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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal A History of the United States
Department of State


Released by the Office of the Historian, July 1996


In 1996, the Department of State is in its third century as the flagship foreign affairs agency of the U.S. Federal Government. The Department has provided support and expertise to Presidents and Secretaries of State, worked with Congress, and served and protected the citizens of the United States as the nation grew to become a great power. For over 200 years, the Department of State has conducted American diplomacy through war and peace, amidst the competing currents of isolationism and internationalism that have shaped American foreign policy and its commitment to liberty and democracy.

The Emerging State Department, 1789-1860

The Constitution of the United States, drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and ratified by the states the following year, gave the President responsibility for the conduct of the nation's foreign relations. It soon became clear, however, that an executive branch was necessary to support President Washington in the conduct of the affairs of the new Federal Government.

The House and Senate approved legislation to establish a Department of Foreign Affairs on July 21, 1789, and President Washington signed it into law on July 27, making the Department of Foreign Affairs the first Federal agency to be created under the new Constitution. This legislation remains the basic law of the Department of State. In September 1789, additional legislation changed the name of the agency to the Department of State and assigned to it a variety of domestic duties.

These responsibilities grew to include management of the Mint, keeper of the Great Seal of the United States, and the taking of the census. President Washington signed the new legislation on September 15. Most of these domestic duties of the Department of State were eventually turned over to various new Federal departments and agencies that were established during the 19th century.

President Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson in September 1789 to be the first Secretary of State. In February 1790, Jefferson reluctantly returned from Paris where he was serving as the American Minister to France. The new Department of State under Secretary Jefferson was set up briefly in New York until the capital was moved to Philadelphia. Under Jefferson and his immediate successors, the Department consisted of several clerks and a part-time translator. The Department of State and the rest of the new government finally moved to its permanent home in Washington D.C. in early 1800.

During the first 35 years under the Constitution of 1789, the Department of State was led by the greatest leaders of the new republic. For Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, service as Secretary of State proved to be the stepping stone to election as President. At no time in the history of the United States would foreign relations be critical to the very existence of the nation and the well being of its citizens. During these years of the Napoleon wars and their aftermath, the new republic, its Secretaries of State and their tiny Department of State, had to complete its revolutionary struggles, free itself from the entangling alliances with the old world, and complete the largest part of the expansion of the country to the Caribbean, across the Mississippi, and, with the Louisiana Purchase, to the Pacific Ocean. The Department of State, which grew to more than 20 employees by 1825, also continued to carry out a wide variety of domestic duties assigned to it by Congress in 1789.

From 1825, when John Quincy Adams left the Department to become President, until the Civil War, America experienced the great initial expansion of its industry and commerce and the surge of the populations westward across the Great Plains and the western mountains and deserts. Foreign affairs, while important, mostly lost the urgency of the founding years. The Department of State focused upon managing the gradual broadening of U.S. diplomatic relations and the spread of American ships and commerce to all corners of the world. There were few major foreign policy problems: negotiating with the British the northern border with Canada and resolving, through diplomacy and sometimes war, the conflicts with Mexico over the southwestern frontier. Congress gradually removed from the Department of State its domestic duties and transferred them to new departments and agencies such as the Department of Interior and the Census Bureau. The Secretaries of State continued to be the preeminent members of the President's cabinet, but only twice more (Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan) would former Secretaries of State become President. Presidents from Andrew Jackson to James Buchanan made the nation's few really important foreign affairs decisions.

The Department of State changed little during these years. John Quincy Adams was the first Secretary of State to introduce some basic organizational and management practices so that the small agency could handle its slowly expanding responsibilities. In 1833 Secretary of State Louis McLane carried out the first overall reorganization of the Department, the most important aspect of which was the establishment of bureaus, including the Diplomatic, Consular, and Home Bureaus. The number of employees grew from 8 in 1790 to 23 in 1830 and to 42 in 1860. (See Personnel Table, 1781-1997)

