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Celebrating NPR's 50th Anniversary, We Revisit 'Ping-Pong Diplomacy'

(SOUNDBITE OF PINGPONG BALLS BOUNCING)

NOEL KING, HOST:

Fifty years ago, one of the oddest and most poignant diplomatic endeavors maybe in human history took place. They called it pingpong diplomacy. NPR is celebrating 50 years on air. And so we're looking back to our birth year, 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT CONNELLY: Now in Shanghai itself, the 15 members of the touring American table tennis team strolled in the sun today around the old Bund, which is the city's curving waterfront esplanade.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's the late Robert Connelly, the first host of All Things Considered, describing a trip by the U.S. table tennis team in China. It started, though, in Japan. An 18-year-old American player named Glenn Cowan was competing with the U.S. team at an international tournament. He missed the team bus.

KING: Yeah, so he caught a ride with the Chinese team. He struck up some relationships. And eventually, China invited the U.S. team to play there. Now, at the time, China had almost no diplomatic contact with the United States. But things between China and its neighbor Russia had gotten tense. So China reconsidered its isolation from the West. And this pingpong game served as a fresh start.

MARTIN: NPR spoke with Glenn Cowan a few months after he got home. He wasn't really worried about the politics of the moment. He was just into how this trip could actually popularize table tennis in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GLENN COWAN: Well, I think it opened the game up a little to the public. I think if it was opened up more, if they knew what was going on here, they would like it probably better.

KING: John Rich of NBC was one of the few American journalists to join the U.S. team on their trip to China. In June of 1971, he told NPR and an audience at Bowdoin College about dining with a Chinese official.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN RICH: He picked up the glass of Chinese wine, stood up and looked me straight in the eye and said, I propose a toast to friendship between the Chinese and American people. Naturally, I stood up and drank a toast. And then I had to propose a toast to friendship between the Chinese and American people with him. I could see trouble ahead, but I thought - he was a small man, and I thought I could handle him.

(LAUGHTER)

RICH: But I didn't count on his six friends sitting across there...

(LAUGHTER)

RICH: ...Who all stood up and proposed. And I'd forgot about the Chinese custom of ganbei, which is bottoms up. And I tell you, what I did for my country that night and...

(LAUGHTER)

KING: The positive press reaction to ping pong diplomacy is now viewed as a concrete step that the U.S. took toward normalizing its relationship with China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JIM RUSSELL: Today, President Nixon officially ended a 21-year embargo on trade between the United States and communist China.

MARTIN: And the American doors were open to Chinese goods. One of NPR's founding mothers, Susan Stamberg, reported in November of 1971 about a coming trend, China chic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSAN STAMBERG: Last Sunday's New York Times carried a full-page ad for his-and-her worker suits from China via Paris for $25. They come in indigo blue cotton only, and they're touted as the unexpected Christmas gift this year.

KING: The next year, President Nixon made an official state visit to China, one for the history books. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.