News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

In "The Great Wager," Jane Perlez Connects the Dots from Nixon and Mao to Putin and Xi

| Mar. 09, 2022

As Russia's war on Ukraine continues and much of the world distances itself from Putin's violent attack on a democratic country, China's President Xi embraces Putin and his actions—a complete reversal of what former President Richard Nixon engineered with China's Chairman Mao 50 years ago. 

In The Great Wager, a new NPR-WBUR podcast series, Jane Perlez, Belfer Center Fellow and New York Times Pulitzer-prize winning foreign correspondent, provides us with a dramatic close-up experience of what happened after Nixon launched a plan in the early 1970s to open up relations with China as a way to keep the Soviet Union in check. Nixon’s relationship-building with Mao continues to reverberate today—if not in the same way Nixon planned.  

In a five-part documentary-style podcast, Perlez, the Times' China correspondent and bureau chief in Beijing from 2012 to 2019, joins with WBUR “Here and Now” host Scott Tong to peel back the curtain on Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972. We learn about off-the-books meetings, divulged military secrets, spies, subterfuge, and a never-before reported secret visit to the CIA headquarters where the Chinese were shown maps of where spy stations would be located in China.  

The series begins in 1969 as Nixon takes office and continues into the present time. Each episode follows a theme:

Episode 1, “Nixon’s Crazy Idea — President Richard Nixon wants to meet with China’s Communist dictator, Mao Zedong, and open up relations, surmising that a friendship with China will help keep the United States’ archrival, the Soviet Union, in check. The problem? The U.S. and China have had almost zero contact for two decades. 

Episode 2, Plots and Private Planes” — Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger make contact with China. But in the midst of the Cold War, they don’t want anyone to know. How will Henry Kissinger get to Beijing without alerting anyone…and what’s Frank Sinatra got to do with it? 

Episode 3, “Grip and Grin” — President Nixon is going to China. The news is public, and he’s getting credit for pulling off such an historic event. Now, he and his advisers have to work with the Chinese to forge a relationship between two very different countries. 

Episode 4, “Shared Secrets” — The relationship between China and the U.S. is off-and-running – and now the two countries are collaborating on secret, sensitive intelligence. This installment includes exclusive information about how Chinese and American intel officials agreed to work together against their common rival of many years. 

Episode 5, “The Break-Up — All of a sudden, it’s less clear if Nixon’s wager is paying off. After years of collaboration and mutual economic benefit, relations between China and the U.S. are at a low point. What does the start of this important relationship reveal about its next chapter? 

Listen and learn more about the series here

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:In "The Great Wager," Jane Perlez Connects the Dots from Nixon and Mao to Putin and Xi .” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 9, 2022.