John Hay was named U.S. Minister to Great Britain in 1897 by his close friend, William McKinley, and became Secretary of State the following year when he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris to end the Spanish–American War. He is best remembered for his authorship of the Open Door Policy toward China and for paving the way for construction of the Panama Canal.

Seeking a territorial foothold within China such as had been established by several European powers by the end of the 19th century, the United States had a strong and clear national interest in promoting open trade with that country and supporting Chinese control over its own finances. When Secretary Hay in September 1899 sent notes to the major European powers calling on them to allow equal trading opportunities in China for all nations, the response was decidedly lukewarm. However, after the outbreak of the ultranationalist, anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the European powers began to recognize the importance of respecting China’s territorial integrity and permitting open trade. That year a second Open Door note received a more positive response from Europe. The Open Door Policy remained a fundamental tenet of U.S. diplomacy toward China for the next half century.

On the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, who followed President McKinley, Secretary Hay led the U.S. effort to gain the rights to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama, then part of Colombia. He first signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which nullified a previous treaty with Great Britain and allowed the United States sovereign control of any future canal. Then he signed with Colombia the Hay-Herran Treaty, which bought the rights and land for such a canal within Colombian territory, but this agreement was later rejected by the Colombian congress. After the United States covertly supported an uprising by parties favorable to Panamanian independence, Secretary Hay then signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the newly formed government of Panama. This agreement allowed construction of the canal to go forward. It opened in 1914.

  • Hunt, Michael H. The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914.
  • New York, Colombia University Press, 1983.
  • Thayer, William Roscoe. John Hay. New York: AMS Press, 1972.
  • Young, Marilyn. The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895-1901. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.
  • Zimmerman, Warren. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.