Open Door Policy

views updated May 23 2018

Open Door Policy

Mark Atwood Lawrence

As he surveyed East Asian affairs in the first months of 1899, Secretary of State John Hay saw few reasons for optimism. America's main rivals for influence in that part of the worldRussia, Japan, Germany, France, and Great Britainbristled with imperial ambition as China, weakened by war and rebellion, steadily lost its capacity to resist them. The great powers laid claim to special privileges in various parts of the country, a process that recalled the subjugation of Africa and suggested that China might be similarly partitioned. What worried Hay most was the prospect that the United States would be shut out of this new scramble as the Europeans and Japanese, with strong footholds in the area and a far greater taste for territorial conquest, divided up China and protected their new possessions with impenetrable barriers to American trade. Like many of his contemporaries, Hay imagined China as a vital and nearly limitless market for the burgeoning output of America's rapidly industrializing economy. By 1899 the United States had made little progress toward realizing that dream, but the vision beckoned powerfully. Preserving access to the China market ranked high on the McKinley administration's foreign policy agenda even as the prospects seemed to dim.

In a bold move to reverse this alarming trend, Hay dispatched his famous Open Door Notes to the leading imperial powers. Buoyed by his country's victory over Spain the previous year, Hay demanded that each of the powers respect the principle of equal commercial opportunity in the spheres of influence they were consolidating in China. The notes neither challenged the spheres' existence nor demanded equal access for American investment. Hay's dispatches stood firm, however, on the matter about which Americans cared mostthe transport and selling of American goods. "Earnestly desirous to remove any cause for irritation," the United States insisted on "perfect equality of treatment for commerce and navigation with such 'spheres.'" Washington asked each power to give "formal assurances" that it would charge uniform harbor dues and railway rates and leave the job of levying and collecting import duties to Chinese authorities. The door to trade, in other words, must remain open to everyone who wished to pass through.

Hay's proclamation of the Open Door policy was a landmark moment in the history of U.S. foreign relations. For one thing, it reflected the rise of the United States as a major power prepared to assert its interests in a distant part of the world where Europeans had reigned supreme. Hay set in motion a process that led ineluctably if fitfully to America's emergence as the predominant outside power attempting to shape Asia's economic and political destiny. Hay's policy also established a pattern of U.S. behavior that had long-term consequences far beyond Asia. With its annexations of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1898, the United States had demonstrated a clear interest in territorial acquisition as the means of satisfying its expansionist impulse. But Hay's notes indicated a shift toward a different approach: The United States would expand its influence through economic hegemony rather than imperial control. The idea proved to have enormous staying power, partly because it fit with America's self-conception as a nation founded on the twin principles of anti-colonialism and individual opportunity. Over the following century, Americans scorned the imperial intentions of others even as their own leaders made ambitious efforts to secure economic opportunity abroad. So characteristic was this pattern that some scholars regard it as the dominant attribute of U.S. foreign policy across the twentieth century. Beginning with William Appleman Williams in the late 1950s, a controversial but highly influential group of materialist historians elaborated the "open door interpretation" to explain America's extraordinary record of international activism since the 1890s. In the view of these scholars, Hay's initiative epitomized a quintessentially American approach to foreign policy. On the one hand, Hay invoked high-minded principles such as anticolonialism, self-determination, and equal opportunity to advance his proposals. On the other hand, he showed a hardheaded determination to protect the interests of American capitalists by promoting access to overseas markets. Advocates of the open door interpretation argue that a similar blend of proclaimed selflessness and relentless self-interest runs through the history of American diplomacy. From 1899 through the Cold War, these scholars assert, the U.S. government persistently invoked universal principles even as it intervened abroad in an unceasing effort to order the world to serve the interests of American capitalism.

Ironically, for all its indisputable importance as a watershed, an idea, and an interpretive tool, the Open Door policy produced scant results in practice. Through the period of the Open Door policy, the United States never obtained the markets about which late-nineteenth-century politicians and businessmen dreamed. Between 1899 and 1931 exports to China never exceeded 4 percent of the value of America's total annual exports and more often hovered around 1 percent. Nor did the Open Door policy discourage other powers from grabbing new chunks of Chinese territory or excluding American trade. Indeed, international compliance with American demands was always grudging and tenuous at best before collapsing completely in the 1930s as Japan unilaterally shattered Hay's vision. Even during its heyday in the early twentieth century, the Open Door proved more an illusion maintained by its promoters than a policy with real force and meaning. Moreover, the Open Door policy failed the United States by fueling resistance against foreign meddling in China. Americans clung devoutly to the belief that their policy, in contrast to European imperialism, would benefit China by preserving its integrity and bringing American know-how to its benighted masses. From the Chinese standpoint, however, the United States was often just another foreign country determined to prevent China from controlling the terms of its relations with the outside world. Chinese leaders sometimes attempted to manipulate the United States to serve their interests but rarely proved willing to play the passive and cooperative role arrogantly scripted for them by Washington.


The Open Door policy originated in the treaty port system that emerged in China during the 1840s. For centuries, China had resisted the efforts of Western traders to penetrate the country, restricting their activities to the port of Canton (Guangzhou) and subjecting them to severe punishment for violation of Chinese law. Following Britain's sweeping military victory over China in the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842, however, the Qing dynasty had no choice but to grant major concessions. The British government forced China to open four new ports to foreign trade: Amoy (Xiamen), Foochow (Fuzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), and Shanghai. British negotiators also insisted upon two privileges that would become hallmarks of Western imperialism in China. First, they demanded extraterritoriality, the right to subject British offenders to British rather than Chinese law. Second, they demanded most-favored-nation status, meaning that Britain would automatically benefit from concessions that China granted to any other country. In fact, as the historian Warren I. Cohen has observed, this demand for equal opportunity meshed well with Chinese calculations at the time. The imperial government, hoping to garner the goodwill of other Western powers to resist further British pressure, declared that all nations would have equal privileges in the treaty ports. "Now that the English barbarians have been allowed to trade," declared the Daoguang emperor, "whatever other countries there are, the United States and others, should naturally be permitted to trade without discrimination." In this way the United States, without firing a shot, came to enjoy the benefits that Britain had extracted through military intervention.

The treaty system became more elaborate in the following years as Qing authority continued to deteriorate amid civil wars and new military humiliations by Britain and France. What had been a trickle of Chinese concessions to the imperial powers grew into a torrent with the Treaties of Tientsin in 1858. Under those agreements China opened eleven new ports and for the first time permitted foreigners to navigate the Yangtze River and to travel throughout China's interior. The agreements also dictated a low tariff on foreign goods entering China, essentially robbing the Chinese government of the right to set its own trade policy. As in the 1840s, Americans were well placed to benefit from these concessions. The United States maintained a minimal diplomatic staff in China and had no military presence whatsoever. Yet under most-favored-nation provisions reaffirmed in the new treaties, American merchants received all of the advantages extracted by Britain and France. Historians have labeled Americans "hitchhiking" imperialists or, in a different formulation, "jackals" fattening up thanks to the British lion and other European predators.

The scavenger's role served American merchants well for half a century. In relative terms, U.S. exports to China remained tinyjust 0.5 percent of all U.S. exports as late as 1895. But American merchants managed to gain a significant toehold in a period when the U.S. government, with its commitment to laissez-faire economic principles, denied them the kind of backing their European rivals received from elaborate diplomatic and military establishments. By the early 1850s Americans operated about twenty-five of the two hundred Western firms doing business in China, and American ships carried one-third of all Western trade with the country. American shipping boomed, especially in Shanghai, the busiest treaty port, where U.S. bottoms carried about one-half of all Western trade. Over time, American merchants obtained important shares of the Chinese market for textiles, oil, metals, and tobacco, all by exploiting what the Europeans made possible.

Two developments in the 1890sone in the United States, the other in the Far Eastdrove Washington to seek far more formal assurances of American trading rights. In the United States, the staggering economic collapse of 1893 led to a surge of interest in China as a market for American goods. The depression bankrupted more than fifteen thousand businesses, sent commodity prices plummeting to new lows, and fed unemployment rates as high as 25 percent in many American cities. Most alarming to the political and economic elite, the crisis touched off a wave of strikes and protests that shook the foundations of the freewheeling Gilded Age economy. Industrialists, politicians, and intellectuals naturally sought to explain the cause of such a cataclysm, and by the mid-1890s most had their answer: overproduction. The United States, they believed, simply produced more than its population could absorb and was choking on the surplus. The closing of the Western frontier left these men with little hope of expanding the domestic market, and none of them entertained demands from organized labor to increase the purchasing power of ordinary Americans. The only solution seemed to lie in exporting more to new markets abroad. "Our manufacturers have outgrown or are outgrowing the home market," the National Association of Manufacturers proclaimed in a characteristic claim of the day. "Expansion of our foreign trade," it added, was the "only promise of relief."

