The Nixons’ 1972 trip to China had been a stunning international event. The United States was still entangled in the bloody war in Vietnam, where communist China was supporting the Vietnamese communists. Nixon was a strident anti-communist. Mao was a radical revolutionary. But the two countries saw advantages to a visit by Nixon. The United States wanted Chinese help getting out of Vietnam. The Chinese wanted U.S. help to end their isolation. Both sides feared the Soviet Union. The visit took place Feb. 21-28, 1972.
There had already been talk of a Chinese gift of pandas. The Chinese had offered giant pandas to other countries in the past, including North Korea and the Soviet Union. 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 quietly transported to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Northwest Washington. Hsing-Hsing, a male, and Ling-Ling, a “nubile” female were both 18 months old. Zoos in or near several cities – San Diego, Chicago, St. Louis and New York – had lobbied to get the Chinese pandas, but Nixon chose Washington.
Fifty years later, the zoo has been home to eight giant pandas, four of which were born there, and a panda mania that has spanned generations. The zoo has also played a major part in giant panda conservation. Fifty years of a dedicated effort to conserve a single species is almost unheard of. On Wednesday (3/16/2022), 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 and 17, 2022 it will host the world premiere of “The Miracle Panda,” a Smithsonian Channel documentary on the zoo’s giant panda program, in the visitor center theater. Ling-Ling, one of the pandas given 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 cubs, but none survived.
In 2000, China sent the zoo Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, not as a gift but on a 10-year, $10 million lease. The lease has been renewed several times, with the understanding that any cubs born in Washington eventually go to China for breeding. Three cubs have gone so far.