The American diplomatic service expanded slowly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the nation was adamantly opposed to extensive diplomatic contacts with European nations. In 1790, the United States sent ministers plenipotentiary to only two countries--France and Great Britain. By 1830, the number grew to 15; by 1860 to 33. The consular service, on the other hand, grew steadily during this time. Consuls, commercial agents, and consular agents protected American ships and crews abroad and promoted the expansion of American commerce. American consular posts grew in number from 10 in 1790 to 141 in 1831 and 253 in 1860. (See Consular and Diplomatic Posts Table, 1781-1997)

The Department Comes of Age, 1861-1895

Under William Henry Seward, the office of Secretary of State became a position of unprecedented power and importance during the Civil War. Secretary Seward was President Abraham Lincoln's principal counselor on a broad range of urgent wartime domestic matters as well as on the vital diplomatic effort to prevent European powers from recognizing or assisting the Confederacy. The success of the State Department and American diplomatic representatives abroad in the early years of the Civil War were critical to isolating the South until Union armies and navy could be mobilized to win the struggle. The State Department's authority grew in size and activity even as the whole Federal Government was centralized, expanded, and strengthened during the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the State Department gained a more appropriate bureaucratic structure to deal with its increasing responsibility of serving the interests of a rapidly industrializing America whose economic growth was beginning to outdistance most European powers. In 1870, Secretary Hamilton Fish redefined the Department's bureau structure and issued a series of rules and regulations updating its administrative practices. Fish also secured from Congress the addition of a Third Assistant Secretary of State (Secretary Seward had a Second Assistant Secretary added to the Department in 1866).

Continuity and experience in the conduct of the responsibilities of the State Department and of the management before, during, and after the Civil War were assured by the long-term presence of William Hunter. Hunter, who served in the Department for more than 40 years, was Chief Clerk from 1852 until 1866 when he was promoted to the newly established position of Second Assistant Secretary of State. He also served as Acting Secretary while Secretary Seward recovered following the April 1865 assassination attempt on his life by a conspirator of John Wilkes Booth. Hunter occupied the position of Second Secretary under seven Secretaries of State until his death in 1886. In so doing he confirmed the establishment of a leadership role for the most senior member of the Department's permanent bureaucracy. Hunter was succeeded as Second Assistant Secretary by Alvey A. Adee who filled that post until his death in 1924. The long service of William Derrick, William Hunter, and Alvey Adee as the top career officers of the Department of State from 1841 to 1924 had a profound impact upon American foreign affairs by serving in their time as institutional memories and coordinating the work of the Department.

During the three decades after the Civil War, the United States reverted to a basically isolationist foreign policy and confronted no real overseas crises. Beneath the orderly management of minor diplomatic issues of America's Gilded Age, the rapidly expanding American economy was pushing the nation and its State Department toward important changes in the conduct of foreign affairs. The American presence and commerce abroad increased at an astounding rate. Between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War 34 years later, American exports tripled, and the United States was second only to Great Britain in export trade. The consular service became the lead instrument in the search for American markets abroad.

In 1860, there were 480 consulates, commercial agencies, and consular agencies abroad, and by 1890 this number had risen to 760. Congress began to adopt measures to place American diplomatic representatives in the front rank of international diplomacy and to ensure that both the consular and the diplomatic services were more efficiently and tightly managed. In 1893, Congress finally acknowledged that the United States had come of age diplomatically when it authorized the appointment of ambassadorial-rank representatives to Great Britain and other major powers. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland issued regulations requiring the filling of vacancies on the basis of written examinations, including language tests. Other measures were adopted to deal with the salaries and inspection of consular posts.

A corps of professional American diplomats was emerging to meet the new challenges of foreign policy. Although the system of patronage continued to dominate the presidential appointment process, able and experienced men (but not yet women) were retained in service despite changes of administration and party. In the years preceding World War I, such distinguished diplomats as George Seward, Robert McLane, Charles Denby, and William Rockhill provided outstanding American representation in the Far East; Henry White had a long and important career caring for American interests in Great Britain; Henry Vignaud spent nearly 35 years in the Embassy in Paris; and George Schuyler served in a variety of posts in Eastern Europe.

