In a perceptive study of Sino-American relations pertaining to Manchuria in the period 1895–1911, Michael H. Hunt examines the forces that worked toward American involvement in China. He stresses the misperceptions that guided both powers' views of one another and their vital interests. He sees racism or ethnocentrism along with excessive provincialism as contributing factors on both sides, keeping the Chinese and Americans from seeing their true interest. Contrary to a number of writers who attempted to discover a carefully developed imperial plan underlying American moves in Asia at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Hunt found American imperialism to be ill-defined or haphazard in its goals. Many policymakers dreamed of cooperation with China in preserving and developing Chinese nationalism and of profiting by trade with this emergent nation. Opportunities for such cooperation existed but foundered on mis-trust and misunderstanding.
An important conclusion that emerged from this study was Hunt's observation that while imperialism was in part a motivating force for a number of Americans promoting U.S. involvement in Manchuria, with some even demanding territorial concessions, the government dragged its feet on implementing imperial plans, did not stand firm on economic penetration, laid its faith in the open door, and criticized China for the failure of American policy. The Americans asked why the Chinese did not stand up to the powers trying to carve out spheres of influence, especially when the Americans gave them the Open Door policy to use as a weapon to deny special rights, while the Chinese asked why the Americans did not help to enforce the open door with more than words. Hunt also reinforced much of Hofstadter's argument concerning the importance of the psychic crisis as an influence on American foreign policy and the impetus to "look outward" as an escape from domestic problems.
George F. Kennan, the historian-diplomat, argued cogently for the idea that the legalistic-moralistic tradition of the United States accounted for adventures in imperialism without commensurate understanding of the burdens or responsibilities of empire by most Americans and some policymakers, especially President McKinley and his third secretary of state, John Hay. Hay, who assumed office on 30 September 1898, the day before the peace commission met in Paris to determine the settlement of the Spanish-American War, spoke the language of the new manifest destiny: "No man, no party, can fight with any chance of final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity avails against the spirit of the age." Hay was a determined annexationist, but more significantly he was the author of the Open Door policy, proclaiming the need and obligation of the powers involved in Asia to maintain the open door to trade in China and the maintenance of China's territorial integrity. Later historians accused Hay of fomenting through the Open Door policy a kind of imperialism, one that denied the need for territory and promoted instead economic exploitation of areas not strong enough to resist it.
Kennan said Hay did not understand the far-reaching commitments assumed under the Open Door policy. It was part of the effort to ensure U.S. participation in the external world by legalism and appeal to the moral conscience of Americans defending China against the assault of the great powers at no cost save legal definition of the obligations of the powers. This is probably true as far as it goes, but it also was intended to guarantee the entrance into the Asian world of American power and influence through a door Hay and others considered to have been opened by the acquisition of the Philippine Islands. That he became disillusioned by the inability and ineffectiveness of the United States to win support for the open door does not in any way diminish his responsibility for it. Hay opened not a door but a Pandora's box with his policy, which the United States was to pursue through a tortuous maze to participation in the Pacific phase of World War II.
Marilyn Blatt Young, in her study of U.S. China policy from 1895 to 1901, corroborates much of Kennan's viewpoint on the inefficacy of open door diplomacy, the difficulties inherent in the legalistic-moralistic perspective that permeated the Department of State, and the tendency to be more concerned with chauvinistic interests than national interests. In addition, she points out the difficulties that plagued both China and the United States because of the view each held of the other as barbarians and the attendant implications of racism stemming from the perception of social Darwinism, which gained credence in the late nineteenth century. If imperialism was the American objective, it was so poorly contrived and so reliant on rhetoric and half-baked schemes failing of genuine government support as to be ineffectual.
Kennan was one of the early and chief spokesmen for the realist perspective in assessing right conduct in America's foreign relations and ascribing colonial expansion to a lack of realism in the formulators of the policy. Hay, Beveridge, Henry Cabot Lodge, and others who promoted the idea of empire for the United States failed to take into consideration, according to Kennan, the pervasive influence of anticolonialism in the United States, and failed to advertise the cost of empire to the American people, who were unwilling to bear the expense of defending what they had won by war or annexation. Believing that the Filipinos would welcome them with open arms, Americans were flustered and embarrassed when they were greeted instead with open rebellion. As soon as the empire had been acquired, agitation began to get rid of it, with mixed results. Incorporated territories (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico) were retained without much question. Where there was a desire to adhere to American protection (for example, American Samoa), responsibility was ultimately accepted (February 1929); but the Philippines demanded independence, and by means of the Tydings-McDuffie Act (1934) were promised independence in 1944, which was postponed until 1946 because of Japanese occupation of the islands during World War II. The Virgin Islands, purchased from Denmark in 1917, became a U.S. territory, while other islands, too small for incorporation but important strategically, continued as possessions, such as Wake and Johnston islands. At the end of World War II, various Pacific Islands south of Japan—the Bonin Islands, the Volcano Islands, which included Okinawa, and the Daito Islands, which were captured from Japan during the war—were later returned, the first three groups in 1968 and the rest in 1972. But during that time span they were under American rule. The last territories considered for annexation by an incorporation agreement were part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, under U.S. supervision as a United Nations trusteeship, including the Marshall, Caroline, Mariana, and Palau islands. Parts of the Caroline and Mariana islands asked for incorporation in 1975. It was determined in 1986 to grant the Caroline and Marshall islands sovereignty in 1986 and, as noted earlier, the Palau Islands in 1994.