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by David A. Langbart


On June 28, 1918, Third Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long delivered a speech to the Maryland Bar Association.  Entitled “The State Department in War Time,” the talk provided an overview of how the Department’s activities changed as a result of World War I.  As Long explained to his audience in 1918, a review of the “general activity of the Department of State under these unprecedented conditions may hold some interest for the members of the bar” and so it may hold some interest for readers of American Diplomacy in 2013.

Long, a 1904 graduate of Princeton University and a lawyer in St. Louis, was prominent in the Democratic Party.  He was appointed Third Assistant Secretary of State in January 1917.  At the time of World War I, the Department’s assistant secretaries did not have today’s familiar functional titles.  While the three assistant secretaries had specific responsibilities, they were called simply the First Assistant Secretary, the Second Assistant Secretary, and the Third Assistant Secretary.  The duties of the latter were largely administrative and included directing the work of the Diplomatic Bureau, the Bureau of Accounts, and the Bureau of Appointments; dealing with ceremonial matters, protocol, and international conferences and congresses.  During the war, the Third Assistant Secretary was given supervision over Far Eastern matters.  This included U.S. relations with China, Japan, Siam, Australia and the Pacific Islands, India and Siberia.  Long resigned in June 1920.

During his talk, Long mentioned numerous special agencies established to handle matters arising out of World War I.  The most notable are the Council of National Defense, established to coordinate industries and resources for the national security and welfare; the War Trade Board, set up to license exports and imports, ration supplies to neutral nations, conserve commodities and shipping facilities for American and Allied use, and keep strategic goods out of enemy hands and prohibit the use of enemy credit and financial holdings in the U.S.; the Food Administration established to provide for the supply, distribution, and conservation of food, prevent monopolies and hoarding, and maintain governmental control of food by means of voluntary agreements and licensing systems; the Alien Property Custodian created to take control of property in the United States belonging to an enemy or their allies and to administer such property; the Shipping Board established to exercise regulatory powers over matters such as shipping rates and practices, the allocation of ships, the recruitment of seamen, and claims for insurance; the Committee on Public Information established as the U.S. propaganda organization both domestically and overseas; and the War Industries Board created to analyze the industrial requirements and capacities of the United States and the other Allies, issue clearances on government orders, set priorities in commodity production and delivery, arrange price-fixing agreements for raw materials, encourage resource conservation and development, and supervise Allied purchasing in the United States.

After leaving the Department, Long continued his activities in the Democratic party, including unsuccessful runs for public office.  He later served as U.S. ambassador to Italy from April 1933 to July 1936, as a Special Assistant in the Department of State in charge of the Special Division beginning in September 1939, and as Assistant Secretary of State from January 1940 to December 1944.  Long died in September 1958.

The source document is in the records of the Foreign Permits Office (File XV-A: Addresses), part of Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, in the National Archives. A slightly different version of the speech is in the Breckinridge Long Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Neither version indicates who drafted the speech.

BEGIN TEXT: The State Department in War Time

Mr. President and Gentlemen:

The Department of State in War Times presents a very different aspect from that which it did in the days of peace when diplomatic correspondence was a quiet, thoughtful and studious pursuit, and when the events of the world were not crowding so fast one upon another that the very rapidity of their sequence created a pressure nearly incomprehensible to those immediately within the sphere of the activity.

There are many questions which would interest immensely the members of the Bar; many problems which when examined from their legal aspects alone disclose subjects which would fascinate the mind trained to the law.  There are others, matters of State, choices of policy, intricate problems in seeking the solution of which theory is tested in the fire of practice and expediency in the crucible of principle, and which would appeal to the intellect – whether it be law or lay.

An inquiry directed into one or more of these would give no real conception of the volume or scope of the foreign relations of the Government during this time of stress, but, an insight, even though imperfectly conceived and inadequately presented, of the general activity of the the Department of State under these unprecedented conditions may hold some interest for the members of the bar.