Few potential markets appealed as strongly as China. Since the eighteenth century Americans had commonly imagined China as a vast market peopled by millions of consumers eager for American goods. Along with India, China represented "an extensive field for the enterprise of our merchants and mariners," Alexander Hamilton wrote as far back as 1791 in his Report on Manufactures, proclaiming the distant Asian lands "an additional outlet for the commodities of the country." Following the events of 1893, the hyperbole soared to new heights amid a general outpouring of enthusiasm for an expansionist foreign policy. "In China there are 400 millions of people, more than five times as many as exist in the United States," marveled one business journal. "The wants of those 400 million people are increasing every year. What a market!" Other currents of the time reinforced purely commercial motives for intensified American interest in China. Social Darwinists stressed that China was an ideal stage on which the United States could demonstrate its competitive vigor. "Our geographical position, our wealth, and our energy pre-eminently fit us to enter upon the development of eastern Asia and to reduce it to part of our economic system," wrote the economic theorist Brooks Adams. Widespread fretting about national stagnation following the end of continental expansion also encouraged Americans to view China as a vast new frontier to absorb American energies. "What was once the old Far East," asserted one cotton seller, "is now our new Far West." Missionaries and social reformers, meanwhile, embraced American traders as potentially powerful allies in their efforts to penetrate China and convert its people"a vast inert mass of humanity," in Secretary of State Walter Gresham's characteristic phraseto American ways.

The second event that altered American thinking about China was the Sino-Japanese War of 18941895. Tension between China and Japan had mounted for several years amid obvious Japanese designs on Korea, which maintained an ambiguous tributary relationship with the Qing court. A political crisis in Korea sparked war in 1894. Within six months Japan dealt the crumbling Qing dynasty yet another humiliating defeat, destroying the Chinese military on land and at sea. The lopsided settlement awarded Japan a sphere of influence in Korea and outright possession of Taiwan and the Pescadores, major gains for a rapidly industrializing power that, like the United States, sought new markets and influence abroad. At first many Americans sympathized with Japanese demands, hoping that a badly defeated China would open more treaty ports and seek Western goods and expertise in a desperate attempt at modernization. Before long, however, Americans came to see the Japanese victory in a much different light. By further weakening Chinese authority, the Japanese victory, far from creating new opportunity, set off an intense three-year period of great-power jockeying that threatened to partition China and close off American opportunities once and for all.

With a newly wounded China floundering as never before, the smell of blood was in the water. The sharksimperial powers hoping to take a bite of Chinese territorygathered quickly. Russia made the first in a complicated series of moves. The Sino-Japanese War had exposed Japanese designs on Manchuria, where the Russian government also harbored long-standing economic and political ambitions. Playing skillfully on Chinese vulnerabilities, Moscow extracted extensive concessions in a treaty signed in May 1896. In return for a Russian guarantee to aid China against Japanese or other foreign aggression, the Qing rulers granted Russia permission to extend its transcontinental railway through northern Manchuria. Furthermore, China awarded Russia political authority along the rail line, free right of public domain, and a tariff reduction on goods entering China along the railroad. Jealous of Russia's gains, Germany made a far more dramatic move in 1897, seizing the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao) on Kiao-chow (Jiaozhou) Bay and demanding exclusive railroad-building and mining rights in Shandong province. China had little choice but to accede, spurring further exactions. Russia moved again, forcing China to concede a leasehold over Port Arthur (Lüshun) and its hinterland on the Liaodong Peninsula in early 1898. In southern China, meanwhile, France extracted a lease for Kwangchow (Guangzhou) Bay on the Leizhou Peninsula.

This feeding frenzy confronted the United States with an ominous situation. With American leaders increasingly convinced of China's importance to the American economy, the country seemed in serious jeopardy of being entirely consumed by the imperial powers. To be sure, few of the concessions granted to Japan, Russia, Germany, or France immediately infringed upon American commercial privileges; for the moment, at least, the most-favored-nation principle remained intact. But the situation was agonizingly unsettled, and heightened competition for privileges raised the prospect that the imperial powers would soon transform relatively porous spheres of influence into exclusive possessions. Intense concession-hunting also raised the specter of a great-power war in the Far East, another scenario that boded nothing but ill for U.S. interests. American merchants worried especially that imperial rivalries were concentrated in northern China and Manchuria, regions that absorbed a high percentage of U.S. exports to China. With key ports under their control, Germany or Russia could easily impose new tariffs and railroad rates that would discriminate against American goods. But it was not the threat to any particular port or railroad that alarmed Americans so much as the apparent challenge to the whole principle of equal opportunity enshrined in the treaty port system. American industrialists, after all, wished to retain access to all of China on a permanent basis. If this principle collapsed, the United States, with no sphere of its own and no capacity for obtaining one, would be in a dire position.


Two sets of voices insisted that the United States abandon its passive approach in China and take the lead to shore up the principle of equal privilege. One set came from Britain. Although not averse to securing special privileges of its own, it remained the principal great-power champion of the Open Door idea. In fact, the British-controlled Shanghai Chamber of Commerce may have been the first to hit upon the phrase in expressing the view that the whole of China should be opened to foreign trade. In any case, the scramble for concessions precipitated a sense of crisis in Britain, whose dominance in the China trade was threatened just as much as the far smaller U.S. stake. A lengthy debate on the situation took place in the House of Commons in January 1898, during the course of which two government speakers invoked the Open Door by name as the desirable alternative to partition. Three months later the British government proposed a joint Anglo-American declaration calling for equal commercial opportunity in China.

The other voices demanding that Washington take bold action to protect American interests came from within the United States. By 1898, as the historian Thomas J. McCormick has documented, a chorus of trade associations, publications, jingoistic politicians, and activist diplomats urged the McKinley administration to set aside old laissez-faire notions and actively defend American interests. "We must make our plans to secure our full share of the great trade which is coming out of the Orient," the National Association of Manufacturers demanded in 1897. Early the following year, the New York Chamber of Commerce sent McKinley a petition urging "proper steps" for the "preservation and protection of important commercial interest in the [Chinese] Empire." The press took a similar view. With Moscow apparently threatening to absorb Manchuria into the Russian customs area, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle demanded a "strong representation in favor of keeping open the trade on equal terms to all nations." Meanwhile the New York Tribune asserted that "commercial interests, which are now great and which promise one day to be enormous," demanded that the U.S. government be "deeply involved in China." Activism was essential, it insisted, contending that "without strenuous insistence by this Government the indisputable treaty rights of the United States are likely to be ignored and violated by the more aggressive European powers."

Washington responded cautiously to this pressure, only gradually accepting the notion that it should play an active role in promoting American economic interests abroad. The possibility clashed with laissez-faire notions of economics and governance, ideas that remained influential with many Americans even in the 1890s. Only the Spanish-American War resolved the issue in favor of the industrialists and others who advocated bold action abroad. Following its crushing victory over Spain in the spring of 1898, the United States became the scene of a vast public debate over whether to annex the Philippines, the former Spanish colony ripe for the taking if the United States was willing to become a colonial power. The debate concerned not only the Philippines themselves, of course, but also the role that the U.S. government would play in the Far East generally, including China. Advocates of annexation argued that possession of the Philippines would greatly facilitate American exploitation of the China market by providing an insular "stepping stone" to the mainlanda coaling station, naval base, cable relay station, and observation post that would enhance America's capacity to keep the door to China open. Although U.S. behavior in the Philippines smacked of naked colonialism, Americans, including McKinley himself, disavowed any such intention in China. The United States, McKinley said, desired "no advantages in the Orient which are not common to all." Still, in accepting the administrative and military burdens of empire in the Philippines, the United States signaled a new era of activism on the Asian mainland.

Hay's Open Door Notes thus formed part of a package of policy decisions taken in 1898 and 1899, the foremost being the Philippines annexation, aimed at promoting American commerce in China. The delay between McKinley's decision and Hay's issuing of the notes owed mainly to the secretary of state's fears that the other powers would reject any U.S. initiative that he did not time carefully. New great-power maneuvering in China during the first months of 1899 kept the notoriously cautious Hay from acting. But imperial rivalries eased in the summer, leading Hay to believe that Britain, Japan, Germany, and probably even Russia would respond favorably to a diplomatic démarche on behalf of the Open Door. Hay ordered his chief adviser on Far Eastern affairs, William W. Rockhill, to prepare a statement of U.S. policy. Rockhill, a champion of the Open Door with a strong sense of the dangers that would flow from China's disintegration, was only too happy to oblige. With Alfred Hippisley, an English friend who had served in the Chinese customs service, Rockhill prepared the six memoranda that Hay sent to the governments of Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy, and France beginning on 6 September. With the proclamation of the new U.S. policy, the "scepter of Open Door champion," in McCormick's words, passed from Great Britain to the United States.