Managing the Foreign Affairs of a Great Power, 1900-1940

From the Spanish-American War at the turn of the century until the first years of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States, however reluctantly in the view of many Americans, joined the ranks of the great world powers. The nation's overseas involvements and responsibilities expanded dramatically. Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the imperial phase of U.S. diplomacy with the building of the Panama Canal, the dispatch of the U.S. fleet around the world, the Russo-Japanese peace settlement at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the brokering of great power arrangements to ward off war over European colonialism in Africa. Secretary of State John Hay heralded the emergence of the United States as a Pacific power with his policies in China. The Department of State and the diplomatic and consular services expanded and modernized in response to the expanding interests abroad of 20th century American commercial and cultural interests. A caution and traditional conservatism, reflecting the ambivalences of the general citizenry, however, continued to dominate the Department of State.

During this time, the Department of State grew from 91 employees in Washington, D.C., and a budget of $141,000 in 1900, to 708 employees and a budget of $1,400,000 in 1920, to 1,128 employees and a budget of $2,800,000 in 1940. (See Personnel Table, 1781-1997) Secretary of State Philander Knox in 1909 introduced new political-geographic divisions to handle the main substantive work of the Department, greatly expanded the role of the Department's Solicitor, and assigned the growing administrative tasks to the Third Assistant Secretary of State. Divisions for Information and for Trade Relations also were created.

World War I imposed global responsibilities on the United States Government. In 1914 the United States had active and purposeful diplomatic relations with few of the nations of the world, recognized national interests in few of them, and maintained coherent policies towards hardly any of them. The war changed this completely. During the war and the peace negotiations that followed President Woodrow Wilson, with the help of the Department of State, developed a comprehensive American foreign policy with respect to all the major issues and problems arising from the war and the peace settlement. To assist the Secretary of State in managing the growing overseas responsibilities, Congress created the position of Under Secretary of State in 1919.

Modernized communications were developed to carry out the Department's global business. The number of telegrams increased tenfold between 1900 and 1914 and continued to rise steadily thereafter. The use of telegraphic codes and ciphers, little needed before World War I, also expanded during and after World War I. The Department introduced security measures for the protection of information and began the process of labeling and controlling "Secret" and "Confidential" documents. Effective American diplomatic codes were introduced after the War, and an "American Black Chamber" operation was experimented with in an effort to decipher the coded diplomatic messages of other nations. Cordell Hull was the first Secretary of State to make use of the telephone to instruct overseas missions and delegations.

Professionalization of the Foreign Service and the Department of State in the first decades of the 20th century did little initially to undo the elitist character of U.S. diplomacy. Appointment to the Foreign Service continued to be essentially confined to members of the prosperous white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant community. Foreign policy was made at the Department of State with little reference to the broad democratic community of people and interests. President Wilson's progressivist policies began to change the style of American diplomacy.

World War I set in motion some changes that could not be held back. One of the most important consequences of the war was the increased employment of women and their rise to places of increasing leadership in the Department of State. Margaret M. Hanna had served as a clerk in the Department for 23 years when she was made Chief of the Correspondence Bureau. She was succeeded by Blanche Halla in the late 1930s. Ruth Shipley, who for a time was Hanna's assistant, later served for 25 years as head of the Passport Bureau. Women were admitted into the new Foreign Service beginning in 1925. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the first two women chiefs of mission: Ruth Bryan Owen served as Minister to Denmark from 1933 to 1936 and Florence Jaffrey Harriman served as Minister to Norway from 1937 until 1940. The advancement of women in the Department, however, remained slow.

In the period between World Wars I and II women made up more than half of the work force in the Department of State, although most of these positions were lower-ranking clerical jobs. African-Americans were also employed in the lowest paying Department positions. The separation of the races in the government workplace begun during the Wilson presidency was felt in the Department of State and confined African-Americans to the bottom of career ladders. There were a few exceptions. Clifton Wharton passed his oral and written examinations and became the first black Foreign Service officer in August 1925. Jews also felt the exclusionary practices that were prevalent elsewhere in the government establishment and the wider business and professional world.

After several decades of effort by the Department of State, led by the long-serving career officer and Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur J. Carr, Congress adopted on May 24, 1924, the Rogers Act creating a unified (combining the diplomatic and consular services) and professional Foreign Service of the United States. The act made merit rather than politics the basis for appointment and promotion, and it fostered a permanent career service to represent the nation abroad. Diplomatic and consular officers were amalgamated into a single service and could and did serve in either function. Improved salaries and benefits opened the service to those with limited means. Subsequent reforms and modifications emphasized language training and expertise. The Foreign Services Buildings Act of 1926 provided for the first time for the construction of embassy and consular buildings overseas.

