Charles Beard and the Open Door Empire

“The next thing to do,” Puck, 1898.

Marc-William Palen
University of Exeter

The following is an excerpt from my chapter, “The Open Door Empire,” in the newly published A Companion to U.S. Foreign Relations: Colonial Era to the Present, ed. by Christopher Dietrich (2 Vos., Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), Vol. 1: 271-287.

Secretary of State John Hay enunciated President William McKinley’s Open Door policy with a series of two “Open Door Notes,” the first in 1899 and the second in 1900. In them, Hay outlined the Republican administration’s desire for equal access to markets currently beyond the country’s economic purview, particularly the European-controlled markets of China. The Open Door Empire as a theoretical mode of analysis, however, would not take shape until the 1930s. By the 1970s, the Open Door imperial thesis – that by the late nineteenth century a bipartisan consensus had arisen in support of prying open the world’s markets for the benefit of US trade and investment through a liberal imperial policy of free trade — would become the dominant historical framework for understanding US imperial economic expansion from the country’s founding to the Vietnam War, a position of prominence that it still maintains today. And yet the historical frame of the Open Door Empire has not remained static. It has undergone a great deal of revision and criticism. Changes within both the global economy and the historical profession have redefined the Open Door’s scale and scope over the course of its long and rich historiographical journey.

The theory of the Open Door Empire went through its most sizeable transformation between its unveiling in the 1930s and its radical New Left reformation beginning in the late 1950s. Charles Beard, the most influential of Progressive scholars, was the first to popularize a working theory of the Open Door Empire as an analytical concept (Borning 1962; Nore 1983; Hofstadter 1968, 167-346; Berg 1957; Braeman 1981; Schmunk 1957; Strout 1958). Beard’s Open Door Empire made its contentious debut in the early 1930s with the publication of his twin works The Idea of National Interest (1934) and The Open Door at Home (1934). For Beard, the Open Door arose amid great politico-ideological conflict over American foreign policy that pitted US free traders against their protectionist rivals. Owing to the subsequent neo-Marxist rise of the New Left’s “Wisconsin School” of foreign relations history (so named because of its origins within the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), Beard’s conflict-oriented interpretation of the Open Door Empire was thereafter reconfigured into one of bipartisan consensus (Kennedy 1975; Bacevich 2002; Craig 2001; Brands 1998). The Wisconsin School’s radical reworking of Beard’s Open Door thesis from the 1950s to the 1970s, begun with the publication of W. A. Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), has since established itself as the new economic orthodoxy in its uncovering of America’s formal and informal Open Door Empire. Continue reading “Charles Beard and the Open Door Empire”