Open Door Notes: Text

from Ronald Shaffer, ed., Toward Pearl Harbor (Marcus Weiner, 1991). pp. 3-7.

From that day in 1785 when their first ship returned from China, American merchants drooled over the prospect of unlimited trade with the world’s most populous nation. Throughout the nineteenth century the China trade was never far from the thoughts of businessmen and politicians, who envisioned millions of Chinese constituting a market for American cotton, wheat, timber, and manufactured products. "Oil for the lamps of China" was not an idle phrase.

But other considerations superceded it until the end of the century. In the meantime, European powers dominated China’s foreign trade as the major industrial powers vied for its control. By the 1890s there was the distinct possibility that China would go the way of Africa, engulfed by the next episode in the colonial scramble.

The maturing of America’s industrial revolution increased interest in trade with the Far East, and events of the 1890s focused that interest on China. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), which demonstrated China’s weakness, led to a series of European demands that foreshadowed the eventual dismemberment of China. By 1898 several of Europe’s major powers had secured spheres of influence in which their nationals had special economic rights. American businessmen faced exclusion from the world’s greatest market.

When the Philippines fell to the United States during the Spanish-American War the prospects for American economic activity in China brightened. The physical presence of a powerful navy in the Far East placed American diplomats in a position where they could exert pressure on both China and the other powers to protect American commercial interests in Asia. Traditional American foreign policy precluded a colony on the mainland of Asia, and American businessmen preferred to trade with all of China rather than with a smaller sphere of influence. It was in this context that Secretary of State John Hay sent his Open Door notes to those powers interested in China in 1899.

The United States’ Proposal
Mr. Hay to Mr. Buck
Washington, November 13,1899

This Government, animated with a sincere desire to insure to the commerce and industry of the United States and of all other nations perfect equality of treatment within the limits of the Chinese Empire for their trade and navigation, especially within the so-called "spheres of influence or interest" claimed by certain European powers in China, has deemed the present an opportune moment to make representations in this direction to Germany, Great Britain, and Russia.

To obtain the object it has in view and to remove possible causes of international irritation and reestablish confidence so essential to commerce, it has seemed to this Government highly desirable that the various powers claiming "spheres of interest or influence" in China should give formal assurances that

First. They will in no way interfere with any treaty port or any vested interest within any so-called "sphere of interest" or leased territory they may have in China.

Second. The Chinese treaty tariff . . . shall apply to all merchandise landed or shipped to all such ports as are within said "sphere of interest" (unless they be "free ports"), no matter to what nationality it may belong, and that duties so leviable shall be collected by the Chinese Government.

Third. They will levy no higher harbor dues on vessels of another nationality frequenting any port in such "sphere" than shall be levied on vessels of their own nationality, and no higher railroad charges over lines built, controlled, or operated within such "sphere" on merchandise belonging to citizens or subjects of other nationalities transported through such "sphere" than shall be levied on similar merchandise belonging to their own nationals transported over equal distances.

The policy pursued by His Imperial German Majesty in declaring Tsing-tao (Kiao-chao) a free port and in aiding the Chinese Government in establishing there a custom-house, and the ukase of His Imperial Russian Majesty of August 11 last in erecting a free port at Dalny (Ta-lien-wan) are thought to be proof that these powers are not disposed to view unfavorably the proposition to recognize that they contemplate nothing which will interfere in any way with the enjoyment by the commerce of all nations of the rights and privileges guaranteed to them by existing treaties with China.

Repeated assurances from the British Government of its fixed policy to maintain throughout China freedom of trade for the whole world insure, it is believed, the ready assent of that power to our proposals. It is no less confidently believed that the commercial interests of Japan would be greatly served by the above-mentioned declaration, which harmonizes with the assurances conveyed to this Government at various times by His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s diplomatic representative at this capital.

You [Buck was the American envoy in Japan] are therefore instructed to submit to His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Government the above considerations, and to invite their early attention to them, and express the earnest hope of your Government that they will accept them and aid in securing their acceptance by the other interested powers.

John Hay


The Japanese reply
Viscount Aoki to Mr. Buck
Tokyo, December 26,1899

Mr. Minister: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of [your] note ... in which, pursuing the instructions of the United States Government, your excellency was so good as to communicate to the Imperial Government the representations of the United States as presented in notes to Russia, Germany, and Great Britain on the subject of commercial interests of the United States in China.

I have the happy duty of assuring your excellency that the Imperial Government will have no hesitation to give their assent to so just and fair a proposal of the United States, provided that all the other powers concerned shall accept the same.

Viscount Siuzo Aoki
Minister for Foreign Affairs


The Open Door: 1900

The European response to Hay’s Open Door proposal was highly qualified, as was that of Japan, but early in 1900 Hay announced that all the powers had accepted. The response by some Chinese to what they saw as continued foreign domination of their country came in the form of a popular uprising, known as the Boxer Rebellion, against foreign exploitation of China. When the Chinese government was unable to protect foreign nationals and legations, half a dozen countries, including the United States and Japan, sent troops into China.

Fearful that the incident would be used by some of the intervening powers to further their territorial designs on China, Hay now broadened the Open Door beyond the original concept of commercial equality. The note he sent to the representatives of the United States at Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg, and Tokyo in July 1900, called for the powers to respect China’s territorial integrity and independence. Again, a grudging, half-hearted acceptance marked their response, but for now the fear that China would be divided between Japan and Europe was lessened.


To the Representatives of the United States at Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg, and Tokyo
Washington, July 3, 1900

In this critical posture of affairs in China it is deemed appropriate to define the attitude of the United States as far as present circumstances permit this to be done. We adhere to the policy initiated by us in 1857, of peace with the Chinese nation, of furtherance of lawful commerce, and of promotion of lives and property of our citizens by all means guaranteed under extraterritorial treaty rights and by the law of nations. If wrong be done to our citizens we propose to hold the responsible authors to the uttermost accountability. We regard the condition at Pekin as one of virtual anarchy, whereby power and responsibility are practically devolved upon the local provincial authorities. So long as they are not in overt collusion with rebellion and use their power to protect foreign life and property we regard them as representing the Chinese people, with whom we seek to remain in peace and friendship. The purpose of the President is, as it has been heretofore, to act concurrently with the other powers, first in opening up communication with Pekin and rescuing the American officials, missionaries, and other Americans who are in danger; secondly, in affording all possible protection everywhere in China to American life and property; thirdly, in guarding and protecting all legitimate American interests; and fourthly, in aiding to prevent a spread of the disorders to the other provinces of the Empire and a recurrence of such disasters. It is, of course, too early to forecast the means of attaining this last result; but the policy of the Government of the United States is to seek a solution which may bring about permanent safety and peace to China, preserve Chinese territorial and administrative entity, protect all rights guaranteed to friendly powers by treaty and international law, and safeguard for the world the principle of equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese Empire.

You will communicate the purport of this instruction to the minister for foreign affairs.