Don’t Stand So Close To Me

Mao, Stalin, and Khrushchev (1949)


Great friends can always become great enemies. In the past when Joseph Stalin was ruling the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China was a great ally as they both wanted to increase the sphere of communist control and diminish the Western capitalist influence. However, after Stalin’s death and borders became settled, this friendship slowly turned sour. As is the case with many things, being in close proximity to something else can cause tension and eventually a conflict.

2,738 Mi long border of Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China
2,738 Mi long border of Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China

As both nations were going through severe social and political changes with the Soviet Union undergoing the Thaw, the People Republic of China undergoing their Cultural Revolution, tensions were high among the two neighbors. In the past the Soviet Union aided the Chinese in becoming more industrialized and trying to earn a close ally against the West. However as time dragged on and changes occurred these friends became enemies. The center of the Sino-Soviet border conflict occurred at  the Damanskii Island.

Chinese Guards Defend border against Soviet Forces
Chinese Guards Defend border against Soviet Forces

On March 2nd, 1969 Chinese soldiers ambushed a Soviet border patrol on the Damanskii Island. The resulting ambush sent a rippling effect of skirmishes across the border. Consequently to the attacks approximately 59 Soviets died along with 94 others wounded. An unknown amount of Chinese were killed or harmed in the attack. A war of words soon ensued containing nuclear threats by the Soviets and the Chinese denounced the “peaceful coexistence” to the Soviet Union.


After the Soviets threatened to use nuclear weapons as a means to end the border dispute, tensions slowly died down. Eventually border talks were conducted and the fighting stopped. However, emotions still flared as the Chinese were fed up with soviet intervention in their homeland. Soviets however had a different mindset. Soviet statesman Mikhail Suslov had this to say about Soviet relations to the Chinese:

“Despite the openly hostile actions of the CPC leadership, our country, conscientiously fulfilling its earlier commitments, even now continues to assist China in the construction of 80 industrial enterprises, and engineering and technical workers, scientists and students from the CPR are undergoing production practice and instruction in the USSR as before.”

Nixon meets with Brezhnev
Nixon meets with Brezhnev
Nixon meets Mao
Nixon meets Mao

Personally I believe the best way to understand an argument is to get the viewpoint from a third party. During this border crisis, the United States of America was keeping a very close eye on the conflict. The USA wanted to contain communist influence but also did not want a nuclear war to erupt as this would eventually cause worldwide devastation. In a document posted by the U.S. State Department, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the United States as a third party allows for an alternate view of the conflict. Here the United states claims that it believes the Soviets intentions are to defend its land by increasing patrols because a sudden breakdown of the Chinese nation or increased aggressiveness by the Chinese will threaten Soviet security. They also believe the Soviets have no intent to invade China. However, on the other hand, the United States could not pinpoint what exactly the Chinese were trying to gain from this border dispute. The U.S notes that the Chinese intended on distancing themselves from the Soviets through the use of propaganda and that if the Soviets persist, “counter-blows” will be made. Inside this document Mao was quoted saying this:

“Once attacked we must never fail to return the blow.”

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I think in hindsight, the breakdown or relations between he Soviets and the Chinese dealt a great blow to the spread of communism around the world. If they had worked together, the Soviet Union probably would have been successful in many more conflicts around the globe. I also think its ironic how the USSR viewed themselves as the greater and more powerful communist country, but communist China is still around today, while the soviets are not.

A. Nelson

I love the analytical framework of this post, and applaud your decision to use the US as a “third-perspective” on the 1969 incident. Of course the US had its own geopolitical agenda, but triangulating the crisis like this — and using the primary documents you found, offers wonderful insight on the crisis. This post makes a terrific sequel to Anna’s earlier discussion of the Sino-Soviet relationship:


It would easily have turned the tide of history against the US had the Soviet Union and China worked together and been able to bond over their common political orientation. These are both incredible super powers and combined, their economic force would likely have been able to overwhelm the United States which struggled to overpower the USSR alone. Had they stayed together there would be a very different history currently.

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