Open Door Policy

Open Door Policy 4034
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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 world—Russia, Japan, Germany, France, and Great Britain—bristled 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 most—the 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.


Buckley, Thomas H. The United States and the Washington Conference, 1921–1922. 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, 1895–1911. 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, 1897–1911. 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, 1921–1931. Chicago, 1990. Useful survey of the Open Door's final years.

——. The Globalizing of America, 1913–1945. Cambridge, 1993.

Israel, Jerry. Progressivism and the Open Door: America and China, 1905–1921. 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, 1876–1917. 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, 1931–1949. Stanford, 1996.

LaFeber, Walter. The American Search for Opportunity, 1815–1913. Cambridge, 1993. With his The New Empire, elaborates the Open Door interpretation.

——. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898. 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, 1893–1901. Chicago, 1967. Remains an authoritative account of the Open Door policy's origins.

McKee, Delber L. Chinese Exclusion Versus the Open Door Policy, 1900–1906: 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, 1900–1908. 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, 1890–1945. 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): 62–83. 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, 1897–1912. 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, 1895–1901. 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 .

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