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Response to Review of Defining and Defending the Open Door Policy: Theodore Roosevelt and China, 1901-1909

I would like to extend my thanks to Danny Millium and Reviews in History for the opportunity to respond to Michael Patrick Cullinane’s review of my book, Defining and Defending the Open Door Policy: Theodore Roosevelt and China, 1901–1909. I appreciate Professor Cullinane’s comments, but I should like to address a few things.

To begin, Cullinane notes that the first chapter of the book spends what he seems to consider an inordinate amount of time on China’s history with the West prior to Roosevelt’s accession to the presidency, suggesting that this material could have been covered in a few paragraphs. In the original draft of the book I did discuss the background in a broader, more generalized manner. However, outside readers expressed an opinion that the presentation of the early contacts between China and the West needed more detail than I had originally intended. After some consideration, I followed their advice and rewrote the chapter. I had thought to eliminate the chapter but came to the conclusion that some discussion of the background of Sino-Western relations was essential especially for those readers unfamiliar with the development of the West’s relations with China prior to the Roosevelt Administration. In that regard I felt the rewrite was justified.

Regarding TR’s views about the Chinese, I argue that his prejudices, which were stereotypical and generally representative of American attitudes toward China, were based less on race than on cultural differences and his own personal values. These were certainly reflective of ‘Anglo-Saxon notions of civilization’. TR was clearly contemptuous of the Chinese inability, as he saw it, to defend themselves from foreign predators, a clear sign of the type of weakness he despised. He used Chinese weakness as an object lesson to justify building American strength and preparedness to meet any eventual threat, noting that failing to do so might one day condemn the American nation to a similar fate. At the same time, he viewed what he perceived as China’s lack of interaction in world affairs and a loss of what he termed the ‘manly and adventurous qualities’ as a cause of China’s decline. As a result, China was viewed entirely through American eyes, resulting in a paternalistic policy based to some extent upon contempt for a Chinese civilization viewed as weak, decadent and needing salvation. That salvation, of course, would be based on conformation to American values and desires, whether or not the Chinese wanted to accept them. At one point, reflecting the ‘yellow peril’ paranoia of the day and future ‘clash of civilizations’ theory, TR went so far as to call for the planting of Western ideals in China in order to preclude a ‘future clash’ between East and West. This motive to westernize China, even though Chinese wishes were not considered, was a driving force in the policy of Roosevelt’s Administration toward China, and reflective of the attitudes of American missionaries and educators in particular. What was missing, however, was any real understanding of the internal forces that were operating in China at that time. The lack of, or misinterpretation of, knowledge about what was transpiring in China internally led to a contemptuous, paternalistic and bullying overtone that resulted in the treatment of the Chinese as if they were recalcitrant children. Ultimately, Roosevelt and his advisers appear to have applied a sort of cultural racism to American relations with the Chinese and Japanese. Simply put, the Japanese were ‘good’ because they had adopted Western principles and had demonstrated the ability and willingness to fight in order to assert and defend their interests in Asia; the Chinese had failed to do so and were therefore, in simple terms, ‘bad’.

While a sense of fair play could be found in some aspects of Roosevelt’s China policy, such as in the return of the Boxer Uprising indemnity and the establishment of a scholarship fund for Chinese students, there was also an aspect of bullying in American relations with China. The return of Boxer Indemnity monies, as one example, was based upon American insistence that the funds be used for educating Chinese students; the Chinese would have preferred to use the money in other ways but were forced to accede to the American demand in order to get the remittance. The creation of the student exchange program that resulted may well have been far-sighted, but this was a decision the Chinese were compelled to accept in place of their preference to invest the money in a railroad project in Manchuria as part of a scheme to retain as much of their sovereignty there as possible. The paternalism of Roosevelt and his advisers was noticeably evident here, as they made it clear that the monies would not be returned unless they, and not the Chinese, would determine how the funds were to be allocated.

While other issues in Sino-American relations receive some attention, the focal point is the Open Door Policy – something Cullinane does not adequately address in his review. Having inherited both John Hay and the Open Door notes from McKinley, Roosevelt and the State Department had to determine how to define and implement this new policy. While all of the powers seeking opportunity in China had reasons to ignore the Open Door notes when it suited them to do so, the primary culprits were Russia and Japan, both of whom had designs on Manchuria. It was that region of China more than any other that would determine how the Open Door would be defined and, if possible, defended. The choice, which reflected a limited American interest in China, commercially and otherwise, was to emphasize the first Open Door note that called for equal opportunity for all nations to conduct trading activities in China over the second note’s plea for the preservation of Chinese territorial integrity. The primary goal was to secure the chance to develop the China market for American enterprise; the acceptance of spheres of influence held by the other powers operating in China is clearly indicative of that fact.

