Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Historical Studies

First Advisor

Bean, Jonathan


The project of American economic imperialism in China during the first half of the twentieth century was first and foremost an imagined enterprise. This dissertation examines the role of the Student Interpreters Corps (SIC) in this endeavor. Studying language-trained intermediaries, this treatment is a first step towards studying history with an approach that is neither top-down nor bottom-up but rather middle-outward. Examining hitherto neglected personnel records and State Department correspondence, this study reveals the SIC as part of an imagined but unsuccessful program of economic imperialism. Although effective in garnering American business interest and support for Foreign Service reform and expansion, efforts to entice American merchants and companies to enter Asian markets (particularly in China) failed to yield a coherent, successful trade empire. However, the largely unstated goal of increased American power was achieved as the result of a bureaucratic imperative for specialization, professionalization, and institutional expansion set in motion during the establishment of the SIC. Examining the evolving roles and views of SIC-trained intermediaries, this dissertation finds that while the imagined trade empire failed to materialize, the SIC contributed to a developing American perception of China that envisioned increasingly greater American intervention in East Asia. In this millieu, a “Peking” order emerged by the mid-1920s that became influential in American East Asia policy towards the eve of Word War II that saw China as vital to American interests. Established as precursor of American economic empire in China, the SIC was instrumental in shifting discourse away from economic empire towards an interventionist American Orientalism. Trade expansion rhetoric waned and Orientalist language solidified as Japanese aggression became more blatant and the ascendance of Communism in China ever more certain. Highlighting the bureaucratic intermediaries as new method of studying history, this study indicates that the project of American economic imperialism was largely imagined, but one that transformed to accommodate evolving visions of expanding American power in East Asia. These conclusions offer new challenges to and opportunities for scholars of American foreign relations.




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