Foreign Service

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FOREIGN SERVICE. Diplomacy was critically important to the success of the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the founding and early growth of the United States. Because most citizens of the young republic looked with suspicion on the European monarchies, official governmental relations were kept to a minimum until well into the nineteenth century. The American diplomatic service, made up of a very few citizens appointed by the president, expanded slowly. In 1790, the United States sent ministers plenipotentiary to only two countries: France and Great Britain. In 1830, there were still only fifteen U.S. foreign missions; the number increased to thirty-three by 1860 and forty-two by 1900. Isolationism was the prevailing foreign policy of the United States throughout these decades. Congress kept tight control over the expansion of diplomatic relations, authorizing only minimal resources for representation abroad.

Diplomacy became increasingly important during the Civil War (1861–1865) when both sides sought the support of the European powers. It was also vital in securing European acceptance of U.S. leadership under the Monroe Doctrine in the western hemisphere as the nation completed its territorial expansion to the Pacific. Presidents used appointments to overseas diplomatic missions as rewards for political support. A corps of career diplomats––a Diplomatic Service––was slow to emerge. Lower level diplomats were rare throughout the nineteenth century. In a major reform in 1856, Congress agreed to provide for a limited number of secretaries of legation to assist chiefs of mission. But as late as 1881, Congress allowed public funding for secretaries at only twelve of thirty legations. Most appointed ministers provided their own assistants. In 1893, however, 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. The need for staff support was grudgingly acknowledged.

While a small Diplomatic Service began to emerge in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Consular Service—including consuls, consular agents, and commercial agents whose mission it was to protect American ships and crews abroad and promote American commerce—had become an important instrument in the search for export markets for America's booming industries. In 1860, there were 480 U.S. consulates, commercial agencies, and consular agencies abroad, and by 1890 this number had risen to 760. In 1895, at a time when reforms were strengthening the expanding civil service in Washington, D.C., 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 salaries and inspections of consular posts. The need for greater efficiency in the Consular Service resulted in a combination of Congressional and presidential actions in the first decade of the twentieth century to blunt the politics of appointments and move the Consular Service and, to a lesser extent the Diplomatic Service, toward a full merit system.

A Modern Foreign Service Develops

Expanding U.S. international responsibilities and interests after World War I (1914–1918) precipitated the establishment of a modern Foreign Service. The small Diplomatic Service, which in 1924 numbered 122 men serving mostly in Europe, was an exclusive group, scarcely dependent upon token salaries, whose standards of behavior and performance were drawn from upper-class educations. In contrast, the 511 (in 1924) members of the Consular Service in 256 overseas posts served under professional regulations and enjoyed a generous pay scale. The State Department closely oversaw the Consular Service but had little real control over the Diplomatic Service; the two systems were quite separate and there were only rare cases of interchange between them. The Foreign Service Act of 1924 amalgamated the Diplomatic and Consular Services into a new Foreign Service; established pay and retirement to make the service attractive and accessible to a much broader portion of the population; professionalized the oversight, recruitment, and training of officers; and instituted interchangeability between diplomatic and consular assignments as well as between assignments abroad and at home in the State Department. The establishment of the Foreign Service opened the way for the appointment of career officers as Chiefs of Mission. But the importance of political appointments to such positions persisted for the remainder of the twentieth century, and career officers rarely made up more than half of the total.

The United States emerged from World War II (1939–1945) as the most powerful nation in the world, with expanding economic and security interests around the globe. Diplomacy became far more vital to the nation than it ever had been. In many places around the world, U.S. Foreign Service officers became the principal agents of American presence and interests. The Foreign Service was expanded substantially to meet the diplomatic aspects of the nation's growing global responsibilities. From a mere 840 officers in 1940, the service numbered more than 1,300 in 1953 and 3,400 in 1957 after the integration of many Civil Service officers into the Foreign Service.

U.S. Interests Abroad Become More Complex

The Cold War and the revolution in international relations gave rise to a series of international crises during the latter half of the twentieth century as well as the growing globalization of politics, economics, and culture. The global scope of American interests and commitments made the representation of American interests abroad increasingly complex. As the boundaries of traditional diplomacy faded, the Foreign Service soon had many rivals. Other federal agencies became deeply involved in the preparation and execution of foreign policy. A conglomerate "foreign affairs community" came to dominate the formulation and execution of foreign policy: the National Security Council, the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies, the U.S. Information Agency, and various foreign assistance agencies.