The professionalization of the diplomatic service was reflected in the changing composition of the heads of American diplomatic missions. The percentage of career officers serving as chief of mission rose from zero before 1920 to 30 percent in 1924 following the Rogers Act, to nearly 55 percent during World War II. The rotation of diplomatic officers from overseas posts into positions of leadership in the Department was begun during World War I and was greatly enhanced by the Rogers Act. By 1939, the Foreign Service had become the single personnel service for all overseas service except for military and naval attaches. By the time the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were being served by a Foreign Service of about 830 trained officers.

The Department of State and the U.S. as a Superpower, 1945-1960

The United States emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation in the world. During the next 15 years American foreign policy was dominated by the series of crises, great and small, that marked the struggle to contain aggressive communism led by the Soviet Union. The basic American Government analysis of its postwar task was set forth in National Security Council document No. 68 in 1950 which postulated a protracted period of world crisis resulting from Communist aggression and urged a major military buildup of nuclear and conventional arms supported by large U.S. budgets and increased taxes. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the United States led the search for a lasting peace settlement in Europe and Asia, took the lead with the Marshall Plan and other forms of economic and technical assistance to rebuild the shattered world economy, and pushed forward, even to the dismay of its great power allies, the decolonization of the Third World. Secretaries of State James F. Byrnes, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, and Christian A. Herter worked closely with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to fashion U.S. foreign policy. Byrnes and his successors traveled frequently to conferences and negotiations around the world. In his 5 years in office, John Foster Dulles traveled 480,000 miles. The United States and its diplomats gave the postwar peace settlement its direction and stood as a guarantor of its durability. In the United Nations, the vehicle for the building of a new standard and style of international relations, the United States provided much of resources and initiative and Department of State became the mentor for the extensive multilateral diplomacy that arose to harness the experience of the older nations and the expectations of the newly emergent states.

To administer the new and complex responsibilities of the Department of State during and after World War II, the number of domestic employees grew from 1,128 in 1940 to more than 3,700 in 1945 and nearly 9,000 by 1950. The postwar Department of State was completely overhauled and restructured. New bureaus and offices were created and staffed. Bureaus for Administration and Economic Affairs were established in 1944. When the war ended, a large new Bureau of Public Affairs was created sweeping together the remnants of a variety of wartime information and propaganda agencies. Secretary Marshall, who sorely missed the tightly coordinated conduct of affairs that characterized his military command experiences, set up an Executive Secretariat and a Policy Planning Staff in 1947 to organize and manage the Department decision making and undertake long-range policy planning. Secretary Marshall's Secretariat proved so successful that it has continued, without significant change, to the present day. The Policy Planning Staff, initially manned by such luminaries as George Kennan and Paul Nitze, soon lost its original luster under later Secretaries, and instead of tending to long-range planning, became instead a troubleshooting staff for the Department leadership.

In the years after the end of the war, it became apparent that the Department of State, swollen by the personnel and tasks of countless wartime agencies and saddled with broad new global tasks of a world superpower was unable to perform as decisively or quickly as the world situation usually demanded. Worse still, the conflict between the growing and powerful Foreign Service and the civil service, including many workers from disparate wartime agencies, was thwarting efficient government. In 1949 a comprehensive Department restructuring was carried out in response to the Commission on Governmental Organization, headed by former President Herbert Hoover. The work of the Department was reorganized to center on major policy-making bureaus Inter-American Affairs, Far Eastern Affairs, European Affairs, Near Eastern and African Affairs, International Organization Affairs, and Congressional Relations. Personnel systems for the Foreign Service and the civil service were placed under central leadership with the aim of ameliorating the tensions between the two.

