Open Door Policy

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The Open Door policy was an American foreign policy in the early 20th century that called for equal foreign commercial access to China, as opposed to closed spheres of influence. It came as the major powers were scrambling for special privileges in China. Its three interrelated goals were equality of commercial opportunity, territorial integrity, and administrative integrity. The Open Door policy was formally announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay in 1899 and 1900, who asked all foreign powers agree to have commercial access to China on equal terms, while at the same time they were to respect China's territorial integrity. Britain, which controlled 80% of China's foreign trade, approved the new policy. The other countries had hoped for exclusive trading rights in ports they controlled, but were stymied by the success of the open door policy.

Hay started with notes to Britain, Germany and Russia in 1899 calling for an open door policy; they agreed if everyone did, and in 1900 Hay secured support as well from Japan, France and Italy. Thus all the major powers agreed on the open door policy. Anti-foreign sentiment in China almost ended the policy, as diplomats were threatened; the international powers sent armies that seized Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and Hay ensured that the open policy was adhered to. The policy was reaffirmed by the Nine Power Treaty in 1922.

China finally gained some strength in the 1920s under the KMT and leader Chiang Kai-shek. Japan in the 1930s decided to circumvent the open door by occupying Manchuria (1931) and coastal China in 1937, leading to war between the U.S. and Japan in 1941.


Merchants in the small China trade, based in Boston and New York, traded in furs, ginseng, silk and sandalwood with the Chinese. The opening of China to American trade on the heels of the British victory in the Anglo-Chinese War of 1839-42 via the Cushing Treaty of 1844. Minister Caleb Cushing signed the "Wanghia Treaty" with the Qing Empire that allowed American merchants to trade freely in Canton as well as in four other previously closed ports. The American merchants and seamen obtained the right of extraterritorial jurisdiction in China. From 1844 until 1943, American citizens in China were legally in the control of the American consul, who applied American law, not the local Chinese courts.[1]

Americans pushed into the Pacific with the conquest of California (1846), the purchase of Alaska in 1867 and the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. Throughout this period the United States adapted British commercial policy to its own ends by supporting the goal of free and open competition for trade in international markets, while denouncing British colonial acquisitions and preferential trade positions. The European subjection of China by force and the imposition of the resulting treaty system gave American maritime interests an opportunity to flourish without a parallel colonial responsibility or imperial illusion. After 1890 the main American export to China was kerosene, shipped by the Standard Oil Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller. China absorbed less than 5% of American exports (most exports went to Europe.)


More influential than the traders was the missionary interest, primary Protestant but including Catholics, that saw China as the most promising site for conversions of heathens to Christianity. They actively promoted a vision of a Christian China in towns and cities across the land, and wanted an open door for missionaries.[2] The missionaries worked primarily as social workers, especially as medical doctors in the villages. The children of these missionaries often became important spokesmen for Chinese interest, most notably Henry R. Luce (1898-1967), who used his influential Time and Life news magazines to talk up China after 1926. Novelist Pearl S. Buck (1892-73), was raised in China by missionary parents and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her numerous stories and novels portraying heroic Chinese peasants, especially The Good Earth (1931).[3]


American philanthropists, led by the Rockefeller Foundation, made the modernization of China a high priority after 1910, with special emphasis on promoting modern medicine and higher education.

International rivalry

A major international rivalry to carve up the globe emerged in the 1870s, with special emphasis on Africa, Asia and Latin America. The U.S. largely ignored Africa, used the Monroe Doctrine to prevent European powers from taking control of any country in Latin America, and use the Open Door doctrine to prevent the carving up of China the way Africa was carved up.

The American policy expanded to a chain of positions regarding other areas similar to the Open Door policy.

The Open Door concept changed 1899 to 1910 from Hay's goal of equality of commercial opportunity in China. "Integrity of China" came when Hay realized economic penetration was not successful. Hay's successor, Elihu Root, shifted to an insistence on China's territorial integrity. In the third phase, the Open Door policy was modified by "Dollar Diplomacy", which insisted on equal opportunity for investment as well as commercial penetration. The kaleidoscopic change in the Open Door became an experiment in futility rather than a workable policy.[4] Under Woodrow Wilson there was a renewed emphasis on business ties, but it was not successful. Wilson's minister, Paul Reinsch, tried to put into practice Wilson's willingness to assist American capitalists abroad. However, businessmen and banks were reluctant to make major commitments toward financing enterprise in China. The apathy of American business, the worsening of the political situation in China, and the ability of Japan to exploit the situation economically resulted in the ultimate failure of Reinsch's hopes for a Sino-American partnership and for peaceful development of the Far East.[5]

Manchuria and Japan

After 1900 the United States became concerned with Manchuria as well as in China proper. Both Russia and Japan wanted control there, and they went to war in 1905. At first anti-Russian in Manchuria and intent on extending American railroad, mining, and commercial privileges there, the United States then became anti-Japanese after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, although it was not able to make a definitive commitment of national resources and energy. Influenced by the caution of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), in the Taft-Katsura Agreement of 1905 and the Root-Takahira Agreement of 1908, the United States recognized Japan's growing power in eastern Asia in return for stated Open Door principles and respect for American territorial legitimacy in the Far East. During the administration of President William Howard Taft (1909-1913), the United States attempted to move into Manchuria and China proper via Open Door proposals on behalf of American railroad and banking investment interests in 1909 and 1913, and in so doing made overtures of cooperation with the European powers as well as with Russia and Japan, but nothing developed.

