The Open Door Policy

The Open Door Policy2018-11-28T09:55:19+00:00

The Open Door Policy for APUSH

About the Author: Melissa Smith has taught A.P. U.S. History for over 20 years.  She has been involved in the A.P. U.S. History reading for 18 years as a reader, a table leader, the DBQ question leader, and currently as an exam leader.  She also recently served on the Test Development Committee for the SAT U.S. History Subject Test.

The Open Door Policy

In 1899 and 1900, under President William McKinley’s administration, the United States issued two “Open Door” notes concerning international trade relations with China.  The Open Door policy suggested that all countries with an imperial interest in China would henceforth accept a free and open trade policy in China and eventually the policy would also demand all interested parties to accept and respect Chinese territorial integrity.

The Open Door Policy was a clever move on the part of the United States to create trade opportunities between the U.S. and China while additionally asserting American interests in the Far East.  In the short term, the Open Door Policy allowed the United States to expand its markets for industrialized goods.

In the short term, the Open Door Policy allowed the United States to expand its markets for industrialized goods.

However, the United States never quite had the military might nor the will to fulfill its commitments to China and in the long term, the Open Door Policy led to tensions between numerous imperial powers and possibly the beginnings of World War II.

The Quest for New Markets

By 1900, the United States held over one half of the entire world’s manufacturing capacity and had surpassed Great Britain in the production of iron and steel.  The Industrial Revolution of the late 19thcentury had transformed the United States, creating wealthy industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who had cornered their markets for oil and steel, respectively.

By 1900, the United States held over one half of the entire world’s manufacturing capacity and had surpassed Great Britain in the production of iron and steel.

The Industrial Revolution also generated a prosperous middle class and a rapidly expanding working class.  Additionally, the United States had fought the Spanish-American War in 1898 and had secured several new territorial holdings including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.  With the acquisition of the Philippines, the United States now had a presence in the Far East and sought to build new markets for its steel, machinery, lumber, packed meats, and other industrial marvels manufactured at home.

In the Far East and sought to build new markets for its steel, machinery, lumber, packed meats, and other industrial marvels manufactured at home.

However, trade with China was not as straightforward as it seemed.  The Opium Wars in the mid nineteenth century had caused China to essentially lose control of its most lucrative ports.  By 1899, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan had all carved out their “spheres of influence” in China where they effectively controlled the politics and economies of these regions.

The United States had just paid Spain $10 million for the Philippines and was fighting off a brutal Filipino insurrection against American imperial control.  This effort and expense would only be worth it to the United States if an American colony in Asia could secure trade with other Asian nations, particularly China.

A Cracked Door

In 1899, Secretary of State John Hay issued the first of his “Open Door” notes. Hay addressed this note to the governments of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan and requested that these nations: first, do not restrict trade at any port inside their “sphere of influence;” second, permit Chinese authorities to collect tariffs from all nations on an equal basis; and third, show no favors to their own nationals in matters of harbor dues or railroad charges within their “sphere.”

Hay received lukewarm and noncommittal responses from all of the countries involved.  However, Secretary Hay interpreted this as enough support to announce agreement and commitment on the part of all nations to the Open Door Policy – an agreement that Hay called “final and definitive.”

Danger is at the Open Door

Almost immediately the Open Door Policy seemed in danger as the Boxer Rebellion spread throughout China by 1900.  Anti-imperial and anti-foreign forces in China, known by Europeans as the “Boxers,” began to attack foreign missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity.  As the Boxers launched attacks in Beijing, foreign nationals called upon their home governments for help.

Anti-imperial and anti-foreign forces in China, known by Europeans as the “Boxers,” began to attack foreign missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity.

An international delegation of armed forces, including thousands of United States’ soldiers, confronted the Boxers and eventually quelled the uprising. John Hay used this moment to issue his second “Open Door” note, which asked all powers to preserve Chinese territorial and administrative integrity.

