Through the Door of Tainted Opportunity: An Analysis of America’s Motivation for the Open Door Policy


Through the Door of Tainted Opportunity

An Analysis of America’s Motivation for the Open Door Policy

1990 -- “The powers, East and West, were carving out the prostrate body of defenseless imperial China.” (Musicant)

As the U.S. counted their territorial gains from the Spanish American war, the First Sino-Japanese War had left China nursing its loss of the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. Now in possession of the Philippines, the United States’ interest in China’s future increased; most Americans harbored a fear that the weakened China would be broken into colonies by the imperialist nations around the world and the United States’ trade there would die out. The United States, although capable of extending their economic, political, or military control over the weakened China like the other imperialist nations, believed that they could take no risks regarding foreign trade. Addressing this fear was U.S. Secretary of State, John Hay, who drafted a series of notes, proposing a share of trading rights among England, Germany, Russia, France, Japan, Italy, and the U.S. to prevent the development of monopolies in Chinese trade. By 1900, all involved nations had agreed upon this agreement and the Open Door Policy was in effect. In China, all trade, and therefore their economy, now was in the hands of foreign powers. However, the United States’ incentives to develop the Open Door Policy did not sufficiently justify this unfair control of China’s weakened economy.  

           The underlying motives for the U.S.’s development of the Open Door Policy came from three national beliefs. Firstly, the government believed that economic growth in the U.S. depended on exports from foreign nations.  Although the United States had trade interests in China since the 1840s, they had not developed a sphere of influence, or an area in which they held political influence, unlike the other imperialist nations involved. Hay believed that if an agreement could be made, the exclusion of the U.S. from China would be impossible to achieve. Therefore, if a certain amount of control could be secured in the Chinese economy, control could also be secured over a steady flow of exports. (American Foreign Relations) However, at the time, China accounted for a mere 3% of U.S. trade, enough to affect small industries such as the cotton and flour merchants, but not enough to affect the entire country if trade had been cut off. (Kent)

Secondly, the U.S. believed that they had a right to intervene to keep foreign markets open. This hypocritical view meant that Social Darwinism, or the belief of social superiority, justified their use of their political power to govern a section of the Chinese economy. At the same time, the U.S. was restricting other nations from colonizing the Western Hemisphere, containing Latin America and the Caribbean, to preserve their economic interests nearer home.  (Kent) This situation was justified by the concept of American exceptionalism, or the belief that the United States is a “special exception” to all other nations in the world. (The American) In this manner, the U.S. used imperialism to form alliances and achieve their goals and to restrict other imperialist nations from encroaching on “their” hemisphere.

Finally, the U.S. believed that closing off their economic interests overseas threatened the survival of their country. Therefore, the development of these “spheres of economic influence” would result in a constant source of economic relief from new markets. ( After the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1967, American imperialists saw the advantage of new land that could potentially provide raw materials and new markets. (Angel) An origin of revenue, which is not immediately connected with the dips and swings of the U.S. national economy, was a very attractive idea for Americans. This advantage came at the cost of less revenue for the Chinese; from about 1890 to 1900, China’s gross domestic product (GDP), or it’s economic output, dropped almost 5% while the United State’s GDP rose about that amount. (NYTimes) This dip in the         Chinese economy took until the 60 years to recover from.

The instatement of the Open Door Policy spread the dominating force of imperialist nations throughout a crippled China. Furthermore, the American motivation for this policy was insufficient for such a drastic action. Without this policy, our economy might not have survived through the early 1900s but with it we promoted our unfair beliefs in our cultural superiority and our hypocritical restriction of foreign trade in our region. We not only crippled further the weakened Chinese economy, but spread the disease of imperialism.  

Works Cited

Angel, Ann. America in the 20th Century. North Bellmore, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 1995. 124-28. Print.

Hay, John. "First Open Door Note, by John Hay | AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History." WWW Virtual. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <>.

Kent, Noel Jacob. America in 1900. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2000. 33-35. Print.

Lawrence, Mark A. "Open Door Policy." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. Web. 10 Oct. 2010. <>.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: the Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: H. Holt, 1998. 305-14. Print.

"The Open Door Policy." United States History. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <>.

Rampell, Catherine. "The Return of China -" The Economy and the Economics of Everyday Life - Economix Blog - 29 Mar. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <>.