Department or Program

International Relations

Department or Program

Political Science

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Robert L. Paarlberg

Additional Advisor(s)

William A. Joseph


The chilly diplomatic relationship between the PRC and the United States from 1949 to 1969 is often taken for granted and regarded as natural. However, an analysis of the strategic positions of the two states suggests that there were several points in the 1960s at which the PRC and the United States might have been expected to reconcile with each other as they faced a greater threat—the USSR. Traditional “balance against threat” theories suggest that states tend to join together to balance against the most dangerous common foe. However, in the case of Sino-U.S. Cold War relations, both the PRC and the United States seemed to have deviated from “balance against threat” expectations to a certain extent. This thesis will address the question of why the PRC and the United States did not pursue reconciliation in the 1960s despite the threat posed by the USSR to both. The discrepancies between theory and observation suggest that other factors—such as ideological inclinations and domestic or intra-party politics—were at work in both preventing and causing Sino-U.S. rapprochement. This thesis argues that a series of contingent events affected the geopolitical calculations, domestic political dynamics, and ideological inclinations of the PRC and the U.S. leaderships. Shifts in all three factors made Sino-U.S. rapprochement difficult, if not impossible, before 1969, but a “perfect storm” of changes on both the domestic and international scene made Sino-U.S. reconciliation possible.