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by David A. Langbart


In October 1921, responding to complaints about the attention American citizens received from their diplomatic and consular representatives overseas, the Department of State sent a circular to American diplomatic and consular officers. The Department noted that the “value of the foreign service to the country as a whole is unquestionably affected by impressions resulting from the experiences of Members of Congress, officials, American business men and tourists.” The circular further noted that nothing should be done to cause anybody to form a negative impression of the “value and importance of the service or of the courtesy and capacity of its personnel.” The Department, therefore, directed that staff be instructed “in the most explicit terms, that no proper effort should be spared to satisfy every American citizen, regardless of rank or position, who applies to the mission for assistance or information.”[1]

In response to the directive, Ulysses Grant-Smith, then serving as U.S. Commissioner[2] in Budapest, Hungary, sent the following letter to Under Secretary of State Henry P. Fletcher in which he challenged the underlying assumptions of the Department’s circular.[3] Grant-Smith was an eighteen-year veteran of the Diplomatic Service. He began his career in 1903 in Turkey. Subsequently he was posted to Great Britain (1906), Chile (1908), Belgium (1909), Austria-Hungary (1912), and Denmark (1917), slowly working his way up the ranks. After his posting to Budapest as Commissioner in 1919, Grant-Smith served as the first U.S. minister to Albania (1922-1925) and then as U.S. minister to Uruguay (1925-1929). He retired in January 1930 and died in 1959 at age 88.


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November 16th, 1921

The Honorable Henry P. Fletcher

Under Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.


My dear Mr. Under Secretary:

Referring to the Department’s circular instruction No. 67 . . . relative to the frequent receipt of reports concerning the unsatisfactory attentions accorded American citizens in their contacts with American missions, legations, and consulates, I venture most respectfully and informally to offer the following observations on the subject:

As the Department is well aware, the American public, and even officials of long residence at Washington, often exhibit a surprising lack of understanding of the reason for the existence and the duties and obligations of our Foreign Service, both Diplomatic and Consular. It would seem unfortunate that some systematic attempt had not been made heretofore for their enlightenment in this regard. As a result of this general misapprehension, travelers, whether officials or otherwise, usually approach our diplomatic and consular officers with the conviction that they, the former, possess certain personal rights to the time and attention of such officials, and that it is their duty, in short, to act in the composit capacity of a tourist agency, a personal business representative, an attorney, a general information bureau, and a ready aid to social advancement. Anyone who has served abroad, and especially at any of the great centers, will confirm this. That either diplomats or consuls, especially the former, could possibly have any serious occupations of value to the central Government never appears to have crossed the mind of the average citizen. To him, the consul, to be sure, occupies himself with business matters which is of course useful; but the diplomat, on the other hand, “represents” the United States in a foreign country like a wax-work figure to exhibit the product of our civilization, or to act as a missionary for the propagation of American ideals. Diplomatic representation, in its serious sense, has neither presented itself to the minds of the American people, nor even to that of our average foreign representative, for the simple reason that he is frequently unaware of its existence. As a consequence of this misapprehension on the part of the public, diplomatic and consular officers frequently find themselves embarrassed when confronted by a determined citizen, conscious of his or her “rights”, and who considers that any lack of compliance with his demands is little short of treason.

I notice that the Department instructs that “no proper effort should be spared to satisfy every American citizen, regardless of rank or position, who applies to the mission for assistance or information.” This naturally raises the question of what is meant by proper effort. It is easy for an unreasonable individual to make unreasonable demands of an official, and upon being disappointed to denounce him to the Department of State, probably not infrequently through the intermediary of his representative in Congress. It has been my personal experience that the persons who have made complaints of me to the Department have, in almost every instance, been persons of whose rascality I have held proof. This, of course, aside from hysterical ladies. I venture, therefore, to cite a certain number of points on which it would be interesting to have the Department’s ruling as to their propriety, as to requests or expectations on the part of American applicants or callers at a diplomatic mission or consulate:

(1) Requests for hotel reservations, and what is to be done in case the person does not appear and the hotel demands reimbursement? May this be charged to the Contingent Fund?

(2) Purchase of railway and steamship tickets;

(3) Sending private telegrams over the official signature;

(4) Use of the long-distance telephone by private persons or on their behalf;

(5) Sending of passports to various missions for visas;

(6) Providing an interpreter either for business interviews or to accompany visitors about town;

(7) Engaging servants;

(8) Searching for lost luggage and forwarding when found – payment of charges;

(9) Requests by tourists, who have no special claim, to be presented to the chief of state or other officials;

(10) Expectation of persons, who notify us of their arrival in advance, to be met at the train;

(11) That an automobile should be placed at their disposal, especially if interviews are arranged for them with government officials;

(12) That some one should accompany them to such interviews, preferably the chief of mission;

(13) Cashing or endorsing personal cheques or making loans to persons. Refusal to do this, is a frequent cause of offense to callers. Will the Department guarantee officers in the Foreign Service against loss in the case of endorsement of cheques or loans made?

Visitors are sometimes offended if the chief of mission does not make the first call on their arrival and are still more so if they are not invited to luncheon or dinner.

Not long ago, a prominent American banker was offended because I was unable to assign an interpreter to accompany him, although I explained that a recent act of Congress had obliged us to discharge all of our foreign clerks from the Mission. Another prominent banker asked that I should have the principal government officials call on him at his hotel.

I have consistently endeavored during the past 18 years, to give every intelligent visitor some insight into the true functions of the Diplomatic Service, but must confess that I can recall only one instance where any senator or congressman or businessman has shown a desire to become acquainted with the inward workings and the accomplishments of the service, and that individual was a member of Congress who recently visited this Mission. They usually form their opinions as to the usefulness of the work being accomplished for the Government and people of the United States by the degree of attention given to their requests or the social attentions shown them and as a consequence, I have often heard fulsome eulogies of striking incompetents [sic].

Furthermore, while the average citizen is very inclined to find fault with the officials of our Foreign Service on either social or business grounds, they seem by no means ready to inquire whether the reason lay in a misconception on their part or in inefficiency on the part of the official, or still less in an insufficient provision on the part of Congress; and in the latter case, much less do they seem disposed actively to endeavor to apply a corrective at the source.

I hope you will pardon the somewhat lengthy and frank discussion of this subject, but it is one which lies close to the heart of every member of the Foreign Service, and it would appear high time that the objects of the criticism of the travelling public should have a hearing.


I am, my dear Mr. Under Secretary,

Sincerely yours,

/s/ U. Grant-Smith


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The files do not include a response by Under Secretary Fletcher.


David A. Langbart is an archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives. Any opinions expressed in the introduction are those of the author and do not reflect those of any agency of the U.S. Government.


[1] Department of State to Diplomatic and Consular Officers of the United States, Diplomatic Serial No. 67/Consular Serial No. 801, October 3, 1921, file 124.06/17a, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.

[2] Before formal termination of a state of war between the U.S. and Hungary and the establishment of diplomatic relations in August 1921, the Commissioner was the senior American diplomat in Hungary. Grant-Smith was appointed to that position in December 1919. When the U.S. legation in Hungary was established in December 1921, he was given provisional recognition as Chargé d’Affaires pro tempore. The first U.S. minister to Hungary, Theodore Brentano, presented his credentials in May 1922.

[3] Source: Ulysses Grant-Smith to Henry P. Fletcher, Letter, November 16, 1921, file 124.06/18, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives. At the time, the Under Secretary was the second ranking official in the Department. Spelling and punctuation as in the original.


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