The Department has been relieved of none of the functions which pertain to it in ordinary times.  Just what those functions are is not generally understood.  Beside the conduct of our foreign affairs the Department of State is vested with the custody of the Great Seal and receives and holds all of the original laws of the Congress.  In its archives safely repose the original texts of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution and of the various early – some of them now sacred – acts of the Confederation and of the early years of our Federal Government.  To all of the laws of the Congress it certifies and it publishes the official texts.  The Secretary of State attests and promulgates all Executive Orders and Proclamations and is the official to whom are returned by the Governors of the different states the vote for the electors for President and Vice-President.  In turn, he officially certifies to the Executive and to each House of the Congress the result of the elections.  There are many and various other duties in no way connected with the conduct of our foreign affairs which are vested in the Department and which give to it the character also of a Department of Home Affairs.  In fact, a wise and farsighted Congress has from time to time relieved the Department of many other duties of a “Home” nature and has transferred their administration to more appropriate Departments or has created Departments to which those functions have been delegated.  There was a time when its activities included also that of the patent and copy-right office and the census bureau.  For a short time even the coinage of money and the control of the Mint were under its direction, as were the control of all the territories, those lands from which have been carved most of the states which to-day form our perfect union and which have shown, since our recognition of the existence of a State of War with Germany, that they know neither North nor South, nor East nor West – But just America.

Of course, the principal work of the Department is the management, subject to the control of the President, of our foreign affairs, and in the case of treaties, subject to confirmation by the Senate.  This management is carried on through agents scattered over the face of the world, each duly commissioned and either accredited or announced to the Government in the territory of which he resides.

The work of these agents falls into two categories, depending upon its character – Diplomatic or Consular.  Within the province of the former fall negotiations with foreign governments; within that of the latter, commercial and economic activities in other lands, care and attention to American property and to the welfare of American citizens.

The corps of our Diplomatic representatives consists of thirteen Ambassadors, twenty-nine Ministers and two, so-called, Diplomatic Agents.  Because of the State of War existing with Germany and with Austria-Hungary and because of the breach of relations with Turkey, we have no need for Ambassadors to those Governments and so now have only ten.  These officers were withdrawn from the service but their staffs continued under the Government and were assigned to other posts.  The Consular officers who were stationed in those countries were likewise withdrawn with their staffs and assigned to posts in other countries.  So, that while we have less territory to cover than we had before we were drawn into the war, we have been confronted with such situations in belligerent countries that it has been found necessary to send officers who were withdrawn from hostile territory to aid their colleagues who were crowded with work.  It has also been necessary to amplify the forces of the various staffs with men from civil life.

In June 1914 all the world was at peace.  In all lands life was normal and natural.  Subject to mild restraint and orderly processes of civil law men entered upon the daily tasks to which they were accustomed and for which their instinct or their environment had fitted them.  Save for their consciences and their God they were their own masters.  Their firesides were safe and their families were intact.  No man thought of trouble or wanted trouble to divert life from its usual course – save one small group of plotting, wickedly selfish and criminally ambitious military officers in Germany.  Greed, inflated ideas of their power, false standards of ethics and morality, mistaken conceptions of the purpose of Government and malicious subordination of righteousness to the accomplishment of material ends brought on a conflict which soon enveloped the whole of Europe in its bloody grip.

Simultaneously the foreign affairs of our Government assumed an undreamed-of importance.  Diplomatic representatives of governments which became belligerent found themselves on hostile territory.  They were suddenly handed their passports and were under the necessity of taking an immediate departure.  The affairs of their respective governments still needed attention in the countries they were then leaving.  Impulsively, most of them turned to America in their dilemma and asked this government to take charge of their respective interests.  Almost over-night we found ourselves in charge of the diplomatic affairs of belligerents in the countries with which they were at war.  In London we managed the affairs of Germany and of Austria and Turkey.  In Berlin we were charged with the interests of England and France.  In each capital of a country at war it was the same.  This created an immense volume of work in each of these Embassies which was quite in addition to the great importance our own affairs assumed there by virtue of the war.  Political intelligence was more necessary, diplomatic situations were more frequently arising and events affecting our vital interests were of constant occurrence.  The staffs of our representatives were multiplied three and four and five fold.  Communication became more urgently necessary; diplomatic codes assumed an unusual importance.  Ambassadors and Ministers were daily in attendance at the Foreign Offices of the Government to which they were accredited; Assistants and special assistants were exclusively and totally occupied with some special work on which they reported to their Ambassadors; Secretaries of Embassy, some of them in charge of an Embassy of one of those Governments the interests of which we had assumed charge of, were busily engaged in sifting information and drawing despatches; the number of clerks and stenographers was increased to meet the emergencies of the occasion, and the special operators of the secret Department Codes worked steadily all day and far into the night.  Space available for office and chancery work in our Embassies and Legations was fast used up and other buildings procured to accommodate the overflow.

