Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: You Can Enjoy Politics

article number 474
article date 06-09-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Attempt To Reopen the Door to China, 1905, Part 1 – Differing Goals
by Jerry Israel

From the book, Progressivism and the Open Door, America and China, 1905-1921.

* * *

Alice in Wonderland

On the 16th of the Moon at the hour of ssu, September 14, 1905, 9:00 A.M. to 11:00 A.M., America’s oft-proclaimed princess, Alice Roosevelt, met the empress dowager of China. While this real life version of “the dream child moving through a land of wonders wild and new” may not have been filled with Lewis Carroll’s logical nonsense it contained a fascination similar to that of the fictional Alice’s famous flight.

In a vocabulary foreign to the usual State Department communication, American Minister to China W. W. Rockhill described the preparations to Secretary of State Elihu Root:

“The Department of the Imperial Household will send a large chair with yellow loops to the Lang Jun Garden, in which Miss Roosevelt will be conveyed to the Jen Shou Throne Hall of the Summer Palace for Audience.”

Although the familiar White Rabbit, Dormouse, and Queen of Hearts were not in attendance, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice surrounded herself with an equally interesting cast of characters.

Only the ladies of the party joined in the imperial audience but the entourage to the Far East in the early autumn of 1905 included American senators and congressmen and the usual crowd of reporters mostly concerned with the latest details in the touring romance of the president’s daughter and her prince, Nicholas Longworth.

A closer inspection of the roster of passengers reveals that this extended Asiatic trip was more than just a social or romantic visit. Certainly the junket was planned to coincide with the deluge of praise heaped on Roosevelt for his part in the recently completed Portsmouth negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War.

The president’s desire to represent his government officially as well as personally explained in part the presence of Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Among the others in the party were railroad builder E. H. Harriman and Mabel T. Boardman, successor to Clara Barton as leader of the reorganized American Red Cross.

The appearance of these three hints that Alice’s adventures in the Chinese wonderland were in fact part of the first general taking stock of America’s position in China since the promulgation of the Open Door notes of 1899 and 1900 and the coming to office of Roosevelt in 1901.

Several changes and crises in the summer of 1905 made such a rethinking of policy necessary. John Hay was dead and the loss of the Open Door’s chief spokesman, especially when the power balance of the Far East was changing with Japan’s military success against Russia, placed greater stress on the diplomacy of Roosevelt and the knowledge of those like Taft who advised him on Far Eastern affairs.

More directly, Taft’s visit resulted from the need to soothe Chinese sensitivities on the issue of exclusion of Chinese immigrants and visitors from the United States. Excited by insult and injury in the Pacific states especially, Chinese merchants were enforcing a general boycott of American goods which Taft hoped to stop.

While American trade suffered, railroad and investment hopes took an equally devastating blow when the plans of the American China Development Company to build a Canton-Hankow railway were dashed with Chinese cancellation of the original concession. The future of other such plans for China and Manchuria explained Harriman’s interest in making the long trip.

Finally, in the midst of these setbacks, indeed the cause of them many felt, political, administrative and educational reforms had not yet lived up to the promise held for them in the empire. A representative of a major organization in the social welfare field, Mabel Boardman could look for herself and others who could not make the trip to see what needed to be done.

Alice Roosevelt in China.

Plans for the Open Door in Action

Despite the general need for a reconsideration of policy, which justifies 1905 as a turning point in the story of America’s relations with China, the concept of a wonderland still seems appropriate for the image of China in the United States at that time.

Generalizing about this powerfully pervasive idea and yet unrealized dream of China’s potential, Robert Divine has noted perceptively that “Americans had developed a romantic view of China, visualizing it a vast potential market for American goods, American culture and American democracy.”

It was this view, or a variety of it, that Alice and her friends brought in 1905. Since the Open Door notes and the beginning of the Roosevelt years, there was the increased sense that opportunity would finally be realized in China as indeed it would also be at home.

As the cartoonist for ‘Judge’ sketched it, Roosevelt would now say to both his poker partners, China and Uncle Sam, “Come now, gentlemen, it is time to throw aside that worn-out deck and try one which will give both of you a square deal.”

It is true that the president was among those whose ideas on the future of America’s role in the Far East fit into a larger pattern of domestic and international development. Confident of America’s need and ability to expand ever westward, Roosevelt stressed, even before he inherited the White House, the need not to “avoid the responsibilities that confront us,” lest the country bow to England and Germany, “the great progressive, colonizing nations.”

A system-builder himself, Roosevelt’s ideas were sharpened and reinforced by the other master planners gathered around him. In one of the rare truly give-and-take situations between the intellectual and the political realms, the H Street world of Brooks and Henry Adams, John Hay, W. W. Rockhill, and Alfred Thayer Mahan produced an Open Door policy, a minister, a secretary of state, and a president to support it, and fertile minds to give it structure and definition.