I don’t deny that Roosevelt acted to preserve China’s territorial integrity, however. He did what was possible given the minimal American interest in China, the limited nature of American commerce and the lack of a significant military presence there. In fact, in dealing with both Russian and Japanese threats to Chinese sovereignty, the Roosevelt Administration often acted as if China was unimportant. While offering minimal support to China against foreign threats to the Open Door, Roosevelt also relied on support from other nations, notably Great Britain, in an effort to pressure the offending countries into backing down. The Chinese were usually caught in the middle of these disputes. China was given support, but the empire was also expected to act on its own to protect foreign interests within the empire, which it could not do. At the same time, the United States alone could not defend Chinese sovereignty. Ultimately, from the perspective of the Roosevelt Administration, striking a balance between Russian and Japanese ambitions in Manchuria proved to be the most workable approach. Roosevelt may have been inventive in this regard, yet he was also true to his pragmatic nature. Either way, Chinese sovereignty over Manchuria was still compromised.

Roosevelt’s mediation of the Russo-Japanese War did end the conflict, at a cost to his popularity in Japan, but it is questionable as to whether the war would have moved deeper into Chinese territory. The Japanese were broaching the idea of a peace conference in January 1905; the Russians made peace overtures in April. Internal unrest in Russia, including within the military, suggest that the war with Japan would come to an end sooner, rather than later, and the disaster at Tshushima made continuing the war almost impossible for Russia. While the Portsmouth Treaty ended the war, the peace came with the price of establishing Japan in southern Manchuria and the cession of Chinese sovereignty there, in practice, if not in name, to both powers. From Roosevelt’s standpoint, the treaty established a balance of power in that part of China that might protect the empire from further incursions at least in the short run. It was a pragmatic decision, and Roosevelt thought that Japan would have to adhere to the principles of the Open Door in order to assure continued American and British support. Nonetheless, just as the Russians had done earlier, Japanese actions in Manchuria after the war threatened both parts of the Open Door Policy. Eventually, Roosevelt would accept the Japanese promise to respect Chinese ‘integrity’ in the Root-Takahira Agreement, which notably omitted the word ‘territorial’ from the text and left the situation in Manchuria essentially unchanged.

The assertion that avoiding the commitment of American military forces to help maintain peace increased American power in the region is an interesting one, although I find it difficult to see how this was so. While the voyage of the Great White Fleet demonstrated the global reach of the United States, Roosevelt’s efforts to avoid a military confrontation with Japan reflected a pragmatic assessment of the American position in East Asia. The American people would likely not be supportive of a war in the region and, beyond defending the Philippines and a limited commercial interest in China, there was little to justify a military confrontation with any power. The Japanese and the other powers competing for influence and more in China were almost certainly aware of this.

Strategically, in Roosevelt’s mind and in terms of American interests, the Western Hemisphere was more important than East Asia. His diplomacy was directed toward balancing power in China, even if that meant sacrificing Chinese territorial integrity in Manchuria. Roosevelt certainly believed that the United States should have its share of the China market, and that the nation should play an important role in bringing the benefits of American civilization and culture to the Chinese. But, at this point in time, war over the potential economic benefits of trade and investment in China simply wasn’t an option. Cullinane notes that the ‘perils of intervention, the growth of the American empire and the fatigue of constant vigilance did not reverberate as a foreign policy tocsin in the early 20th century’. Perhaps not, but Roosevelt was certainly well aware of the risks of war, especially against a power such as Japan that had demonstrated a notable military and naval capability. He also appears to have had a strong sense of what he perceived to be in the national interest, and fighting a war to preserve the Open Door was not in the nation’s best interest. While he was confident the United States could defeat Japan if it came to war, he respected the Japanese enough to find other ways to resolve the issues that arose between them. In terms of hard power, Roosevelt’s policy did not enhance American strength in East Asia; perhaps in terms of soft power the position of the United States was increased somewhat, but even that seems doubtful.

On the other hand, I am especially pleased to see that Cullinane found my assessment of the Taft-Katsura memorandum and the Root-Takahira Agreement to be significant. His description of Bradley’s Imperial Cruise as ‘preposterous’ says all that needs to be said in regard to that writer’s arguments. While much written about these two diplomatic forays has focused on US-Japanese relations, both were crucial to the development of the Open Door policy during Roosevelt’s tenure. The issues were complex and both the memorandum and agreement clearly affected the Administration’s interpretation of the Open Door, solidifying the emphasis on preserving commercial opportunity while compromising China’s territorial integrity, at least in Manchuria. I am hopeful that my conclusions in this regard will stand up against future scrutiny.