The Open Door policy appeared a natural course of action for the United States for a variety of reasons. For one thing, proponents were confident that the United States would be the winner on a level commercial playing field. U.S. exports to China in 1899 amounted to a bare 1.1 percent of all U.S. exports, but in absolute terms the China trade was booming, with the value of U.S. goods shipped to China climbing to $14 million from just $6 million five years earlier. American textiles and oil companies especially profited, and further growth seemed certain as the U.S. economy revived in 1897. "In the field of trade and commerce," Hay proclaimed in 1899, "we shall be the keen competitors of the richest and greatest powers, and they need no warning to be assured that in that struggle, we shall bring the sweat to their brows." Banker's Magazine predicted that "without wars and without military aggression that nation will secure the widest and best markets which can offer the cheapest and best goods"; only British wares, it continued, could rival those of the United States. Some Americans predicted that their exports would balloon to billions of dollars a year if the U.S. government could keep the door open.

If the Open Door suited supposed American commercial supremacy, it also suited U.S. military weakness and aversion to great-power politics. In Central America and the Caribbean, where the United States towered over any potential rival, the United States eagerly pursued exclusive economic privileges. In the Far East, however, the situation was very different. The Spanish-American War signaled the emergence of the United States as a major world power with the capacity to project force as far away as the western Pacific, but it could hardly rival the capabilities of Japan, Russia, and even the European powers already well-ensconced in China. If great-power relations in China developed into a game of coercion and partition, the United States would inevitably lose. The Open Door policy promised to remove force from the equation and to limit competition to fields where the United States would likely prevail. The policy, with its multilateral aspect and emphasis on universal principles, also carried the advantage of keeping the United States clear of international alliances as an alternative method of protecting American interests. Even as the United States emerged as a major power, the vast majority of Americans opposed foreign entanglements, and the McKinley administration saw no reason to risk its popularity. An alliance with Britain, the most likely candidate based on shared interests, was out of the question because of widespread Anglophobia. The other good possibility, Japan, showed an off-putting inconsistency and opportunism in China. The Open Door policy, by contrast, promised to win the cooperation of the other powers without sacrificing the administration's political standing, reducing American freedom of action, or creating military burdens that Washington was unwilling to assume.

Perhaps most importantly, the Open Door policy suited Americans ideologically by sustaining their traditional aversion to colonialism and their commitment to liberal principles. Although the United States repeatedly violated its own supposed anticolonial commitments in the late nineteenth century and maintained quasi-imperial control over Latin America, a substantial portion of congressional and public opinion abided by a perception of the United States as a fundamentally anticolonial country. The resistance that the McKinley administration confronted during the debate over Philippine annexation in mid-1898 attested to the strength of anti-imperial opinion. The Open Door offered an ideal solution because it permitted the United States to obtain markets in China while assuming the moral high ground. The notes, in the words of historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, represented "an imperialist economics in the guise of anticolonialism." Both avid expansionists and old-guard devotees of laissez-faire could unite behind the Open Door idea. The policy also appealed because it promised to sustain Chinese unity and give the Chinese access to the most modern goods and ideas that Westerners had to offer. The policy thus meshed well with Americans' self-perception as a force for modernization and enlightenment in backward areas of the world. One of the foremost promoters of the Open Door in the United States, the English author and lecturer Lord Charles Beresford, struck the theme in characteristic terms a few months before Hay's notes. Proclaiming that the Open Door represented a "grand, chivalrous, [and] noble sentiment in regard to what should be done with weaker nations," he asserted that such an approach would not only advance "the interests of trade and commerce, but it will push the interests of humanity and of Christianity."

For all these reasons, the Open Door policy was popular in the United States. In China, however, the policy encountered serious obstacles from the start. The problem was not so much the response of the great powers. Although none of them was particularly pleased with Hay's initiative, they were fearful that partition would lead to war and impressed that Washington demanded nothing more than simple equality of commercial access. One by one they grudgingly went along with Hay's demandsor at least displayed enough ambivalence so that Americans could assume acquiescence. By far the greater problem was mounting resentment among the Chinese people, whose real attitudes contradicted the ethnocentric American fantasy of a docile population that would welcome modernization from the West. The Boxer Rebellion, the most serious antiforeign uprising of the period, broke out in 1898 and grew more serious over the following two years. Armed insurgents slaughtered hundreds of missionaries and thousands of their Chinese converts and destroyed foreign property, including the railways and communication lines integral to Western commerce. In 1900 the Boxers marched on Peking, killing foreign diplomats and missionaries and, for nearly two months, laying siege to the foreign legations. To meet the emergency, the McKinley administration dispatched five thousand U.S. troops from the Philippines to join the international expeditionary force that raised the siege in mid-August.

The fighting threw the Open Door policy into disarray. Not only did the upheaval make a mockery of American insistence that China should be regarded as an integral, sovereign nation, but the intervention of foreign troops also presented the possibility that one or more of the imperial powers would try to exploit the chaotic situation by seizing new parts of China. "Your Open Door is already off its hinges, not six months old," the author Henry Adams complained to Hay as the crisis unfolded. "What kind of door can you rig up?" Hay, once again relying on Rockhill and Hippisley, responded with his second Open Door Note on 3 July. The new circular restated American commitments from the year before and asked the powers to affirm that they supported China's "territorial and administrative integrity." U.S. policy, Hay asserted, "is to seek a solution which may bring about permanent safety and peace to China and safeguard for the world the principle of equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese Empire." Meanwhile, American diplomats went to work shoring up the authority of local rulers in China's center and south to minimize the temptation for any of the great powers to move in on the pretext of restoring order.

As in the previous year, American policy succeeded superficially. In 1901 all the powers withdrew from Peking and, unwilling to risk shattering the status quo, indicated at least tolerance for the Open Door principle. That result came slowly and reluctantly, however, and various developments along the way suggested trouble for the Open Door policy over the long term. First, Russia threatened to exploit the presence of its troops in China to force the Qing to yield further privileges in Manchuria. Then American support for the Open Door policy tottered as President McKinley toyed with the idea of abandoning the policy altogether. Under fierce election-year criticism for his overseas adventures and frustrated with great-power maneuvering, McKinley considered withdrawing U.S. troops from the international force in China, a move that would have destroyed the concert of powers that Washington had worked hard to maintain. As McKinley recognized, the move also would have freed the United States to participate in the partitioning of China by carving out a sphere of its own, a prospect that gained sudden support among a number of policymakers. From Peking, U.S. minister E. H. Conger made a startling proposal to acquire a lease over Zhili province, including apparently the Chinese capital itself. More modest in its aims, the U.S. Navy called for the establishment of a base on the Chinese coast, preferably Samsah (Sansha) Bay in Fujian province. McKinley and even Hay endorsed that proposal, but China, in an unusual gesture of defiance, rejected it out of hand, quoting from America's own cherished Open Door principles.

Before 1900 was out, the administration had retreated to the Open Door policy. The American flirtation with empire in China ended amid grudging acceptance that exerting influence within the concert of powersrather than breaking out on its ownremained the best course for the United States. But events left Hay keenly aware of the many problems that beset his policy. There was not, he wrote in late 1900, "a single power we can rely on for our policy of abstention from plunder and the Open Door." Nor, he recognized, did the United States have the military or moral authority to control events in China if any of the powers chose to oppose American preferences. In a remarkably candid assessment of the limits of U.S. influence, Hay asserted:

The inherent weakness of our position is this: we do not want to rob China ourselves, and our public opinion will not permit us to interfere, with an army, to prevent others from robbing her. Besides, we have no army. The talk of the papers about "our preeminent moral position giving us the authority to dictate to the world" is mere flap-doodle.

American impotence was on display in 1901 as the imperial powers ignored U.S. protests and demanded that China pay a debilitating $300 million indemnity to cover foreign property destroyed in the Boxer uprising. When Japan and the Europeans chose to ignore it, the Open Door policy counted for little.


The weakness of American policy would be further borne out over the next two decades as three U.S. administrations, each in its own way, struggled to keep the door open. At first, the main challenger to U.S. policy was Russia, which continued to tighten its grip on Manchuria in ways that directly threatened American market access. Although American trade with China remained modest (accounting for less than 1 percent of all U.S. exports in 1904), Manchuria was increasingly critical to American merchants, absorbing about 90 percent of all U.S. exports to China. As the historian Michael H. Hunt has shown, American success resulted partly from Chinese encouragement of American trade as a way to offset Russian domination. The Chinese strategy worked fairly well. The administration of Theodore Roosevelt registered vigorous protests with the Russian government and even threatened to join an emerging military alliance between Japan and Britain if Moscow did not respect American prerogatives. "I wish, in Manchuria, to go to the very limit I think our people will stand," Roosevelt wrote to Hay. In fact, war in China remained an impossibility for the United States, which was even more averse to military commitments there during the Roosevelt administration than it had been earlier. When Japan proposed cooperation against Russia in 1901, the United States indicated no interest whatsoever. As before, domestic political constraints and sheer lack of military capacity in the Far East left the United States with no alternative but to pursue its goals diplomatically. Washington gave its quiet support to the British-Japanese alliance formed in 1902, practicing the time-honored weak nation's strategy of putting other nations' power to work on its behalf.

