US Marines invaded China 119 years ago today

Despite the U.S. declaring an “Open Door Policy” in support of China’s sovereignty, U.S. Marines on May 31, 1900 invaded China to help defeat the Boxer Rebellion.

With imperial Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Japan, and Russia trying to carve China into colonies, Secretary of State John Hay in the fall of 1899 declared the United States would honor an “Open Door Policy” that respected Chinese territorial and administrative integrity and allowed equal trading privileges for all nations.

Nineteenth-century imperialists had forced China’s ruling Qing Dynasty to accept foreign dominance over much of China’s economic affairs. Two Opium Wars with the British between 1839-42 and 1856-60, the Taiping Rebellion from 1850-1864, and the Sino-Japanese War between 1894-95 caused extensive economic and political decline.

China's population had tripled to 450 million by 1899. The combination of land shortages, cyclical famines, and an increasingly impoverished rural population, coupled with heavy taxes, inflation, and greedy local officials worsened the farmer's plight.

Chinese hatred of foreign influences was spurred to action in the 1890s by the "I Ho Ch'uan." Known as the “Boxers,” the secret society of  "Righteous and Harmonious Fists" believed their fighting rituals gave them supernatural powers to oppose the Qing Dynasty and all foreign influences, especially foreign missionaries and Christians.

Provincial leaders and the Chinese Imperial Court led by the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi initially opposed the Boxers. But the 1896-97 drought across east-central China caused millions of farmers to turn their support the Boxers by 1898.

The population of the Legation Quarter in Peking that housed diplomats spiked in the spring of 1899 as hundreds of missionaries and thousands of Chinese Christians sought refuge inside Peking’s walls. With Boxers burning railroad stations between Peking and Paotingfu, diplomats requested help from foreign sailors in the port of Tianjin.

On May 31, Captain John T. Myers arrived in Peking with 25 Marines from the USS Oregon, plus 23 Marines, five U.S. Navy sailors, and a surgeon from the USS Newark. They were soon joined by 350 foreign naval personnel sent to defend the Legation.

On June 18, foreign diplomats were officially informed by the Chinese government that a state of war would soon be in effect due to foreign navies’ capture of the Chinese forts at Taku. With Legation diplomats refusing a 24-hour command to leave, the Empress Dowager issued a Declaration of War against seven nations and the United States.

On June 20 with the U.S. Marines manning the Tartar Wall, the Boxers and Chinese Qing soldiers began a siege of Peking compound. The Marines fought valiantly with the other foreign Legation troops until relieved on August 14, 1899.

On August 18, American missionaries that had sheltered in the Legation resolved:

"The Americans who have been besieged in Peking desire to express their hearty appreciation of the courage, fidelity, and patriotism of the American Marines, to whom we so largely owe our salvation." The group further resolved that, "by their bravery in holding an almost untenable position on the city wall in the face of overwhelming numbers, and in cooperating in driving the Chinese from a position of great strength, they made all foreigners in Peking their debtors, and have gained for themselves an honorable name among the heroes of their country."

Despite the China’s Declaration of War during the Boxer Rebellion and China’s defeat, the United States continued to robustly enforce a China ‘Open Door Policy.’

Japan violated the policy in 1915 at the start of WWI by making Twenty-one Demands on China. But after the peace, the U.S. hosted the Washington Conference from 1921–22 led to the Nine-Power Treaty reaffirming the Open Door.

Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 and declaration of its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940 led to the United States enforcing the Open Door policy by ratcheting up embargoes on U.S. exports to Japan of essential commodities such as oil and scrap metal. The embargoes are blamed for eventually causing Japan to declare war against the United States on December 7, 1941.

The Civil War victory of the communists over China’s Nationalist government in 1949 ended all special privileges in China for all foreigners.

Chriss Street is an economist and cofounder of the New California Movement 

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