The Stimson Doctrine

From late 1931 until the end of his term in 1933, the administration of President Herbert Hoover attempted to deal with a worsening Manchurian problem. Mired down in the worst depression yet faced by the United States and committed to moral suasion rather than military action, Hoover found his options in the Far East greatly limited. By nature he shrank from the possible use of force against Japan, preferring some other resolution of the increasingly difficult issue. The nation was militarily unprepared for war in Asia, and Hoover recognized that a bellicose posture might provide the spark for Japanese action far beyond the limited area of Manchuria. This was the age of disillusionment with World War I and Americans were not inclined to resort to force in a region so remote and apparently so unimportant. Already criticized for having curtailed American overseas commerce by signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Hoover was unwilling to further dampen foreign trade by imposing an embargo on Japan.

Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, more anxious than Hoover to take a firm stand on Manchuria, made one last effort to apply the moral suasion concept that had dominated Republican foreign policy in the 1920s. On January 7, 1932, he sent notes to both China and Japan announcing what has come to be known as the Stimson Doctrine, a policy of nonrecognition of changes brought about in violation of the Kellogg Pact.

The Japanese response was twofold. Diplomatically, Japan again claimed to be maintaining the spirit of the Kellogg Pact. Militarily, Japan flaunted the calls from the League and the United States for a peaceful resolution by extending the war to Shanghai, where fighting broke out in January, raising fears for the safety of a large foreign population there. In frustration, Stimson sent a lengthy letter to Sen. William Borah, Republican isolationist and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he painstakingly detailed the evolution of the Open Door policy and the international agreements reached at Washington a decade earlier. The letter, made public by Stimson, was a precise summation of American policy to that time.

Stimson Announces the Doctrine

The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Japan (Forbes)

Washington, January 7,1932

Please deliver to the Foreign Office on behalf of your Government as soon as possible the following note:

With the recent military operations about Chinchow, the last remaining administrative authority of the Government of the Chinese Republic in South Manchuria, as it existed prior to September 18th, 1931, has been destroyed. The American Government continues confident that the work of the neutral commission recently authorized by the Council of the League of Nations will facilitate an ultimate solution of the difficulties sow existing between China and Japan. But in view of the present situation and of its own rights and obligations therein, the American Government deems it to be its duty to notify both the Imperial Japanese Government and the Government of the Chinese Republic that it cannot admit the legality of any situation de facto nor does it intend to recognize any treaty or agreement entered into between those Governments, or agents thereof, which may impair the treaty rights of the United States or its citizens in China, including those which relate to the sovereignty, the independence, or the territorial and administrative integrity of the Republic of China, or to the international policy relative to China, commonly known as the open door policy; and that it does not intend to recognize any situation, treaty or agreement which may be brought about by means contrary to the covenants and obligations of the Pact of Paris of August 27, 1928, to which Treaty both China and Japan, as well as the United States, are parties.


Japan Answers Stimson

The Ambassador in Japan (Forbes) to the Secretary of State’

Tokyo, January 16,1932

I have just received the reply of the Japanese Government which reads as follows:

... The Government of Japan were well aware that the Government of the United States could always be relied on to do everything in their power to support Japan’s efforts to secure the full and complete fulfillment in every detail of the treaties of Washington and the Kellogg Treaty for the Outlawry of War. They are glad to receive this additional assurance of the fact.

As regards the question which Your Excellency specifically mentions of the policy of the so-called ‘open door,’ the Japanese Government, as has so often been stated, regard that policy as a cardinal feature of the politics of the Far East, and regrets that its effectiveness is so seriously diminished by the unsettled conditions which prevail throughout China. Insofar as they can secure it, the policy of the open door will always be maintained in Manchuria, as in China proper.

They take note of the statement by the Government of the United States that the latter cannot admit the legality of matters which might impair the treaty rights of the United States or its citizens or which might be brought about by means contrary to the [Kellogg-Briand] treaty of 27 August, 1928. It might be the subject of an academic doubt whether in a given case the impropriety of means necessarily and always voids the ends secured; but as Japan has no intention of adopting improper means, that question does not practically arise.

It may be added that the treaties which relate to China must necessarily be applied with due regard to the state of affairs from time to time prevailing in that country, and that the present unsettled and distracted state of China is not what was in the contemplation of the High Contracting Parties at the time of the Treaty of Washington. It was certainly not satisfactory then; but it did not display that disunion and those antagonisms which it does today. This cannot affect the binding character or the stipulations of treaties; but it may in material respects modify their application, since they must necessarily be applied with reference to the state of facts as they exist.

