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From the Archives

by David A. Langbart

From time to time the news media carries commentary about ambassadorial appointments.  In most cases, the interest is engendered by the political nature of the appointment.  For example, the appointment of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg as United States ambassador to Japasn drew a great deal of attention and the Washington Post recently ran an article about Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Norm Eisen.  The July 9 and November 14, 2013, “In the Loop” columns of The Washington Post included significant comment on recent appointments, too. The first, headlined “Nice work, if you can afford it,” enumerated a number of ambassadorial appointments, all of which went to persons not in the Foreign Service, seemingly as rewards for political support to the President. The second, titled “Mixing politics and diplomacy,” discussed the percentages of the current administration’s ambassadorial appointments that are career and non-career in nature.

Given the overt political nature of many of the appointments, the founders of the Foreign Service would have been disappointed. They had a vision of a service filled with expertly trained, disinterested, and capable professionals supplemented by appointments of qualified outsiders on occasion.

As a memorandum from May 1925 shows, the fathers of the Foreign Service clearly wanted to see an end to the practice of making non-career appointments as a political reward as being incompatible with the basic tenets of a professional foreign service. The unified Foreign Service came into existence in 1924, as a result of the Rogers Act. The previously separate Diplomatic Service and Consular Service, both rife with politically motivated appointments, were combined into a single entity — the Foreign Service. Given the increased American involvement in world affairs, a major motivating force behind the unification effort was the development of a professional staff and the concomitant ending of the practice of using overseas appointments as political spoils.

J. Butler Wright, the author of the memorandum, was at the time an Assistant Secretary of State. In the mid-1920s, the Department’s assistant secretaries did not have the functional titles so familiar today.  While the three assistant secretaries had specific responsibilities, they all carried the title “Assistant Secretary of State” and were bureaucratically differentiated only by their correspondence symbols.  Wright’s symbol was “A-W” and he was responsible for the administration of the Department, administrative matters concerning international conferences and commissions, and with ceremonial and protocol matters. Relating to the latter duties, he was charged with presentation to the President of ambassadors and ministers of foreign countries newly accredited to the United States. He had supervision over the Office of the Chief Clerk, the Division of Publications, the Bureau of Accounts, and the Bureau of Indexes and Archives and was a member of the Foreign Service Personnel Board.

Wright was one of the professional diplomats who worked hard on the effort that led to the establishment of the Foreign Service in 1924. While not as well known as others involved in the effort, such as Joseph Grew, he was a key player. An 1899 graduate of Princeton University, he spent his first few years after college working in banking and ranching. His diplomatic career began in 1909 when he was appointed a secretary of legation in Honduras (witnessing a revolution in that country, he later noted that “Central American revolutions of this character were not the opera-bouffe affairs which they are commonly supposed to be”). A secretary in the Diplomatic Service of the time was a position of importance; secretaries performed substantive work, not clerical duties, under the direction of the chief of mission. After that, he served, among other things, as a secretary of legation in Belgium; as secretary of the American delegation to the Opium Conference at The Hague; as a secretary of embassy in Brazil; as acting head of the Division of Latin American Affairs; as counselor of embassy in Russia (where he observed the Bolshevik Revolution and later traveled across Siberia to return to the U.S.); as counselor of embassy in Great Britain; as expert assistant at the Washington Conference on Limitation of Armament; as commissioner to the Brazilian Centennial Exposition; and as secretary of the U.S. delegation to the Fifth International Conference of American States.  He was appointed Third Assistant Secretary (correspondence symbol “A-3”) in June 1923, but in July 1924, his title was changed to Assistant Secretary of State.  Subsequent to his service as Assistant Secretary, Wright was appointed as U.S. Minister to Hungary; as U.S. Minister to Uruguay; as delegate to the Seventh International Conference of American States; as U.S. Minster to Czechoslovakia; and as U.S. Ambassador to Cuba. He died at his post in Havana in December 1939.



May 16, 1925

It is preferable to have trained career men as officers of the Department unless, as in the case of the Solicitor or Counselor of the Department, the services of a recognized international lawyer might be advantageous.