The geographic bureau structure was rounded out in 1958, in advance of the rapid decolonization of Africa in the 1960s, with the establishment of a Bureau of African Affairs. Meanwhile, in response to the increasing diversification of foreign policy issues, the Department created a Bureau for Consular Affairs in 1952, a Bureau of Intelligence in 1957, and a Bureau of Cultural Affairs in 1960. The expanding Department gradually gained a new level of policy-makers and coordinators, including the creation of the position of Under Secretary for Economic Affairs in 1946. A Deputy Under Secretary for Management was first appointed in 1949, and by 1953 the office had been raised to Under Secretary for Management. The proliferating political bureaus were first overseen in 1949 by a Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs; this position was raised to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 1959.

Although the Department of State expanded substantially to meet its growing responsibilities around the world and to respond to Communist threats as the Cold War deepened, it lost its role as the sole Federal agency involved in the preparation and execution of foreign policy. Military units were stationed at bases around the world, and American air and naval power might be called upon by the President at any moment to deal with a crisis abroad. Department of State leaders were uncomfortable with the penchant for aggressive intelligence gathering and covert political action that emerged from World War II. As a result, a separate Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947 to coordinate intelligence activities outside the United States, and it soon developed a worldwide operational apparatus that offered to Presidents secret operations to further foreign policy goals. The Departments of the Treasury, Commerce, and Agriculture were also involved in major international programs. Separate agencies managed expanding overseas information programs and economic assistance efforts in war-ravaged Europe and in the developing nations of Asia and Africa. Above all, the National Security Council (NSC) was created in 1947 as part of the White House apparatus to coordinate for the President the principal international issues confronting the government and the several agencies concerned with foreign affairs. Although Secretaries of State Acheson and Dulles held the lead role in the NSC for its first few years, the balance of control had flowed to the White House staff. The Department of State sought to work out effective relationships with these agencies in Washington and at posts abroad. The successes in State Department coordination of the foreign policy establishment were often overlooked by critics who focused on the increasingly complicated decision-making process and the different voices defining the scope of American interests and commitments abroad.

A major development in the conduct of foreign affairs was the significant involvement of the public in the formulation of policies. From the last days of World War II, the Department of State has worked to inform and educate the American public on the problems and possibilities posed by the world political scene. The press conference grew to be the principal means by which the Secretary of State and the Department of State provided the nearly insatiable demand for foreign policy information and insight from the news media. News conferences by the Secretary of State, begun on an informal basis by Secretary Hull in the 1930s, expanded as the news corps accredited to the Department grew. In the 1950s, press conferences by Secretaries Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles grew increasingly infrequent. Instead, Department of State spokesmen, such as the veteran Lincoln White, became the intermediary for correspondents assigned to "Foggy Bottom." The State Department also reached beyond the news media to explain America's deepening involvement in international affairs and to listen to the views of the public. Quality publications ranging from authoritative statements on current policy to historical background documentaries were developed, and a broad program of conferences, briefings, and speeches sought to illuminate complex policies and negotiations for interested citizens and for the growing number of non-governmental organizations concerned with America's role and involvement abroad.

In 1940, the United States was represented abroad by 19 Embassies, 39 Legations, and 1 other mission. Twenty years later, there were 78 Embassies, 3 Legations, and 2 other missions. The Foreign Service Reform Act of 1946 established the structure for a modern, efficient service with a consolidated classification system, promotion and retirement programs, and improved allowances and assignment policies. The Foreign Service Institute provided special language and area training. In the 1950s, the Department and the Foreign Service made the first serious efforts to recruit women, blacks, and other minorities at the officer level. The number of Americans employed overseas grew from about 2,000 in 1939 to 3,500 in 1946 to more than 6,000 by 1960. In addition the Department employed more than 9,000 foreign personnel overseas by 1960. (See Personnel Table, 1781-1997) An independent U.S. Information Agency was established in 1951 to coordinate the public affairs and cultural efforts abroad and to manage the expanding Voice of America. Other agencies coordinated expanding economic and military assistance.

