A Q&A with author Jeffrey A. Engel
How did you discover the China Diary?
By happy circumstance. I'd just completed my first book, Cold War at 30,000 Feet: The Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy (Harvard, 2007), and was in the process of gearing up for my next book, a study of American diplomatic rhetoric and war. I was interested in doing something different before diving full-bore into that second work, however, and particularly interested in doing something on Bush or at least using the resources of the Bush Presidential Library, which is located only a few hundred yards from my office. There is an old saying among historians that one should always "drop ones buckets where you are," which I first heard the Princeton historian Nell Painter use to describe why it was that we should use the sources that surround us before we go searching for more exotic and potentially less interesting materials. I mentioned this desire to do something on Bush and perhaps the end of the Cold War to my department head, Professor Charles Hermann, and he casually mentioned that "you know, there is a diary from Bush's time in China that you might find interesting." The rest, as they say, is history. I went to the library, read the diary, and immediately realized how unique and fascinating it was, with literally nothing that would compare in the annals of Presidential history (as few Presidents wrote diaries before entering office); and also because very little existed in current scholarship on Sino-American relations in the confusing window between Nixon's famous visit in 1972 and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1979. This diary offered a window into both the Presidency, and that important though understudied moment in history.
What did former President Bush say when you told him about the book idea?
He was hesitant to be sure. First, I was not the first researcher to suggest publishing his diary, and I think he (and any ex-President) is naturally hesitant to lend his name to all the projects that must come across his desk, especially when the matter of his personal history and legacy are at stake. Moreover, Bush is by nature a very modest man, and was convinced--indeed, I believe he remains convinced despite my protestations to the contrary--that no one would possibly be interested in the ramblings of a single American diplomat from nearly forty years ago. It is a testament to his humble nature that he simply cannot conceive of the way others find him, and his career, fascinating and full of lessons. So he initially demurred at publishing the diary, but agreed (with some aid from the Dean of the Bush School) to grant me an interview in order to aid my own research into the diary. That one interview led to another, then another, and perhaps eighteen months later when I broached the idea of publishing the book again--with the important requirement on my part that we only publish with an academic press of the highest scholarly integrity--he finally agreed.
Did you find anything shocking or surprising in the diary?
I remain surprised with the humble self-portrait Bush paints in the diary. Even though we read his own words in the Diary--and as the old saying goes, no one appears a dullard in his own memorandum of conversation--Bush comes across in the Diary is genuinely interested in the opinions of others; as genuinely interested in people; and as genuinely unimpressed with himself. He rarely spoke ill of others in the diary--with Henry Kissinger being a notable exception--and was always quick to give others credit for their good work, good intentions, and good ideas. What is most shocking is that way Bush framed the Vietnam War. Saigon fell when he was in China, and the collapse of the American-supported regime in the South gave Bush time to consider the war as a whole. And he came away convinced it had been a poor idea, though one whose ramifications would remain with American policymakers for years. The way Bush understood the Vietnam War and its aftermath, I believe, directly contributed to his principled stand against Saddam Hussein's assault on Kuwait during his own Presidency. He thought the real damage to American policy and credibility came in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, when Washington's Asian allies all flocked, as he saw it, to reinvigorate relations with Beijing, the conflict's real victor. He fought the Gulf War, I argue, because he feared a similar domino effect against American interests if Washington did not respond to Baghdad's effort to reorient Gulf alignments in 1990. The words he used to describe Saigon's fall were the same he used when describing Kuwait a generation later; and the logic of American policy during and after the difficult years of 1975 directly informed his own presidency.
What were his overall thoughts about the Chinese culture and politics?
This is a complicated question. On the one hand, Bush left China perhaps more fascinated by the people and their country than when he arrived. That fascination remains to this day, and the Diary clearly shows how impressed he became with Chinese society and the future potential of this vast land the longer he lived and worked in Beijing. On the other hand, the longer he had to deal with China's leadership during this volatile period in their own history, the more frustrated he became. Bush went to Beijing intent upon personalizing Sino-American relations. He thought the bilateral relationship stalled following the glow of Nixon's historic visit, and he thought he could reinvigorate relations by meeting China's next generation of leader, and thus by moving the relationship forward on the basis of mutual trust and friendship. He was thwarted in this effort at every turn. The Chinese by and large refused his invitations; they refused to conduct meaningful discussions with him; and they refused to meet him half-way in his effort to personalize their complex diplomatic relationship. So Bush found China fascinating and vibrant; but he also left Beijing a more cautious and more skeptical observer of the Chinese political system than when he arrived.
To what extent did Bush's experiences in China affect his Presidency and foreign policy?
As I've mentioned, Bush's reaction to the Vietnam War directly affected his Gulf War policies. So too did his anger at Chinese diplomatic rhetoric--which was publicly violent yet quiet and friendly behind the scenes--reinforce his desire to conduct his own diplomacy with an open candor in which little was hidden. He always believed in "personal diplomacy," that being his belief that nations would deal better with each other if their leaders knew and respected each other. He left Beijing convinced this to be true, yet his inability to forge the kind of trusting relationships with China that he desired made him simultaneously realize the limits of this personal approach. Still, Bush did meet Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders during his tenure in Beijing, and he remains adamant to this day that his reaction to the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989 would have been far different had he not personally known Deng, and had he not personally known what Deng was capable of, including his capacity for keeping his word. Bush's entire diplomatic style was forged and refined while in Beijing: his penchant for personal diplomacy; his refusal to mix harsh rhetoric into the complex mix if international relations, a trait he revealed in spades by his refusal to gloat or to publicly celebrate at the end of the Cold War and during the Soviet Union's demise, lest, he feared, the Russian people remember that insult and betrayal; by his principled stance in the first Gulf War which he interpreted through the lens of the Vietnam War; and lastly and most clearly by his quiet yet prudent personal response to Tiananmen. I think it no exaggeration that the Bush Presidency, which we understand today as one of international leadership and diplomatic prudence, was to no small extent made in China.
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File created: 5/1/2008