Nixon in China: Audiovisual Records from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Today’s post was written by Ryan Pettigrew. Ryan is an AV Archivist at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

On February 21, 1972, President Richard Nixon, First Lady Pat Nixon, a cadre of political advisors and administrative staff, as well as select members of the American press corps arrived in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for a week-long visit.

The Spirit of '76 (Air Force One) arriving at the Capital airport near Peking, China. President Nixon and Pat Nixon being greeted by Premier Chou En-Lai and other Chinese officials. A military band playing at the arrival ceremony.
President Nixon shaking hands with Premier Chou En-Lai at the foot of the Spirit of ’76 (Air Force One) stairs, 2/21/1972, Peking, China, Capital Airport. Photographer: Byron Schumaker. (Local Identifier: WHPO-8498-17) White House Photo Office Collection, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. 

The significance of this visit can be highlighted by several geopolitical factors. 

The United States had not had diplomatic relations with China since 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party gained control of the country. China was closed off to much of the world for over twenty years. Over time, the PRC had even become ideologically distanced with its most important political ally, the Soviet Union. This is commonly known as the “Sino-Soviet split.”

In 1972, the Vietnam War was still in progress near China’s border. President Nixon had already initiated significant American troop withdrawals from Southeast Asia and the process of “Vietnamization,” but a complete end to the United States’ involvement continued to be an important and challenging objective for the president.

The communist opposition in North Vietnam was supported by China and the Soviet Union; however, given the Sino-Soviet split and the emerging détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, the next logical step for an end to the Vietnam War and an easing of East-West hostilities was the normalization of relations between the United States and China. 

President Nixon and Premier Chou En-Lai making a toast during a state dinner banquet, 2/24/1972, Peking, China, Great Hall of the People. Photographer: Oliver Atkins. (Local Identifier: WHPO-8555-09A) White House Photo Office Collection, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

As there are libraries and archives with records available for research and various historical interpretations on the subject, I am providing only basic historical context for this forum. My primary responsibility as the Audiovisual Archivist is, after all, to preserve the film, video, audio, and photographic materials in the holdings of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and make them available for you here.

Original 16mm film reel shot by White House-commissioned film crew, File ID CHINA-OR-37. China Film Series, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

So, let’s explore the audiovisual materials! 

For the American public, the trip to China was largely a televised event. The United States provided terrestrial satellite receiving and relay equipment to the PRC and, despite the 13-hour time difference between Peking (Beijing) and New York, the national television networks allowed television viewers access to the arrivals, departures, ceremonies, and the many tours of locals throughout the country. The White House Communications Agency (WHCA) recorded these broadcasts onto videotapes that are now preserved at the Nixon Presidential Library. 

Original 2-inch Quad videotape recorded by the White House Communications Agency, File ID WHCA-5099. White House Communications Agency Videotape Collection, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

There are roughly 100 hours of television broadcasts documenting the trip to China and U.S.-China relations in general in the WHCA Videotape Collection. Finding aids for this and other audiovisual and textual collections are available here:

You may refer back to the Guide to Holdings, linked to above, for finding aids and selected online access to the materials referenced throughout this post. 

Another collection of videotapes of interest to researchers on the subject of U.S.-China relations is the Main Video File. This is a collection of miscellaneous video recordings, covering a range of topics and events. While some videos in this collection pre-date the Nixon administration, many are post-presidential interviews and broadcasts either recorded “off-the-air” or collected by the National Archives.

The video recordings in these two collections are available to the public, but since many are televised broadcasts, they may have copyright restrictions.

In 2012, the Nixon Library commemorated the 40th anniversary of the trip to China. One of the Library’s projects for the anniversary was to create a video that highlighted our audiovisual materials documenting the trip but we wanted to avoid including any sources that had intellectual property issues or concerns. This was the result:

This video summarizes the trip using only primary audiovisual sources from the holdings of the Nixon Library. The materials compiled here are either original works of the U.S. federal government, White House-commissioned film and audio, or recordings donated to the Nixon Library/National Archives. A closer look at these specific film and audio sources will be useful as an introduction to the many collections at the Nixon Library that are available for further research on this subject. 

The Naval Photographic Center (NPC) Film Collection provides the footage of the initial departure ceremonies for our video. The NPC Film Collection also includes other films relating to the China trip and, more generally, U.S.-China relations, including President Nixon arriving back to the United States from China, Nixon meeting the Chinese table tennis team, and Tricia Nixon-Cox attending the table tennis exhibition between the American and Chinese teams (you can research “Ping Pong Diplomacy” for more context). 

President Nixon and the Chinese table tennis (ping pong) teams, 4/18/1972, Washington, D.C., White House, Rose Garden. Photographer: Oliver Atkins. (Local Identifier: WHPO-8912-02) White House Photo Office Collection, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

The Super 8 films shot by White House staff members supplement the Navy footage and other 16mm film throughout the video. You can explore this Super 8 footage as well as other films from 1969-1973 here:

The White House commissioned a film and audio crew to document the journey. This series of 16mm film and audio makes up a majority of the “Nixon in China” video; however, it seems the film crew was comprised of only two cameramen and one person recording the audio. So, by virtue of the standard length of a 16mm film stock reel and physical logistics, much of the footage in this collection only partially captures significant moments. 

White House-commissioned film crew filming President Nixon, Henry Kissinger and William Rogers aboard the Spirit of ’76 (Air Force One), enroute to Guam, 2/20/1972. Photographer: Oliver Atkins. (Local Identifier: WHPO-8468-09) White House Photo Office Collection, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Since our video relies heavily on this 16mm footage, the fragmentary nature of the coverage explains many of the editorial cutaways and use of non-diegetic sound (audio added to a production that is not literally in the depicted setting or experienced by individuals or characters within the narrative). For instance, the film of President Nixon’s speech in Shanghai, near the end of the video, was particularly incomplete for both the picture and sound elements. So, we used audio of the speech recorded separately by the White House Communications Agency to fill in the gaps. Given the contrast of quality between the film audio and the WHCA sound recording, editorial techniques were required to preserve the continuity of the speech. There are many other audiotapes in the WHCA Sound Recording Collection documenting both the China trip and U.S.-China relations in general.

Original audiotape recorded by the White House Communications Agency, File ID WHCA-SR-720218. White House Communications Agency Sound Recording Collection, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Another sound recording collection that helped augment the Library’s video was the audio diaries of President Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. He recorded both written and audio diaries from 1969 to 1973 and he donated these to the National Archives in 1980. The video only includes a few segments of his audiotaped diary entries but they are all available to public here:

These are the audiovisual materials used in our 40th anniversary video, but there are more archival records available for research on the subject at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. There are thousands of photographs from the trip taken by White House photographers. The Motion Film File Collection includes several films relating to the trip and U.S.-China relations produced during the Nixon administration. The secretly recorded White House Tapes Collection contains hundreds of conversations between Nixon and his advisors about U.S.-China relations. Oral History interviews with individuals who worked in President Nixon’s administration are available for research and the China trip is discussed in many of these videos and sound recordings. Find the Oral History collection here:

In addition, the Library has the textual materials created by the Nixon administration and White House staff that provide a wealth of primary sources available for research.

Visit our research homepage to learn more about how to explore these records.

Super 8 motion picture film still of a billboard at the Hang-Chou or Hung Chiao Airport. 2/27/1972. Super 8 film by H. R. Haldeman, Dwight Chapin or Lawrence Higby. (Local Identifier: HRH-40) H. R. Haldeman Super 8 Film Collection, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.