Japan, by contrast, had enormous interests in Manchuria and military power to match. When Russia refused to permit foreign settlement of newly established treaty ports in Manchuria, Japan declared war in February 1904, smashing the Russian fleet at Tsushima Strait fifteen months later. The overwhelming Japanese victory reverberated around the world, signaling the emergence of a non-Western great power and inspiring a generation of Asian nationalists to challenge Western hegemony. It also dramatically altered the situation in China, catapulting Japan into the role of the most formidable and, from Washington's standpoint, potentially most threatening power. If the European powers necessarily had "divided interests, divided cares, double burdens" as they looked to their affairs in both Europe and the Far East, Roosevelt recognized that Japan could concentrate entirely on China. It had, as Roosevelt wrote, "but one care, one interest, one burden." From that moment forward, the challenge of maintaining the Open Door would be mainly the challenge of managing Japanese powera task that ultimately proved impossible.

Initially, though, the United States showed little of the alarm that Hay or Rockhill might have displayed a few years earlier. In the years following the Russo-Japanese War, Chinaand with it the Open Door policylost much of its importance for U.S. policymakers. One reason lay in Roosevelt's basic approach to foreign policy. A realist with a clear sense of the limits of American power, the president opted to appease Japan rather than to risk conflict in a part of the world where he understood Japanese interests and power were vastly superior. U.S.Japanese tensions already simmered because of violence and discrimination against Japanese immigrants in California, and Roosevelt saw no reason to stir the pot further by insisting upon anything more than minimal toleration of American trade. A bland 1908 agreement, signed by Secretary of State Elihu Root and the Japanese ambassador in Washington, Takahira Kogoro, restated the Open Door principle but contained no new provisions to shore it up. Roosevelt may have believed that conflict with Japan was inevitable, but he was only too happy to postpone the day of reckoning into the indefinite future.

Another reason for declining U.S. interest in actively defending the Open Door was fading American enthusiasm for the China market. Following the burst of American interest in the 1890s, many U.S. businessmen began to lose faith in the vision of vast profits. Chinese nationalists helped dampen American hopes in 1905 by organizing a boycott of U.S. goods to protest Washington's indefinite extension of an 1882 law barring Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Hay, now out of office, blamed the Chinese for failing to exploit the Open Door to their advantage. "We have done the Chinks a great service which they don't seem inclined to recognize," Hay complained in 1903, revealing the scorn beneath supposedly beneficent American policy. If many Chinese lacked the desire for American goods, it also became clear that China lacked the purchasing power and infrastructure to furnish the market about which Americans fantasized. As the U.S. consul general in Hong Kong had written in 1899, "99 percent of China is still closed to the world. When the magazine writer refers in glowing terms to the 400,000,000 inhabitants of China, he forgets that 350,000,000 are a dead letter so far as commerce is concerned." The statistics sustained that judgment: in the first two decades of the twentieth century, U.S. exports to China continued to hover around a meager 1 percent of the value of all U.S. exports.

China hardly faded away, however, as a matter of American concern. Paradoxically, as policymakers and businessmen lost interest during the Roosevelt years, the Open Door policy became increasingly intertwined withand sustained bythe powerful reform movement that captured the imagination of Americans as the country struggled to cope with the effects of industrialization, immigration, and other massive social transformations of the preceding quarter century. For decades, of course, Americans had assumed a special responsibility for China and viewed their efforts to exploit the China market in an altruistic light: The United States would profit, Americans believed, but so too would the Chinese, who would gain access to Christianity and modernizing ideas as well as American goods. In the Progressive era, American reformers expanded on this connection between material and moral progress and helped preserve, and even extend, American faith in the Open Door policy as the actual material basis of the policy stagnated. As the historian Jerry Israel demonstrates, Progressives were among the most important advocates of preserving the American access to China and maintaining the integrity of the Chinese state. However disappointing China had proved so far, the reformers held boundless confidence in its potential for both moral and material progress, which were indistinguishable in their minds. For the Progressives, Israel argues, China was an extension of the United States, and to admit failure there would have been tantamount to admitting failure of the reformist vision at home.

Mining engineer Herbert Hoover, Red Cross worker Mabel Boardman, education reformer John Dewey, sociologist Edward A. Ross, and many other leading Progressive figures focused their attention on China at one time or another. Ross's 1912 book, The Changing Chinese: The Conflict of Oriental and Western Culture in China, was typical of the Progressives' optimism about China's potential for modernization under Western tutelage. The apparent inertness of Chinese society was not, he wrote, the result of a "horror of the new." Rather, it resulted from the stultifying weight of millennia-old traditions that needed to be cracked. Among the reforms Ross advocated were "dropping ancestor worship, dissolving the clan, educating girls, elevating women, postponing marriage, introducing compulsive education, restricting child labor, and otherwise individualizing the members of the family"all changes that Americans were ideally suited to help bring about. With similar goals, Yale University established Yale-in-China, an overseas philanthropic program for the education and "uplifting of leading Chinese young men toward civilization." Meanwhile, the Young Men's Christian Association set itself the multiple purposes of providing living quarters for visiting American businessmen, sponsoring lectures on industrial education, working to ameliorate slum conditions, combating prostitution, and spreading the Christian gospel. In a revealing quip, Mark Twain poked fun at these reformers, with their blend of material and moral objectives, as the "blessings of civilization trust."

If the door was wide open in the American imagination, William Howard Taft perceived that it was in fact creaking shut because of continued encroachment by the other powers, especially Japan. As he assumed the presidency in 1909, Taft rejected his predecessor's practice of appeasing Tokyo and advocated a major expansion of American economic activity in the Far East as part of his broader practice of "dollar diplomacy." The new administration, led by its top Far Eastern specialist, Willard Straight, not only hoped to invigorate U.S. exports but also wished to promote American investment in China, an activity that Washington had not previously emphasized. The response from the other powers indicated that the Open Door policy was becoming a fond illusion. When Taft asked the Chinese government to grant part of a major railroad-construction loan to the United States, he discovered that the decision belonged to Britain, France, and Germany, members of the banking consortium that controlled China's finances. The consortium grudgingly admitted the United States, but before long Washington's aspirations ran up against another roadblock when it sought the opportunity to invest in railroad construction in Manchuria. Peking favored the scheme, hoping to use the United States to offset Japanese and Russian influence in the region. But Chinese approval hardly mattered. Faced with great-power hostility, Taft's secretary of state, Philander Knox, resorted to a proposal that came straight from the heart of the Open Door ideal: all railroads in Manchuria, Knox suggested, should be internationalized, thus easing the competition for concessions and permitting all of the powers equal opportunity. In one fell swoop, the scheme aimed to bolster Chinese autonomy, benefit American investors, and deal a blow against imperialism. Russian indebtedness made Knox optimistic of gaining Moscow's consent, but Tokyo predictably would have none of it. The scheme died quickly.

Roosevelt and Taft thus offer a study in contrasts in their conceptions of the Open Door policy. While Roosevelt attached a low priority to the policy and chose not to antagonize Japan by insisting on it too strongly, the Taft administration was determined to prop the door open firmly and went further than even Hay had thought wise in promoting U.S. economic activity in China. Woodrow Wilson offered a third alternative when he ascended to the White House in 1913. By that time, the Chinese Revolution of 19111912 had toppled the Qing dynasty, an inspiring development for Americans like Wilson who fancied themselves champions of democracy and progress. Wilson and his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, immediately distanced the United States from both Roosevelt's solicitude for power and Taft's solicitude for bankers, embracing instead a more principled variant of the Open Door based on strict anticolonialism. Far more than either of his predecessors, Wilson had imbibed the moralistic rhetoric about America's mission in China. First, he withdrew the United States from the international lending consortium in China, an enterprise of Taft's that, in the new administration's view, put Washington in league with the imperial powers. China, Wilson believed, should be permitted to obtain financial aid that did not entail dependency on the great powers. Then the administration, in a self-conscious display of support for the principle of self-determination, leaped ahead of the other powers to grant diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China.

Wilson's gestures of solidarity with America's "sister republic" were no more successful than earlier U.S. efforts to protect the Open Door policy. The new U.S. approach simply had no capacity to resolve the two problems that plagued American policy: the chronic weakness of Chinese central authority and mounting Japanese ambition. The Chinese Revolution failed to install a central government capable of unifying the country or resisting foreign exactions. Instead, political authority soon fell to an assortment of local politicians and warlords who generally accommodated themselves to the demands of the great powers. Japan was ideally positioned to profit from this situation, all the more so after the outbreak of World War I. With the other powers preoccupied in Europe, the Japanese government saw a golden opportunity to expand its grip on the mainland with minimal risk of opposition. Japan quickly seized German territories in the Far East, including those in the Shandong Peninsula. But the boldest stroke came in January 1915, when Japan presented the enfeebled Chinese government with the infamous Twenty-One Demands. The document demanded that China regularize Japanese gains in Shandong and elsewhere and surrender new concessions in Manchuria. Still more damagingly, it required that China grant no new leaseholds to other powers along the Chinese coast, allow Japan to control most of China's key natural resources, buy at least half its armaments from Japan, allow Japanese police to operate in various key locations, and accept Japanese advisers in administering domestic affairsarrangements that would have given Japan a virtual protectorate over China.

