Seeking the World
Far-seeing men realized that for the United States to maintain her position on the Pacific it was necessary that diplomacy and commerce should go hand in hand and that the political prestige, so necessary to the future of America in the East, could only be secured by the creation of substantial vested interests…. It was Mr. Harriman who saw the possibilities of this field and who laid the foundations for the organisation which is now the chief instrument of American diplomacy in its endeavor to secure for the United States recognition as a practical, not solely an academic factor, in Far Eastern politics, and to assist China in her legitimate and natural development.
—Willard D. Straight, untitled account, January 1911
Railroad tracks might stop at the water's edge, but transportation systems did not and neither did Harriman's imagination. He emerged as a railroad man just as American interest in the Far Eastern trade was reviving in the wake of the depression. The Open Door policy formulated in the last years of the century signaled a clear American intention to seek its share of the China market.
The flow of goods to and from the Orient passed over the transcontinental railroads and was growing steadily. A long haul could be made even longer if this traffic crossed the Pacific in American bottoms, but the United States had long since lost the battle for supremacy on the high seas. Hill had been harping for years on the value of the Far Eastern trade and the need for Americans to dominate it. On this point Harriman agreed with his old adversary, but the China market proved remarkably resistant to the American “can do” attitude and had long twisted it into “how to” bewilderment. 1
Until 1900, the American presence in China dwindled steadily while other major powers carved the country into spheres of influence. Although direct American investment jumped from $6 million in 1875 to $20 million in 1900, the American business presence remained little more than a shadow. The United States found itself on the premises without a clear sense of mission. It had acquired Hawaii and, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines and Guam as well. By 1899 some seventy thousand American troops were em