The Panda War

Deborah Venable



The year was 1972.  The National Zoo in Washington D.C. had just received a pair of pandas from China, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, and they were instant celebrities at the zoo.  Those pandas were a gift from China in the spirit of their long-standing practice of “panda diplomacy.”


My brother was assigned to Nixon’s Whitehouse communications group at the time as a member of the U.S. Navy.  My husband and I took our daughter to D.C., visited my brother and his wife and son, and we all went to the zoo to see the pandas.  It was a grand and beautiful spring day shortly after the pandas’ arrival.  We waited in line for hours just to see the magnificent animals.      


Whatever else you may think of President Nixon, it was through his efforts that the huge gateway to the Orient, Mainland China, was opened up to Americans.  We were coming out of 25 years of isolationism with China, and there were reasons to assume it was a necessary action.  The Korean conflict and China’s role in it were still fresh in the memory of America’s leaders and thinkers.  The Soviet Union was a key concern as they amassed great armies along the Chinese border.  Of course we had also been fighting communists in Vietnam for years.  (Many people conveniently forget what that war was all about.)  In Nixon’s mind, the last thing America needed was war with the whole continent of Asia.


One main sticking point then and now in our dealings with China was and has remained Taiwan.  Recently declassified documents have erased much of the mystery of why administrations have maintained a hands-off policy where Taiwan is concerned.  It was a Nixon concession during this critical opening up of China’s mainland that tied the hands of presidential administrations since.  It can be said no other way - we abandoned Taiwan and our vital interests supported there in order to establish a working relationship with Communist China.  I use the word, “abandoned” with full knowledge that America has always caused frustrations with the Chinese government by maintaining limited support of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.  Arms sales notwithstanding, though, aloofness does not a good defender make in the whole China-Taiwan debacle.


Whatever else he was, in the opinion of many, Nixon was a lousy negotiator – but we got the pandas!


Détente with both the Soviet Union and China was practically the only negotiating point leaders could hold out to each other during that stressful time, but it had no clear meaning, and the results were almost always in favor of the communist regimes.  Gerald Ford, the only president in American history that was not elected as either president or  vice president, fell all over himself to assure China that Nixon’s agreements would continue to be honored as one of his first presidential acts.


To think that the communist regimes of both the Soviet Union and China would ever honor the many non-proliferation agreements it hammered out with the American administrations over the years is naiveté on steroids.  Let’s face it – the American people still just do not know what we don’t know about foreign relations with communist countries.  No matter how many times a new face is painted on our side of the continuing relations with new administrations, the old communist goals remain intact in the face of the committed communists.  They also continue to gain ground. 


One doesn’t need to dig too far for enlightenment on the whole Iran thing.  While much of the country is up in arms (forgive the pun) about Iran’s continuing march toward nuclear proliferation, sanctions seem to still be the weapon of choice against those who would aid such activities.  Oh, for the heady days of Reagan, who had the guts to face China’s assistance to Iran’s nuclear weapons program with a “we’ll just redo our agreements with you and include stronger non-proliferations language” response.  He probably knew it didn’t really mean anything either, negotiating with communists, but it did make a statement that would force their hand should they choose not to negotiate.


The deeper meaning in Reagan’s interest in China is fascinating to explore.  He was interested in connecting to the people – not their leaders.  He chose to do this in a much more blatant manner than any before him, because his religious convictions were so deep and so obvious.  In 1984 he took that message to the people of China with a brilliant speech to Chinese students at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.  This speech, more than anything Americans have said to the Chinese before or since, defines why we continue to deal with China. 


And, of course, we still had the pandas!


The original pair both died during the 90s, and the five panda cubs born to them all died after very short lives, so any others that have graced American zoos since have been as a result of post panda diplomacy.  You see, China no longer gifts foreign nations with pandas but rather leases them with the formal understanding that they and their offspring remain the property of the PRC.  China recently “recalled” the American born citizen pandas from the National Zoo in D.C. and in the Atlanta Zoo.  I hear that the poor things must now learn Chinese so that they can understand their new keepers.


Believe it or not, there are some who think that the whole, highly publicized return of the pandas to China has something to do with the worsening relations between China and the U.S.  (Perhaps the substantial leasing fee paid in the declining U.S. dollar and saddled with the burgeoning U.S. debt to China was no longer enough of an incentive for China to let them stay.)  The linked article suggests it may be tied to Obama’s on-again meeting with the Daila Lama.  At any rate, we may rest assured that the one-child policy does not extend to pandas since they are still an endangered species.  There are high hopes for the success of these now breeding aged pandas to “beef up” the panda population in China.


Well, anyway, conservationists all over can breathe a sigh of relief that animals such as pandas will no longer be used as tools of diplomacy between potential warring nations.  Real olive branches, after all, are probably far more plentiful than those expensive, bamboo-consuming bears.


Speaking of olive branches, perhaps it is time to turn our attention to a much more proven efficient deterrent to war – that of U.S. unquestioned military supremacy.  Why is it that liberals continue to think that depleting our military is a good idea? 


Never before have we tried to fight the communist ideology with so many communists implanted within our own government.  Foreign policy negotiating with this bunch on our side is cause for great concern.  While Iran may be just a belligerent child in the whole nuclear proliferation game right now, the granddaddy enablers are still Russia and most assuredly China.  I think we deserve something far more valuable than a couple of pandas to stave off a world-wide nuclear war for the foreseeable future.  Most folks with a brain know that America is the only hope to accomplish that, and it will take considerably more than caving in to unimportant socialist kowtowing in our domestic agenda to stop the bleeding of our resources and patriotic will.  It will take Americans remembering that communism has never and will never work for peace.  It will take remembering that when we defeat our enemies we do not take their land, except just what may be necessary to bury our dead, but America and her allies would be carved up like a turkey on Thanksgiving if our enemies ever win. 


But those pandas were certainly worth seeing and I remember them fondly. 


It should remind us that debt to China is not something we can live with anymore than we can live with subjugation to a homegrown communist philosophy.  The panda war should have taught us at least that!          



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