In 1972, during the high of the Cold War, US President Richard Nixon took a step towards thawing East-West relations by visiting the world's most populous Communist country - China. Nixon's top priority was to try and divide China further from its neighbor and former political ally, the Soviet Union. Politicians, diplomats, and the American people followed his visit with rapt attention, wondering what new relationship with China would develop as a result of the trip. The visit had many consequences - political, social, economic, and cultural - which led to the long-isolated China beginning to rejoin the rest of the world.
One result that few people expected was a pair of black-and-white bears.
Today, giant pandas are almost synonymous with China, the only nation of earth where they can be found. For the vast majority of recorded history, however, they remained completely unknown outside of their native land - the first giant panda wasn't seen in an American zoo until the 1930's, with the arrival of Su-Lin at the Brookfield Zoo (to this day, Su-Lin's stuffed body can be viewed at the Field Museum of Natural History).
It was in a spirit of goodwill that Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong offered Nixon a pair of giant pandas - male Hsing-Hsing ("Twinkling Star") and female Ling-Ling ("Darling Girl"). Both were wild born, and both were about two-years old.
The pandas were installed in a new building at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, where they instantly became the toast of the town. At the time, they were the only giant pandas on display in the United States and became the zoo's top attraction. In one way, however, they were a bit of a disappointment to their caretakers - they failed to produce a surviving cub. It had been theorized that, taken at such a young age, neither panda had ever seen copulation, and so they didn't know how to respond to one another. As a result, keepers resorted to "Panda Porn" to stimulate the bears. It may have been what did the trick as the pair did eventually produce offspring, but none survived any length of time.
The pair, especially Ling-Ling, also went on to help partially dispel the notion that pandas are soft, lovable teddy bears by being aggressive jerks, both to each other and to any human foolish enough to enter their domain.
Ling-Ling died in 1992, at the time setting a longevity record for captive pandas, one which she retained until Hsing-Hsing died in 1999. The Panda House remained empty for a year, a memorial to the zoo's most beloved residents, until a new pair replaced them in 2000. This pair, the current pair, has been able to take advantage of a wellspring of knowledge about panda husbandry that zoos have obtained since the 1970's; among other results, they've bred successfully.
Nixon's pair of pandas weren't the only members of their species to leave China on diplomatic missions. Others were sent to zoos around the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as part of China's "Panda Diplomacy", the earliest examples of which can be traced to the gift of pandas to the Japanese Emperor in the 600s. China has frequently offered pandas to Taiwanese zoos as a subtle effort to suggest that Taiwan is a part of China (as China sees it), and not an independent nation (as Taiwan would have it).
Nor were they the only animal diplomats to travel the globe. The practice dates back for centuries (remember the Pope's rhinoceros?). Nixon himself sent the Chinese, in return for the pandas... musk-ox (Really? American bison wouldn't have been more appropriate? And they weren't even DC's musk-ox, they were San Francisco Zoo's... and what did they get out of the deal?). In 2009, the Seychelles government gave the People's Republic of China a 60th Birthday gift in the form of a pair of Aldabra giant tortoises, which went to the Shanghai Zoo.
After the success of the DC pandas, as well as a pair sent to London, China began offering pandas on pricey, 10-year loans, which many zoos still jumped at. It got to the point where the US Fish and Wildlife Service had to crackdown on the international panda loans, uncomfortably close to trafficking in endangered species. Rules were changed so that loans were only allowed when half of the fee would go directly to panda research and conservation in the wild. Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo was temporarily booted out of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for flouting their strict rules on panda importations.
It would be inaccurate to state the the highlight of Richard Nixon's voyage to China was getting some big, furry souvenirs. For one thing, he made Chinese food wildly popular throughout the US... or at least what we think of as Chinese food. On a slightly more consequential note, the visit helped steer China into greater global involvement, making it the economic juggernaut it is today. At the same time, it certainly must be admitted that the gifting of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to the United States introduced millions of Americans to an incredible animal, and changed the face (literally, in the case of the World Wildlife Fund logo) of conservation and endangered species.