The United States faces a new nuclear power ruled by a communist dictator. Washington is worried that the leadership of that country is crazy enough to use its new weapons — even against the United States. Meanwhile, other countries fear that the “madman” in the Oval Office might just launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack.
This description captures the situation today, with U.S. President Donald Trump facing off against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
But it also describes a similar conflict in the late 1960s, between the United States and China. That confrontation ended not in war but in detente and a close economic relationship between the two countries. It’s an important reminder that diplomacy can work even in seemingly intractable situations.
In the early 1960s, the United States was terrified that Communist China would acquire a nuclear weapon. By 1964, China tested its first nuclear bomb. Two years later, the Cultural Revolution began, and China descended into political chaos.
Even though the Cultural Revolution would last for the next 10 years and Chinese leader Mao Zedong became increasingly senile during this period, the United States made a strategic decision at the beginning of the 1970s to engage the leadership in Beijing.
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