The emerging modern and comparatively large Department of State and Foreign Service, with their greatly broadened scope of activities, found themselves threatened by dangers at home and abroad. Threats by agents of the wartime Fascist enemies were followed by even more insidious menace of a world communism aiming at not only espionage but the subversion of the governments of America's allies and the expansion of the Soviet Union by whatever means available. Security measures for the protection of both information and personnel, both at the Department in Washington and at the individual missions abroad, began on a limited scale in the years leading to the outbreak of World War II, but really became extensive and even intrusive in the decade after the end of the war. These security practices culminated in the accusations of treasonous activity eventually aimed at several hundred Department and Foreign Service officers by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other members of Congress in the 1950s. Some dismissals did occur, and in other cases careers were needlessly destroyed. The security "scare" injured the morale of Department personnel just as the Department shouldered its most difficult new tasks around the world. Some of the most bitter consequences of the McCarthyite purges became evident years later during American involvement in the Vietnam war when American leaders found themselves blundering ever deeper into the quagmire in significant part because they lacked vital Asian expertise.

The first postwar decades witnessed accelerated changes in the role of minorities in the Department of State. The mobilization of men for the war effort made the recruitment of even more women into the Department an urgent necessity. Racial barriers were gradually undone pursuant to President Roosevelt's orders to introduce fair employment practices in the Federal government. The integration of African-Americans in the Department of State cafeteria occurred quietly during World War II when other restrictive hiring and promotion practices began to be reversed. It was not until 1958, however, that Clifton Wharton became the first African-American chief of mission in the Foreign Service.

This expansion of American diplomatic activities and responsibilities abroad gave rise to a program to build American Embassies either to replace smaller buildings or to establish the U.S. presence in areas where there had been none. The first American-designed and -owned Embassies abroad were those in Paris and Tokyo built between the two world wars. The availability of nearly $175,000,000 in "counterpart" funds resulting from the repayment in local currencies for Lend-Lease provided the basis for an ambitious program in the 1950s for building embassies and consulates in Europe, Africa, and Asia. These buildings, designed in the modern international style by leading American architects, projected a powerful image abroad of America as superpower. The need for increased security for the larger American diplomatic establishments abroad, many in countries where political instability was chronic, led to the deployment of Marine guard detachments at many of the embassy buildings.

The Department of State's Role in the U.S. Foreign Affairs Community, 1961-1996

The last 35 years have seen the cresting of American power and responsibility in world affairs, the climax and end of the Cold War, and the slow emergence of a new and different world order. Presidents from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to George Bush and Bill Clinton have personally directed the response to challenges to American interests, threats to national security, and disturbances to international peace and stability. These foreign affairs crises ranged from the imminent danger of war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the confrontation in a divided Berlin in 1963, the involvement in the Vietnam war in the 1960s and early 1970s, to the resort to massive military force against Iraqi aggression during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Crises erupted recurrently during this period in the Caribbean, Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The emergence of the Third World brought with it unavoidable and ever widening American responsibilities and involvements in the economic well being of developing peoples and their essential human rights.

In attempting to manage or at least respond to the often complex foreign affairs crises of these recent decades, Presidents have not only turned to Secretaries of State and their Department, but have also drawn into the management and decision-making process a growing number of other agencies that acquired major foreign affairs responsibilities. The form and nature of this involvement varied from President to President. John Kennedy concentrated more on crisis management and major policy coordination in the White House and in a National Security Council system pared down from the elaborate staffing of the Eisenhower administration. Lyndon Johnson experimented with a Senior Interdepartmental Group that gave the Secretary of State primary responsibility for policy coordination. Presidents Nixon and Ford favored a decision-making style that concentrated authority in the White House and National Security Council as much as possible. Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush depended on the development of a National Security Council system featuring a powerful national security adviser and steadily expanding staff that mediated, with greater or lesser success, among the increasing number of departments and agencies with foreign affairs responsibilities.

Within these changing systems for high-level policy formulation, the Department of State worked alongside various other agencies of government with major national security responsibilities. A conglomerate "foreign affairs community" emerged reflecting the burgeoning bureaucracy involved in the formulation and execution of foreign policy. The overall impact and effectiveness of the Department of State within this community varied from presidency to presidency. Most observers agreed, however, that the erosion of the traditional preeminence in foreign affairs of the Department of State and the Foreign Service would only be reversed for brief periods during the incumbency of a Secretary of State who enjoyed the close confidence of the President and the support of advisers and lieutenants who could wrest leadership of diplomatic crises from the hands of competing agencies and officials.

