our future so that we can be more competitive with China. We ought to be cooperating on legislation that invests in advanced science and technology to better compete with China, all of which is good for America and also makes us strong as a nation and as a political system.

Second, we must work with our friends and our allies. We have a great advantage over China in this regard, but the current administration is picking fights with our allies, such as through trade disputes. If President Trump was cooperating with our allies over China, he would have greater leverage. This involves the promotion of democracy and human rights. Instead, the President is facing China alone.

Third, we must supplement our own leadership with international cooperation and multilateral institutions. America needs to galvanize and assemble coalitions to solve problems. The President has destroyed our ability to work multilaterally. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was good economically for American business and jobs, and would also have put pressure on China to deal fairly on trade. He also pulled out of the Iran deal which was constraining the Iran nuclear program. Above all, he pulled out of the Paris agreement and left leadership on climate to China, ending a key area of U.S.-China cooperation in this respect.

These are the three key elements of effective foreign policy, not just towards Asia, but towards the world. President Trump is making huge mistakes.

Zhang Juan: A friend of mine, Professor Wang Hongjie at Georgia Southern University, is writing a book examining U.S-China relations through the lens of cuisine culture. He’d like to confirm if you have previously said: “If I have one meal left in the world, I would choose to eat Peking Duck.” Did you actually say these words? He’s also wondering the role of Chinese cuisine culture in U.S.-China relations. Did Chinese cuisine play any role in the opening policy to China?  Does it play a role in current U.S.-China relations?

Lord: On the first question, I absolutely did say that. If I had only one meal left, I wish it were Peking Duck. It’s my favorite dish of all, so that is a true statement.

Secondly, cuisine did not play a role in our opening. There is no question that during the Kissinger and Nixon trips that the food was delicious, and was certainly involved in welcoming us and being a good host, but it was not crucial in any diplomatic negotiation. National interests are what counts, it made the interaction more pleasant, but had nothing to do with the motivations of either side.

With regards to current relations, the quick answer is no. Despite the difficult relationship we now have as countries, there is still great affection in America for Chinese people, culture, and cuisine. I don’t know how the Chinese feel about American food [laughs]. Chinese cuisine is very pleasant for personal interaction, but has nothing to do with our bilateral relationship one way or another.

Zhang Juan: You devoted this book to your wife Mrs. Bette Bao Lord. From my research prior to this interview, I know you two have quite a background. How does she influence you in terms of your knowledge of Chinese culture and the country in general?

Lord: I would first like to mention to readers that the book is about Henry Kissinger, and it’s his first and only oral history. It is coming out next year in a Chinese edition, from Shanghai I believe, from where my wife was born. I hope that our Chinese friends will buy and enjoy the book when it comes out.

My wife has had a profound influence on me. We’ve had a wonderful marriage of 56 years. I met her in graduate school, and ever since I met her, I’ve learned a great deal about China and its culture. I benefited from learning from her as she retained her Chinese cultural roots and attitudes towards various subjects while also having become an American. In my view, she represents the best of both cultures.

She and her family, including her two parents who have passed away, and her two sisters, have enriched my life with Chinese culture, not to mention Chinese cuisine as her mother was a terrific cook. I learned a great deal even before I got involved directly in U.S.-China relations, so all of this was very helpful when I became especially involved in the opening of China.

When I served as ambassador in the late 1980s, she was especially helpful in sometimes acting as my interpreter as we traveled around China because I don’t speak fluent Chinese. She was always informing me of different views and what they meant in terms of Chinese history, culture, and politics. She was also a writer, dancer, and cultural leader, and was able to interact with many Chinese from the cultural and academic and literary words, all of whom enriched our experience as ambassador and wife in China.

She has been very central not only to my personal life, but also to my professional life.

Thank you to Michael B. Cerny, an intern with The China Program at Carter Center, for transcribing and editing this interview.