My Government desire further to point out that any replacement which has occurred in the personnel of the administration of Manchuria has been the necessary act of the local population. Even in cases of hostile occupation-which this was not-it is customary for the local officials to remain in the exercise of their functions. In the present case they for the most part fled or resigned; it was their own behaviour which was calculated to destroy the working of the apparatus of government. The Japanese Government cannot think that the Chinese people, unlike all others, are destitute of the power of self-determination and of organizing themselves in order to secure civilized conditions when deserted by the existing officials.

While it need not be repeated that Japan entertains in Manchuria no territorial aims or ambitions, yet, as Your Excellency knows, the welfare and safety of Manchuria and its accessibility for general trade are matters of the deepest interest and of quite extraordinary importance to the Japanese people. That the American Government are always alive to the exigencies of Far Eastern questions has already been made evident on more than one occasion. At the present juncture, when the very existence of our national policy is involved, it is agreeable to be assured that the American Government are devoting in a friendly spirit such sedulous care to the correct appreciation of the situation....


Stimson Summarizes the U. S. Position

To Senator William E. Borah

Washington, February 23,1932

You have asked my opinion whether, as has been sometimes recently suggested, present conditions in China have in any way indicated that the so-called Nine Power Treaty has become inapplicable or ineffective or rightly in need of modifications, and if so, what I considered should be the policy of this Government.

This Treaty, as you of course know, forms the legal basis upon which now rests the "Open Door" policy towards China. That policy enunciated by John Hay in 1899, brought to an end the struggle among various powers for so-called spheres of interest in China which was threatening the dismemberment of that empire. To accomplish this Mr. Hay invoked two principles (1) equality of commercial opportunity among all nations in dealing with China, and (2) as necessary to that equality the preservation of China’s territorial and administrative integrity. These principles were not new in the foreign policy of America. They had been the principles upon which it rested in its dealing with other nations for many years. In the case of China they were invoked to save a situation which not only threatened the future development and sovereignty of that great Asiatic people, but also threatened to create dangerous and constantly increasing rivalries between the other nations of the world. War had already taken place between Japan and China. At the close of that war three other nations intervened to prevent Japan from obtaining some of the results of that war claimed by her. Other nations sought and had obtained spheres of interest. Partly as a result of these actions a serious uprising had broken out in China which endangered the legations of all of the powers at Peking. While the attack on those legations was in progress, Mr. Hay made an announcement in respect to this policy and the principle upon which the powers should act in the settlement of the rebellion. He said:

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.

He was successful in obtaining the assent of the other powers to the policy thus announced.

In taking these steps Mr. Hay acted with the cordial support of the British Government. In responding to Mr. Hay’s announcement, above set forth, Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister expressed himself "most emphatically as concurring in the policy of the United States."

For twenty years thereafter the Open Door policy rested upon the informal commitments thus made by the various powers. But in the winter of 1921 to 1922, at a conference participated in by all of the principal powers which had interests in the Pacific, the policy was crystallized into the so-called Nine Power Treaty, which gave definition and precision to the principles upon which the policy rested....

This Treaty thus represents a carefully developed and matured international policy intended, on the one hand, to assure to all of the contracting parties their rights and interests in and with regard to China, and on the other hand, to assure to the people of China the fullest opportunity to develop without molestation their sovereignty and independence according to the modern and enlightened standards believed to maintain among the peoples of the earth. At the time this Treaty was signed, it was known that China was engaged in an attempt to develop the free institutions of a self-governing republic after her recent revolution from an autocratic form of government; that she would require many years of both economic and political effort to that end; and that her progress would necessarily be slow. The Treaty was thus a covenant of self-denial among the signatory powers in deliberate renunciation of any policy of aggression which might tend to interfere with that development. It was believed -- and the whole history of the development of the "Open Door" policy reveals that faith -- that only by such a process, under the protection of such an agreement, could the fullest interests not only of China but of all nations which have intercourse with her best be served.

In its report to the President announcing this Treaty, the American Delegation, headed by the then Secretary of State, Mr. Charles E. Hughes, said:

It is believed that through this Treaty the "Open Door" in China has at last been made a fact.

During the course of the discussions which resulted in the Treaty, the Chairman of the British delegation, Lord Balfour, had stated that:

The British Empire delegation understood that there was no representative of any power around the table who thought that the old practice of "spheres of interest" was either advocated by any government or would be tolerable to this conference. So far as the British Government was concerned, they had, in the most formal manner, publicly announced that they regarded this practice as utterly inappropriate to the existing situation.