These Governmental agencies were each busy centers of activity.  Each was the outer terminus of a highly sensitized nerve which had its recording end at the place where all the other nerves centered – at the Department of State.  During the fall of 1914 the burden on the Department was immense.  The establishment was not adequate to the circumstances.  A hurried expansion took place to meet what seemed to be a temporary condition.  Each month it was felt that the “peak of the load” was at hand and that it would be impossible to attend to a greater quantity of work, but, each succeeding month closed with a substantial increase over the one preceding.  Our Missions abroad were becoming more active, were assuming new obligations, were performing additional duties. Belligerents began to capture parts of the military forces of their opponents and to confine them in prison camps behind the lines.  Acting on behalf of the Governments of the captured forces we inspected these camps, reported on the captured, saw to it that they were accorded the rights of prisoners of war, attended to their welfare, assured them proper housing, sanitation, food and a variety of other things, and in the performance of these offices expended on behalf of the interested governments millions and millions of dollars.  As the war continued the number of these prisoners grew into the hundreds of thousands and the work correspondingly increased and extended from behind the western front to Far Eastern Siberia.  Each dollar expended for them required a proper voucher.  There was necessitated an intricate system of audit and account that we might be properly reimbursed.

Representation of the interests of these various governments carried with it the responsibility of carrying on negotiations for them with their respective enemies – conventions of different kinds relating to prisoners, looking to their exchange and repatriation, and concerning all matters relating to the conduct of the war which one government tried to arrange with another government with which it had no communication and for which we acted as the intermediary.  Much of this centered in Washington where we had resident representatives of most of these countries, and where diplomatic society automatically became resolved into two branches, neutrals, who could be asked anywhere, and belligerents, who could only be asked with their co-belligerents or with neutrals, for with their opponents they could have no relations – even if any of them desired that it be otherwise.  Sometimes situations arose which were provocative of considerable embarrassment and, not infrequently of some – of what would have been to a person in private life – mirth at the personal and temporary discomfiture of some diplomat.

It should not be omitted that the existence of a State of War, and the constantly increasing territory over which it was waged, brought our own rights periodically in question.  These events and the circumstances which developed from them, were the cause of great labors, for each was laden with possibilities which might momentarily have been even more serious.  The long negotiations terminating so dramatically on the 31st of January, 1917, were the outward manifestations of a sincere desire to treat honorably, frankly and peacefully for the maintenance of those rights which in the final denouement were shown to be disregarded and of which the non-observance and wilful [sic] infringement meant that dishonor, duplicity and power were being substituted for those things which men who live under free governments live to love, cherish and enjoy.

There was a sudden transition from a status of neutrality to one of belligerency.  All our relations had to be re-vamped.  We became co-belligerents of all those countries at war with Germany and we assumed, in the eyes of all neutral countries, a belligerent character and, consequently, occupied a position which required us to be held by them in a different legal aspect.  As facts govern the application of legal principles, so the change in our status required an adjustment of our relations with neutral states to conform to the different principles of law to which we found ourselves subject.

The State of War disclosed the presence of spies and secret agents.  Precautions were taken to defeat their activities and the Departmental buildings were put under guard.  No one was allowed to enter without a pass or on specific business which was checked up and verified before he was admitted.  The White House was guarded – and carefully, as is evidenced by the following:  Mr. Lansing was stopped by one of the officers at the entrance to the White House grounds; he explained that he was the Secretary of State and on his way to a Cabinet meeting, to which the guard replied: “Well, you may be, but I don’t know you!”

