Diplomacy, Secret

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DIPLOMACY, SECRET. Americans have always been uncomfortable with secret diplomacy and its association with European aristocracies. American leaders have consistently advocated open deliberations and public accountability. These values are embodied in the constitutional provisions for making foreign policy. The U.S. Senate must confirm all high-level diplomatic appointees and ratify, with a two-thirds vote, all foreign treaties. In addition, the right of free speech presumes that journalists and historians will investigate and challenge the government's actions. Time and again, open debate about American diplomacy has forced leaders to change their policies—as in the case of President Richard Nixon's planned escalation of the Vietnam War in October 1969. On other occasions, stubborn figures—particularly President Woodrow Wilson—have watched international agreements disintegrate because they refused to compromise with domestic critics.

This bias toward openness has not prohibited secret diplomacy, especially in the case of foreign negotiations and military maneuvers. Since Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee negotiated the treaty of alliance with France in 1778, almost every American diplomat sent abroad has relied upon secrecy to influence foreign counterparts and, when necessary, depart from the letter of U.S. government instructions. Diplomacy necessitates flexibility and creativity. It also requires some freedom from day-to-day intrusions by critical on-lookers. The distinction between secret deliberations and open accountability poses a dilemma. Once diplomats have formulated their agreements in privacy, they can often manipulate the domestic political agenda. They can depict their accomplishments—as President George Washington did in the case of the Jay Treaty (1794)—as the only available alternative. They can assert that a rejection of their diplomatic work will bring certain disaster. To some extent, President Franklin Roosevelt followed this tact when he circumvented America's neutrality legislation between 1939 and 1941. Most significantly, leaders can claim that they are acting in the face of an emergency that requires patriotic consent in the name of "national security." Secret diplomacy combined with a call to "rally around the flag" has silenced dissenters in nearly every American war—including the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the War of 1898, World War I, and the Korean War.

Since 1945 the rhetoric of openness has remained strong in America, but leaders have made far greater use of secret diplomacy than ever before. Three developments explain this shift in behavior. First, American interests became truly global after 1945. Competing with a perceived communist menace, U.S. leaders believed that they needed to employ subversive means of influence in far-away places. The creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 and its secret sponsorship of coups in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954) reflect this development. Second, the Cold War motivated the U.S. government to classify large quantities of scientific research, strategic analysis, and decision making behind a wall of secrecy. The National Security Council (NSC), formed in 1947, served as a central coordinating body for secret activities in these areas. Congress did not have any oversight for the NSC, which was designed to organize America's capabilities for maximum effect in foreign policy. Third, a world with large nuclear arsenals and global subversives required quick and decisive presidential authority. American leaders argued that the pace of war after 1945 necessitated more substantial powers for the executive branch of government. To engage in extended public deliberation would, in the eyes of many, allow America's adversaries to achieve their aims before the U.S. could react. This kind of reasoning contributed to the rise of what some scholars have called the "imperial presidency." The management of the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1975 by presidents Johnson and Nixon is a clear indication of this trend. Nixon, in particular, felt he needed to act in secrecy, because he could not trust the American people to make "realistic" decisions. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Americans continued to reconcile their democratic values with the growing pressures for secret diplomacy.


Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Perkins, Bradford. The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776–1865. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.