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 mainland—a 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 demands—or 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 powers—rather than breaking out on its own—remained 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.