In view of the fact that the international relations of States are increasingly becoming more economo-political in their nature, it seems to me indisputable that either trained men or those who possess specialized knowledge or training of that nature should represent us abroad.

As a direct corollary of that, it should be observed –

First: – That it would be absurd for us to advocate that only service men are eligible for such positions on the ground that all service men are good, because we know that such is not the case, at present at least, and because by rigid application of that principle, we should establish a bureaucracy of the most inelastic type.  We must improve our present Foreign Service by weeding out the misfits who are already in — although they are not large in number — and pursuing the most highly selective process of obtaining material for the Service before we can begin to adopt such a hard and fast rule.  Furthermore, we should follow even more closely that at present the rule and desire of the Department to bring officers home from the Field whenever possible in order that they may regain touch with the affairs of the country.

Second: – That to deny the wisdom of the appointment of such men as Houghton, Schurman, Page and Davis would be a failure to recognize the ability of this country to produce persons for emergencies and would ignore the practice of large and successful corporations which frequently bring in new blood at the top.

My argument is that this country can never reach a point where all diplomatic posts shall go to service men, but rather that by far the larger portion thereof should go to career men who have proven their ability; that the non-career appointees should be of the calibre of those to whom I have above referred and that the era of appointing persons to represent this country abroad merely as remuneration for political services rendered at home should pass forever. Aside from the unfitness, lack of experience and, in some instances, insufficiency of education in languages, et, cetera, that have characterized many political appointments, it is absurd to believe that domestic political exigencies are compelling reasons or justifiable excuses for the appointment to missions abroad of men who are in no way fitted for the position. It might further be said, with probability of confirmation, that members of the Congress of the United States would welcome the resultant relief from requests for distribution of patronage.

The whole idea is to create a Service, modestly but properly remunerative, open to individuals of proven character, culture, merit and ability; to promote them to responsible positions only after the above qualifications have been assured; to assure them of security of tenure of office and a reasonable annuity after they have served for, say, thirty years and have reached the age of sixty-five, and thus thoroughly Americanize the Service, rendering it within the reach of any American citizen who has the ability to pass the examination and to advance in the Service, through merit, to the highest position.


In the memorandum, Wright acknowledges “the wisdom of the appointment of such men as Houghton, Schurman, Page and Davis.”  Here, he is referring to Alanson Houghton, Jacob Gould Schurman, Walter Hines Page, and John W. Davis.  None of those men was a career diplomat, but Wright thought each brought background, experience, and talents to the diplomatic table such as to warrant being exceptions to the general rule.

  • Alanson Houghton was an executive at the Corning Glass Works and a member of Congress (with service on the Foreign Affairs Committee) from New York before appointment as ambassador to Germany in 1922 and to Great Britain in 1925.
  • Jacob Gould Schurman was an academic and rose to become president of Cornell University in 1920.  He is credited with major involvement in originating the development of the modern state-supported research university. His international experiences include service on the First United States Philippine Commission (1899) and being named ambassador to Greece (1912), China (1921), and Germany (1925).
  • Walter Hines Page was a journalist and publisher before receiving appointment as ambassador to Great Britain in 1913.  Among other things, he had been editor of The Atlantic Monthly and with his partner Frank Nelson Doubleday created the great publishing firm Doubleday, Page & Co.  He also helped found what is now North Carolina State University.
  • John W. Davis was an attorney and a member of Congress from West Virginia.  In 1913 he became Solicitor General of the United State and in 1918 was appointed ambassador to Great Britain.  He was later, among many other things, the 1924 Democratic nominee for President, the founding president of the Council on Foreign Relations, chairman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and an active litigator before the Supreme Court.


Source: Papers of J. Butler Wright, Foreign Service Correspondence, Jan. 1, 1925 – June 30, 1925 (vol. 28), National Archives.

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 a senior archivist in the Textual Archives Services Division at the National Archives.  He specializes in the records of the Department of State and other foreign affairs agencies.  The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect those of any agency of the U.S. Government.

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