When first lady Pat Nixon accompanied her husband to Beijing on his famous 1972 trip, she toured the zoo there and was much taken with the giant pandas that she saw. The species lives in the wild only in China and was rarely seen in captivity outside of that nation. In conversation with Zhou Enlai at a state dinner that evening, she enthused about the pandas. An engaging man, he immediately offered to make a gift of two pandas to the United States. (In exchange, the United States government sent over two musk oxen.) Only two months later, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived, and as the first lady commented, the result was "Panda-monium." The gentle and irresistible pandas brought home the concept of rapprochement to Americans, who couldn't get enough of the pair.
Before they arrived, President Nixon leaked the news to Crosby Noyes, the foreign editor of the Washington Star, that the pandas would go to the National Zoo, which Nixon considered to be a zoo that belonged to the whole nation. (We recount that conversation, and many others, in our new book, The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972) But before they could be shipped from China, there was just one problem:
Noyes: Mr. President.
Nixon: Hi, how are you?
Noyes: Fine, thank you, sir.
Nixon: I don't have anything of earth shaking importance enough for your column, but I thought you'd be interested to know that most of your readers would be more interested in this, I'm afraid, than what I say on international affairs or you say in your column, but I noticed the (Washington) Star had an editorial about our pandas —
Nixon: — and I think you'd be interested to know that I just told (press secretary Ron) Ziegler at the morning briefing, so that it could make the afternoon edition of the Star, that Mrs. Nixon and I decided that the pandas should go to the National Zoo.
Noyes: Oh, that's very good —
Nixon: Now, I —
Noyes: — news indeed —
Nixon: — I think you should know, too, we've — as you can imagine, the requests from over the country — San Diego has a splendid zoo, St. Louis —
Nixon: — New York, Chicago and the rest, but we, basically, this is the place for them from the standpoint, first, it's a national —
Nixon: — zoo rather than a local one. Second, and this was the key thing, the reason we were waiting on it: the key thing is climate. The panda, of course, we want to be sure they don't come over here and die and we find that the Washington climate is somewhat more mild than their usual habitat, but nevertheless cold enough, we think, for what they are, so —
Nixon: — so, in any event you're going to get the pandas.
Noyes: We're going to get both of them?
Nixon: Yeah. Oh, yes! Now, as a matter of fact, let me tell you an interesting thing about — that you must know, you can only use on your own if you want, but not on comment. I was just talking to (White House chief of staff) Bob Haldeman who talked to his Chinese hosts, and this question of mating is very interesting. These are — This is a male and a female.
Nixon: The problem with, uh — The problem, however, with pandas is that they don't know how to mate. The only way they learn how is to watch other pandas mate. You see?
Nixon: And, so they're keeping them there a little while — these are younger ones —
Noyes: I see.
Nixon: - to sort of learn, you know, how it's done.
Noyes: Sure, learn the ropes —
Nixon: Now, if they don't learn it they'll get over here and nothing will happen, so I just thought you should just have your best reporter out there to see whether these pandas —
Noyes: Well, we certainly will —
Nixon: — have learned. So, now that I've given you the story of pandas let me let you get back to your more serious questions. (laughter)
Noyes: How soon are they arriving, sir?
Nixon: April 1st.
Nixon: But when we, uh — We think about April 1st. I just asked Ziegler and, you know, it's been shrouded in mystery when the —
Noyes: I knew that.
Nixon: — pandas arrive. And of course, as you know, the head of the National Zoo took the musk oxen over and were trying to work it out, although I don't whether he's bringing them back or if somebody else is, but so there they are. But I can imagine that that zoo will get the biggest play in history —
Noyes: It certainly will.
Nixon: Everybody will want to see those.
Noyes: It's a big deal.
Nixon: Yes, sir. Okay!
Noyes: Thank you, Mr. President —
Nixon: I just want you to know that we do pay attention to the editorials in the Star —
Nixon: — now and then.
Noyes: I'm glad to learn that.
Noyes: Thank you, sir.
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University, CBS News historian, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Luke A. Nichter, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University – Central Texas, has written biographies of three presidents. He is co-author, with Douglas Brinkley, of The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972.