Department of State

Jerry Israel and

David L. Anderson

Upon his resignation in 1792, Henry Remsen, the first chief clerk of the Department of State, left the following instructions:

Such of the Foreign Letters as are not filed away in the cases, are for the present put on my desk in two pigeon holes at the right hand side. The Consular returns are at the bottom of said desk right hand side … the drafts of foreign proceedings … are filed in said desk left hand pigeon hole. The letters from our ministers and charge des affaires now in commission Mr. Jefferson keeps…. A little attention will be necessary inseparating the foreign from the domestic letters, as they are sent to the Office by Mr. Jefferson to be filed. My rule in making the separation was by reading them. The domestic letters to be filed in the Office down stairs, the foreign letters in the Office up stairs.

Nearly two centuries later, commenting on the move from "Old State" to headquarters in "New State" (1947) and finally, "New, New State"(1961), the diplomat Henry Serrano Villard wrote:

Even this fantastically outside complex is inadequate. Spilling over into nine rented buildings, using nearly 1.5 million square feet of space, the State Department premises are already too small; if AID [Agency for International Development], ACDA [Arms Control and Disarmament Agency] and USIA [United States Information Agency] are added, the total is twenty buildings with 2,547,377 square feet. Offices are overcrowded, tenants must double up, conference rooms must be lopped off, new outlets sought.

The irony of these comparisons of simple and complex styles is that Villard's larger department was if anything less rather than more involved in the making of American foreign policy, the State Department's primary responsibility. Along these lines, in modern times, especially since World War II, one notes the competitive foreign policies of departments such as Commerce, Agriculture, Defense, Labor, Treasury, Interior, and Health and Human Services, plus the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Reserve Bank, not to mention semiofficial business, scientific, cultural, and journalistic groups. By the mid-1960s, only one-fourth of federal personnel in U.S. embassies were employees of the State Department. In addition, there is the superior and sometimes competitive power of the president and groups or individuals on the White House staff and otherwise outside the State Department that the president may especially empower.

Henry A. Kissinger noted the paradox of an increasingly specialized, bureaucratized society having negative consequences for American policy and policymakers. Calling for a return to the individual and intellectual approach to problems and policy, not uncharacteristic of the formative age of Jefferson and Remsen, Kissinger writes of policy "fragmented into a series of ad hoc decisions which make it difficult to achieve a sense of direction or even to profit from experience. Substantive problems are transformed into administrative ones. Innovation is subjected to 'objective' tests which deprive it of spontaneity. 'Policy planning' becomes the projection of familiar problems into the future. Momentum is confused with purpose. There is greater concern with how things are than with which things matter." As Richard Nixon's national security adviser and then as secretary of state, Kissinger waged his own assault against the inertia of bureaucratized foreign policy.

Borrowing from the example of Remsen and the explanation of Kissinger, it is possible to observe—at least until the mid-twentieth century—that amidst efforts to institutionalize the apparatus of the State Department, what machinery there was rested on a precious few long-lived cogwheels. Working backward not quite all the way from Kissinger to Remsen, one traces a remarkable continuity within the careers of just three men: Wilbur J. Carr, with forty-five years of service (1892–1937); Alvey A. Adee, with forty-six years in Washington (1878–1924) and seven before that for the Department of State in Madrid; and William Hunter, with fifty-seven years (1829–1886) as chief of bureau, chief clerk, and second assistant secretary (the latter two being key administrative posts held also by Carr and Adee).

As late as 1929, the Department of State was small and its central leadership even more scant. When Henry L. Stimson took office as Herbert C. Hoover's secretary of state, there were—including everybody from the secretary to chauffeurs, clerks, stenographers, and janitors—six hundred people. Yet Stimson, not unusually for the department, surrounded himself with an able, tight-knit group of assistants including Carr, Joseph Cotton, Francis White, and Nelson T. Johnson. Like Cotton, some assistants were new to foreign policy; others, like Carr and Johnson, had seen extended service in the consular and diplomatic corps. They blended together, however, to advise the secretary and the president on critical policy matters in Latin America, Europe, and Asia.

The history of the State Department until the mid-twentieth century was tied, it appears, to the history of the few men who had served as secretary of state or to their staffs. The role of the individual has since, however, become increasingly institutionalized, and with that change has come a State Department larger and yet often less effective than it was in its humbler days.


Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. 2 vols. New York, 1949. A good biography of a great secretary of state.

Bemis, Samuel Flagg, ed. American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy. Vols. 1–10. New York, 1928–1958. Good, short sketches.

Bemis, Samuel Flagg, and Robert Ferrell, eds. American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy. New series. Vols. 11–19. New York, 1963–1980. Continues the older Bemis series with the same title.

Crane, Katherine E. Mr. Carr of State. New York, 1960. Gives a favorable view of a key middle manager.

DeConde, Alexander. The American Secretary of State. New York, 1962. Contains useful analyses.

Elder, Robert E. The Policy Machine: The Department of State and American Foreign Policy. Syracuse, N.Y., 1960. A landmark political science study.

Graebner, Norman A., ed. An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century. New York, 1961. One of the most used sources for general, interpretive information.

Hartmann, Frederick H., and Robert L. Wendzel. America's Foreign Policy in a Changing World. New York, 1994. Describes how policy is made in Washington, D.C.

Heinrichs, Waldo. American Ambassador: Joseph C. Grew and the Development of the United States Diplomatic Tradition. Boston, 1966. Besides being a biography of an important man, it traces the evolution of foreign policy implementation.

Ilchman, Frederick. Professional Diplomacy in the United States, 1779–1939. Chicago, 1961. A careful and documented study.

Kegley, Charles W., and Eugene R. Wittkopf. American Foreign Policy: Pattern and Process. 3d ed. New York, 1987. Discusses State's relationship to other departments.

McCamy, James. Conduct of the New Diplomacy. New York, 1964. A revision of the author's previous volume, The Administration of American Foreign Affairs (New York, 1950), based on the intervening decade.

Morison, Elting E. Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson. Boston, 1960.

Plischke, Elmer. Conduct of American Diplomacy. Princeton, N.J., 1950. A standard work.

Rubin, Barry M. Secrets of State: The State Department and the Struggle over U.S. Foreign Policy. New York, 1985. Analyzes the decline of State with regard to the National Security Council.

Schulzinger, Robert D. Henry Kissinger: Doctor of Diplomacy. New York, 1989. Examines Kissinger's significant role in shaping the policy process.

Stuart, Graham H. The Department of State: A History of Its Organization, Procedure, and Personnel. New York, 1949. An older source of itemized changes.

Villard, Henry S. Affairs at State. New York, 1965.

White, Leonard. The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History. New York, 1948.

See also Decision Making ; Department of Defense ; Doctrines ; National Security Council ; Presidential Advisers ; Presidential Power .

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