Robert Lansing

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Robert Lansing

Robert Lansing (1864-1928), American lawyer and statesman and an expert in international law, was secretary of state in Woodrow Wilson's Cabinet.

Robert Lansing was born in Watertown, N.Y., on Oct. 17, 1864. He graduated from Amherst College in 1886 and 3 years later joined his father's law firm. His marriage to Eleanor Foster, daughter of John W. Foster, President Grover Cleveland's secretary of state, made possible a career in international law. He served as legal counsel in many important international negotiations, including the Bering Sea Arbitration (1892-1893), the Bering Sea Claims Commission (1896-1897), the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal (1903), the North Atlantic Fisheries Arbitration (1909-1910), and the American and British Claims Arbitration (1912-1914). He also helped found the American Society of International Law and its Journal.

President Woodrow Wilson appointed Lansing counselor of the State Department in 1914. He influenced policy in several important crises, including the Lusitania affair after the outbreak of World War I. Following the unexpected resignation of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Lansing assumed his place in June 1915.

Lansing played a useful but subordinate role in the Wilson administration. He was a supporter of the Allied forces in the war, despite his condemnation of their violations of neutral rights, and he strongly favored American intervention against the Central Powers in April 1917. During World War I Lansing negotiated the Lansing-Ishii Agreement with Japan (1917), which helped curb Japanese expansionism in East Asia. He also applied the doctrine of nonrecognition to the Bolshevik regime in Russia. He took little part in formulating American war aims. Despite his differences with the President, Lansing retained Wilson's confidence until 1919, when, at the Paris Peace Conference, he expressed criticism of Wilson's plan for a league of nations. However, after signing the Versailles Treaty, the secretary returned to Washington and sought unsuccessfully to obtain senatorial acceptance for the League Covenant.

Lansing's attempt to assume leadership of the Cabinet during Wilson's illness in 1919 incurred the President's wrath. Wilson forced him to resign in February 1920. Lansing practiced law in Washington, D.C., until his death on Oct. 30, 1928.

Lansing published several books concerning the Paris Peace Conference and the war years. His more general publications include Government: Its Origin, Growth, and Form in the United States (1902), with Gary M. Jones, and Notes on Sovereignty (1921).

Further Reading

Lansing's own works include the autobiographical The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative (1921) and War Memoirs of Robert Lansing (1935). No full-length biography of Lansing exists, but two excellent studies provide detailed information about his policies and character: Daniel M. Smith, Robert Lansing and American Neutrality, 1914-1917 (1958), and Burton F. Beers, Vain Endeavor: Robert Lansing's Attempts to End the American-Japanese Rivalry (1962). Lansing is discussed in Samuel Flagg Bemis, ed., American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, vol. 10 (1928). □

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Robert Lansing, 1864–1928, U.S. Secretary of State (1915–20), b. Watertown, N.Y. An authority in the field of international law, he founded the American Journal of International Law in 1907 and remained an editor of it until his death. He served as counsel for the United States in several international disputes, and he became attached (1914) to the Dept. of State. President Wilson appointed him to succeed William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State after the latter's resignation. Lansing was a strong, although not outspoken, advocate of U.S. participation in World War I on the side of the Allies. Because Wilson largely conducted foreign policy himself with his political confidant Edward M. House, Lansing had little influence in the negotiations that led to the declaration of war against Germany. In 1917, Lansing concluded with Kikujiro Ishii of Japan the Lansing-Ishii agreement, which gave U.S. recognition to Japan's special interests in China, while reaffirming the Open Door policy. Lansing, who was nominal head of the U.S. commission to the Paris Peace Conference, lost Wilson's confidence because he did not regard the Covenant of the League of Nations as essential to the peace treaty. The breach between the two was completed when Wilson learned that during Wilson's illness Lansing had on several occasions called the cabinet together for consultations. In Feb., 1920, at Wilson's request, Lansing resigned. He later returned to his law practice. His writings include The Big Four and Others at the Peace Conference (1921), The Peace Negotiations (1921), and Notes on Sovereignty (1921). The War Memoirs of Robert Lansing (1935) was published posthumously.

See studies by D. M. Smith (1958, repr. 1972) and B. F. Beers (1962).