Open Door Policy

William Appleman Williams was a revisionist historian who interpreted the open-door policy as a strategy which would “set the terms of international competition in ways that played to America’s strong suit while also catering to America’s self-image”.[1]  Williams also believed problems with the U.S. economy was due to imperialism; essentially, the U.S. government was spending money abroad to prevent depression and unemployment.[2]  The open-door policy did govern U.S. diplomatic strategy. Although, not in the distorted way Williams had interpreted the Open-Door Notes. Secretary of State John Hay constructed the concept of Open Door in a serious of notes in 1899-1900 aimed at securing international agreement in China. According to the Office of Historian’s website:

Hay proposed a free, open market and equal trading opportunity for merchants of all nationalities operating in China, based in part on the most favored nation clauses already established in the Treaties of Wangxia and Tianjin. Hay argued that establishing equal access to commerce would benefit American traders and the U.S. economy, and hoped that the Open Door would also prevent disputes between the powers operating in China.[3]

China had opened trade agreements with Eastern Europeans and Westerners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Qing negotiated with the Russians allowing them access to border trade in 1727. The Canton trade system, based on the same principles as the European agreements, was used for dealing with Westerners in the eighteenth century.[4] Nearing the twentieth century, China was trying to resolve their internal differences and unite the country. However, imperial Japan made this task impossible; with most of Europe pre-occupied with the out-break of the Great War, Japan became the strongest power in the region and they took full advantage, demanding territorial and trading rights, along with placing Japanese advisors in the Chinese government.[5]

Japan’s actions had severely weakened China’s internal politics. When the Great War ended in 1919, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to give up its Chinese territory. China assumed they would get it as a reward for their contributions to the War; they had sent Chinese’s workers to the Western Front to assist the Allies. However, the Western powers gave it to Japan. Apparently, they had arrangements with both Japan and China to bring them to the Allied side. By World War II the two dominate parties that emerged in China were the Nationalist and the Communist. However, Japan was still occupying China. Chinese leaders solicited the U.S. for help, but the U.S. turned them down. One of the Chinese leaders, Sun Yat-sen, found the Russian foreign minister, Leon Trotsky, eager to spread the revolution abroad. And the Chinese Communist Party was formed (CCP).[6]

When World War II ended, China’s “War of Resistance against Japan” ended as well, and Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945. Soon after, the Civil war began in China between the CCP and Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (GMD).  Fearing the U.S. would side with and possibly intervene in China, the CCP tried to convince the U.S. they were Nationalist at heart and favored democratic reform. Eventually, Stalin cautiously decided to support the CCP with Soviet forces as they advanced in Northeast China.[7] The U.S. supported the GMD with troops and equipment—an attempt to check the movement of the CCP in the area.[8] At the same time the CCP and GMD were positioning forces for control of the Northeast, officials in the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China were meeting in London to discuss Far East policy. After the U.S. made it clear they alone would exercise occupational control of Japan, Russia hardened its stance toward the GDM in China and the U.S. in East Asia. This conflict between the two parties (CCP-GMD) in China was an essential element of the emerging Cold War.[9]  

After careful consideration of the events during the late nineteenth and twentieth century in China, it’s clear the United States’ intentions were not, as Williams puts it, to “play[ed] to America’s strong suit while also catering to America’s self-image” nor was it a strategy of rigging the international system in their favor. Secretary Hay’s Open-Door Notes was an attempt to prevent disputes between the various countries operating in China. The historical narrative becomes clear, when civil war between the two parties in China emerged—the United States turned down an offer by Chinese leaders to intervene. It was only when the Russians decided to intervene and take sides in China that the U.S. was forced to get involved because of the threat to national security. The Open-Door policy was meant to secure international agreements regarding commerce and trade in China, a strategy intended to ward off disputes between the operating powers in China. Civil war and the Soviet’s involvement in Chinese affairs forced America’s actions resulting in a confrontational atmosphere in the region. Williams takes these two separate events, the Open-Door Policy and Soviet/U.S. tensions, syndicates and distorts them to fit his delusional model of American policy brought forth by his interpretation of Hay’s Open-Door Notes. America’s expansion into foreign markets, regarding China, revolves around economics in the form of free trade, not annexing territory by military force. U.S. troops were used as a check on Soviet influence in the region. World War II had just ended and the appeasement strategy that France and Britain applied did not stop the War from coming. Did Williams not view Soviet domination in the region as a threat to U.S. security?  Still, as a revisionist, Williams contributed to the historiography of America’s foreign policy on intervention. Although his warnings and radical ideology may have originated from a personal perspective, perhaps influenced by the region where he inhabited, it touted future revisionists to evaluate the intentions of U.S. foreign policy and the emergence of (in their view) the hostile American empire.  


Bibliography

Bacevich, Andrew J. “Tragedy Renewed: William Appleman Williams.” World Affairs 171, no. 3, (Winter 2009):  62-72. Accessed November 27, 2107,https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/docview/211159163?accountid=3783.

Cosmo, Nicola Di ed., Military Culture in Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 

Doenecke, Justus D. “William Appleman Williams and the Anti-Interventionalist Tradition,” Diplomatic History 25, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 288-290. Accessed November 30, 2017, http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/ehost/detail/ detail?vid=0&sid=a8539003-3ce6-42f7-a9fe-5668567b86de%40sessionmgr102&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=a9h&AN=4335694.

 Jian, Chen. Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Rana, Mitter. China’s World War II 1937-1945: Forgotten Ally. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 214.

United States Department of State. “Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs.” Last modified May 4, 2017. Accessed December 1, 2017 https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899- 1913/hay-and-china


Notes

[1] Andrew J. Bacevich, “Tragedy Renewed: William Appleman Williams.” World Affairs 171, no. 3, (Winter 2009): 68. Accessed November 27, 2107, http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/docview/211159163?accountid=3783.

[2] Justus D. Doenecke, “William Appleman Williams and the Anti-Interventionalist Tradition,” Diplomatic History 25, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 288-290. accessed November 30, 2017, http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=a8539003-3ce6-42f7-a9fe-5668567b86de%40sessionmgr102&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=a9h&AN=4335694.

[3] United States Department of State. “Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs.” Last modified May 4, 2017. Accessed December 1, 2017, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/hay-and-china.

[4] Nicola Di Cosmo, ed., Military Culture in Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 332.

[5] Rana Mitter, China’s World War II 1937-1945: Forgotten Ally (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 12, 41.

[6] Ibid., 41-44.

[7] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 29.

[8] Ibid., 31.

[9] Ibid., 36.

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