Ping Pong Diplomacy
How it helped end the Cold War
Many people are familiar with the movie Forrest Gump, one of the most quotable and iconic movies from the past century. The movie follows the earnest titular Forrest as he goes from strange circumstances to strange circumstances throughout his life.
One of those circumstances is particularly strange: Mr. Gump competed in an international Ping Pong tournament against China - a tournament that contributed to the gradual end of the Cold War.
While Mr. Grump is regrettably a fictional character, the tournament in which he participated was very, VERY REAL.
The consequences of that tournament were even more so, remaining impactful today.
The State of the World
It was 1971, and President Nixon was finally ready to bring the Vietnam War to an end. To do so, however, he had to attempt to smooth over relations with the two other key nations that were interested in the Cold War in general, and Vietnam in particular: Russia and China.
Attempting to remedy relations with Russia was a lost cause by this point, but China was marginally more open to diplomacy. Both nations needed an excuse to interact with each other; the United States had cut diplomatic ties with China once it became a Communist nation, and there had been almost no positive interaction between the two since. If either side publicly opened diplomatic lines of communication, it could be interpreted as a signal of weakness - weakness that neither side felt they could afford.
China had adopted Ping Pong as a national sport soon after the Communists rose to power, and used that sport as an excuse to open the door for thinly-veiled political discourse. Tournaments between the Chinese teams and the teams of other nations were widely covered by the media, and were considered by the public to be a great case of sports and humanity overcoming political ambition.
The public was wrong, of course, but that perception allowed the nations involved to capitalize on the events. This was a wholly unique diplomatic tactic, and its novelty and eccentric nature resulted in a great deal of success.
The Fortunate Mistake
After the secret letters between U.S. and Chinese leaders became increasingly pointless and fruitless, the two nations desperately needed to find another way to bridge the ideological and political gap.
The solution to this problem arose almost entirely by chance.
The United States Table Tennis team was in Japan, preparing to compete at the 31st World Table Tennis Championship. The team was practicing in Nagoya, alongside teams from other nations.
One U.S. player, Glenn Cowan, had the misfortune of missing his team’s bus after practice. He found himself practicing with a Chinese player, Liang Eliang, for a short time before the practice area was closed off.
Failing to find his team (and therefore his bus), Cowan would have been stuck there for an indeterminate amount of time had another Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong, not invited him onto the Chinese team bus.
Cowan and Zhuang Zedong spoke idly (via interpreter) on the ride, and developed a professional respect—if not a friendship.
The Chinese player offered Cowan a silk-screen portrait depicting the Huangshan Mountains, but Cowan had no equivalent gift to offer. When the bus arrived back at the compound, there was a horde of reporters waiting to capitalize on a moment of misfortune and kindness.
When asked about countries he’d like to visit someday, Glenn Cowan said: “I’d like to see any country I haven’t seen before.” When asked about China in particular, he responded, “Of course.”
The report of this chance meeting, and the media coverage that followed, reached the Chinese leadership, Mao Zedong decided to invite the U.S. Table Tennis team. He is reported to have said, “This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but…has a mind for politics.”
Nobody could have expected that one American’s unlucky day would lead to a diplomatic breakthrough - especially one this important.
The Historic Tournament
The United States was shocked when, on April 6, 1971, an invitation to a free tour of China - with a series of show matches tagged on, of course. On April 10th, the United States Ping-Pong team (nine players, four officials, and two spouses) stepped onto Chinese soil: the first Americans to do so since 1949.
It was a truly historic occasion, and an incredibly important symbolic step forward for peace in the region. From April 11th to April 17th, the American delegation traveled, learned, and played with (and lost to) their hosts.
The ten journalists, of which five were American, were invited to cover the grand event. The exhibition matches were met with smiles and laughter from the Chinese citizenry on-site, and the American people watching/listening from their homes.
The American delegation toured the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and attended the Canton Ballet: all things that no American had done for over twenty years.
The Chinese officials were gracious hosts, and both nations took full advantage of the positive press coverage of the event.
A Win-Win Scenario
The tour and tournament led to concessions and change for both nations. China opened its borders to more American journalists (as long as they don’t “all come at one time”), and the United States announced the removal of the 20 year trade embargo that they had set on China after the Communists rose to power.
The Chinese table tennis team visited the U.S. as well. After some time, the diplomatic ties became fully realized when Nixon himself became the first American president to visit China.
The volleying of positive press and political openness between the two nations proved to be a quaint, yet appropriate process. The diplomacy mirrored the sport that carried it, and led to a slow defusal of tensions in the region.
Therefore, it can be easily said that ping pong helped bring the Cold War to an end—at least in one part of the world.