Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Hawaii and the Partition of China

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The occupation of the Bay of Kino-chou by the Germans, and the prospect of other seizures of Chinese territory by various European powers, looking possibly to an eventual dismemberment of the Chinese Empire on a larger scale, is said to have given a new impulse to the somewhat flagging movement for the annexation of Hawaii to the United States. The advocates of that annexation scheme generally admit that it would be unwise on our part to meddle directly with what is going on in China, and to entangle this republic in the conflicts which may follow. But they say that the designs of the grasping European powers must be watched with a keen eye; that it is our duty to provide for the protection of our treaty rights and our commercial interests in China; and that to this end the possession of Hawaii by the United States will be of supreme importance, if not as an absolute necessity. This presentation of the case invites sober analysis.

That our treaty rights and our legitimate commercial interests in China should have adequate protection nobody will deny. The question is, what protection do they need? It is not intended here to commend or justify in any manner the policy of certain European powers, which, taking advantage of the military and naval helplessness of the Chinese government, aim at territorial conquest within the ancient empire. But when we merely consider our commercial interests, and how they may be affected by the occupation of Chinese ports by European powers, we must not forget that China has not at all been an open country freely accessible to our trade; that on the contrary, trade has been confined to a certain limited number of ports, and that foreign control would be much more apt to enlarge and unfetter than to restrict it, according as the commercial policy of the foreign powers concerned is respectively more or less liberal. From the point of view of international ethics, very much may be said against the policy of conquest which has just been inaugurated. But there is no doubt that it will break down many of the barriers which have obstructed the advance of commerce in that quarter of the world. What, as a commercial nation, we care about is not whether this or that power possesses or controls this or that port or territory, but that we should enjoy the greatest possible freedom of trade with whomsoever may possess or control such ports or territories. And the commercial interests of the United States are much more likely to be benefited than to be injured by the passing of Chinese ports that are not now open into the hands of foreigners that may open them, as, for instance, the British always do.

That any of the privileges we now enjoy there will be curtailed, or that in any new arrangements our commercial interests will be disregarded, is hardly to be apprehended. The reason why the United States are always treated with due consideration by the powers concerned has been repeatedly set forth in these columns. It is that, however unfriendly this or that European power may be to us at heart, there is not one of them that will not be extremely careful to avoid a serious quarrel with us, so long as we are in our present substantially unassailable continental position -- in other words, so long as a war with us would be a contest of resources, a trial of endurance, in which by far the greater staying power would be on our side, and which, while not offering our enemy an opportunity for achieving a decisive advantage by a quick use of his readier armament, would expose him to incalculable dangers by offering tempting opportunities to his jealous rivals. Thus it is to be explained that we command the considerate regard of the powers of the world in a truly extraordinary degree. Nobody can survey the history of our foreign affairs since the close of our civil war without recognizing the fact that even the strongest nations would go to the utmost lengths of concession to meet our wishes, or at least to steer clear of a serious rupture of friendly relations with the United States. A world from our government sufficed to cause the withdrawal of the French army from Mexico. Great Britain settled our Alabama claims not only at a large expense of money, but at a tremendous sacrifice of pride. The same nation took President Cleveland's defiant Venezuela message, which would have been fiercely resented had it come from any other quarter, with a meekness of spirit proving an extreme indisposition on its part to have trouble with this republic. Examples might be multiplied.

What reason is there for apprehending that there will be less of this desire of accommodation in the future than there has been in the past, if we continue to occupy the same substantially unassailable position which we now hold? No unprejudiced person will doubt that this republic will, in China as well as elsewhere, have all its rights recognized, and any just and reasonable demand of commercial advantage -- ay, any demand that is not positively and provokingly unfair -- complied with by any European power without serious difficulty. Neither is there any ground for anxiety as to the position of the United States as a neutral in case the powers at present engaged in those Chinese enterprises should in the course of things get into a conflict among themselves. Our Jingoes, who are so fond of insisting that we are in constant danger of foreign aggression or insult, indeed never tire of pointing to the war of 1812, when this republic had, as a neutral, been kicked and cuffed without mercy by both belligerents. But they forget to mention that at that period this country, with its scanty population and its financial poverty, cut a very small figure in the world, rather inviting the insolence of the great military and naval powers, while now we may without exaggeration be said to be one of the strongest, and in a certain sense the strongest nation in the world in men and means, which cannot be offended with impunity. In fact, in case of a collision between the rivals in the far East, the belligerents would be especially mindful of our neutral rights, each dreading to see the United States on the other side.

That under such circumstances the acquisition of Hawaii should be necessary to secure respect for our treaty rights or our commercial interests in the East seems highly preposterous. It will appear the more preposterous the clearer we make it to our minds what the possession of Hawaii would really mean. It would simply be the possession of an insular territory two thousand miles away from our nearest coast, a very large majority of the population of which do not want to belong to us, and which is, in a military sense, substantially unprotected, and will be so for many years, for it will require a long time to build the fortifications and the war-ships necessary for its defence in case we should get into a broil with even a moderately strong naval power. Indeed, if there is anything that could possibly tempt any of the powers now engaged in the so-called partition of China to risk a quarrel with the United States, it would be the opportunity to take from us, by a rapid dash, a piece of entirely defenceless territory, the attempt to recover which would force us into a war far away from our superior home resources, on a field of action very disadvantageous to us. The possession of Hawaii would therefore not make us appear more formidable, but it would really make us appear far more vulnerable than we are in our present condition. Thus it would not increase our influence as to the new commercial arrangements which may be made in consequence of the invasion of China, but it would rather be apt seriously to compromise that influence.

The advocates of the annexation scheme have been endeavoring to propitiate the popular mind by much vague talk about the defence the Hawaiian Islands in our possession would be to our Pacific coast, while in fact the Hawaiian Islands, if we possessed them, would, in case of war, have to be defended from our Pacific coast by a strong fleet of war-ships. And this is the all-important point never to be lost sight of. The Hawaiian Islands can, indeed, be used for all sorts of naval purposes. But it will always require a big navy to make them useful and secure to us. All the commercial advantages they give us we can have without annexing them, and without maintaining a large and costly navy to protect them. The question therefore simply is whether the American people are willing to give up their inestimable privilege of being great, powerful, and secure without great naval and military armaments, to plunge into a policy of wild adventure, and to create for themselves the necessity of maintaining costly armies and navies merely to enjoy benefits which, so far as they are really valuable, can be had without such armaments. This question the American people should decide with their eyes open. They should certainly not permit themselves to be stampeded by vague and fanciful declamation.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1898-01-22 - Hawaii and the Partition of China.PNG