The Japanese démarche left American officials stunned and uncertain. Initially, amid major distractions in Europe, Washington had little interest in tangling with Japan in a part of the world that was decidedly of secondary importance. After a few weeks, however, the affair caught Wilson's attention. The president brought U.S. policy back in line with his anticolonial instincts, instructing Bryan to be "as active as the circumstances permit in showing ourselves to be the champions of the sovereign rights of China." Faced with opposition from the United States and even its close ally Britain, Japan backed down on the most extreme of its demands. But Tokyo clearly understood that there was little the Western nations could do in the matter and pressed ahead with all terms that centered on economic privileges. Under the threat of force, China yielded with little delay. U.S. policy had clearly suffered a major blow, although the Wilson administration would not admit it at the time. Bryan put the best face on the episode by declaring that the United States would not recognize any agreement that violated Chinese sovereignty or conflicted with the Open Door.

In an effort to give substance to such pledges, the Wilson administration slid back toward Taft's old approach. In 1916, under the guidance of the U.S. minister in Peking, Paul Reinsch, the United States rejoined the banking consortium that Wilson had so brusquely abandoned three years earlier. American investment, the administration concluded, was the only avenue open to Washington for bolstering Chinese unity and checking Japanese influence, which otherwise would go virtually unopposed. Working within the consortium, American thinking went, would enable the United States at least to sit at the table with Japan as equals in discussions of the crucial matter of foreign lending. Wilson also tried direct negotiations with Japan in 1917. Under an agreement signed by Secretary of State Robert Lansing and the Japanese ambassador in Washington, the United States acknowledged Japan's "special interests" in China in exchange for a promise to respect the principles of Chinese sovereignty and the Open Door. These steps changed nothing, however, about the basic problem that confronted the United States in China: if Japan chose not to cooperate, there was nothing Washington could do about it. That underlying reality came to the fore in 1919 at the Versailles Conference, where Wilson, armed with his rhetoric of self-determination, proposed to roll back foreign privileges in China and affirm Chinese sovereignty. Japanese control over Shandong province became the symbolic test case for Wilson's ideas. The president demanded the restoration of Chinese sovereignty; Japan refused. When Japanese representatives threatened to leave the peace conference rather than concede the point, Wilson backed down.


Wilson's capitulation provoked fierce criticism in China, where irate students took to the streets. It also fed Wilson's growing problems at home with Congress, where opposition to the president's cherished League of Nations mounted amid accusations that the administration had sold out its own principles. But Wilson's calculation was plain: it was better to stay on Japan's good side and ensure the country's participation in the League of Nations, which would inevitably take up the China question later on. Things might, then, turn out well in the long run. Wilson's ambitious vision of an international solution in China came to naught, of course, when Congress rejected the league in 1920. Ironically, however, his successor, the notoriously unambitious Warren Harding, followed Wilson's reasoning quite closely, opting to deal with rivalries in China by gathering all of the great powers together to work out their differences and establish new principles of conduct in the Far East. The result, the Washington Conference of 19211922, was an important diplomatic victory for the United States and a majorif temporarybreath of life for the Open Door policy.

Following World War I, Japanese power in the Far East continued to mount. In the 1920s Japan accounted for about 90 percent of all new foreign investment in China, while a quarter of all Japanese exports went there. In many ways, Japan's relationship with the mainland resembled the economic and political stranglehold the United States held over the Caribbean and Central America. The Chinese economy was increasingly locked in to Japanese needs, as both recipient of Japanese investment and manufactured goods and as supplier of food and raw materials. The dramatic growth of Japan's naval power also alarmed American observers by raising the specter of a Japanese challenge to Anglo-American control of Pacific commerce. By 1921 warship construction consumed fully one-third of Japan's budget. Fearing a naval arms race, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes invited the foreign ministers of eight maritime nations to Washington to reduce tensions in the Far East. The Japanese government, content to pursue its aims peacefully, entered into all three of the resulting treaties. A four-power nonaggression pact committed Japan, the United States, Britain, and France to consult in the case of future controversies. Meanwhile, a five-power agreement, which included Italy, checked the naval arms race by fixing limits on the size of each navy. By far the most important treaty for the future of the Open Door policy was the Nine-Power Treaty that called for noninterference in China's internal affairs and respect for the Open Door principle. In words that John Hay himself might have written, the agreement bound signatories "to respect the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China."

The treaty was the most promising assertion of the Open Door policy since Hay's notes. In contrast to the halting and piecemeal promises of the various powers over the previous two decades to uphold the principle of equal economic opportunity, the Washington agreements solemnly bound all of the principal powers (except the excluded Soviet Union) and even reflected input from a full-fledged Chinese delegation. Moreover, the agreements had the strength of acknowledging, rather than resisting as so often in the past, Japan's emergence as the dominant power in the Far East. As a strategy for maintaining the Open Door, the international approach outshined Roosevelt's appeasement, Taft's dollar diplomacy, or Wilson's early dedication to principle. To be sure, underlying problems remained. For one thing, the agreements contained no enforcement mechanism. Nor did they challenge the existing Japanese position in China. In fact, Elihu Root assured Japan early in the negotiations that the United States would not challenge Tokyo's special privileges. All the Chinese government obtained from the powers was permission to raise its import tariff by 5 percent and a promise to study ways of ending extraterritoriality. Most importantly, the agreements held little promise for slowing Japan's economic penetration of China and preserving a truly fair field for American goods. So strong had Japan's economic grip over China become that it no longer had much reason to fear American competition. To a considerable degree, Japan had achieved the dominant commercial position in China that Americans believed would naturally fall to them if the door were kept open.

Those underlying problems remained submerged, however, during the hopeful years that followed the Washington Conference. In Tokyo, a relatively democratic and progressive Japanese government abided by the conciliatory stance adopted at the meeting. Although overpopulation, resource shortages, and old dreams of empire on the mainland continued to drive Japanese policy, the government displayed little appetite for bold moves that would arouse the other powers. Meanwhile, U.S.Japanese relations warmed dramatically amid a burst of American enthusiasm for Japan's economic efficiency and administrative reliability, which stood in sharp contrast to ongoing chaos in China. World War I had witnessed a vast expansion of U.S.Japanese commerce, and during the 1920s the United States confirmed its position as Japan's most important trading partner.

If improved relations with Japan gave Americans reason to think the Open Door policy was safe from its most likely opponent, the shifting situation in China gave them hope that their ultimate dreama unified China freed from foreign constraints and providing stable access for American goodsmight be coming true. After years of political turmoil, the nationalist movement of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek began to make headway in the mid-1920s toward unifying the country under a viable central government. Among the nationalists' foremost objectives was the abolition of the "unequal treaties" that enshrined foreign privileges on Chinese soil. At first, U.S. officials resisted Chinese pressure to end the privileges it had obtained. Indeed, when Sun overstepped treaty provisions in 1923 by claiming surplus customs receipts, U.S. warships joined an international fleet to deter him. But Americans were hardly unified behind that approach, and an increasing number were horrified by practices that suggested colonial designs against a vigorous young republic. While some diplomats prized U.S. treaty privileges and backed gunboat diplomacy to maintain them, most Americans returned to the old vision of a wholly sovereign and administratively competent China as the key to realizing the bounty of the China market. The latter group gained the upper hand in 1928 after Chiang successfully concluded his Northern Expedition, a moment Americans chose to interpret as signaling the arrival of a united China under Kuomintang rule. On 25 July, the United States unilaterally granted tariff autonomy to China in exchange for a new guarantee of most-favored-nation status.

The American move ended one of the most humiliating aspects of the foreign presence in China and marked a moment of triumph for those Americans who had never lost faith that the United States would be China's savior. But it also provoked a powerful Japanese response against which the United States was powerless. It is one of the instructive ironies of the Open Door policy that its final downfall followed so closely on the heels of its apparent heyday. Even at its high point, the policy was more illusion than reality, riddled with so many flaws that it could be demolished once Japan decided to act. Japanese policy began to turn in the late 1920s, when Chiang challenged Japanese privileges in Manchuria. That Chiang did so with the clear support of the United States meant that American economic interests would inevitably gain at Japanese expense. As Tokyo feared, Japanese exports dropped by one-half between 1929 and 1931. The threat to Japan's prestige and its hardwon privileges on the mainland was more than the Japanese military and hard-line nationalists could abide. On 18 September 1931, mid-ranking Japanese army officers acted boldly to reverse this trend, blowing up a section of railway in Manchuria and then blaming Chinese nationalists for the act. The episode, known as the Mukden Incident, became the pretext for Japan to occupy the entire region. Less than a year later, Japan's Kwantung army succeeded in detaching Manchuria from the rest of China and creating the puppet state of Manchukuo.