At the same time the representative of Japan, Baron Shidehara, announced the position of his government as follows:

No one denies to China her sacred right to govern herself. No one stands in the way of China to work out her own great national destiny.

The Treaty was originally executed by the United States, Belgium, the British Empire, China, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Portugal. Subsequently it was also executed by Norway, Bolivia, Sweden, Denmark and Mexico. Germany has signed it but her Parliament has not yet ratified it.

It must be remembered also that this Treaty was one of several treaties and agreements entered into at the Washington Conference by the various powers concerned, all of which were interrelated and interdependent. No one of these treaties can be disregarded without disturbing the general understanding and equilibrium which were intended to be accomplished and effected by the group of agreements arrived at in their entirety. The Washington Conference was essentially a disarmament conference, aimed to promote the possibility of peace in the world not only through the cessation of competition in naval armament but also by the solution of various other disturbing problems which threatened the peace of the world, particularly in the Far East. These problems were all interrelated. The willingness of the American government to surrender its then commanding lead in battleship construction and to leave its positions at Guam and in the Philippines without further fortification, was predicated upon, among other things, the self-denying covenants contained in the Nine Power Treaty, which assured the nations of the world not only of equal opportunity for their Eastern trade but also against the military aggrandizement of any other power at the expense of China. One cannot discuss the possibility of modifying or abrogating those provisions of the Nine Power Treaty without considering at the same time the other promises upon which they were really dependent.

Six years later the policy of self-denial against aggression by a stronger against a weaker power, upon which the Nine Power Treaty had been based, received a powerful reinforcement by the execution by substantially all the nations of the world of the Pact of Paris, the so-called Kellogg-Briand Pact. These two treaties represent independent but harmonious steps taken for the purpose of aligning the conscience and public opinion of the world in favor of a system of orderly development by the law of nations including the settlement of all controversies by methods of justice and peace instead of by arbitrary force. The program for the protection of China from outside aggression is an essential part of any such development. The signatories and adherents of the Nine Power Treaty rightly felt that the orderly and peaceful welfare of the 400,000,000 people inhabiting China was necessary to the peaceful welfare of the entire world and that no program for the welfare of the world as a whole could afford to neglect the welfare and protection of China.

The recent events which have taken place in China, especially the hostilities which having been begun in Manchuria have latterly been extended to Shanghai, far from indicating the advisability of any modification of the treaties we have been discussing, have tended to bring home the vital importance of the faithful observance of the covenants therein to all of the nations interested in the Far East. It is not necessary in that connection to inquire into the causes of the controversy or attempt to apportion the blame between the two nations which are unhappily involved; for regardless of cause or responsibility, it is clear beyond peradventure that a situation has developed which cannot, under any circumstances, be reconciled with the obligations of the covenants of these two treaties, and that if the treaties had been faithfully observed such a situation could not have arisen. The signatories of the Nine Power Treaty and of the Kellogg-Briand Pact who are not parties to that conflict are not likely to see any reason for modifying the terms of those treaties. To them the real value of the faithful performance of the treaties has been brought sharply home by the perils and losses to which their nationals have been subjected in Shanghai.

That is the view of this Government. We see no reason for abandoning the enlightened principles which are embodied in these treaties. We believe that this situation would have been avoided had these covenants been faithfully observed, and no evidence has come to us to indicate that a due compliance with them would have interfered with the adequate protection of the legitimate rights in China of the signatories of those treaties and their nationals.

On January 7th last, upon the instruction of the President, this Government formally notified Japan and China that it would not recognize any situation, treaty or agreement entered into by those governments in violation of the covenants of these treaties, which affected the rights of our Government or its citizens in China. If a similar decision should be reached and a similar position taken by the other governments of the world, a caveat will be placed upon such action which, we believe, will effectively bar the legality hereafter of any title or right sought to be obtained by pressure or treaty violation, and which, as has been shown by history in the past, will eventually lead to the restoration to China of rights and titles of which she may have been deprived.

In the past our Government, as one of the leading powers on the Pacific Ocean, has rested its policy upon an abiding faith in the future of the people of China and upon the ultimate success in dealing with them of the principles of fair play, patience, and mutual goodwill. We appreciate the immensity of the task which lies before her statesmen in the development of her country and its government. The delays in her progress, the instability of her attempts to secure a responsible government, were foreseen by Messrs. Hay and Hughes and their contemporaries and were the very obstacles which the policy of the Open Door was designed to meet. We concur with those statesmen, representing all nations in the Washington Conference who decided that China was entitled to the time necessary to accomplish her development. We are prepared to make that our policy for the future....

Henry L. Stimson