The Role of China in US History

by Warren I. Cohen

"Presentation of Hon. Anson Burlingame and the attaches of the Chinese embassy . . . June 5th," 1868. (Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library)Today, our homes are filled with countless products “Made in China.” Long before the American Revolution, thanks to British trade with China, many colonists were able to purchase Chinese furniture, wallpapers, silks, and porcelains. Cheap “chinaware” dishes and pots could be found in homes, taverns, and forts from the east coast to the Mackinac Straits. And above all, there was Chinese tea, such as that dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773.

Immediately after winning their independence, Americans leapt into the China trade and for the first fifty years of direct contact with China, American interests were wholly commercial. Great fortunes were made there—and used later to finance enterprises such as the railroads.

At the close of the eighteenth century and in the early years of the nineteenth, China was the dominant power in East Asia, dictating the terms of contact with the West. The movements and operations of Western merchants were severely restricted. They had no recourse when confronted by arbitrary Chinese actions. Threatened with the loss of trade privileges if they did not comply, the American merchants always yielded, even on one occasion—the notorious Terranova incident of 1821—at the expense of the life of an American seaman. Francis Terranova was accused of causing the death of a Chinese passerby when sweeping the deck of his ship. After initially refusing to turn Terranova over to Chinese authorities, the American business community allowed him to be taken and executed.

By the 1830s, the British were strong enough to challenge Chinese practices. A conflict arose over China’s determination to end the sale of opium, a moral and financial problem for their empire. Despite Chinese efforts to enlist Americans on their side, the US was not involved in the “Opium War.” Many Americans were appalled by the idea of fighting in order to sell opium but quickly grasped the privileges exacted by the victorious British for their merchants in the Treaty of Nanjing (1842). This practice, later labeled “jackal diplomacy,” served American purposes for most of the nineteenth century. The British and others fought the Chinese, won privileges—and the Americans shared in the spoils.

China’s defeat in the Opium War and several lesser military confrontations in the decades that followed left no doubt in Washington that China was a rapidly declining power, resistant to modernization—a perception confirmed by its pitiful performance in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894–1895. Not until 1949–1950 did American leaders imagine a China strong enough to pose a danger to the United States or its friends in East Asia.

The decade of the 1830s was also marked by the arrival of the first American missionaries, whose influence in Washington often surpassed that of the merchants. They lobbied for an American treaty, obtained in 1844. Missionaries—and their offspring, who often became the country’s leading specialists on China—dominated the public’s understanding of China even after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

After the Civil War, William Seward, then secretary of state to Andrew Johnson, invited the Chinese to send a mission to Washington. They appointed the American diplomat Anson Burlingame to lead it. Seward and Burlingame signed a treaty in 1868 by which the United States promised not to interfere in China’s internal affairs and allowed Chinese immigrants unrestricted rights to enter the country. The latter clause created a series of crises for years as the Chinese were mistreated and ultimately, in 1882, excluded from entry, in violation of the treaty. Not until 1943, in the midst of World War II, was the exclusion act repealed.

In the late 1890s, China’s obvious weakness led Japan and several European powers to contemplate carving up the Chinese “melon.” The handful of Americans with interests in China urged action by their government to prevent being shut out of trade or denied scope for their missionary activities. President William McKinley and John Hay, his secretary of state, resisted these pressures, but in 1899 and 1900, Hay issued his “Open Door notes.” He asked all the major powers to respect the independence of China and the rights of other nationalities in their spheres of influence. When the various powers, for reasons of their own, chose not to carve up China, some Americans perceived their country as China’s champion.

For the next half century, Japan was the dominant power in East Asia, and the United States, under Presidents Taft, Wilson, Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt, made sporadic and ineffectual efforts to support Chinese resistance to Japanese imperialism—until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and China became an American ally.

In 1911, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and replaced by a republic. The United States welcomed the creation of the Republic of China, imagining that its system of government might approximate that in Washington. It did not, eventually degenerating into a struggle among Chinese military men for control of parts of the country. When nationalists, led by Sun Yat-sen and then Chiang Kai-shek, fought to unite the country and drive out the imperialists, Washington looked favorably upon their efforts. Never perceiving themselves as imperialists, Americans assumed they would be exempted from Chinese antiforeignism. Few, if any, Chinese shared America’s self-image.