Below the "principals" level, the Department policy-making leadership was further redefined and expanded to deal with the new issues of foreign policy. The Department of State and the Congress responded to the modern problems of crisis management, terrorism, science and the environment, human rights, narcotics, and refugee affairs by creating new organizations at the bureau level. The proliferation of bureaus (there were 30 by 1990) allowed the Department to bring expertise to bear on the new problems of foreign policy, but it also threatened policy-making with recurrent bottlenecks as overlapping responsibilities too often deprived the Secretary of State of timely recommendations and decisive policy recommendations. In the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, determined National Security Advisers were tempted to ignore or evade Department policy-makers. In the Reagan and Bush administrations, Secretaries Haig and Shultz drew the Department more closely into the inner decision-making circles, but some observers feared that Secretary Baker's close group of advisers seemed too often to conduct the main lines of foreign policy without input from the Department as a whole. Secretary of State Warren Christopher revived the essential role of State Department policy recommendations across the spectrum of foreign policy concerns and sought to streamline the policy-making pyramid.

Terrorist activity in recent years aimed at overseas American personnel has brought about intensified concern about the protection of Embassies and missions abroad and at home. Congress in 1985 authorized the Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security to undertake a prodigious program to defend U.S. diplomatic and consular establishments from the threats of terrorists and espionage. The open outreach of the modernist architecture of American Embassies and consulates of the 1950s was abandoned in place of secure perimeters and bomb-proof walls. The Department of State, working with other agencies of the United States Government, has in recent years spearheaded the international struggle to combat terrorism on a global basis.

The Secretaries of State and their close advisers sought to make use of the most modern technology, communications, and management in order to be better able to meet the recurrent crises and threats to American interests around the world. An Operations Center was established in April 1961 to provide the Department of State with instant worldwide crisis communications. The first computer was installed in the Department in 1962 and by 1972 computers managed the bulk of Department communications with posts abroad. Secretaries of State often had to take the Department "on the road" in order to deal in person with critical negotiations such as Secretary Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" in 1974 to stabilize the tensions in the Middle East and begin the long peace process in the region.

The expanded Department of State had moved in 1947 from the elegant State, War, and Navy Building on 17th Street to a new home on 21st Street in Foggy Bottom, but these quarters were almost immediately too small, and additional temporary buildings multiplied. In the 1960s, a new State Department building attached to the old one brought together most, although not all, of about 7,000 Department employees in Washington, D.C. State Department principals and most of the assistant secretaries occupied suites on the 7th floor while the staffs were arranged vertically below them, to the extent possible. The Agency for International Development, which coordinated U.S. foreign assistance programs, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency also shared space with the State Department, and by the 1980s State Department personnel and activities had spread into more than 20 buildings around the District of Columbia.

The Department of State and the American people enjoyed a long period of consensus regarding the goals and direction of foreign policy in the first 20 years following World War II. Public support was consistently forthcoming for Presidentially-mandated overseas initiatives in Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and even in the Caribbean against the perceived threat of international communism. An essentially unanimous nation followed the President in frequent diplomatic interventions and generous efforts of aid and assistance, even in the case of limited wars and secret political actions. The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam war, however, proved to be rancorously divisive to American public opinion. The long-standing national consensus on the use of power became frayed if not completely torn. Suspicion of American leadership and government grew, and the Department of State received its share of condemnation at the hands of critics. Beginning with the demonstrations and disasters of Vietnam, the conduct of foreign policy became snarled in contentious public debate as it had never been before. As the danger from world communism and nuclear war declined, external threats to the nation in the form of terrorist attacks, uncontrolled immigration, and relentless economic competition gnawed at many Americans and made foreign policy more of an everyday concern.

The principal vehicle for informing the public regarding foreign policy issues, apart from the speeches and press conferences of the President and the Secretary of State, were the briefings provided to the diplomatic press corps at the Department of State. The informal give and take between briefers and correspondents at the Department of the immediate postwar years was soon overwhelmed by the wide scope and complexity of recurrent foreign policy crises and high-level negotiations. U.S.-Soviet summit meetings and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East were examples of foreign affairs events that gained the interest and attention of the nation. In the early 1960s in the wake of the widening Vietnam war, daily noon briefings by the State Department Spokesman became a principal vehicle for disseminating the administration's views on current crises and its responses to public anguish and concern to threats to Americans and their interests. Occasionally these briefings, brought live on evening television to millions of Americans, became a focus of intense national attention, as during the 444 days when American diplomatic personnel were held hostage by Iranian authorities in 1979 and spokesman Hodding Carter kept a fascinated nation up-to-date.

