Blending statecraft and sport, table tennis matches between American and Chinese athletes set the stage for Nixon’s breakthrough with the People’s Republic
Thirty years ago: April 1972. The Cold War is entering its 26th year with no end in sight. In Vietnam, war still rages. On April 12, a Pan Am 707 lands in Detroit, Michigan, carrying the People's Republic of China's world champion table tennis team for a series of matches and tours in ten cities around the United States.
The era of Ping-Pong diplomacy had begun 12 months earlier when the American team—in Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championship—got a surprise invitation from their Chinese colleagues to visit the People's Republic. Time magazine called it "The ping heard round the world." And with good reason: no group of Americans had been invited to China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
Why had they been invited? The Chinese felt that by opening a door to the United States, they could put their mostly hostile neighbors on notice about a possible shift in alliances. The United States welcomed the opportunity; President Richard M. Nixon had written: "We simply cannot afford to leave China outside the family of nations."
Soon after the U.S. team's trip, Nixon, not wanting to lose momentum, secretly sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Peking to arrange a Presidential visit to China. Nixon's journey seven months later, in February 1972, would become one of the most important events in U.S. postwar history. "Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy," said Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. For Nixon, it was "the week that changed the world."
In February 2002, President George W. Bush, in his second trip to China, recalled the meeting that came out of Ping-Pong diplomacy, telling President Jiang Zemin: "Thirty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon showed the world that two vastly different governments could meet on the grounds of common interest and in a spirit of mutual respect."