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U.S. Department of State

Feature Story:

A History of the U.S. Foreign Service 1924­1999


By William Z. Slaney
The author is the Department historian.


75th Anniversary Activities Planned
The Foreign Service: Through Ambassador Pickering's Eyes


This month, the U.S. Foreign Service marks its 75th anniversary. Through much of the 20th century, the men and women of the Foreign Service have provided Presidents and ordinary citizens with expert, loyal and courageous front-line representation around the world in war and peace and all manner of crisis and disaster.

The experience of the Foreign Service, combined with the century and a half of citizen-diplomats from the origins of the U.S. republic, fashioned a distinctively American-style diplomacy reflecting the nation's commitment to liberty and democracy.

The First 150 Years of American Diplomacy

The U.S. Constitution gave the President the power to appoint, with Senate approval, ambassadors, consuls and other officials. Diplomacy attracted leading Americans to service in the nation's first decades, including future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams.

The roots of American diplomacy reach back to 1776, when the Continental Congress sent patriot-diplomats like Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane on missions abroad. But the young republic viewed European monarchies with suspicion and held intercourse to a minimum.

The U.S. diplomatic service expanded slowly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1790 the United States sent ministers to only two countries, France and Great Britain. By 1830 the number grew to 15, and by 1860, to 33. The consular service, on the other hand, grew steadily during this time. Consuls, commercial agents and consular agents protected U.S. ships and crews abroad and promoted the expansion of American commerce. U.S. consular posts grew from 10 in 1790 to 253 in 1860.

While Presidents continued to use diplomatic appointments to reward political support, a corps of professional diplomats began to emerge to meet the new foreign affairs challenges accompanying the country's great economic expansion.

The consular service became the lead instrument in the search for markets abroad. In 1860 there were 480 consulates, commercial agencies and consular agencies abroad, and by 1890 this number had risen to 760.

In 1893, Congress 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 vacancies to be filled based on written examinations, including language tests.

Birth of the Modern Foreign Service

World War I imposed global responsibilities on the U.S. government. President Woodrow Wilson, with State's help, developed a comprehensive U.S. foreign policy that addressed the major issues and problems arising from the war and the peace settlement, including high-level diplomatic negotiations. The organization and recruitment of the diplomatic and consular services was changed to match the new national interests and involvements.

After several decades of effort led by Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur J. Carr, Congress adopted the Rogers Act on May 24, 1924. The act, named for U.S. Rep. John Jacob Rogers of Massachusetts, combined the diplomatic and consular services, creating a unified and professional U.S. Foreign Service. Merit, rather than politics, became the basis for appointment and promotion, and the act fostered a permanent career service to represent the United States abroad.

Diplomatic and consular officers merged into a single service but could serve in either function. Improved salaries and benefits opened the service to those with limited means. Later reforms and modifications emphasized language training and expertise. The Foreign Service 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 U.S. diplomatic missions. The percentage of career officers serving as chiefs of mission rose from zero before 1920 to 30 percent in 1924 following the Rogers Act and nearly 55 percent during World War II.

The Rogers Act increased the number of diplomatic officers coming from overseas postings who rotated into leadership positions in the Department. By the time the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were being served by a Foreign Service of about 830 trained officers.

During the decade and a half preceding World War II, the Department took its first steps to include more women and minorities in its Foreign Service ranks. Women were admitted into the new Foreign Service beginning in 1925. The first two women chiefs of mission were Ruth Bryan Owen, minister to Denmark from 1933 to 1936, and Florence Jaffray Harriman, minister to Norway from 1937 until 1940. Clifton Wharton became the first African American Foreign Service officer in August 1925.

Foreign Service for a Superpower

The United States emerged from World War II as the world's most powerful nation. During the next three decades, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by the struggle to contain communism. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the United States led the search for a lasting peace settlement in Europe and Asia and took the lead with the Marshall Plan and other forms of economic and technical assistance to rebuild the shattered world economy and pushed forward the decolonization of the Third World.

Although State expanded substantially to meet its growing responsibilities worldwide, it lost its role as the sole federal agency involved in preparing and executing foreign policy. Military units were stationed around the world, ready to be called upon by the President on short notice to deal with crises abroad. A separate Central Intelligence Agency, created in 1947 to coordinate overseas intelligence activities, soon developed a worldwide operational apparatus. The Departments of the Treasury, Commerce and Agriculture also became involved in major international programs.