To improve its performance with the growing scope and complexity of foreign affairs, the Foreign Service underwent a series of reforms and studies. The Foreign Service 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 was established and sought to provide officers throughout their careers with a variety of specialized training, particularly area and language training. The Senior Seminar program, begun in 1958, gave small groups of the most promising mid-level officers, as well as some military officers and officials of other agencies, an extended experience in advanced professional development. The 1954 Wriston Report mandated the merger of the Foreign Service with many of the specialists in the State Department. The rotation between overseas posts and the government in Washington was accelerated, and by 1959, more than 1,500 Foreign Service officers held positions in the State Department. The 1962 Herter Report, the 1968 American Foreign Service Association Report, and the 1970 State Department Task Force Report sought to find management and personnel solutions that would ensure a Foreign Service equal to its challenges. As anti-American terrorism abroad intensified toward the end of the twentieth century, the danger of Foreign Service life grew and prompted new programs and procedures to protect U.S. diplomatic and consular establishments.

The New Face of the Foreign Service

In the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century, new generations of Foreign Service officers served in Washington, D.C. and around the world. These officers were different from the elite corps that existed before World War II. Recruited from around the nation, the new generations of Foreign Service officers reflected more closely the general makeup of the American population in terms of the proportions of women and minorities. Overcoming longstanding racial, sexual, and religious prejudice and discrimination in the State Department and the Foreign Service was a difficult process. As early as the 1920s, a few women and African Americans entered the Foreign Service. World War II contributed to more open recruitment and promotion, but it was not until the 1950s that purposeful recruitment of women and minorities began to alter the profile of the service. Only persistent resort to the courts by dissatisfied officers brought greater fairness in promotions and appointment to leadership positions by the 1980s. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 sought to establish more rigorous standards for recruitment and promotion, improve the rewards of service, and deal with the problems that were sapping the once high morale of the service.

The Foreign Service not only gained a leading role in America's wide-ranging activities abroad, but it was also drawn into the often intense domestic battles over the direction of foreign policy. Ideologues in high positions in government often complained about the liberal tendencies of some American diplomats, and other political leaders regarded the Foreign Service as unwilling to adapt to political agendas. The Cold War emphasis on security and loyalty had poisonous side effects that threatened the effectiveness of the Foreign Service and compromised its morale. Accusations of treasonous activity leveled against the State Department and many distinguished Foreign Service officers in the late 1940s and in the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other members of Congress caused dismissals and needlessly destroyed promising careers. Policies pursued during the Vietnam War (1955–1975, American involvement 1964–1975) caused stresses between the Department leadership and many junior officers. Secretary of State Dean Rusk's Open Forum was begun in 1967 to enable Foreign Service and Department officers to generate alternative policy ideas, and differences with official policy came from the field in a special "dissent channel."

By the last decades of the twentieth century, the Foreign Service had lost its leadership role in representing the United States abroad. The measures of success of the Foreign Service grew more elusive as Americans, through electronic media, came to have heightened concerns and expectations about U.S. interests and citizens abroad. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, international crime, nationalistic conflicts, and economic competition and crises appeared to be beyond diplomatic solution. Frequent attempts at reform of the conduct of American diplomacy and reorganization of the Foreign Service were vitiated by recurrent budget cuts and resource reductions. State Department resources were reduced by 50 percent during this period, despite steadily increasing responsibilities, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new post-communist states in Eastern Europe. The State Department and the Foreign Service grew little after 1960, when there were about 7,000 domestic and 6,000 overseas American personnel. In the emerging global economy of the twenty-first century, the role of diplomats tended to be increasingly overshadowed by the representatives of other government agencies, individual states, and, above all, multinational corporations and international organizations. Some observers wondered if the Foreign Service had a future nearly as impressive or extensive as its history.


Barnes, William, and John Heath Morgan. The Foreign Service of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Department of State, Historical Office, Bureau of Foreign Affairs, 1961.

Herz, Martin F., ed. The Modern Ambassador: The Challenge and the Search. Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, 1983.

Ilchman, Warren F. Professional Diplomacy in the United States, 1779–1939. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, 1974.

Mayer, Martin. The Diplomats. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Plischke, Elmer. Conduct of American Diplomacy. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1967.

Rubin, Barry. Secrets of State: The State Department and the Struggle Over U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Stuart, Graham H. The Department of State: A History of its Organization, Procedure, and Personnel. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

William Z.Slany

See alsoDiplomatic Missions ; State, Department of .