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The Nixon-Deng Comparison

by Jeffery N. Wasserstrom on Apr 1, 1997

Jeffery N. Wasserstrom

Whenever a famous politician dies, obituary writers and other commentators immediately start comparing the departed figure to other powerful people. As far as I know, however, even though Deng Xiaoping received just this kind of treatment last month, no journalist thought of comparing him to Richard Nixon. This is unfortunate, since there are some striking and illuminating analogies to be drawn between the two, and not just because Nixon was the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China and Deng was the first top Chinese Communist leader to travel to Washington.

Consider, first of all, the paths that took the two men to the top. Both had his rise to prominence interrupted at key points. Nixon’s most famous setbacks were his to Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and his defeat by Pat Brown in a Californian gubernatorial race — the loss that inspired him to tell journalists that they wouldn’t have him to “kick around” any more. Deng, for his part, was purged several times during the Maoist period (1949-1976).  A related similarity between the two is that both demonstrated great skill at coming back from defeats of these sorts and reinventing themselves in the process.

Another thing the two men had in common, which is glossed over in discussions that stress the “pragmatic” nature of Deng and Nixon’s politics, is that each maintained a fairly consistent position when it came to the promise or threat of Marxism-Leninism. Nixon never wavered in believing that the Soviet Union was the major Communist state to be feared and a great menace to world peace. When he worked to improve U.S. relations with China, this was not a change of course.  Rather, it was precisely because he had such (pardon the pun) unimpeachable credentials as a Cold Warrior that he could get away with making overtures to Beijing, and it was precisely because he hated the Soviets so much that he wanted to play the China card against them.

Similarly, Deng’s embracing of economic reform while taking harsh steps against dissidents is not the contradiction that it seems at first, but rather an outgrowth of his attachment to a particular vision of nationalistic Leninism. Deng was convinced that the main order of business of the Communist Party was to strengthen China economically, through whatever techniques would do the trick. His credentials as a Leninist helped enable him to get away with experimenting with market reforms, but he never stopped insisting that, for the reforms to work and China to regain its proper place in the world, the country needed the kind of stability that only one-party rule could ensure. His Leninism and nationalism combined, as they had earlier in the case of Chiang Kai-shek (always a kind of Leninist, though not a Marxist, and someone who could be as harsh as Deng when faced with political opposition) to make it seem natural for him to be much more flexible in economic matters than in political ones.

The final parallels between Deng and Nixon have to do with their reputations and how they will be remembered. Had they died thirty years earlier, each would probably have been eulogized primarily as someone who had come close to but never reached the pinnacle of power. Had each died a bit later than that, say 1974 in Nixon’s case or 1990 in Deng’s, the main thrust of the obituaries, at least in the American press, would have been on the way a great mistake (Watergate and the June 4th Massacre, respectively) had blemished for all time the leader’s reputation. By living a bit longer, however, each came out ahead. Obituaries of the two leaders were such an evenhanded mixture of praise for accomplishments and criticism for failings that some pundits and authors of letters to the editor complained, in each case, that the mainstream American press ended up being much too kind to the two political figures.

There is a lesson in all this for the current occupant of the White House, who like both Deng and Nixon has a reputation for coming back from near and real defeats. If Bill Clinton is really as concerned about his posthumous reputation as Garry Trudeau has been suggesting of late, in Doonesbury strips that talk of the President’s concern with how the history books will treat him, he should keep in mind the advantages of dying at the right time. What historians of the future will make of Nixon and Deng remains up for grabs, of course, but if journalism is indeed the first draft of history, the obituaries they received suggest that the timing of their deaths has positioned each quite nicely for his move into the textbooks. The early martyrdom of J.F.K. is frequently cited as an example of how dying young can lead one to be seen positively, as someone who had great promise that could never be fulfilled. But now we also have Nixon and Deng as examples of the inverse point: namely, living a long time can allow memory of one’s mistakes to fade. If, as some commentators have suggested, Deng’s longevity can be ascribed in part to the serenity that playing world-class bridge brought to him, perhaps Clinton should start spending less time on the golf course and more time playing cards.


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).