DIPLOMATIC history is one of the most conservative branches of historiography, slow to absorb new information and techniques, slower still to cast off misconceptions. The history of Sino-American relations fully reflects these traits, with pernicious results for the conduct of American relations with China. Despite valiant efforts by a tiny group of historians to show that there was nothing special about America's dealings with China, the majority of their colleagues have merely amplified an old, confusing fiction that the United States and China enjoyed a "special relationship" quite different from that with other nations. This fiction destabilized Sino-American relations, embittered still further the witch-hunting of the McCarthy era, and created a climate that encouraged U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
The development of the myth of a special relationship can be traced to the earliest days of Sino-American relations, when the United States, out of weakness, seized upon the idea of cultivating China's goodwill to advance American commercial interests and to gain an edge over European competitors. John Adams noted as early as 1785, "much will depend upon the behavior of our own people who may go into those countries [of East Asia]. If they endeavor by an irreproachable integrity, humanity, and civility to conciliate the esteem of the natives, they may easily become the most favored nation; for the conduct of European nations in general . . . has given us great