The structure and dynamics of the large-scale circulation of a single-hemisphere, closed-basin ocean with small diapycnal diffusion are studied by numerical and analytical methods. The investigation is motivated in part by recent differing theoretical descriptions of the dynamics that control the stratification of the upper ocean, and in part by recent observational evidence that diapycnal diffusivities due to small-scale turbulence in the ocean thermocline are small (≈0.1 cm2 s−1). Numerical solutions of a computationally efficient, three-dimensional, planetary geostrophic ocean circulation model are obtained in a square basin on a mid-latitude β-plane. The forcing consists of a zonal wind stress (imposed meridional Ekman flow) and a surface heat flux proportional to the difference between surface temperature and an imposed air temperature. For small diapycnal diffusivities (vertical: κv ≈0.1 – 0.5 cm2 s−1, horizontal: κh ≈105 – 5 × 106 cm2 s−1), two distinct thermocline regimes occur. On isopycnals that outcrop in the subtropical gyre, in the region of Ekman downwelling, a ventilated thermocline forms. In this regime, advection dominates diapycnal diffusion, and the heat balance is closed by surface cooling and convection in the northwest part of the subtropical gyre. An ‘advective’ vertical scale describes the depth to which the wind-driven motion penetrates, that is, the thickness of the ventilated thermocline. At the base of the wind-driven fluid layer, a second thermocline forms beneath a layer of vertically homogeneous fluid (‘mode water’). This ‘internal’ thermocline is intrinsically diffusive. An ‘internal boundary layer’ vertical scale (proportional to κv1/2) describes the thickness of this internal thermocline. Two varieties of subtropical mode waters are distinguished. The temperature difference across the ventilated thermocline is determined to first order by the meridional air temperature difference across the subtropical gyre. The temperature difference across the internal thermocline is determined to first order by the temperature difference across the subpolar gyre. The diffusively-driven meridional overturning cell is effectively confined below the ventilated thermocline, and driven to first order by the temperature difference across the internal thermocline, not the basin-wide meridional air temperature difference. Consequently, for small diapycnal diffusion, the abyssal circulation depends to first order only on the wind-forcing and the subpolar gyre air temperatures. The numerical solutions have a qualitative resemblance to the observed structure of the North Atlantic in and above the main thermocline (that is, to a depth of roughly 1500 m). Below the main thermocline, the predicted stratification is much weaker than observed.