“Aren’t they cute?” she said as she picked up the can. “I love her.”
Zhou replied, “I’ll give you something.”
“Cigarettes?” She asked.
“No,” Zhou said. “Pandas.”
Thus began the 50-year love affair between Washington and the giant panda on February 21, 1972, according to news reports and a report by Nixon’s daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
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Weeks later, on April 16, 1972—before dawn and under tight security—two giant pandas arrived from China at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland and were tacitly transported to the Smithsonian National Zoo in northwest Washington.
Hsing-Hsing, a male, and Ling-Ling, a “marriageable” female, were both 18 months old, according to zoo director Theodore Reed.
“You’re going to love these animals,” Reed said. On April 20, the pandas made their public debut. More than 20,000 people came to see her in the first weekend.
Fifty years later, the zoo is home to eight giant pandas, four of which were born there, and a panda mania that spans generations.
The zoo has also played an important role in protecting giant pandas, current zoo director Brandie Smith said Tuesday.
“Fifty years of dedicated effort to conserve a single species is almost unheard of,” Smith said. “Everyone loves giant pandas. We’ve caught the world’s attention [to] Save this species and bring it back from the brink of extinction.”
“Giant pandas have progressed from the vulnerable list to a threatened list,” she said. “We’re moving the needle towards more sustainable panda populations.”
On Wednesday, the zoo announced that it is planning celebrations and events over the next few months to mark the anniversary of the pandas’ arrival.
On April 16-17, the Visitor Center Theater will host the world premiere of The Miracle Panda, a Smithsonian Channel documentary about the zoo’s giant panda program.
This showing is free and open to the public, the zoo said.
Today the zoo has three giant pandas: Mei Xiang, an adult female; Tian Tian, an adult male; and Xiao Qi Ji, a male cub.
Meanwhile, the Nixon Library and Museum acquired the 2018 cigarette case on loan from Nixon Eisenhower, said Joe Lopez, spokesman for the Richard Nixon Foundation.
The cylindrical can originally had a light pink label, Nixon Eisenhower wrote. The label has turned brown, but the tin still contains cigarettes. The label says “Panda” in Chinese.
Her 1986 book Pat Nixon: The Untold Story chronicles the exchange between her mother and Zhou.
The Nixons’ 1972 trip to China had been an impressive international event.
The United States was still involved in the bloody war in Vietnam, where communist China supported the Vietnamese communists. Nixon was a strident anti-communist. Mao was a radical revolutionary.
But the two countries saw benefits in a visit from Nixon. The United States wanted Chinese help to get out of Vietnam. The Chinese wanted US help to end their isolation. Both sides feared the Soviet Union.
The visit took place from February 21 to 28, 1972.
According to media reports, there was already talk of a Chinese gift from pandas. Nixon mentioned it in a letter to Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans last summer.
The Chinese had offered giant pandas to other countries in the past, including North Korea and the Soviet Union, wrote historian Margaret MacMillan in her 2006 book Nixon in China: The Week That Changed The World.
On February 22, the day after the banquet, the first lady visited the zoo, accompanied by a crowd of Chinese officials and American reporters.
As the group stood near the panda enclosure, one of the animals sauntered towards them.
“He’s coming over to see you,” said CBS host Walter Cronkite, standing behind Pat Nixon.
Wearing a bright red coat, black leather gloves and what appeared to be pearl earrings, she leaned over the railing for a close look, according to footage obtained from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
“Hi!” She said.
When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, Nixon promised not to “embarrass” LBJ.
According to news reports at the time, she had already told reporters about the panda bid made the night before.
Cronkite asked, “Do you have any ideas for names in case you get some from Zhou-san?”
“They will not be for me, they will be for the American people,” the First Lady replied. “Someone else will have the opportunity to name them. Maybe they already have names. There will be a big scramble for the zoo getting them. You are very valuable.”
Zoos in or near several cities — San Diego, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York — had lobbied for the Chinese pandas, but Nixon chose Washington.
In March, the president announced his election in a phone call to the Washington Star’s foreign editor, Crosby Noyes. The star had campaigned for the National Zoo. The President then veered into a discussion of panda sex.
“The problem … with pandas is that they don’t know how to mate,” Nixon Noyes said in the recorded call. “They only learn by watching other pandas mating. Do you see?”
“Well, if they don’t learn, come here and nothing will happen,” he said. “So I just thought you should just have your best reporter out there to see if those pandas have learned.”
Smith, the zoo director, praised Pat Nixon for raising the issue of pandas with Zhou. “She took the opportunity to make that comment and turn it into something else,” Smith said. “For me, it’s the power of a woman’s voice.”
“I love the fact that this is all the result of one woman speaking up,” she said.
Ling-Ling, one of the pandas donated by China in 1972, died in 1992. Hsing-Hsing died in 1999, leaving the zoo’s giant panda house empty for the first time in 27 years. The pair had several young, but none survived.
In 2000, China sent the zoo to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, not as a gift but with a 10-year, $10 million lease. The lease has been extended several times, with the proviso that all Washington-born cubs eventually go to China for breeding. Three cubs have left so far.
The current lease for the adults expires next year. Asked if China is likely to go ahead with the deal, Smith said, “Every conversation we’ve had to date about our interest in continuing the panda program has been positive.”