In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States was presented with yet another problem—China. After losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the Chinese could only sit back and watch as Japan, Russia, and the Europeans carved their ancient country into separate spheres of influence. U.S. policymakers, afraid that Americans would be left without any lucrative Chinese markets, scrambled to stop the feeding frenzy.
In 1899, McKinley’s secretary of state, John Hay, boldly sent the First Open Door Note to Japan and the European powers, requesting that they respect Chinese territory and free trade. The British backed the agreement, but France, Germany, Russia, and Japan replied that they could not commit on the Open Door Note until all the other nations had agreed on it.
Chinese outrage over their country being divided up, regardless of whether it was conducted “fairly” or not, prompted a new nationalistic movement called the Boxer Movement to spread throughout China. In 1900, hoping to cast out all foreigners, the Boxer army invaded Beijing, believing that they would be divinely protected from bullets. They took a number of foreign diplomats hostage and waited patiently in the city. Nearly 20,000 French, British, German, Russian, Japanese, and American soldiers joined forces to rescue the diplomats and end the Boxer Rebellion. After the diplomats had been rescued, Secretary Hay issued the Second Open Door Note to request that the other powers respect China’s territorial status, because he feared they would try to take revenge on the Chinese for the uprising.
The election of 1900 turned out not to be much of a contest. Republicans renominated McKinley, who was popular because he had kept America prosperous and expanded the country as a result of the Spanish-American War. The Republicans also chose former Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt to be McKinley’s new running mate. Democrats again chose William Jennings Bryan on an anti-expansionism platform, but to their dismay, Bryan insisted once again on pushing for free silver—a stand that was partly responsible for his loss in the previous election.
Roosevelt and Bryan traveled throughout the country and played to the crowds in two whirlwind campaigns. In the end, free silver did in fact kill Bryan’s chances again, and McKinley won the election with almost a million more popular votes and twice as many electoral votes.
However, only months into his second term, McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died a week later, and Vice President Roosevelt was sworn in as president.
Roosevelt, not one to shy away from responsibility or wait around for the action to start, immediately set to work. Unlike his predecessor, Roosevelt believed that the United States should always be prepared to fight. He applied his favorite proverb to the country: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far,” and bolstered the U.S. Army and Navy. Roosevelt’s so-called Big Stick Diplomacy soon became synonymous with imperialism and aggressiveness, as his policy often took advantage of smaller and weaker nations.
One of Roosevelt’s first goals was to construct a canal through the narrow Central American isthmus and link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In Colombia’s northernmost province, Panama, Roosevelt struck a deal with rebels who were dissatisfied with Colombian rule, offering them independence and American protection in exchange for land to build the canal.
The rebels quickly consented and, in 1903, overtook the provincial capital while U.S. Navy ships prevented Colombian troops from marching into Panama. Roosevelt immediately recognized Panama’s independence and sent Secretary of State John Hay to sign the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which relinquished ownership of the canal lands to the United States. Construction on the Panama Canal began the following year and was completed in 1914.
The Panama Canal was only the first step in Roosevelt’s Big Stick diplomacy. Roosevelt further angered Latin Americans by adding his own interpretation to the Monroe Doctrine (the famous 1823 U.S. policy statement that warned European powers to stay out of Western Hemisphere affairs). Roosevelt’s action was prompted when Venezuela and the Dominican Republic both defaulted on loans and several European nations sent warships to collect the debts by force.
Roosevelt, afraid that the European aggressors would use the outstanding debt as an excuse to reassert colonial influence in Latin America, did not want to take any chances. In 1904, he announced his own Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the United States would collect and distribute the debts owed to European powers—in effect stating that only the United States could intervene in Latin American affairs. Roosevelt then sent troops to the Dominican Republic to enforce debt repayment and to Cuba to suppress revolutionary forces in 1906.
Relations between the United States and Japan soured during the Roosevelt years. In 1905, Roosevelt mediated a dispute between the Russians and the Japanese to end the Russo-Japanese War. Although these efforts won Roosevelt the Nobel Prize for Peace, both powers left the negotiating table unhappy and blamed Roosevelt for their losses. Ties to Japan were strained further when the San Francisco Board of Education banned Japanese students from enrolling in the city’s public schools, giving in to popular anti-Japanese sentiments. Japanese diplomats in Washington, D.C., loudly protested the move, which led Roosevelt to make a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in 1907 stating that the San Francisco Board of Education would retract the ban as long as Japan reduced the number of immigrants to the United States.
In December 1907, in a show meant to demonstrate American prowess, Roosevelt sent sixteen U.S. battleships on a tour of the world. When the Great White Fleet stopped in Tokyo in1908, Japanese and American officials signed the Root-Takahira Agreement, in which both countries agreed to respect the Open Door policy in China and each other’s territorial integrity in the Pacific.