US relations with the government Chiang established in 1928 were reasonably good and the United States provided modest support to China’s economic development and resistance against Japan. When the United States went to war in December 1941, it increased its aid and Americans fought alongside Chinese in the China-Burma-India Theater. However, neither Roosevelt nor Chiang was satisfied with his ally’s contribution and tensions arose between them. Americans in China were troubled by the apparent unwillingness of Chiang’s troops to fight and more impressed by the efforts of his rivals, the Chinese Communists.

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, civil war erupted in China. American leaders tried unsuccessfully to mediate. Considering the effort to enable Chiang to defeat the Communists beyond American means, the US abandoned him. Although the National Security Council considered a communist victory undesirable, its members did not believe it would pose a threat to the United States for at least fifty years. Perceiving tensions between Moscow and Beijing, they merely tried to prevent China from becoming an adjunct to Soviet power.

Defeated on the mainland, Chiang and his forces fled to Taiwan in 1949.

On October 1, 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The US withheld recognition for domestic political reasons, a response to residual support for a wartime ally—and hostility to communism as the Cold War evolved. American analysts expected the PRC to conquer Taiwan in the next year or so—at which time President Harry Truman would extend recognition to the only surviving Chinese government.

In June 1950, communist North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. The US led the UN defense of the South—and acted to prevent the PRC from attacking Taiwan. The Truman administration decided against abandoning Taiwan and against recognizing the PRC. Ultimately American and Chinese troops fought each other in Korea, the two countries became bitter enemies, and in 1954, the administration of Dwight Eisenhower signed a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China on Taiwan. The issue of “who lost China?” roiled American domestic politics and became a central theme of McCarthyism in the early 1950s.

Nominally committed to support Chiang’s hopeless efforts to reclaim the mainland, Washington in fact promoted the idea of two Chinas, one ruled from Beijing and the other from Taipei—a notion unacceptable to either side of the Taiwan Strait.

By the mid-1960s, with the Sino-Soviet split apparent, elite opinion in the United States favored rapprochement with the PRC. No significant effort toward that end was forthcoming until Richard Nixon sent Henry Kissinger to Beijing in 1971 seeking support against the Soviet Union and help extricating the US from Vietnam. The tacit alliance that developed between the United States and the PRC constituted a major shift in the Cold War balance of power from which the Soviet Union never recovered.

In the 1980s, after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms moved China toward a market economy. China became a major trading partner for American business, but its human rights record remained appalling. As the Soviet bloc unraveled in 1989, the Chinese regime protected itself by killing protesters in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China. President George H. W. Bush was horrified by the massacres but believed good Chinese-American relations were vital to the security of the United States. Forced by Congress and public opinion to impose sanctions on China, he sent secret missions to assure Deng of his good will. When knowledge of these missions became public, Bush was accused of coddling the “Butchers of Beijing,” contributing to his defeat in the election of 1992.

Deng resisted international pressures, and businessmen in Japan, Europe, and the United States were eager to resume activities in China. The administration of Bill Clinton, 1993–2001, initially pledged to press China on human rights but quickly caved to the demands of the business community without gaining any concessions. The Chinese economy soared and China entered the twenty-first century as one of the world’s great economic powers.

There were also dramatic changes on Taiwan. The ROC slowly evolved into a democracy in the 1990s, greatly increasing its support in the United States. As the people on Taiwan inched toward independence, the PRC created crises in the Strait, and the American government, committed by Congress to aid Taiwan, teetered on the brink of military confrontation with the PRC. It was evident that the United States was going to have difficulty accommodating the rise of Chinese power.

The PRC has emerged as the second greatest power in the world and appears determined to dominate the western Pacific and East Asia, a threat to its neighbors and American interests in the region. The relationship is currently strained. And it is evident that the American desire for a friendly, democratic China is unattainable for the foreseeable future.


Warren I. Cohen, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland, is a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is America's Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations (Columbia University Press, 2010).

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