The timid U.S. response pointed up the weaknesses that had riddled the Open Door policy since its inception. The Hoover administration answered not with economic sanctions but with an ineffective declaration of "nonrecognition" of Japanese aggression. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson informed the Japanese government that the United States would not recognize any "treaty or agreement" brought about by force or coercion. The U.S. response partly reflected the administration's domestic preoccupations and the unwillingness of the American public to take on foreign commitments as the Great Depression worsened. But other deterrents to bold American action had existed long before the global economic crisis. First of all, the United States, just as in 1898, lacked the ability to back up any diplomatic démarche with force. The U.S. Navy was the world's second largest by 1930, but it still could not hope to challenge Japan in Far Eastern waters. Also discouraging any bold American reply was the longstanding problem, recognized by Theodore Roosevelt two decades before, that China just did not matter very much. Despite all of the hype about the China market and America's special role, China still played a relatively insignificant role in the U.S. economy. Through the 1920s and 1930s, China accounted for only about 2 percent of total U.S. exports each year. In the same period, by contrast, Japan absorbed between 8 and 10 percent of U.S. exports. There was thus little incentive to challenge Japan on behalf of China.

When exactly the demise of the Open Door policy should be dated is open to debate. Certainly, 1931 qualifies as a leading contender. In that year, after all, the partition of China, the development that the Open Door policy had been designed to avoid, came about with breathtaking decisiveness. Moreover, Japan's 1932 attack on Shanghai signaled that Tokyo's ambitions extended far beyond Manchuria. Another possible end point is 1937, the beginning of a full-fledged Sino-Japanese war that quickly resulted in Japanese control over virtually all of the ports, railroads, and other industrial facilities throughout China. A third contender is 1950, when Mao Zedong, having completed the communist conquest of China, slammed the door shut against the United States. Only then, perhaps, did Americans finally give up on the idea that the United States could reopen the door after Japan's defeat. Indeed, during the mid-1940s U.S. leaders had clearly entertained notions of reestablishing a major American presence, only to see their hopes crushed by a movement that, more than any other, reflected a century of Chinese resentment over foreign intervention. The communists' special wrath for the United States illuminates more clearly than anything else the delusion of exceptionalism that had underpinned American policy for half a century.


Measured in one way, the Open Door policy might be evaluated as a success. Considering what a weak hand the United States actually held in China between the 1890s and the 1930s, it arguably played the game well, constantly manipulating its rivals into paying at least lip service to American policy and helping to prevent an all-out scramble for China. Even if Americans failed to achieve the market of which they dreamed, 1 or 2 percent of U.S. exports still represented an enormous amount of trade. Measured against the aspirations of its most ardent supporters, however, the Open Door policy rates as a failure. While American businessmen and social reformers elaborated a vision of China as a protégé nation offering boundless opportunity for profit and good deeds, the reality was something else entirely. From the very moment when the Open Door was conceived and identified as a distinctive American policy, powerful forces went to work against it: the treaty port colonialism of the European powers, the rise of a robust Japan eager for control of the mainland, and mounting resistance within China itself.

If these forces destroyed American policy in China, they hardly demolished the idea of the Open Door. On the contrary, the architects of the Open Door policy, whatever their achievementsor lack thereofin China, helped to establish an attitude toward the non-Western world that would persist powerfully in the Cold War era and beyond. The problem that confronted John Hay in 1899 had called for a decision of epoch-making importance. By what means would the nation extend its reach overseas? The emerging industrial economy seemed to demand bold steps to acquire new markets abroad, but ideological and political traditions made Americans, outside of a brief fascination with territorial acquisition at the time of the Spanish-American War, averse to formal colonialism. The principal contribution of Hay, Rockhill, Knox, Straight, Reinsch, Hughes, and the other guardians of the door was to resolve the dilemma through a formula that enabled the United States to pursue an aggressively expansionist economic policy, while avoiding the taint of political domination and the burdens of territorial administration. It was a clever solution that, whatever its immediate failures in China, established the pattern for many decades of American foreign policy.

William Appleman Williams and his followers recognized the pattern and elaborated an "open door interpretation" of U.S. foreign policy that remains strongly influential more than forty years after Williams published the foundational text The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. In the writings of these scholars, the open door metaphor not only survived its eclipse in the 1930s Far East, it emerged as one of the most enduring interpretive concepts in the study of U.S. foreign relations. The interpretation remains powerful mainly because it provides a persuasive answer to one of the questions at the heart of the study of American foreign relations: How is it that the United States could be the world's most vociferous opponent of colonialism yet also a remarkably interventionist nation that would, in the second half of the twentieth century, control one of the largest empires, albeit of a new and different sort, that the world had ever known? Williams, Walter LaFeber, Thomas McCormick, and others suggest that the promotion of free trade enabled American capitalists to have it both ways. Under the banner of high-minded principles that supposedly enhanced the interests of all nations, they could justify all sorts of political, economic, and military action to prop up a system that in practice enabled the United States to reap more than its proportionate share of the profits.

The open door interpretation remains influential for two additional reasons. First, it provides a neat, totalizing explanation for more than a century of American history stretching back into the period of continental expansion. For advocates of the open door interpretation, the quest for over-seas economic opportunity was simply an extension of the westward push that extended the U.S. market to the Pacific Ocean. With the closure of the frontier in the 1890s, the interpretation suggests, U.S. businesses turned their attention to overseas markets and justified the expansion of American influence through the same ideology of open markets and individual opportunity that had prevailed at home. Constant penetration of new markets was, in this view, essential to the health of an American capitalist system that depended on an ever-expanding economy to preserve social harmony in a nation characterized by vast inequities of wealth. According to the open door interpretation, American expansion in the 1890s, Wilson's appeals for an open global economy, and American determination to prevent the Sovietization of Eastern Europe in the late 1940s all stemmed from the same impulse to find and preserve markets for American industry and preserve domestic tranquility.

Second, the open door interpretation remains influential because it helps explain one of the most salient characteristics of twentieth-century international affairs, the tense relationship between the United States and much of the nonindustrial world. Americans, Williams and other argue, have persistently viewed their liberal principles as conducive to the development of the Third World. In practice, however, free trade has tended to concentrate wealth in industrial nations and to deprive poor countries on the periphery of control over their own economic circumstances. Increasingly, Third World peoples found themselves locked into subordinate roles as suppliers of raw materials and consumers of good manufactured elsewhere. "To many through the world," wrote Williams, "the Open Door Policy appeared to confront them with a door closed to their own progress." When nations attempted to break out of this unfavorable relationship and claim control over their own economies, the open door interpretation suggests, they confronted counterrevolutionary U.S. intervention aimed at restoring them to the integrated international economy dominated by Washington. During the Cold War, the pattern repeated itself in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and many other places where the United States resisted the emergence of nationalist or leftist governments that threatened American economic privileges. The open door interpretation offers a power explanation for the trail of repression and blood left by American activity across the Third World.


Buckley, Thomas H. The United States and the Washington Conference, 19211922. Knoxville, Tenn., 1970.

Cohen, Warren I. America's Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations. 4th ed. New York, 2000. Outstanding survey that sets the Open Door period in a broad context.

Fairbank, John King. The United States and China. 4th ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

Goldstein, Jonathan, Jerry Israel, and Hilary Conroy, eds. America Views China: American Images of China Then and Now. Bethlehem, Pa., 1991.

Hunt, Michael H. Frontier Defense and the Open Door: Manchuria in Chinese-American Relations, 18951911. New Haven, Conn., 1973. One of the first scholars to use Chinese sources, Hunt stresses China's attempts to manipulate the Open Door policy to its advantage.

. The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914. New York, 1983.

Iriye, Akira. Pacific Estrangement: Japanese and American Expansion, 18971911. Cambridge, Mass., 1972. The best work comparing U.S. and Japanese ideas about expansionism in China.

. After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 19211931. Chicago, 1990. Useful survey of the Open Door's final years.

. The Globalizing of America, 19131945. Cambridge, 1993.

Israel, Jerry. Progressivism and the Open Door: America and China, 19051921. Pittsburgh, 1971. Links domestic reformism with American ambitions in China.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 18761917. New York, 2000. Outstanding work that sets the Open Door within the broad flow of U.S. foreign policy and hostility to foreign workers.

Jesperson, T. Christopher. American Images of China, 19311949. Stanford, 1996.

LaFeber, Walter. The American Search for Opportunity, 18151913. Cambridge, 1993. With his The New Empire, elaborates the Open Door interpretation.

. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 18601898. New ed. Ithaca, N.Y., 1998.

May, Ernest R., and John Fairbank, eds. America's China Trade in Historical Perspective: The Chinese and American Performance. Cambridge, Mass., 1986. Refines McCormick's account in important ways.

McCormick, Thomas J. China Market: America's Quest for Informal Empire, 18931901. Chicago, 1967. Remains an authoritative account of the Open Door policy's origins.

McKee, Delber L. Chinese Exclusion Versus the Open Door Policy, 19001906: Clashes over China Policy in the Roosevelt Era. Detroit, Mich., 1977. Analyses one of the most striking paradoxes of American behavior toward China.

Minger, Ralph Eldin. William Howard Taft and United States Foreign Policy: The Apprenticeship Years, 19001908. Urbana, Ill., 1975.

