On this day in 1971, President Richard Nixon, to the complete surprise of the American public, announced that he would be visiting communist China in 1972. It was an abrupt, about-face departure from a stance the vehemently anti-communist Nixon had campaigned upon. But the lost lives and political costs of the Vietnam war—as well as the insistent advice of Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger—led Nixon away from his intransigence and into a momentous meeting that would shape the course of American diplomacy and international affairs for decades.
My grandfather played a very important role in that story.
Born in Jaora, India, and married to the daughter of a local Nawaab—the ruler of what were then referred to as princely states, and a word fraught with political connotations regarding the beneficence of the British Empire—my grandfather was one of the first three members of Pakistan’s foreign service following Partition. His entry into the world of politics followed combat service in World War II, during which he was stationed in Indonesia and Malaysia. He possessed a deep and abiding belief in the concept of Pakistan and was continuously disappointed by the radicalization and rampant corruption of the country he loved bitterly until his death.
At the time of Nixon’s visit, however, he had not yet grown disillusioned with his country’s inability to hold itself to the high standards he set for it, and was serving as Foreign Secretary. He would later serve as ambassador to the U.S. during both the Nixon and Carter administrations. Pakistan had managed to retain good relations with both China and the United States, and acted as an intermediary between the two for improved relations upon Nixon’s request. At the time, my grandfather, who had served as ambassador to China during the cultural revolution and developed a personal relationship with Premier Zhou Enlai, was instructed to act as a conduit between Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong. As a result, a tenuous, secret alliance eventually led to the historic visit dubbed by Nixon, “the week that changed the world.” PBS even made a special about it.
That visit would never have occurred without a bit of subterfuge, and a story that has since become Khan family legend. A week before Nixon’s announcement of his visit, Kissinger was visiting Pakistan, where he suddenly “fell ill” and retreated to a mountain compound to recuperate. In reality, at an ungodly hour of the night, as part of a plan not divulged even to Nixon’s cabinet members, my grandfather secretly shuttled Kissinger to the airport for a short trip to China—but not before searching for some time for his keys, which lay under the pillow of my sleeping uncle who had been using the car for who knows what mischief earlier in the evening. To think the history of U.S. diplomatic ties swung on a keyring.
It’s hard not to think of Nixon’s trip this week, and my sleepy uncle and anxious grandfather’s roles, as we conclude a nearly two-year negotiation with Iran, and re-open embassies in Cuba. Like Nixon, Obama has been widely criticized for his dedication to open dialogues with adversaries and antagonists. But like Nixon’s visit to China, Obama’s dedication to the Iran nuclear agreement, and his push for renewed relations with our island neighbor, mark the kind of commitment and hard work that’s an absolute necessity if we are to avoid quagmires like Iraq and Afghanistan in the future. Discussion is not weakness, it is conviction and belief in a better way than war. And without the tireless and sometimes frantic effort of diplomats and ambassadors like my grandfather—and the hundreds of American, Iranian, Cuban, and other negotiators who are forging agreements to stop conflict—its hard to think how much worse the world would be.
But one can imagine. I never had a chance to see the Pakistan my grandfather envisioned. Although my frequent visits were filled with joyous family reunions and, before the war, vacations in the unparalleled beauty of the Hindu Kush, my very white mother and Christian upbringing were a barrier that left me feeling self-consciously American. It wasn’t until after my grandfather’s death that I read the book he’d published on diplomacy and his time in the foreign service. What a comforting thought that Pakistan, too, might someday reap the benefit of my diplomatic heritage some day. Provided someone can find the car keys.
[Top photo courtesy of AP. Second photo shows Amb. Sultan M. Khan, Begum Abeda Sultan and Premier Zhou Enlai and guests. Third photo shows Amb. Sultan M. Khan shaking hands with President Richard Nixon as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger looks on.]