During President Woodrow Wilson's administration (1913-1921) the United States veered from side to side: it attempted to protect its stake in China by opposing Japan's 21 Demands on China in 1915, and then it attempted to appease Japan's ambitions in Manchuria by recognizing the Japanese stake there in the Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917. During the Warren G. Harding administration (1921–23), in 1922 at the Washington Armament Conference negotiations, the Open Door outlook was embedded in the details of the Nine-Power Treaty, which called for the territorial and administrative integrity of China and equality of trade opportunity without special privileges for any nation; there also began plans for the abolition of "extrality" (the system of legal rights and privileges that international merchants enjoyed in Chinese ports, which placed them under control of foreign consuls and beyond the reach of the Chinese courts.) At the conference China formally recognized the Open Door principle for the first time.


During the period 1929-33, Manchuria came to the forefront of American Open Door concerns, with the invocation in 1931 of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1927 against Japan's use of force in Manchuria. By 1931, President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson had established the continuity of American policy by linking the principles of the Kellogg-Briand Pact with those expressed in the Nine-Power Treaty of 1922. In 1932, Stimson made history by articulating his non-recognition doctrine, regarding Japan's conquest of Manchuria and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo. From that point onward, throughout the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45) the United States, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, maintained growing opposition to Japan's aggrandizement in the sphere of China and the enlargement of Japan's ambitions throughout Southeast Asia. The goals of the Roosevelt administration were to build up Chinese state power as a counterweight to Japan, and to end Japanese control of Manchuria. The coming to power of Mao Zedong and the Communists in 1949 abruptly turned China into a hostile power, and U.S. forms were not allowed to trade with it until President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened détente with China in 1972.


The policy has been the subject of heated debates among American historians. A. Whitney Griswold in 1938, sees the policy alternating between an aggressive/assertive approach and retreating/withdrawing approach whereby the integrity of China, which was to be a means to trade, became an end in itself creating other problems. George Kennan, a realist, ridiculed it as too idealistic and impractical.[6] The revisionist argument, formulated in the 1950s by William Appleman Williams spawned a whole "Wisconsin School" of Marxian economic interpretation. The Wisconsinites see the policy as a calculated, well-planned strategy that would allow the United States all of the benefits of an empire without any of the burdens of colonial administration. The Wisconsin School assumes that after 1890 the U.S. was producing so much economic output that it needed a Chinese market to sell in, and that the State Department sought to expand and protect this market to prevent a depression in the U.S. It largely ignored conditions in China and the fact that other nations were more successful in building markets in China than the U.S.

Critics of the Wisconsin School note that the U.S. had little trade with China before the 1980s and the Open Door policy was more important to diplomats and missionaries than businessmen. Very little surplus output ever went to China, and few businessmen were much concerned. Varg (1969) concludes "the United States had no substantive economic interests in China" in 1900 and "whatever economic interests did exist were no more important than the 'political aim' of preserving 'the security of the nation as a Pacific power'." Most people at the time understood the cursory character of American interests. Only coastal cities—a small part of China—was accessible to foreign commerce and the often estimated 400 million customers actually approximated 50 million. Other factors limiting the market were the poverty of the vast majority of Chinese who rarely purchased imported products, the inadequate distribution system, their long-accustomed use of native products, general hostility to the foreigner, and China's unfavorable balance of trade which caused a shortage of purchasing power by wealthy Chinese.[7]

Ninkovich, (1982), focusing on Woodrow Wilson, argues the policy reflected all facets of 19th century liberalism. That is, it was a pacific ideology, that emphasized nonpolitical commercial and cultural expansion. Paradoxically, many proponents of the Open Door Policy advocated an "open world" with its interventionist tendencies. The ideological orientations of Jane Addams and Wilson illustrate this inconsistency. Addams consistently held to the fundamental ideology that the world was naturally internationalist, even if politicians failed to recognize it as such. Wilson's operative ideology, Wilsonianism, led him to attempt to construct an internationalist world, by force where necessary.[8]

Unlike Britain in Hong Kong (and Portugal in Macao), the U.S. never set up colonies in China on the European imperial model. More important, they also declined the British invitation to join the Opium War and subsequent European military campaigns in China (with the important exception of American participation in the multinational expedition sent to rescue diplomats in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900). Indeed, apart from the Wisconsin School, most American diplomatic historians emphasize that throughout a century of increasing European encroachments in China, the U.S. government actively opposed such encroachments.