I do think Professor Cullinane overstates my conclusion about the failure of Roosevelt’s China policy, and I also disagree that I ‘chastise’ TR for not doing more to solve China’s problems. There was nothing the United States could do to help the Qing deal with its internal issues, and Roosevelt did what he could to protect Chinese integrity given its limited importance to American national interests at that time. While an international conference that might have led to a formal agreement accepting the principles of the Open Door was most likely out of the question, Roosevelt might have pressed the Russians and Japanese, as well as the other powers, harder for an accord on the Hay notes. He probably would have failed, but the effort could have been made. Ultimately, though, Roosevelt accepted what he knew he could get and that might have been the best he could do. My view is simply that he could have tried harder to get more than grudging and vague assurances regarding the Open Door.

The real failure of Roosevelt and his advisers, however, was to ignore the growing internal unrest in China and to recognize how that contributed to the increasing weakness and ineffectiveness of the Qing. Expressions of Chinese nationalism, for example, such as the Anti-American boycott were viewed as precursors to violence comparable to the Boxer Uprising, which might again threaten foreigners in China. And so, holding to a stereotyped view of China’s weakness that was based upon a lack of Western values, the Roosevelt Administration’s China policy was less open-minded and more restrictive than it might have been. Would a more open-minded and less restrictive policy have prevented the downfall of the Qing? Certainly not. But a better understanding in regard to how the Chinese viewed the world and how their cultural values helped to shape that worldview might have led to a greater sensitivity regarding the internal changes taking place in China and how they affected Sino-American relations. At least in part, due to this, American policy toward China was reactive, not proactive.

Cullinane appears to misread my conclusion’s call for a ‘new realism’ in American foreign policy. My argument is that the time has come to balance the prevailing Wilsonian idealism that is a prevalent aspect of foreign policy thinking today with a realistic assessment of the global policies and interests of other nations. Roosevelt’s pragmatism, despite the flaws in his China policy, should serve as a lesson for today’s policy makers. One of Roosevelt’s strengths was strategic thinking; something I think has been lacking in recent foreign policy decisions dating back at least to the Vietnam era. The lack of consideration about what peace would look like in recent American wars, particularly the war in Iraq, is indicative of this deficiency in the conduct of American foreign policy

Moreover, today, a primary question for the United States is whether or not to recognize that other powers have specific areas and regions of interest. Cullinane refers to George Kennan’s questioning of the Open Door’s applicability to China, but Kennan also warned about the dangers of conducting foreign policy on the basis of assumptions, and what he saw as an American tendency to search for a ‘single, external center of evil’ upon which the nation’s foreign policy troubles can be blamed. It is in these areas that a greater understanding and appreciation of cultural differences is most necessary. The tendency toward ‘mirror imaging’ – assuming those in other cultures think like us and will reach the same conclusions as we do – is a dangerous element that can only be remedied by enhancing our understanding of those cultures that are most unlike our own. Today, as it has reasserted itself as a significant world power, China is an object of fascination for many Americans. This has led to the expression of concerns, some of an alarmist nature, regarding whether or not that country may surpass the United States as the dominant global power. The fears expressed today mirror, to some extent, those expressed in Roosevelt’s time. However, today’s China is stronger and more confident than the China of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Now, more than ever, the need to reduce the potential for misunderstanding and misperceptions that can affect both nations as they determine how they will conduct their relations in the present century is critical.

While there are definite threats facing the American nation today, our leaders, both current and future, must make realistic assessments about their nature and the best course of action for dealing with them. Simplistic views about spreading democracy through regime change and the efficacy of intervention to further the self-interest of the United States are not the answer to today’s foreign policy complexities. The recognition that other nations have their own interests and goals that may conflict with those of the United States is paramount and there will be times when it may be wiser to seek a balancing of interests than to oppose them, especially with interventionist policies or the threat of force. Roosevelt understood this, and in defending the Open Door he sought to work with those nations whose interests in China were greater than those of the United States in order to at least preserve the Open Door in some form. With the reemergence of China, Vladimir Putin’s determination to restore Russian influence in the world, a rising India and the potential emergence of other powers to positions of significance, Roosevelt’s balance of power policy in East Asia may serve as a lesson for dealing with the changes in the global power structure that are likely to take place in the 21st century.

I will conclude by noting Cullinane’s comments about hindsight, which is the primary lens that the historian has to work with. We deal with the past and that means that hindsight is an essential aspect of our work. What I think Cullinane is trying to say here is that the historian’s hindsight is affected by his or her experiences, beliefs, values, philosophies of life and so forth; if so, I would agree with him. Having lived through slightly more than the last half of the 20th century to the present, my views about history and my interpretations of the past have undoubtedly been influenced by my life’s experiences. However, I disagree that hindsight can encompass a sense of predestination as an explanation for the outcomes of the past and their influence on the present. I think the role of predestination, if such a thing exists, is best left to the theologians; as historians, we are challenged to make the best judgments about the past that we can, while recognizing that there will always be a certain aspect of subjectivity in our interpretations of the past, reflective of our own beliefs, experiences, values and prejudices. That is what I have tried to do in this book; I stand by my conclusions and accept full responsibility for any shortcomings that may exist.