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 power—a 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, China—and with it the Open Door policy—lost 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 with—and sustained by—the 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 1911–1912 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 affairs—arrangements 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.