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Boxer Rebellion creates crisis during McKinley’s re-election

Even as William McKinley was renominated in June 1900 to run for a second term as president, another issue brewing in the Orient began to take up most of his administration’s time.

Economic growth through the exporting of American goods throughout the Open Door Policy of the globe was a priority for McKinley. As Scott Miller articulated in his book “The President and the Assassin,” this is what McKinley had been striving for since the end of the Spanish-American War with the recent acquisition of the territory of Hawaii. He did not want to colonize, but to open markets, combined with the means for U.S. ships to reach them and the Navy to protect them.

China, the one country that had not been consulted as part of the Open Door Policy, still had something to say about foreign powers and their interfering decisions. Chinese peasants who began a grassroots movement called the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” began to travel the nation gathering members wearing red sashes and showing off their skills with martial arts to become what Westerners called “Boxers.”

The Boxer uprising reared its ugly head as Christian missionaries were being slaughtered and foreigners escaped the countryside into two foreign compounds in both Tientsin and Peking, where 800 civilians lived, including a young Herbert Hoover who became our 31st president. He was a freshly minted Stanford University engineering graduate who began to work for a Chinese mining company. There were also 2,500 soldiers from Europe, Japan and the United States inside the walls who were told rumors by the locals of the Boxers’ plan to lay siege to the compounds. By June 1900, almost 50,000 assembled Boxers, as well as imperial troops recently sent by Dowager Empress Cixi, assembled as 60,000 shells from Chinese artillery crews rained down on the compounds. Chinese sharpshooters picked off anything that moved inside the compounds yelling “sha, sha, sha” or “kill, kill, kill.”

This is where the 1963 film “55 Days at Peking” starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven, told the historical epic story about the nearly two-month siege in June and July 1900.

Again, according to Miller’s book, the Boxer Rebellion was a horrifying turn of events for McKinley. Not only did he worry about the safety of Americans trapped in both Tientsin and Peking, but America’s economic and political standing in the Far East were at risk. Should the United States intervene? American troops, shoulder to shoulder with the Europeans, killing Chinese wasn’t how Americans saw themselves. To mount a war against yet another country so soon also was delicious campaign fodder. Eager to paint McKinley as a Midwestern Queen Victoria, William Jennings Bryan, who once again was nominated by the Democrats to run for president, along with his supporters, watched the administration’s unfolding dilemma with a measure of delight. Bryan used the Chinese issue against McKinley to liken America as an imperialist country.

“55 days at Peking” will be continued in my column next month.

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