Ninkovich, Frank. The United States and Imperialism. Malden, Mass., 2001. An excellent survey that sets the Open Door in a broad context.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 18901945. New York, 1982. Brilliant analysis of the Open Door, especially valuable for contrasting U.S. policies in the Far East and Latin America.

Ross, Edward A. The Changing Chinese: The Conflict of Oriental and Western Culture in China. New York, 1911.

Scully, Eileen. "Taking the Low Road in Sino-American Relations: 'Open Door' Expansionists and the Two China Markets." Journal of American History 82 (June 1995): 6283. Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York, 1990.

Thomson, James C., Jr., Peter W. Stanley, and John Curtis Perry. Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia. New York, 1981.

Varg, Paul A. The Making of a Myth: The United States and China, 18971912. East Lansing, Mich., 1968.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New ed. New York, 1988. The classic formulation of the Open Door interpretation.

Young, Marilyn B. The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 18951901. Cambridge, Mass., 1968. Influential revisionist work that highlights the activities of U.S. business groups in promoting the Open Door.

See also Anti-Imperialism; The China Lobby; Consortia; Dollar Diplomacy; Extraterritoriality; Imperialism; Most-Favored-Nation Principle; Open Door Interpretation.


"Earnestly desirous to remove any cause of irritation and to insure at the same time to the commerce of all nations in China the undoubted benefits which should accrue from a formal recognition by the various powers claiming 'spheres of interest' that they shall enjoy perfect equality of treatment for their commerce and navigation within such 'spheres,' the Government of the United States would be pleased to see His German Majesty's Government give formal assurances, and lend its cooperation in securing like assurances from the other interested powers, that each, within its respective sphere of whatever influence

"First. Will in no way interfere with any treaty port or any vested interest within any so-called 'sphere of interest' or leased territory it may have in China.

"Second. That the Chinese treaty tariff of the time being shall apply to all merchandise landed or shipped to all such ports as are within said 'sphere of interest' , no matter to what nationality it may belong, and that duties so leviable shall be collected by the Chinese Government.

"Third, that it will levy no higher harbor dues on vessels of another nationality frequenting any sport in such 'sphere' than shall be levied on vessels of its nationality, and no higher railroad charges over lines built, controlled, or operated within its 'sphere' on merchandise belonging to citizens or subjects of other nationalities transported through such 'sphere' than shall be levied on similar merchandise belonging to its own nationals transported over equal distances."

Open Door Policy

views updated May 18 2018


OPEN DOOR POLICY was a foreign policy initiative enunciated formally by Secretary of State John Hay in his Open Door notes of 1899 and 1900. The first note was issued on 6 September 1899 to Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, with notes following to Japan, France, and Italy. The initial note requested that the various governments ensure that equal commercial opportunity be allowed and that no nation with a sphere of influence use that power to benefit its own nationals. Although Hay's initial note did not receive unqualified and complete support, the secretary of state followed it up with a second note on 20 March 1900 that asserted that all nations had assented. With these statements, the United States formally declared its intentions to support American commercial interests in China.

The American idea of the open door was constituted by three interrelated doctrines: equality of commercial opportunity, territorial integrity, and administrative integrity. The Open Door policy emerged from two major cycles of American expansionist history. The first, a maritime cycle, gained impetus from the new commercial thrust of the mid-nineteenth century and blended into the new cycle of industrial and financial capitalism that emerged toward the end of the century and continued into the 1930s. Thereafter, its vitality ebbed away as political and economic forces posed a new power structure and national reorganization in the Far East.

First Cycle of Expansionism

The first cycle of open door activity developed through the mid-nineteenth-century interaction of the expansion of American continental and maritime frontiers. The construction of the transcontinental railroads gave rise to the idea of an American transportation bridge to China. The powers behind the lush China trade, headquartered in the mid-Atlantic and New England coastal cities, established commercial positions on the north Pacific Coast and in Hawaii in order to transfer furs and sandalwood as items in trade with the Chinese. The resulting expansion of maritime commerce was coordinated with a variety of commercial interests, including American investment in whaling; the great interest in the exploration of the Pacific Ocean and historic concern for the development of a short route from the Atlantic to the Pacific across Central America; a growing American diplomatic, naval, and missionary focus on eastern Asia; the opening of China to American trade on the heels of the British victory in the Anglo-Chinese War of 1839–1842 via the Cushing Treaty of 1844; and the push into the Pacific led by Secretary of State William H. Seward that culminated in the purchase of Alaska in 1867 and the Burlingame Treaty of 1868.

Throughout this period, the United States adapted British commercial policy to its own ends by supporting the notion of free and open competition for trade in international markets, while denouncing British colonial acquisitions and preferential trade positions. The European subjection of China by force and the imposition of the resulting treaty system gave American maritime interests an opportunity to flourish without a parallel colonial responsibility or imperial illusion. The expansionist thrust of this cycle of mercantile exchange and trade reached its peak with the onset of the Spanish-American War and the great debate over the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines during the pivotal year of President William McKinley's administration, 1898.

Second Cycle of Expansionism

The second cycle of expansionist development sprang from the advent of industrial capitalism and the requirements of commercial American agriculture for export markets, bringing together a peculiarly complex mixture of farm and factory interests that had traditionally clashed over domestic economy policy and legislation. A mutually advantageous worldview of political economy was welded as both interests prepared to move into and expand the China market. As the increasing commercialization of American agriculture led to a need for greater outlets for American grain and cotton manufactured goods, China also was becoming a potential consumer of American heavy-industry products, including railroad equipment, and of oil products. At the same time, outlets were needed for the investment of growing American fortunes, and it was thought that the modernization of China through expansion of communication and transportation would in turn increase the demand for products of American economic growth.

Critics of Hay's policy assert that the open door formula "was already an old and hackneyed one at the turn of the century," that its "principles were not clear and precise," and that it could not "usefully be made the basis of a foreign policy." It may well be that American announcements on behalf of China's territorial integrity did create an erroneous "impression of a community of out-look among nations which did not really exist." But it was a foreign policy expressive of national ambition and protective of American interests, actual and potential. The policy was stimulated by international rivalry at the end of the nineteenth century for control of ports, territories, spheres of influence, and economic advantage at the expense of a weak China. It was manipulated through the influence of British nationals in the Imperial Maritime Customs Service (established by the foreign treaty system) who were intent on protecting their vested administrative interests even at the expense of their own country's position in China. And the policy was a time-honored tactic that attempted to strengthen the American position in China by cloaking its claims in the dress of international morality on behalf of China's territorial and political independence while simultaneously protecting the interests of the powers in maintaining the trade and political positions already acquired there. Dealing as Hay did from American bias in developing a position of power without admitting the power of an already existing ambition in China, the tactic of the open door served well to initiate a chain of open door claims that steadily expanded up to World War I and beyond.

Although Hay's Open Door notes are conventionally interpreted as an attempt to bluff the European and Japanese powers into accepting the American position in China, the notes actually announced the decision of the United States to press its interests on its own behalf.

From that time forward the United States involved itself in the international rivalries in Manchuria as well as in China proper. At first the United States was anti-Russian in Manchuria. But then, determined to extend American railroad, mining, and commercial privileges there, the United States became anti-Japanese after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, although it was not able to make a definitive commitment of national resources and energy. Influenced by the caution of President Theodore Roosevelt, in the Taft-Katsura Agreement of 1905 and the Root-Takahira Agreement of 1908, the United States recognized Japan's growing power in eastern Asia in return for stated open door principles and respect for American territorial legitimacy in the Far East. In 1909 and 1913, during the administration of President William Howard Taft, the United States attempted to move into Manchuria and China proper via open door proposals on behalf of American railroad and banking investment interests and in so doing made overtures of cooperation with the European powers as well as Russia and Japan. This was evident in the creation of the American Banking Group, which joined an international consortium to direct foreign investments in China. During President Woodrow Wilson's administrations, the United States veered from side to side. It forced the withdrawal of the American Banking Group from the consortium in 1913, attempted to protect its stake in China by opposing Japan's Twenty-One Demands on China in 1915, and then attempted to appease Japan's ambitions in Manchuria by recognizing the Japanese stake there in the Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917.

Five years later, at the Washington Armament Conference negotiations, the open door outlook was embedded in the details of the Nine-Power Treaty, which called for territorial and administrative integrity of China and equality of trade opportunity without special privileges for any nation. Additional efforts that emerged from the conference to ensure the Open Door policy of territorial and administrative integrity included plans for the abolition of extraterritoriality; the creation of a new tariff system, the removal of foreign troops and postal services, and the integrity of the railway system.

During the period 1929–1933, Manchuria came to the forefront of American open door concerns with the invocation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 against Japan's use of force in Manchuria. By 1931, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson had established the continuity of American policy by linking the principles of the Kellogg-Briand Pact with those expressed in the Nine-Power Treaty of 1922. A year later, in 1932, Stimson made history by articulating his nonrecognition doctrine regarding Japan's conquest of Manchuria and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo.