  1. Ruskola (2005)
  2. See Paul A. Varg, Missionaries, Chinese, and Diplomats: The American Protestant Missionary Movement in China, 1890-1952 (1958)
  3. In practice the missionaries converted only a few Chinese. They converted almost no one in Japan, but had a huge success in Korea.
  4. Raymond A. Esthus, "The Changing Concept of the Open Door, 1899-1910." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 1959-1960 46(3): 435-454.
  5. Noel Pugach, "Making the Open Door Work: Paul S. Reinsch in China, 1913-1919." Pacific Historical Review 1969 38(2): 157-175. Issn: 0030-8684 in Jstor
  6. George Kennan, American Diplomacy: 1900-1950 (1951)
  7. see Paul A. Varg, "The Myth of the China Market." American Historical Review 1968 73(3): 742-758. In response some Wisconsinites argued that it was not material (or Marxist) economic interests that were at stake, but the idealistic dream of a potential future market--a rejection of Wisconsin's basic Marxist assumptions. However few businessmen tried to operationalize any such dream, and rejected efforts by Minister Reinsch to promote them. Great profits, as Wal-Mart showed, came from buying from China after 1980, not selling to it.
  8. Frank Ninkovich, "Ideology, the Open Door, and Foreign Policy." Diplomatic History 1982 6(2): 185-208.


  • Campbell, A. E. "Great Britain and the United States in the Far East, 1895-1903." Historical Journal 1958 1(2): 154-175. Issn: 0018-246x in Jstor
  • Cohen Warren I. America's Response to China: An Interpretative History of Sino-American Relations. (5th ed. 2009)
  • DeConde, Alexander. A History of American Foreign Policy (1963), ch 15. online edition
  • Dulles, Foster Rhea. China and America: The Story of Their Relations Since 1784 (1981) 277 pp.
  • Esthus, Raymond A. "The Changing Concept of the Open Door, 1899-1910." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 1959-1960 46(3): 435-454. in Jstor
  • Fairbank John King. The United States and China. (4th ed. 1983).
  • Fairbank John King, ed. The Missionary Enterprise in China and America. (1974).
  • Griswold, Alfred Whitney. The Far Eastern Policy of the United States (1938) 530 pp. online edition
  • Hu, Shizhang. Stanley K. Hornbeck and the Open Door Policy, 1919-1937. (1995). 263 pp. online edition
  • Hunt, Michael H. Frontier Defense and the Open Door: Manchuria in Chinese-American Relations, 1895-1911. (1973). 281 pp.
  • Hunt, Michael. The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914 (1983). online edition
  • Israel, Jerry. Progressivism and the Open Door: America and China, 1905-1921. (1971). 222 pp. Wisconsin School online edition
  • Israel, Jerry. "'For God, for China and for Yale' - the Open Door in Action." American Historical Review 1970 75(3): 796-807. Issn: 0002-8762 in Jstor sees links between business and missions
  • Lorence James J. Organized Business and the Myth of the China Market: The American Asiatic Association, 1898-1937. (1981).
  • McCormick, Thomas J. China Market: America's Quest for Informal Empire, 1893–1901 (1967), important statement of Wisconsin School
  • Ninkovich, Frank. "Ideology, the Open Door, and Foreign Policy." Diplomatic History 1982 6(2): 185-208. Issn: 0145-2096
  • Pugach, Noel. "Making the Open Door Work: Paul S. Reinsch in China, 1913-1919." Pacific Historical Review 1969 38(2): 157-175. Issn: 0030-8684 in Jstor
  • Pugach, Noel H. 'Paul S. Reinsch: Open Door Diplomat in Action. (1979). 310 pp.
  • Ruskola, Teemu. "Canton Is Not Boston: The Invention of American Imperial Sovereignty," American Quarterly - Volume 57, Number 3, September 2005, pp. 859-884 in Project Muse
  • Scully, Eileen P. "Taking the Low Road to Sino-American Relations: 'Open Door' Expansionists and the Two China Markets." Journal of American History 1995 82(1): 62-83. Issn: 0021-8723 in JSTOR
  • Sugita, Yoneyuki, "The Rise of an American Principle in China: A Reinterpretation of the First Open Door Notes Toward China," in Richard Jensen, Jon Davidann and Yoneyuki Sugita, eds. Trans-Pacific Relations: America, Europe, and Asia in the Twentieth Century (2003) pp 3-20 online edition
  • Varg, Paul A. Missionaries, Chinese, and Diplomats: The American Protestant Missionary Movement in China, 1890-1952 (1958)
  • Varg, Paul A. "The Myth of the China Market." American Historical Review 1968 73(3): 742-758. in Jstor, refutation of economic arguments of Wisconsin School.
  • Varg, Paul A. The Making of a Myth: The United States and China, 1897-1912 (1969), a refutation of Wisconsin School
    • McCormick, Thomas J. "American Expansion in China." American Historical Review 1970 75(5): 1393-1396. in Jstor, a Wisconsin response
  • Vevier, Charles. "The Open Door: An Idea in Action, 1906-1913," The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Feb., 1955), pp. 49-62 in JSTOR, reflects Wisconsin School
  • Williams, William Appleman. The Shaping of American Diplomacy (1956), manifesto of the Wisconsin School. online edition