A side-light on some of the routine was given a few days ago by a gentleman who proceeded directly from the train to the Department and carried his suit-case.  He later expressed his opinion that the guard had a peculiar sense of humor.  He asked to leave his suit-case at the entrance so he could pick it up on his way out and was met with the reply: “No you don’t.  You carry it around with you and if it goes up you go with it!”

With the advent of war our effort to concentrate all of our energies took definite shape in the formation of different bodies to take charge of new activities. The Council of National Defense, its subsidiary organizations and those which developed out of it; the War Trade Board, the Food Administration, the Alien Property Custodian, and various others came into being, grew and expanded into enormous institutions, each keeping pace with the work as it proceeded through all the ramifications of a system it had been instituted to control.  Their activities developed new responsibilities for the State Department in that some of them dealt partly and some very largely with matters which affected foreign governments, or the interests of American citizens in other countries, or the affairs of the subjects of other governments in this country and even with the business of foreigners in other countries than their own.  The growth and activity of the Shipping Board and various other agencies lead their operations into foreign fields and, automatically, into the province of the Department of State.  But, beside this incidental concern with affairs in the management of other organizations, and for the expeditious and co-ordinate handling of which we designated liaison officers, there were cases of direct connection.  The Chairman of the War Trade Board was created the representative on the Board of the Secretary of State and is in constant touch with the Department. The Secretary of State is a member of the Committee on Public Information and is also an important member of the American Red Cross.

This supervision of part of the functions of other divisions of the Government applies not only to those of an extraordinary character which have come into being because of the war, but, to all of the other Departments of the Government.  With the Treasury we worked in making the loans of billions of dollars to our co-belligerents; with the War Department in drafting various conventions for the conduct of the war, and in the infinite complications which have arisen by the operation of the draft law and which are more or less affected by international law or governed by treaties with other governments in their application to the citizens of neutrals and citizens of enemy countries, or allies of enemy countries, and who, through the operation of the draft, have been inducted into our military establishment.  Then, we work with the Navy Department in many matters of international aspect with which it is necessarily engaged; with the Department of Justice in the detection and apprehension of enemy agents; with the War Trade Board in the operation of the Trading with the Enemy Act, and in the creation of export and import embargoes and black-lists; with the Shipping Board in securing foreign tonnage; with the War Industries Board in the procurement from other countries of materials necessary for our military operations, and so on down the list.

Many of these organizations have developed such an amount of work in other countries that it has been necessary for them to send representatives to many of them to take charge of their work there.  These representatives are usually attached in some way to our Embassies or Legations and are, of course, subordinate to the Ambassador or Minister.  They consult him freely, and through him and the Department of State their respective Boards or Departments.  We carry all communications between these principals and their agents and transmit them through the Ambassador or Minister so that the regularly established organization of the Government has supervisory control over all these various activities.

It is not intended to convey the impression that the Department of State is responsible for all the work of the different organizations, but, only to suggest that such of it as has an international aspect becomes ipso facto within the scope of the State Department, adds just that much to its labors, broadens by just so much its field of activity and increases considerably its responsibility.

Ordinarily the increase in the size of the staffs would give an adequate impression of the increase in the volume of work, but, unfortunately it is not so in the Department of State and cannot be so very largely because of circumstances without our control.  Consequently, the staffs, both those at home and those abroad, are much over-worked.  With branches scattered all over the world it is not possible because of the distance to replenish the forces in time to keep pace with the increase of work, and various causes have operated to prevent such addition to the staff in Washington as would permit an equitable distribution of labor.

Perhaps, though, a few figures will give some idea of how much more there is to be done to-day than there formerly was.  In our Legation at Copenhagen in 1914 we had, under the Minister, two men; to-day we have thirty-seven.  In Paris we had eight – and now have sixty-three.  In the London Embassy we had eight; now we have One Hundred and Fifteen.  In 1914 our whole foreign diplomatic establishment, Ambassadors, Ministers, Secretaries and Clerks included, was not much larger than the London force is to-day.  The expansion is not confined to those few posts but in general throughout the world in both the Diplomatic and Consular services, for the war has extended so over the face of the globe that there is to-day only one country which is either not belligerent or contiguous to a belligerent.  That country is Chile.  With the extension and ramifications of the state of belligerency the activities of our foreign service have become more intense and more complicated.  For instance, we have opened, for purposes connected with the war, 36 new Consular offices and have employed abroad more than 500 persons in our Consulates besides the men withdrawn from countries with which we severed relations and reassigned to regularly established posts in other countries.

