In early 1972 then-President Nixon made an incredibly important trip to China. His was the first visit by an American president to the People's Republic of China since the Communist Party of China gained power in 1949. The trip laid the groundwork for improved relations between the two countries, and as a testament of goodwill China gifted the U.S. two giant pandas. The exchange, a trade for two American musk oxen, marked a resurgence of the longstanding Chinese political tradition of “panda diplomacy.”
The two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing,
were the first pandas ever given to the U.S.*See update. Since, symbolically, the pandas would belong to the whole country, Nixon wanted them to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The deal was cut in February, but the pandas weren't to be sent over until April. The reason? According to the transcript of a conversation between the President and a reporter (via the Washington Post), Nixon thought the pandas needed more time in their homeland to learn how to make little baby pandas.
Nixon: Yeah. Oh, yes! Now, as a matter of fact, let me tell you an interesting thing about—that you must know, you can only use on your own if you want, but not on comment. I was just talking to Bob Haldeman who talked to his Chinese hosts, and this question of mating is very interesting. These are—This is a male and a female.
Nixon: The problem with, uh—The problem, however, with pandas is that they don’t know how to mate. The only way they learn how is to watch other pandas mate. You see?
Nixon: And, so they’re keeping them there a little while—these are younger ones—
Noyes: I see.
Nixon: —to sort of learn, you know, how it’s done.
Noyes: Sure, learn the ropes—
Nixon: Now, if they don’t learn it they’ll get over here and nothing will happen, so I just thought you should just have your best reporter out there to see whether these pandas—
Noyes: Well, we certainly will—
Nixon: —have learned. So, now that I’ve given you the story of pandas let me let you get back to your more serious questions. [laughter]
The extra time paid off. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing went on to have five cubs, though unfortunately “none lived more than a few days,” says the Associated Press.
H/T Washington Post
*Update: The two pandas given to President Nixon were not the first political pandas given to the U.S. In 1941, Soong May-ling, wife of the President of the Republic of China, gave two pandas, Pan-dee and Pan-dah, to the Bronx Zoo, says China Times:
Pan-dee and Pan-dah were sent to the United States as gifts to the American people who had sent money, clothing, food and other materials to Chinese refugees through United China Relief, an organization founded in New York to support the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government.