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Photo of the Week: How Nixon’s Visit to China Inspired Star Trek

Nixon was immortalized in both history books and Vulcan lore.

Air Force One lands in Beijing on February 21, 1972. (Photo: US National Archives/flickr)

One of the lesser-known achievements of President Nixon might be that he inspired Vulcan lore in Star Trek. But there were a few unexpected outcomes to Nixon’s historic trip to the People’s Republic of China in February of 1972. As the first President to visit the country since the communist revolution of 1949, Nixon’s aim was to improve the relationship between the U.S. and China. Nixon himself referred to the trip as “the week that changed the world.”

However, the president’s arrival in China–pictured above–was, according to staffer Winston Lord, something of a disappointment. Expecting cheering crowds, they were greeted with an Honor Guard. Lord recalled, “This didn’t look like a monumental event, as it ought to have been.”

Over the course of seven days, Nixon met Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao, and took in sights like the Great Wall of China. All these momentous events were keenly documented by nearly 100 foreign journalists who had previously been unable to enter the country. (Lord also had the singular misfortune of being cropped out of the photo that captured the historic hour-long meeting between Nixon and Mao, since the president and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger wanted to sidestep the embarrassing fact that the future Secretary of State had not also been at the meeting.)

There were further unintended effects to Nixon’s visit. It inspired an operaNixon in China, first performed in 1987. It led to an impressive display of “Panda Diplomacy“–a gift of two pandas from China, which drew over a million visitors to D.C.’s National Zoo that year. It also inspired a phrase–“Nixon going to China”– to refer to a politician doing something unexpected (it was recently deployed about President Obama and Iran).

Which brings us back to Star Trek. In the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock quotes an old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.”