Separate agencies managed overseas information programs and economic assistance efforts in war-ravaged Europe and in the developing nations of Asia and Africa. The increasingly complicated decision-making process and the different voices defining the scope of U.S. interests and commitments abroad made the Foreign Service experience far more complex and difficult than ever before.

In 1940, the United States was represented abroad by 19 embassies, 39 legations and one other mission. Twenty years later, those numbers had increased to 78 embassies, three legations and two 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 to more than 6,000 by 1960, in addition to some 9,000 Foreign Service Nationals.

An independent U.S. Information Agency was established in 1948 to coordinate 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 Foreign Service, with its greatly broadened scope of activities, was threatened by dangers at home and abroad. Security measures to protect both information and personnel in Washington, D.C., and at missions abroad became extensive in the first postwar decade. These security practices culminated in accusations of treasonous activity eventually aimed at several hundred Civil Service and Foreign Service employees by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other members of Congress in the 1950s. Some employees were dismissed, and others' careers were needlessly destroyed. The security "scare" injured the morale of the Foreign Service just as it was being called on to shoulder difficult new tasks around the world.

The first postwar decades witnessed accelerated changes in the role of minorities in the Foreign Service. The mobilization of men for the war effort had made recruiting more women into the Department an urgent necessity. President Roosevelt's orders to introduce fair employment practices in the federal government helped break down racial barriers. In 1958, Clifton Wharton became the first African-American chief of mission in the Foreign Service.

Expanded diplomatic activities and responsibilities abroad energized a program to build U.S. embassies to replace smaller buildings or to establish a U.S. presence in areas where there had been none. Nearly $175 million in funding in the 1950s financed an ambitious program to build embassies and consulates around the world. These buildings, designed in the modern international style by leading U.S. architects, projected a powerful image abroad of the United States as superpower. The need for increased security abroad led to the deployment of Marine guard detachments at many embassy buildings.

Today's Foreign Service, 1961­1999

The last 40 years have seen ever-increasing U.S. power and responsibility in world affairs, the intensifying and eventual ending of the Cold War and the emergence of global issues that cut across geographical and regional boundaries.

As Presidents struggled to manage complex foreign affairs crises, they came to rely on a conglomerate "foreign affairs community" that reflected the burgeoning bureaucracy involved in formulating and executing foreign policy.

Diplomacy was further redefined and expanded to deal with new foreign policy issues. State and the Congress responded to the modern problems of crisis management, terrorism, science and technology, 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--enabled the Department to focus on the new problems of foreign policy, but it also threatened timely policy-making with recurrent bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Secretaries Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright revived the essential role of Department and Foreign Service policy recommendations across the spectrum of foreign affairs concerns while seeking to streamline the policy-making pyramid.

In recent years, terrorism aimed at U.S. personnel overseas has intensified concern about protecting our embassies and missions abroad. In 1985, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security began a major program to defend U.S. diplomatic and consular establishments from terrorism and espionage. This effort again moved to the forefront following the bombings last August of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa.

The Secretaries of State and their close advisers have used the most modern technology, communications and management techniques available to meet the recurrent crises and threats to U.S. interests around the world. An Operations Center was established in April 1961 to provide the Department with instant, worldwide crisis communications. The first computer was installed in the Department in 1962, and by 1972 computers managed most of its communications with posts abroad. Today, the Department relies extensively on information technology to function.

Modernizing the Foreign Service

The challenges and improvements of the Foreign Service through the 1960s and 1970s led to the Foreign Service Reform Act of 1980. It provided far more rigorous standards for recruitment and performance, improved the benefits of service and confronted problems of career advancement that were sapping morale within the service. The act created a new Senior Foreign Service for top grades and established a sharp distinction between Foreign Service and Civil Service employment.

Attempts to reform and reorganize the conduct of diplomacy and the Foreign Service during the past 15 years have often been hampered by budget and personnel cuts. Despite expanding responsibilities, State has remained one of the lowest-funded major government agencies with an ever-increasing daily impact on the lives of Americans--not only those who travel or conduct business abroad but also those concerned about the world role of the United States.

The collapse of international communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union reduced the danger of nuclear warfare but led to a world that poses even more diplomatic challenges. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, international crime, nationalistic conflicts and economic crises remain. In addition, respect by nations great and small for the human rights of their people has become an insistent indicator by which many Americans gauge the worthiness of foreign policy goals and the effectiveness of their diplomatic representatives overseas.

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