From that point onward, throughout the 1930s and on to World War II, the United States, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, maintained growing opposition to Japan's aggrandizement in the sphere of China and the enlargement of Japan's ambitions throughout Southeast Asia. The United States continued to be influenced by the concepts that the Open Door notes outlined and expanded its use of the doctrine beyond China.


Cohen, Warren I. America's Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. The original edition was published in 1971.

Fairbank, John K. The United States and China. 4th ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. The original edition was published in 1948.

Israel, Jerry. Progressivism and the Open Door: America and China, 1905–1921. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.

Kennan, George. American Diplomacy 1900–1950. Exp. edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. The original edition was published in 1951.

Williams, William A. The Shaping of American Diplomacy. 2d ed. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1970.

David R.Buck

See alsoChina, Relations with ; China Trade .

Open Door Policy

views updated Jun 08 2018


In 1890 the U.S. Bureau of the Census announced that the western frontier, as a continuous geographical line of settlement, had ceased to exist. This marked a monumental change in the way that Americans thought about their country. What had been an inexhaustible reservoir of natural resource and opportunity was now revealed to be finite and limited. The railroad system had been in the process of unifying the country since even before 1869, when construction was completed on the first transcontinental line. The miners and cattlemen and farmers followed. Now it was declared that the continental frontier had been pushed all the way to the western coast.

One of the first writers to discuss this event was the historian, Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner wrote that the significance of the frontier was immense. It had provided the natural framework for the American experiment with democracy. It had been a "safety valve" for discontent whenever times got too hard and class conflict emerged in the increasingly crowded eastern part of the country. The loss of this safety valve might portend a crisis as profound as the struggle over slavery.

In addition, the increasing power and productivity of the American economy, which up to this point had been a source of pride and optimism, now seemed to increase the feeling of anxiety. The economy had become so productive at the same time that the polarization of wealth had become so marked that the domestic market was no longer sufficient to soak up all the goods that the economy was producing.

Another historian, Alfred Thayer Mahan, (who was also an admiral in the U.S. Navy), held onto the optimistic notion of frontier. He wrote that beyond the Pacific shores lay another maritime frontier. Mahan wrote in The Influence of Sea-power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) that all the great nations were sea-powers. In 1890, the United States was the third most powerful sea-power in the world.

By the late 1800s Japan and several powerful western European nations had divided most of China into separate "spheres of influence," each having economic control over a section of the vast eastern Asian country. A latecomer to imperialism, the United States also wanted its piece of the pie. In 1899 U.S. President McKinley's Secretary of State, John Hay, proposed an "Open Door" Policy with France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Russia that would allow all participating nations to have equal tariff, trading, and commercial development rights in China.

The United States declared that it intended to support China's political and territorial independence, while at the same time preserving and protecting foreign interests. Behind this claim was an administrative tactic to strengthen the U.S. position in China. The European powers agreed to the idea based on mutual consent between European nations but with the actual intent of protecting their own interests. Japan, however, objected to the proposal.

The machinations of the European powers over the Chinese trade offended many Chinese people. In 1900 an anti-European rebellion broke out in China fomented by a secret society called the "Boxers." It was directed against all foreigners in China. The foreign diplomatic corps of the European powers sought refuge in the British embassy in Peking. The Boxers surrounded the embassy and threatened to overwhelm the defenders. In August 1900 the U.S. sent in a rescue force of 2,500 troops and the diplomats were saved.

Secretary of State Hay sent a note to the European powers requesting an Open Door Policy for all European and U.S. powers in the whole of China. It turned out, however, that few countries, including the United States, would adhere to the policy in practice. Within a year economic issues turned political and the Open Door Policy would remain virtually ignored.

In the early twentieth century the United States became involved in an international rivalry for Manchuria and China proper. In order to secure railroad, mining, and commercial rights in those locations, the United States had to come to grips with its relationship to Japan and, to a lesser extent, to certain western European powers, particularly Russia. The Taft-Katsura Agreement and the Root-Takahira Agreement of 1908 demonstrated that the United States recognized Japan's increasing influence in the Far East. In return, the United States wanted Japan to respect Open Door principles and allow legitimate U.S. territorial rights within Asia. In 1915, in an attempt to protect its Far Eastern stakes, the United States opposed Japan's Twenty-one Demands on China; but with the Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917, the United States consented to Japanese ambitions in Manchuria.

In response to continuing violations of China's territory, an international Conference on the Limitations of Armament was held in Washington, D.C., and the Open Door Policy was reaffirmed as part of the 1922 Nine-Power Treaty. Ten years later, however, when Japan overtly defied the Open Door agreement by conquering Manchuria and establishing it as a puppet state, the United States was the only power to object.

Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson's doctrine of non-recognition, which was supported by the League of Nations, persuaded Japan to withdraw from Shanghai, its next target. The Japanese soon resumed their invasions and in November 1938 they declared that the Open Door was no longer valid. The onset of World War II (19391945) essentially ended the debate over the Open Door Policy, and after the war China's de facto position acknowledged it as an independent sovereign state. Thus the Open Door Policy ceased to exist.

See also: Imperialism, Japan (Opening of)


Dictionary of American History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976, s.v. "Open Door Policy."

Foner, Eric, ed. and John A. Garraty, ed. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

Johnson, Thomas H. The Oxford Companion to American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Pomfret, Richard. Investing in China: Ten Years of the Open Door Policy. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1991.

Sung, Yun Wing. The China-Hong Kong Connection: The Key to China's Open Door Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

in 1899 u.s. secretary of state john hay proposed an open door policy to france, germany, great britain, italy, japan, and russia that would allow all nations to have equal tariff, trading, and commercial development rights in china.

Open Door Policy

views updated Jun 27 2018

Open Door Policy

The Open Door policy was an effort by the U.S. government to preserve China's territorial and administrative integrity at a time when it seemed the major imperial powers intended to carve China into a series of concessions, perhaps presaging the end of a unified China.

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (1898), America looked more eagerly at the elusive China market. America had gained Wake, Guam, and the Philippines and, earlier, Midway, Samoa, and the Hawaiian Islands—all stepping stones on the way to China. And China seemed the answer to prevent a recurrence of the economic depression that had just ended.

In September 1899 U.S. secretary of state John Hay proposed an "Open Door" policy in China in which all nations would have equal trading and development rights throughout all of China. He sent notes to the British, German, and Russian governments and in November to the French, Italian, and Japanese governments. Acting in the spirit of the most-favored-nation concept, which America had secured nearly six decades earlier, Hay wrote carefully, seeking not to criticize the increasing spread of spheres of influence. He sought to retain equal opportunity for trade and industry, especially for such latecomers as the United States.

The notes in 1899 did not result in much. No government would commit itself before others did, and Russia and Japan explicitly rejected America's suggested policy. Interestingly, Hay announced in March 1900 that every government had accepted the policy, although Japan did challenge Hay's statement. And, after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Hay sent a second note that sought to preserve China.

But America's Open Door policy could not halt the rising tide of imperialism. Japan ignored the policy in expanding its control in Manchuria after the Russo-Japanese War, again with the infamous 21 Demands in January 1915, and with the secret treaties Japan negotiated with Britain and France during World War I (1914–1918) giving it the German concession in China. Indeed, the Washington Naval Conference (officially termed the Conference on Limitation of Armaments) had as a goal guaranteeing China's territorial and administrative integrity—the purpose of the Open Door policy—but the resulting Nine Power Treaty was long on phrases and short on action.

During World War II (1941–1945), when the Western Allies renounced their "unequal treaty" rights and China regained its territorial integrity, the Open Door policy became a dead issue.

see also China, First Opium War to 1945; Qing Dynasty; Scramble for Concessions.


Campbell, C. S. Special Business Interests and the Open Door Policy. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1968.

Hunt, Michael H. Frontier Defense and the Open Door: Manchuria in Chinese-American Relations, 1895–1911. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.

McCormick, Thomas J. China Market; America's Quest for Informal Empire, 1893–1901. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967.

Tomimas, Shutaro. The Open Door Policy and the Territorial Integrity of China. Arlington, VA: University Publications of America, 1976.

Open Door Policy

views updated Jun 11 2018

Open Door Policy

In the first few years of the twentieth century, several of the world's major countries were trying to establish international influence. Japan, Germany, and France were in competition with the United States to become the supreme dominating power.

In an effort to guarantee that Chinese ports would remain open to American business (at the time, China was not recognized as a sovereign [self-governing] nation among the major powers), President William McKinley (1843–1901; served 1897–1901) authorized an “Open Door” policy to China. This policy put China on equal status with the United States in terms of trade and business. There would be no restrictions or tariffs (taxes) on Chinese products sold in the United States or vice versa, and the United States would support an independent China.

The policy became useless at the end of World War II (1939–45), when China was recognized as an independent nation. As such, no country had the right to influence or attempt to exclude it from trade. By 1949, China had become a communist country, and the Open Door policy was rejected. Communism is an economic theory in which all goods and services are owned and controlled by the government. There is no private ownership of business and no competition. The government did not wish to promote foreign trade or investment. Despite its demise, the Open Door policy remains one of the most important foreign policies ever issued by the federal government.