The "Open Door" was the name given to the United States' fundamental policy toward China for much of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, up until World War II. Under the "Open Door" policy, America made no territorial demands of China nor did it seek any sphere of influence in the Chinese mainland like other powers, but it always insisted that China remain an "open door" to all nations (i.e. especially the US) - that no nation receive special priviledges not extended to all others, that all Chinese "treaty ports" be equally open to all nations, and that no nation be unfairly discriminated against with special tariffs. Because the US almost never intervened militarily in China, yet demanded all the same priveledges granted those powers that did use force to extract new concessions from the Chinese, the US Open Door policy came to be known as "jackal diplomacy," as the US "jackal" benefited from the efforts of the British "lion."

The Open Door policy had its origins in the "most favored nation" clauses typically included in the treaties China made with the Western powers including the US following the Opium War, and the traditional Chinese practice of treating all foreigners exactly the same (essentially because all foreigners were equally barbarians to the Chinese). Long unofficial US policy, the US Open Door stance moved toward official international recognition when several European powers sought to receive special unequal priveledges from China in the 1890s, prompting McKinley's Secretary of State John Hay to sent a round of missives to all the European powers in September of 1899, requesting them to respect equal rights for all nations under the treaties. The Open Door policy was later made official international doctrine during the nine-power Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921-1922.

As the 1930s progressed, the Japanese increasingly trampled on the international community's Open Door rights as they successively overran Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Northern China. By the end of World War II, the Open Door policy was irrelevant, because the new Peoples Republic of China would only deal with Communist Russia.

At the end of the nineteenth century, enfeebled China was being torn to pieces. Like jackles attacking a rotting corpse, the imperial powers of Europe were taking everything they could get their hands on. Russia, Germany, Britain, France, and Japan all more-or-less trounced over the country, using military and economic persuasion to gain control of spheres of influence. With so many major powers looking for a piece of the action, conflict of some sort seemed inevitable. The United States, a latecomer to the realm of imperialistic expansion with its acquisition of the Phillipines after the Spanish-American War, looked on alarmed as it seemed they were to be locked out of China. Missionaries worried about the confiscation of their holdings and programs, investors saw signs of market monopolization by the Europeans, and free trade advocates despaired at what seemed like the certainty of economic lock-outs resulting from rivalries in the region. The powerful press of the United States, famed for its yellow journalism and hand in orchestrating the Spanish-American War, brought the issue to the American people. With a little prodding, it was a simple matter to elicit outcries.

Secretary of State John Hay, a diplomat with a flair for poetry and prose, took action. Knowing that appeals would only work if made universally and relying on international etiquette for enforcement, he devised the Open Door policy. In a communicado directed to the diplomats of every major power in the region, he urged the respect of "certain Chinese rights and the ideal of fair competition" (Bailey 666). At the same time, he made the note available to the press. The Open Door now became an item of public debate. With such a generally acknowledged good idea hitting the newstands, it would be difficult for European powers to ignore the notice. They would have to respond in some way. The genius of John Hay's Open Door policy was that it forced the nations who controlled China's economic regions to honestly state their intentions. He set up false, but effective dichotomy that any power which did not accept Open Door obviously had intentions to ransack the region it controlled. Act in the best interests of all (including, supposedly, the Chinese), or stand and be counted as an imperialistic thief.

After some deliberation, the powers shot back. They agreed to Open Door, on the condition that everyone else did. Only Italy agreed unconditionally (which wasn't saying much, since Italy had very little influence in China). All seemed to be well until Russia issued a vague response which was intended as a polite rejection. Russia wanted Manchuria, and they were hardly going to let a goody-two-shoes laggard from across the Pacific dictate what they could or could not do. The refusal threatened to shatter the whole delicate balance, however John Hay still had an ace up his sleeve. He capitalized on the vague language of Russia's rejection and instead interpreted it as an acceptance. Triumphantly, he declared Open Door in effect. While a dilpomatic coup, Hay's fudge had dubious implications for the Open Door policy itself. Russia had never honestly intended to honor the policy, and with their violations came me-too skirtings of the policy's rules by other powers. The Open Door policy was thus relatively short-lived, and with the Boxer Rebellion simply died outright.

Bailey, Thomas A., Kennedy, David M., Cohen, Lizabeth. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

O"pen door.


Open or free admission to all; hospitable welcome; free opportunity.

She of the open soul and open door,
With room about her hearth for all mankind.


In modern diplomacy, opportunity for political and commercial intercourse open to all upon equal terms, esp. with reference to a nation whose policy is wholly or partially fixed by nations foreign to itself, or to territory newly acquired by a conquering nation. In this sense, often used adjectively, as, open-door system, open-door policy, etc.

The steps taken by Britain to maintain the open door have so far proved to be perfectly futile. A. R. Colquhoun.


© Webster 1913.

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