Swimming Pool Diplomacy: Khrushchev, Mao and the Sino-Soviet Split

Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong plays host to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1958 and a later photo of Mao showing off his swimming ability
Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong plays host to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1958 and a later photo of Mao showing off his swimming ability

by Ben Gaskin

August 1, 1958 — Diplomacy requires a lot of skills, though being able to swim usually isn't one of them. That wasn't the case in 1958, when Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, travelled to Beijing to meet with Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the People's Republic of China. Despite their shared communist ideology, relations between the two countries had been deteriorating for some time. It was hardly surprising, then, that the visit wasn't as the Soviet side might have hoped.

Mao took the opportunity, for instance, to complain about his December 1949 visit to Moscow, when he had sought a treaty of friendship and been rebuffed by Stalin:

"When I came to Moscow, he did not want to conclude a treaty of friendship with us.... I recall that Fedorenko [the Soviet interpreter] and Kovalev [Stalin's emissary to the People's Republic of China] passed me his [i.e., Stalin's] advice to take a trip around the country, to look around. But I told them that I have only three tasks: eat, sleep and shit. I did not come to Moscow only to congratulate Stalin on his birthday. Therefore I said that if you do not want to conclude a treaty of friendship, so be it. I will fulfill my three tasks."

On the second day of their meetings, August 1, 1958, Mao received Khrushchev somewhere altogether surprising: his swimming pool. This was all the more of a surprise for Khrushchev, who couldn't swim. The leader of the Soviet Union, a world superpower, was thus obliged to wear water wings. Mao, on the other hand, was a more than proficient swimmer. Years later, in 1966, the then 72-year old would even swim across the Yangtze River.

And so, high level diplomacy between paramount communist states was that day conducted while swimming back and forth. Their interpreters at least remained dry, instead following them up and down the length of the pool as they spoke. As Khrushchev later recalled,

"It was Mao's way of putting himself in an advantageous position. Well, I got sick of it.... I crawled out, sat on the edge, and dangled my legs in the pool. Now I was on top and he was swimming below."

These tensions continued in the following years, and ultimately resulted in what is now known as the Sino-Soviet split. The origins of this split are many. There was the question of which state could claim intellectual leadership in the communist world. There was also the enmity created by Khrushchev's programme of de-Stalinisation, which sought to dissolve the personality cult which surrounded the deceased Soviet leader. Finally, there was Mao's belief that, when push came to shove, Khrushchev's fear of nuclear war would override his loyalty to the PRC.

The Sino-Soviet split was a pivotal point in the Cold War. It made way for President Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing on the 21st of February, 1972. This unprecedented trip would result in the Shanghai Communique, which marked the resumption of the United States' relations with mainland China and the beginning of a new stage in the Cold War. These two great nations, once opponents, and despite their ideological differences, were now almost allies.

Published: August 14, 2019

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