Only Nixon Could Go to China: Republicans’ Hypocrisy Towards President Obama’s Cuba Trip

| March 22, 2016

cuba obama

By Ilysa Fuchs | Modern Liberals

In 1968, following his landslide election* Richard Nixon famously stated:

“There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”

Nixon of course was referring to communist China, a country that the United States had been at odds with ever since the Chinese Revolution in 1949, when the Communist Party leader Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China, leading the United States to suspend diplomatic ties with the country for nearly two decades. This was not a new idea for Richard Nixon. In fact, in 1967, following Nixon’s fifth trip to Asia, he publish a well circulated article in Foreign Affairs wherein he argued that “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.”

Subsequently, following his Foreign Affairs article and his 1968 pronouncement, Nixon and his then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, worked aggressively to begin the process of normalizing relations with China in an effort to restore diplomatic relations between the countries. Thereafter, Kissinger visited China twice (both in 1971 – once in secret) and on July 15, 1971, President Nixon announced that he would visit the People’s Republic of China. Finally, in February of 1972, Nixon did just that, becoming the first president to visit the country since the 49′ Revolution. Of course, at the time (and even still today in many conservative circles) Nixon was hailed as hero and praised for “opening up China;” the phrase “Nixon in China” became a mainstay.

More importantly, while there were certainly detractors in conservative media and the Republican party (for example, a group of Republican senators and congressmen broke off relations with the White House following the trip) the response from Nixon’s conservative counterparts and conservative Americans was generally positive.

Many Republicans praised Nixon as being a wise international statesmanship in a time when, like today, the Republican party was torn between “interventionism” and “isolationism. Republican Senator and Senate minority leader Hugh Scott went so far as to claim that Nixon’s China initiative made the world a safer place and exalted Nixon’s initiative as a “relief.”

Fast forward to 2016.

On February 18, 2016, President Obama announced via Twitter that he would travel to Cuba in an attempt to normalize relations with the country and like Nixon in China, when President Obama touched down in Havana on March 20, 2016, he became the first sitting American president to step foot on the island since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Not surprisingly, the President’s announcement infuriated a majority of Republicans (though several moderate Republicans joined him on the trip) and was met with immediate opposition from conservatives throughout the country. Jeb Bush called the trip “appalling,” Marco Rubio called it a “dangerous idea,” Ted Cruz accused the President “alienat[ing] and abandon[ing] our friends and allies,” and scores of Republican congressional leaders announced that they would not only refuse to formally lift the embargo, but that they would also pledge to block the President’s nomination of an ambassador to Cuba.

The reactions of the Republican party shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone on the left, but in the context of “Nixon in China” they are hypocritical and Republicans deserve to be called out for their hypocrisy. Now, it should be noted that there are significant differences between the situation in 1968 and today. For example, Nixon’s trip to China was largely seen as a rebuke to the USSR and a time when the Soviets’ relationship with China was on the rocks and China is a much larger country than Cuba. However, the core issue for Republicans remains largely the same – that the U.S. shouldn’t have diplomatic relations with a communist country that thwarts free speech and commits human rights abuses.

The problem with that position is that China, to this very day, is a communist country that thwarts free speech and commits human rights abuses, yet the United States HAS A DIPLOMATIC RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINA, a relationship that you don’t see many Republicans rejecting. And yes, for the sake of balance, Republicans do have issues with China for other reasons, but overall they have been relatively silent when it comes to the very issues they are chiding the President about with respect to Cuba.

Put simply, President Obama is literally having his “Nixon in China” moment with Cuba and despite the similarities between the two trips, the response from Republicans could not be further from their response to Nixon’s historical visit. They are literally looking at the same side of the same penny and yet they are responding as if they were looking at a nickel.

Following Nixon’s trip, Democratic Senate leader, Mike Mansfield famously declared:

“Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it.”

It was this statement which lead to the coining of the phrase “only Nixon could go to China.” Unfortunately, it seems as though that is still true today – because Republicans are hypocrites that ignore history for the sake of petty partisan politics.

*While the popular vote was close – Nixon won 31.8%, Humphrey won 31.3%, and Wallace won 13.5% – Nixon’s Electoral College margin was substantial, 301 to 191 to 46.

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