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U.S. Department of State

Feature Story:

American Diplomacy in the 20th Century

By William Z. Slany
The author is the Department's historian.


Diplomatic Reception Room.

Diplomatic Reception Room, circa 1900.
Photo courtesy of Brady-Handy Collection

As the 20th century began, Americans from all walks of life were becoming increasingly aware of the new world-power status of their country. The long-held tradition of remaining aloof from the "Old World" and its dangerous entanglements was fast fading, and an economically powerful and culturally dynamic United States was emerging. U.S. political and business interests extended across the Atlantic and the Pacific as confident U.S. citizens ranged the globe. Milestone events around the world tested America's new international status and thrust its leaders into assuming the nation's new responsibilities.

While there were many harbingers during the last decades of the 19th century that the United States was becoming a world power, American diplomatic and military actions on the international scene seemed to catapult the United States suddenly onto the world stage as the 20th century began. U.S. diplomatic and military actions thwarted British imperialist efforts in Venezuela in 1895­1896, annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1896, waged war with Spain in 1898, and brought about the occupations of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. A U.S. diplomatic initiative in 1899 opened the door to international access to China, and in 1900 the United States took the first steps toward the construction of a canal across the Panamanian isthmus.

In the summer of 1895 President Grover Cleveland and his Secretary of State, Richard Olney, sent the British government a virtual ultimatum about British coercion of the Venezuelan government over a border dispute. Initial British dismissal of the American invocation in 1896 of the Monroe Doctrine precipitated popular anger toward Britain, a threat of war and a stubborn American diplomatic rejoinder. Britain backed down. Sooner than other major nations, Britain recognized the new U.S. power and quietly accepted American preeminence in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, the resolution of the Venezuelan crisis was part of the foundation for the U.S.-British "special relationship," which continued throughout the 20th century.

Americans' new interest in international events was more than confirmed in the crisis of the spring of 1898 that culminated in the war with Spain, the sinking of Spanish fleets in the Atlantic and the Pacific and military occupations of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. President McKinley could scarcely resist the great popular enthusiasm for war against Spain after the U.S.S. Maine was sunk in Havana harbor.

Volunteers flocked to recruitment offices, Americans devoured the news dispatches about American victories and there was a surge of eagerness to confirm the military successes by acquiring territories in the Caribbean and even across the Pacific Ocean. The President, Secretary of State John Hay and their advisers began crafting the diplomacy of settling America's first war with a European power in nearly 100 years and in structuring a role for the United States in the international community that recognized its new power and responsibilities.

American diplomats also played their part in the first Hague Peace Conference in 1901, and American diplomatic influence was brought to bear in warding off conflict among the Great Powers in Africa. President Theodore Roosevelt and his advisers could barely stay ahead of the enthusiasm and even the belligerency of Congress and the public in the process of acquiring dominance in Panama and building an ocean-to-ocean canal of heroic proportions.

U.S. naval presence at Pago Pago in the Samoan Islands was confirmed by Germany and Britain at a conference in Berlin in 1889. American diplomats joined with U.S. sailors and Hawaiian businessmen-revolutionaries in 1893 to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy, and in July 1898 Congress adopted by wide margins a resolution annexing the islands. In September 1899, soon after Admiral Dewey's victorious sortie into Manila harbor, Secretary of State Hay addressed his famous "Open Door" notes to the governments of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan, asking them to respect the principle of equal commercial opportunity for all nations. Hay's note projected the United States into the midst of Great Power diplomacy.

The State Department

The management of American diplomacy at the turn of the 20th century was in the hands of John Hay, Secretary of State from 1898 until his death in 1905. There could have been no better representative of the emerging American economic plutocracy that had grasped the reins of political power and set the agenda for unleashing free enterprise at home and abroad. Hay rose from among the first wave of settlers of Illinois and in his youth seemed likely to become another Mark Twain of American folklore. Instead, after serving as Abraham Lincoln's secretary during the Civil War and then his biographer, Hay married the daughter of a wealthy railroad bridge builder. After settling into a life of luxury among the titans of industry in Cleveland, he became involved in Republican politics in Ohio and in Washington. His close friendship with Henry Adams led to a stint as assistant secretary of State in the Harrison presidency and ambassador to Great Britain in 1897 for President McKinley.

President Roosevelt asked him to become his Secretary of State in 1898 after McKinley's assassination. Hay was urbane, articulate and completely at home with the national elite that led the nation from the 19th into the 20th century. He was an elegant spokesman for America as a new world power and embodied the culmination of the conflicting American virtues of egalitarianism, meritocracy and acquisitiveness.

Diplomatic Reception Room.

Secretary of State John Hay, left, and Panama's Philippe Bunau-Varilla, 1903.
Photo courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

Secretary Hay's State Department had changed little in size, style or organization since the Civil War. When he arrived at the offices of the Department at the State-War-Navy Building (now the Old Executive Office Building) at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, there were 82 men and women--clerks (the common term for officers at the time), messengers and manual laborers. Women were limited then to clerical jobs and African-Americans to messenger and manual labor tasks. The handful of Department officers still wore cutaway coats as their badges of office. The Secretary in 1900 was assisted by small group of supervisory officers: a legal counselor and three assistant secretaries of state. Alvey Adee, one of the three assistant secretaries, had been in the Department since 1887 and became Hay's trusted deputy, although there was no such official position. Mr. Adee, an eccentric with high-button shoes and an ear trumpet, was a prodigious worker who gave a gravity and a conservative style to the Department's conduct of business that remained the model long after he retired in 1924.

Other distinguished experts in international affairs gave the Department the expertise it needed to move into the new century and lead the United States into its broadening international responsibilities. John Bassett Moore set the international law standards for 20th century American diplomacy, melding the American experience of the 19th century and bringing it to bear in his service in the Department during the Spanish-American War and its aftermath and at the international conferences of the early 20th century--when the United States took its place among the world's powers. William Rockhill brought to the Department long experience and expertise in relations with the emerging nations of the Far East and set the high professional tone for American diplomatic activity in Asia in the following decades.

America's isolationism had expressed itself in a refusal to exchange ambassadors with other nations because of the presumed corrupt and undemocratic nature of diplomacy as practiced by the European powers. As the 19th century ended, the vastly expanding needs of commerce and travel, as well as a growing acceptance of America's destiny to take a lead in the world community, overcame these long-held concerns. In 1893 Congress legislated the establishment of the first U.S. Embassies--in London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg. Within the next 10 years, ambassadors were appointed to these capitals and also to Vienna, Tokyo, Constantinople and Mexico City. Ministers Plenipotentiary continued to represent the United States in more than 40 other diplomatic posts.

Reform and Professionalism

Americans' recognition of their nation's new diplomatic importance sparked a movement to reform and professionalize the Department of State and the diplomatic and consular services. In the press and in Congress, sentiment grew to develop a foreign service based on merit. Isolationism gave way to a broad acknowledgment of the need for diplomatic representatives of special fitness and ability to execute the nation's responsibilities abroad.

Wilbur Carr and others in the Department led the way in developing competitive examinations, designating third secretaries at an increasing number of overseas missions and ensuring the extended service of qualified and experienced officers. The introduction of professional standards and pay for those serving at the more than 300 consulates and consulates general responded to the expectations of growing numbers of Americans traveling or conducting business abroad for assistance.

While no one could foresee that the 20th century would become, in many ways, the American century, American diplomacy was in 1900 already playing a leading role in the unfolding destiny of the nation.

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