Much has been said of these men and the expansionism they preached yet it should be noted that each in his way dealt with the problems of China and Asia at the turn of the century.

While Hay circulated the famous notes, written in large part by Rockhill, calling for commercial equality and territorial integrity in China, Brooks Adams had already defined this constant westward flow in his ‘Law of Civilization and Decay.’

Now seeking to have America apply that basic law, after the second round of Open Door notes, Adams wrote to Hay, “We hold command in the East, with possible consequences which I cannot measure but which are certainly greater than anything which has happened since 1870.”

To capture economic supremacy which meant in Adams’s mind blocking others, especially Russia, from trying to do the same, America had to strengthen its military might and ensure a permanent international market for its products.

Picking up Adams’s words and ideas, in his first State of the Union address Roosevelt called for American military and economic power to expand the frontier of the United States westward to the interior of China.

American naval cruiser visits Hong Kong, 1890’s.

The president captured the mind of Admiral Mahan who had in 1900 applied his own law of civilization, the influence of sea power on the problem of Asia. Much of Mahan’s strategic thinking explained Adams’s fear of Russia, a land power, taking a preponderant role in China. Mahan’s influence can also be seen as a motivation for Hay’s sending of the second Open Door notes after the relief expeditions of European armies had been mobilized to defeat the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion.

Less often noted in connection with Mahan is his certainty that the future of the world would be determined by the character of the civilization China received. He, too, like Brooks Adams, emphasized the need to rush through the newly opened door with large supplies of Western, specifically British and American—Anglo-Saxon commerce and thought.

More an observer of life than a participant in it from the time of the death of his wife in 1885, Brooks’s older brother, Henry Adams, was perhaps most symbolic of America’s position in China, as he was of so much else in American history as well. In 1900 Adams was interested in the whole drama developing in the Far East, likening it to a novel by Alexandre Dumas.

Whether he sensed it or not, Adams had since 1886 been looking to China for a magic formula for his personal future just as his brother and friends searched for the future of the country and civilization.

In the darkness immediately following his wife’s death and before discovering his own fascination with the Middle Ages, Adams joined artist friend John La Farge on a visit to the Orient which got them as far as Japan. There they encountered Ernest Fenellosa, a student of Eastern culture and more importantly for Adams, a cousin of his dead wife.

Fenellosa, like Ezra Pound, sought his own future in China, an artistic or spiritual open door, a renaissance to be sparked not by classical antiquity but by China which Pound called a “new Greece.” Adams found Fenellosa an ineffective tyrant, a kind of Buddhist St. Dominic who made him yearn for some old New England “Calvinism with leanings toward the Methodists.”

For all his cynicism Henry Adams was deeply captured with the dream of China. In 1886 he reported his conclusion to John Hay:

“China is the only mystery left to penetrate. I have henceforward a future. As soon as I can get rid of history, and the present, I mean to start for China, and stay there.”

Combining past and future, Adams divided his time upon his return to writing his famous study of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison and learning Chinese. For all the effort, Adams never got to the future, even though, as his biographer points out, he was still planning the “ultimate exploration” after twenty more years of globe-trotting.

In retrospect Adams’s unrealized dream represents the failure of Americans at the turn of the century to realize their dreams for the Chinese wonderland. Despite this intriguing historical analogy, Adams’s fascination with China reveals, more importantly, that even a man intent on painfully wrenching himself from his own life and world could be caught in the pervasive hope that the future could be found in China and perhaps only there.

There were others far removed from H Street in Washington who also saw America’s role in the Orient as part of a broader domestic and international pattern. The most persistent theme in all such ideas was the involvement of the United States, at least economically if not politically, in the Pacific as an outgrowth of American westward expansion toward the frontier.

Frederick Jackson Turner, often linked with but by no means a part of the Adams’s circle, had developed such a frontier thesis to explain all of American history. In reviewing later the situation at the turn of the century, Turner thought it highly logical that “having colonized the Far West, having mastered its internal resources, the nation turned to deal with the Far East, to emerge in world-politics of the Pacific Ocean.”

Chinese immigrants were used in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860’s. Chinese immigration to the United States was since closed making for some ill will.

Others sounding much like Mahan and Adams stressed America’s favorable geopolitical position, the civilizing burden of the Anglo- Saxon, and a strong fear of Russia in China. Representative of such thinking are the words of four men with seemingly different orientations: university president James Angell, Methodist missionary James Bashford, economic geographer O. P. Austin, and New York mayor Seth Low.

