Pandas of peace: China traded with Nixon for Alaska musk oxen

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) – It’s one of the thickest of the Nixon China files, and it poses a question as ancient and intractable as the search for peace:

What to bring?

Henry Kissinger and his aides agonized about an appropriate gift from almost the moment they knew in July 1971 that Nixon would be making history in February the following year with his visit to China.

The back-and-forth was revealed Monday in Nixon papers newly declassified by the National Archives.

Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, ordered his deputy, Lt. Gen. Alexander Haig, to sift through the flood of suggestions.

It obviously chafed.

“The suggestions vary from the ridiculous through the obviously commercial designed for the financial benefit of the suggester, to serious proposals worthy of consideration,” Haig writes in an undated memo to Kissinger.

Haig didn’t go into details, but a corporate jet salesman named Edward Kranch – close enough to the powers-that-were to score repeated telephone calls with Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods – suggested (surprise!) a corporate jet.

In a letter to Woods, he says a jet is “of ideal size as a gift, not too small and not too large,” and even suggests a name: “Gung Ho.” Picture enclosed.

Kissinger evidently wasn’t moved, and instead scribbled on Haig’s memo, “I think we should return some Chinese art.”

A noble idea, it would seem – the Chinese had long complained that some of the choicest items in American museums had been stolen from their people.

But it was quickly nixed by art historians and state department “China hands,” who warned that the Chinese would be insulted by a “gift” of what they regarded as theirs to begin with.

By Dec. 7 – just 10 weeks before the visit – Kissinger decided any gift should be “American made.”

And they were, after a fashion. Nixon arrived with two Alaskan musk oxen.

In exchange, the United States got two giant pandas.

Even then, gift anxiety persisted, this time of the Trojan variety.

Kissinger was alarmed when he learned that the Chinese insisted four escorts accompany the pandas, and relayed his suspicions to Paris embassy staff, who were handling the transfer in April 1972.

“The principal task of the four Chinese accompanying pandas to Washington is to deliver the animals and discuss with appropriate authorities their care and feeding,” reads the last of three telegrams on the topic. “When this accomplished, they plan to leave Washington.”

Taking with them any concerns about, well, looking a gift panda in the mouth.