George H.W. Bush in Mao’s China


With the death of George H.W. Bush, it is an opportune time to look back at his time as the top U.S. diplomat in Beijing in the immediate aftermath of Nixon’s 1972 groundbreaking visit to China.

Although the period of Bush’s presidency (1989-1993) has yet to hit the Foreign Relations of the United States volumes, a large amount of open-source material has been made available over the past decade with respect to his relationship with China.

For instance, the FRUS papers from 1973-1976 include ample material from the future president while he was serving as the top U.S. diplomat in Beijing.

Some of it comes from British archives, including the papers of Margaret Thatcher.

But as a comprehensive guide to Bush’s mindset and interactions with China for a sustained period of time, there is no real rival to the following source.

My own review of this book follows:

Jeffrey A. Engel, ed. The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. 544 pp.

The appearance of George H.W. Bush’s “China Diary” serves as a reminder that the story of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s has only begun to be told. Culled from the George Bush Presidential Library and shorn of a few redacted passages, the diary was published with the endorsement of the ex-President. It is a subjective and fragmentary record of Bush’s brief tenure, and, as a historical document, it hardly forces a fundamental reconsideration of Sino-US relations during the Ford administration. It is a useful source nevertheless that reveals much about its author, his personalized work with the Chinese, and the evolutions of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Along the way, various shades of tragedy are encountered: Bush is endemically isolated in Beijing, perceiving the decline of American power in Asia, left to ruminate amid a tiny circle of expatriates and his perceptive Chinese domestic help. But these tragic overtones will likely be overshadowed if and when the document is eventually translated and published in China (with heavy editing, naturally). Then, the diary will indeed be greeted with acclaim as another notch of validation in the master narrative of China’s rise.

Bush was a safe choice to head the U.S. Liaison Office (USLO) in Beijing, but his education in China policy had not come without bruises. As the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Bush had been forced to grapple at length with the Taiwan issue in 1971. […]

For the full text of my review of the George H.W. Bush China diary, click on the link:

Cathcart on George H.W. Bush China Diary, H-Diplo Roundtable Vol X, No. 18 (2009)

A few further data points on Republican policy on China in the 1970s and 80s having to do with Bush follow. A handful of links to the George H.W. Bush Library digital collection have, I assume, been redirected only temporarily to a more general home page for the Presidential Library which focuses on funeral planning, etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s