When America looked East (or maybe West)

Speechwars.com lets you see how many times American presidents have used various words in their State of the Union addresses. This is not a perfect representation of American interests, since some Presidents are more prolix than others and just from my own perusal of the site the SOTU seems to be getting more vague over the years. Still China turns up a lot (353 times) and it is sort of interesting to look at why. The handful of early references use ‘China’ to mean the ends of the earth or are brief mentions about foreign relations. Grant mentions China a lot in 1870 and 71, usually coupled with Japan (only 222 total mentions! hah!) and the “nations to our South” as the solution to American economic problems. China Market stuff seems to take precedence in the late 19th Century, although the theme of Chinese as barbarians seems common as well.1 The biggest spike of interest comes from 1900 to about 1912, when China got more individual mentions than it would in the 1940’s as our wartime ally or than it gets today as the sugar daddy who buys all our paper.

The big jump came in 1900, when McKinley gave a long recounting of the Boxer uprising, which was of course America’s first major act of cooperative imperialism, just as the Spanish-American war2 was the first3 unilateral act. I got the impression he was trying to justify his “soft” policy on indemnities to an American public who were going to have to learn that there with other ways of dealing with non-whites besides killing 90% of them and putting the other 10% on reservations.

Teddy Roosevelt seems quite the Friend of China. In 1905 he promised to keep out Chinese laborers but insisted that “we must treat the Chinese student, traveler, and business man in a spirit of the broadest justice and courtesy if we expect similar treatment to be accorded to our own people of similar rank who go to China.” (What, gunboats are not enough?) In 1908 Roosevelt uses China as an example of the perils of deforestation, implicitly saying that China was part of the human community and that we could learn lessons (even cautionary ones) from them.

Fortunately Taft comes along right after that to get us back on the dollar diplomacy track. He spends a lot of words in 1910 assuring us that American capital is right there building railways and exploiting China along with the best of them. He gives the fall of the Qing a brief notice in 1912, but only to assure us that the loans will keep on coming.

After Taft China flatlines for a good decade, however. Not much chance of making a buck in warlord China, and it was not a good example of how American policy was civilizing the globe. So 1900-1912 looks like a time when America and China were both coming out into an international world at the same time.

Via Fallows

  1. I just sampled the speeches rather than reading them all line by line 

  2. Cuba got a spike of mentions just before 1900 

  3. Yes, not the first. It’s a blog post 

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