What’s Cooking Wednesdays: Dinner Diplomacy Thaws the Cold War

Today’s post comes from Gregory Marose, an intern in the National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications.

President Nixon with Premier Chou En-lai, courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library (2/25/1972)

Sometimes sharing a good meal is the best way to resolve the differences you may have with another. For the United States and China, this strategy helped normalize relations during the peak of the Cold War.

Today, the U.S. and China share a public relationship, but after Mao Tse-tung’s Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China, the two countries severed all diplomatic communication for more than two decades. Relations between the two powers did not reopen until President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to mainland China in 1972.

The first evening of the trip, Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai hosted an elaborate banquet in honor of President Nixon in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. The dinner, which was broadcast live around the globe, consisted of both of customary and exotic Chinese dishes.

President Nixon looks out over the vista seen from the Great Wall of China, courtesy of the Nixon Library

In an effort to accommodate the President and his party, chefs prepared familiar items like Chinese sausage, shrimp, roast pork, roast duck with pineapple, and vegetable slices. The menu also included native cuisine like shark’s fin soup, black mushrooms with mustard greens, and spongy bamboo shoots. President Nixon skillfully used chopsticks to sample each dish served to him, maintaining proper Chinese etiquette.

The main beverages served at the banquet were boiled water, orange juice, wine, and, of course, mao-tai. Photographs of Nixon and Chou En-lai toasting each other with this staple Chinese liquor quickly appeared on newspapers all across the world, symbolizing a new day in relations between the two countries.

Perhaps the banquet was summed up best by a National Security Council staffer, John Holdridge, who noted that “Aided only in part by the mao-tai, the atmosphere in the Great Hall was electric. Surely everyone there, and every TV watcher, must have sensed that something new and great was being created.”

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