Speaking to a University of Michigan baccalaureate audience in June of 1900, James Angell felt the United States had a “widening horizon” from which it could not retreat. The horizon was a new era in commercial life. The United States had surplus products to distribute and five thousand miles of Pacific Ocean in which to do it. The United States could not be excluded from any land in Asia which was “washed by the waves of the Great Sea.”

Angell’s conclusion was apparent: the “Young Giant of the West” must “yield a great influence over China’s people in respect to commerce, to education and to religion.”

Bishop Bashford’s view of the development of civilization was much like Brooks Adams’s, from the Fertile Crescent ever west to the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and finally the Pacific.

Sea power, especially with the proposed Panama Canal, gave the commercially and industrially rich United States a chance to dominate Chinese civilization.

Religious power was still more pivotal. Or as Bashford confidently wrote, “the Chinese themselves in breaking away from an ancient civilization can readily be led to accept a western, Christian, Protestant civilization.”

Adopting a verse form the bishop summarized his feelings on China and America:

God took care to hide that country
Till he prized his people ready
Then he chose me by his whisper
And I found it, and it’s yours

Yes “America’s God’s Country”
Yes a best of all creations

What’s the use of going further
Till I crossed the range to see

God forgive my pride I’m nothing
It’s God’s present to our nation
Anybody might have found it
But his whisper came to me.

Somewhat more prosaically, O. P. Austin, chief of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Statistics, added a scientific explanation for America’s role in China. Once again the dominant idea was that civilization had progressed from Europe to America and now to Asia, following the setting sun.

The great railroad building of the nineteenth century was to be matched by developing cable communications across the Pacific so as to knock at the commercial doors of East Asia, something Secretary of State William Seward had also perceived three decades earlier.

From Austin’s perspective America’s unique place came not from sea power, education, or God but from equatorial currents flowing west from the place where an isthmian canal would enter the Pacific toward the newly acquired Philippines, then north along the coast of China and Japan until deflected east across the north Pacific “to the American coast and then ... down the United States to the point of beginning.”


Seth Low, mayor of New York in 1902 and later president of both the commercial American Asiatic Association and the industrial National Civic Federation, combined these ideas in “The Position of the United States Among the Nations.”

America, Low observed, had always been a world power. The interest in twentieth-century China could then be explained as just part of the constant theme of growth or, as Low captured the spirit of American expansion, “a nation cannot live to itself alone, and continue to be either great or strong.”

The large land and sea space the United States commanded, its traditions of education and self-government, and the new opportunity of the Panama Canal all meant that the Open Door would be an imposition of the ideals and productivity of the American people on the race for foreign trade in China.

While most of these plans for the United States in the Orient were general and vague, economist Charles Conant deserves credit for the best-defined such system as set forth in a series of seven articles between September 1898 and August 1900.

With an interest in banking, Conant’s most original contribution was the linking of outlets for American capital in China to the more widely heralded opportunities for American products and progressive civilization.

In particular he stressed America’s ability to bring electricity and railroads to China and to equip these heavy industries with power machinery necessary for production and communication.

The more usual commercial and civilization-saving themes of the Open Door were present as well. In a sentence best capturing the policy of John Hay with the philosophy of Brooks Adams, Conant stated the basic assumption of those who sought to build a system for the future out of America’s role in the Far East:

“If all the markets were open, if all the opportunities for labor and for employing the fruits of labor were free to men of all nations upon equal terms, that nation would confess its cowardice and decadence which was not willing to trust its fate on the economic field to the energy, inventive genius, and productive power of its people.”

The Open Door was then, at least to some of those important in its adoption, enforcement and reception at home, not an empty set of legalistic phrases about equality of opportunity and territorial integrity but a basic plan or system for the opening of Chinese markets and minds to American products, money, and ideas.

The conclusion that such an opening was necessary came mostly from the understanding of the evolution of civilization ever westward.

The realization that America was uniquely qualified to take the initiative in filling this opening emerged from various economic, geographic, religious, and patriotic perspectives and was reinforced by the seeming abundance of material wealth found in the United States.


Economic Aspirations

Professor Walter LaFeber has demonstrated how the idea of a surplus at home, especially in the 1890s, could produce strong expansionist tendencies abroad. In the depression years after 1893 Americans frantically sought solution of the problem of an obviously maldistributed domestic economy by finding markets for a production surplus that few at home could afford.

By 1901, however, Open Door expansionism was a positive rather than a negative concept. From strength rather than weakness, American involvement in foreign affairs in the first years of the twentieth century was guided by the twin beliefs that not America but the world, or at least China, needed saving and that the United States was the only country qualified to do it.