Modernizing the Department of State and the Foreign Service

Since the inauguration of President Kennedy, two new generations of Foreign Service officers and Department of State personnel have served in Washington and around the world. These officers have been different from their predecessors. They were recruited broadly from around the nation, and many have advanced education, including a significant number of PhDs. The newer generation of Foreign Service officers also reflected more closely the general makeup of the population in terms of the numbers of women and minorities. Beginning with President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, affirmative action programs were introduced in the Department of State to better guarantee fairness in the hiring of new personnel. Efforts at broadening and balancing the makeup of the Department and the Foreign Service moved too slowly to make up fully for decades of denial and exclusionary recruitment and promotion practices. The Foreign Service Reform Act of 1980 provided for more rigorous standards for recruitment and promotion, improved the rewards of service, and sought to deal with the problems of promotion and tenure that were sapping the once very high morale of the service.

New Foreign Service officers and Department personnel recruited after 1960 were part of the generation that questioned and challenged traditional social and political values. As American involvement in the Vietnam war deepened, many among the younger Foreign Service officers joined in the public opposition to the war and actively protested American actions and policies. Doubts about leadership decisions spread from Vietnam issues to other American involvements abroad. In 1968, Secretary of State Dean Rusk authorized the establishment of a "dissent channel" through which officers could offer critiques of official policies and alternative approaches. An Open Forum was begun in 1970 to allow Foreign Service and Department of State personnel to hear a wide spectrum of opinion and expertise on foreign policy issues.

The Foreign Service Institute has made extensive efforts to give officers throughout their careers a variety of specialized training. In addition to area and language training, the Institute's Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs provides symposia and publications on important foreign affairs issues. The capstone of the Department's educational program was the Senior Seminar, begun in 1958. In this program, small groups of the most promising mid-level Foreign Service officers, together with some military officers and officials of other agencies, undergo a year of special experience in what has come to be considered the most advanced professional development program available to senior career officials in the U.S. Government.

The culmination of the challenges and improvements of the Foreign Service through the 1960s and 1970s was the Foreign Service Reform Act of 1980, which provided far more rigorous standards for recruitment and performance, improved the rewards of service and sought to deal with the problems of promotion and tenure. The Act created a new Senior Foreign Service for top grades and established the sharp distinction between Foreign Service and Civil Service employment by abolishing the Foreign Service Reserve.


Attempts at reform and reorganization in the Department in the last 15 years have been often obscured and even vitiated by the impact on Department personnel and functions caused by recurrent budget cuts and resource reductions that were part of the overall governmental budget deficits and spending constraints. In the last 10 years, State Department resources have been reduced by 50 percent. Despite expanding responsibilities, the Department and the Foreign Service grew little between 1960 when there were about 7,000 domestic and 6,000 overseas American personnel for a total of over 13,000, and 1988 when there were 8,000 domestic and 6,000 overseas personnel for a total of 14,000. The Department has remained one of the smallest of major government agencies with an ever-increasing daily impact upon the lives of Americans--not only those who travel or conduct business abroad but those who are concerned about the role of the United States in the world.

The collapse of international communism culminating in the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union eliminated for the foreseeable future the dangers of nuclear warfare or massive insurgencies sponsored around the world by the U.S.S.R. It did not make the world easier for diplomacy. Even as its resources are being reduced, the Department of State's tasks have become far more complicated and the expectations of the American public for effective actions far greater. In the wake of the Cold War, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, international crime, and economic issues, which were always present, if on the margins, have become the central focus of foreign affairs. Resurgent nationalism in Europe and the former Soviet Union has sparked civil wars and rebellions that defy the United Nations, the United States and its allies, or any other combination of states to quell or even restrain. Respect by nations great and small for the human rights of their people has become an insistent measure by which many Americans gauge the worthiness of foreign policy goals and the effectiveness of the Department of State's performance.

William Z. Slany
The Historian
Bureau of Public Affairs
Department of State
July 1996

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