These figures cited above do not include the Military and Naval Attaches, their Assistants, Secretaries and Clerks, who are under the Ambassador or Minister and who are part and parcel of the staffs over which they preside.  These military and naval subdivisions have been expanded to large subsidiary organizations as is necessary in the circumstances.

The Physical evidence of the activities of these posts abroad is shown by cables and in the contents of the mail pouches.  Our bills for telegraphic service in 1914 amounted to $185,000.  The 1918 fiscal year is not yet closed but the figures available show an expenditure so close to $600,000 that we feel it will exceed that sum.  In 1914 we [were] sending and receiving at the rate of 1800 diplomatic pouches for the year; for the same period just ending we will have received and sent nearly 6,000.  These figures show an increase in those phases of Diplomatic work of about 550 per cent, but, are not correctly indicative of the actual increase, for it is estimated to be much greater, as will appear a little farther on.

The personnel of the Department has increased, since 1914, from 241 to 550, or, figured in percentage, about 225%.  Using as a basis for the computation of labor, the expenditures for cable tolls and the number of diplomatic pouches, we find that 225% of the Washington force is doing 550% of the work, or, that it is 50% over-worked.

The number of telegrams received and sent shows not only the increase in the volume of work, but, the rapidity with which it is dispatched.  The averages for cables are as follows:

Incoming Outgoing
1914 average per day 34


1917    ”     ”   “ 80 97
1918    ”     ”   “ 213 237

These messages are typed on paper about the size of letterheads and some of them run up into the scores of pages.  A fair average length of a cable would be contained in two or three typewritten sheets.  May 29th, last, holds the record up to date.  During the twenty-four hours of that day, and, incidentally, our telegraph and code rooms work twenty-four hours out of every day, we received 266 cables and sent 267.

Official mail despatches show a corresponding increase.  The average daily receipts in 1914 was 264; so far this year the average is up as high as 914.  The high record was on May 28th, last, when 1422 were received.

The total expenditures of the Department for the fiscal year of 1914 aggregated $4,788,132.29; for that of 1918, “$8,856,642.59.

Statistics are proverbially uninteresting, particularly when they come toward the close of a paper already perhaps too long, so they will not be dwelt upon at further length.  While they may serve to illuminate the mind as to the volume of work which has devolved upon one of the Departments of your Government, they will not, because they cannot, give any conception of the questions which have been presented, of the responsibility involved in reaching decisions, nor of the great pressure under which the work is carried on.

If you walk past the Department of State to-night you will see lights burning in a number of its offices.  If you look in at the homes of its Executive Officers, or of the Chiefs of its Bureaus and Divisions, you will see many of them pouring over papers taken from the Department because the quantity of work and the constant interruptions during the long day prevent their earlier consideration.  The incoming cables bear mute testimony that the same circumstances prevail in our offices all over the world.  When a message is dated “10 p.m.” or “midnight” or “2 a.m.” we can appreciate the tireless effort that was made to get it on the wire so the Department would have it in the morning.  Some of these men, exerting every effort, in strange lands, and some of them under conditions where bloodshed, revolution and horror are rampant, have been unequal to the physical, mental and nervous strain and have broken at their posts.  Some of these have offered up their lives, consciously, martyrs to our ideals of Government sacrifices on the altar of lasting peace, heroes of the cause which we all have so much at heart.  The constant appeal for additional help, not to relieve the individual of any burden, but, only that the limitations on human effort and endurance will not prevent the accomplishment of the task, is a daily reminder of the sacrifices which are being made in every part of the world and which a number of times in the last six months have ended so tragically in sudden collapse.

He is not in uniform, but, he is a soldier just the same.



American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

David A. Langbart is an archivist in the Textual Archives Services Division at the National Archives. He specializes in the records of the Department of State and the other foreign affairs agencies. Any opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect those of any agency of the U.S. Government. The author thanks Ernest Emrich of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and Erin Townshend of the National Archives for their assistance.


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