Certainly that China should be saved mostly to be an outlet for an American manufacturing surplus remained uppermost in many minds. Before the Senate and in numerous magazine articles, Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge set forth what reads like a grade school primer on the realities of the corporate capitalist order.

“What America is looking for is trade,” Beveridge asserted. Commerce was a nation’s food and when prosperous a country’s diet would be mostly exotic foreign food. “We cannot live upon ourselves,” he warned, “We must dispose of our surplus abroad, and upon the sale of our surplus abroad depends the prosperous condition of all our commerce.”

Moving from introductory political economy to elementary political geography Beveridge made his plan clear: “The most populous portion of the surface of the earth does not control its own markets. This portion of the earth’s surface is Asia, and especially the Empire of China with its 400,000,000 of consumers.”

These customers attracted many Americans. On the day he was shot in Buffalo, William McKinley sketched the problem that had dominated and would continue to dominate so much of his and his successor’s time. “What we produce beyond our domestic consumption,” McKinley declared, “must have a vent abroad.”

Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, later a leading congressional insurgent and avowed defender of the people versus big business, echoed similar sentiments in supporting the 1900 acquisition of the Philippines. He advised, “We will be ready to conquer our rightful share of that great market for the world’s commerce, we can legally and morally reserve unto ourselves perpetual commercial advantages of priceless value to our foreign trade for all time to come.”

Commercially, at least in theory, China was just the perfect example of Russell Conwell’s fashionably popular concept of “acres of diamonds,” as in fact one American journalist did describe it. America’s geographical position, stable economy, farm and factory productivity, and abundant resources made failure remote.

"Equality of Opportunity," meaning no territorial spheres of influence as developed by European powers in the 1890s, was all that was needed. The ’Nation’ defined the commercial as opposed to territorial expansionism of the Open Door:

“We do not need to seek an unfair advantage. An open door and no favor infallibly means for the United States . . . the greater share and gain in the commercial exploitation of China.”

“We must dispose of our surplus abroad ..." (shown: W. S. Dicky Clay Manufacturing Company, Missouri.)

Secretaries of State Hay and Root in the period from 1899 through 1905 were, as Hay put it, “alive to the importance of safeguarding our great commercial interests in that empire.”

Despite this awareness and such tangible results as the new commercial treaty of 1903 with China designed to enlarge opportunities, open new ports, and abolish internal restrictions to trade, a huge gap remained between the potential and the realized advantages of American commerce in China.

In some areas of the United States, the south in particular, exports of cotton goods, especially to Manchuria, were of major importance to a domestic industry.

Manchuria was in fact the very spot taken more and more to be most naturally suited for development by the United States. It was there that Russian competition was most seriously felt because of the presence of a Russo-Chinese bank and Russian opposition to the opening of ports for American commerce.

However, the frontier nature of Manchuria’s “pioneer belt,” so like Montana and the Dakotas, and the belief that the great Manchurian populations were “energetic and progressive” convinced many that cotton could be followed by a flood of other overproduced American goods.

Yet even in Manchuria, despite the implorings of the Asiatic Association, the broader-based Committee on American Interests in China, and the even-more-general National Association of Manufacturers, the potential market had not even begun to be realized. Though exports increased after the turn of the century, Asian markets in general still lagged behind European and other North American outlets, with business amounting to some $104.7 million in 1901 as against $1,136.5 million for Europe and $196.5 million for North America.

A group of Americans, railroaders and bankers, did seek to extend American interest beyond commerce and to capture the opportunity immediately. As engineer William Barclay Parsons proclaimed in ’McClure’s Magazine’ in 1900, “We of today are concerned not with what China will do eventually with progress but with what we ourselves can and should do with it now.”

The "we" in this ease was the American China Development Company composed of Parsons, former China minister Charles Denby, A. W. Bash of Seattle, New York lawyer Clarence Cary, and a group of stockholders including E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific, Jacob Schiff of the investment house of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, and the presidents of the National City and Chase National Banks.

Out of this group came the plan to build a railroad from Hankow to Canton on a concession granted by China. Such a scheme was of course in keeping with the ideas of a man like Charles Conant that through the introduction of heavy capital industry in the power and transportation fields there could be obtained what Denby described as a “foothold in the east” and the “boundless riches of her [China’s] mines and the hoarded wealth of centuries.”

While railroad investment plans would become an important part of American-Chinese relations, the hopes of the Development Company were no better realized than those of American exporters. The complete collapse of the group’s concession and the question of future attempts would be the reason for E. H. Harriman’s joining the Alice Roosevelt entourage.

Before that can be considered in the context of 1905, however, the third element making up the Open Door policy, not commerce or investment but reform, must be understood.

Train on existing Canton - Sam Shui railroad.
< Back to Top of Page