Secretary Hay’s goal was to prevent European and Asian nations from using the Boxer Rebellion as an excuse to carve up China into individual colonies.  While the United States may have been hoping for international cooperation in China, the Open Door Policy ultimately established the United States as a major player in international diplomacy in the Far East.

And Yet Another Test

In 1904, the United States’ commitment to the Open Door Policy and to China was again tested.  In the Russo-Japanese War, these two nations fought over territorial control in Manchuria – certainly calling into question each nation’s dedication to the preservation of Chinese territorial integrity.

Theodore Roosevelt served as President of the United States at this time. Roosevelt felt that American imperialism went hand in hand with the progressive reforms he supported at home, believing that a strong federal government at home and abroad would enhance economic stability.  Roosevelt offered himself as a mediator for the leaders of Russia and Japan to negotiate an end to their war.

The Treaty of Portsmouth required that both Russia and Japan leave Manchuria, while allowing Japan to occupy Korea as recompense for stepping out of Chinese territory.

The Treaty of Portsmouth required that both Russia and Japan leave Manchuria, while allowing Japan to occupy Korea as recompense for stepping out of Chinese territory.  The Nobel committee awarded Theodore Roosevelt its Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the Russo-Japanese War and the Open Door Policy commitment of respecting the integrity of Chinese territory would stand for a while longer.

After World War I, the United States held an international disarmament conference in Washington, D.C.  The largest multi-lateral treaty signed at the conference was the Nine Power Treaty, which marked international acceptance of the U.S. Open Door Policy in China.

The largest multi-lateral treaty signed at the conference was the Nine Power Treaty, which marked international acceptance of the U.S. Open Door Policy in China.

Once again, nations including Great Britain, Russia, France, and Japan agreed to accept a policy of free trade in China and to respect Chinese authority over their own territory.  Unfortunately, the United States appeared increasingly devoted to isolationism after the disappointments of the First World War and furthermore the Nine Power Treaty lacked a mechanism for enforcement.  The viability of the Open Door Policy seemed very tenuous indeed.

Japan Attacks… And the U.S. is in Isolation

By 1931, Japan began its full-scale invasion of Manchuria and by the end of 1932 had turned the region into a puppet state called Manchukuo.  This event brought wide scale condemnation from the international community.  Japan had not only violated its agreement to the Nine Power Treaty, but also to the Kellogg-Briand Pact – a 1928 treaty that officially renounced war as a national policy.

Japan had not only violated its agreement to the Nine Power Treaty, but also to the Kellogg-Briand Pact – a 1928 treaty that officially renounced war as a national policy.

The League of Nations labeled Japan as an aggressor and argued that Manchukuo should not be recognized.  In response, Japan quit the League of Nations and the delicate body created in World War I’s aftermath to resolve international disputes would soon after crumble.  Japan’s imperial goals in China and elsewhere in Asia were now clear and so was the United States’ unwillingness to commit forces to protect its Open Door Policy.

Legacy and Impact

The Open Door Policy was always a fragile agreement among competing nations with conflicting economic and imperial goals.  The United States created this policy as a way to assure access to Chinese markets.  The oil, coal, steel, and textiles that the U.S. could sell to the developing Chinese would be a tremendous boon to the increasingly dominant American economy.

By playing the role of peaceful negotiator, the U.S. could assure at least temporary cooperation from other nations – because no country really wants to admit that they will not respect Chinese territorial autonomy.

By playing the role of peaceful negotiator, the U.S. could assure at least temporary cooperation from other nations – because no country really wants to admit that they will not respect Chinese territorial autonomy.  After several decades of various minor aggressions against the Chinese, Japan was no longer willing to maintain the ruse. They saw themselves as the next imperial conquerors of China and in 1931 began their attack against a country that they knew the U.S. would not defend.

Japan saw themselves as the next imperial conquerors of China and in 1931 began their attack against a country that they knew the U.S. would not defend.

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