Open Door

“The Open Door Notes have produced as much mythology as anything in the history of U.S. foreign relations.  Although he knew better, Hay encouraged and happily accepted popular praise for America’s bold and altruistic defense of China from the rapacious powers.  These contemporary accolades evolved into the enduring myth that the United States in a singular act of beneficence at a critical point in China’s history saved it from further plunder by the European powers and Japan.  More recently, historians have found in the Open Door Notes a driving force behind much of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy.  Scholar-diplomat George F. Kennan dismissed them as typical of the idealism and legalism that he insisted had characterized the American approach to diplomacy, a meaningless statement in defense of a dubious cause –the independence of China– which had the baneful effect of inflating in the eyes of American s the importance of their interests in China and their ability to dictate events there.  Historian William Appleman Williams and the so-called Wisconsin School have portrayed the notes as an aggressive first move to capture the China market that laid the foundation for U.S. policy in much of the world in the twentieth century.” (George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 333-4)


Discussion Questions

  • Herring uses the Open Door episode as way to further delineate major schools of thought about American diplomatic traditions.  Earlier in the semester, Walter Russell Mead tried something similar.  Can you summarize the different interpretive approaches on your own by this point?
  • Among American diplomats and secretaries of state, John Hay usually ranks quite high.  How you would characterize his accomplishments?  Do recent shifts in American attitudes about imperialism and race diminish the standing of statesmen like Hay (or figures like Theodore Roosevelt) in your eyes?

China map

Student-produced map of the Boxer Rebellion (Julianne Greco)


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