U.S. Department of State

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The Department of State is the oldest cabinet level agency of the United States government; it is responsible for American foreign policy and the conduct of American diplomacy.

The Secretary of State is the cabinet officer responsible for the Department, and is nominated by the president and confirmed by a 2/3 vote of the Senate. The secretary administers a large department, acts as principal adviser to the president on foreign affairs, and herself handles many on-site diplomatic negotiations personally. The secretary is the senior member of the president's cabinet and was first in the presidential succession after the vice-president until 1947, when the speaker of the House, as an elected rather than an appointed official, was added to the succession. The current Secretary is Hillary Clinton, who was appointed on January 21, 2009.[1] Condaleeza Rice, the Secretary until 2009, was appointed on January 26, 2005 and was the second woman to hold the job (the first was Madeleine Albright in 1997), and the second black person (the first was Colin Powell in 2001).[2] Her Deputy Secretary of State is James Steinberg

The department, headquartered in the "Foggy Bottom" district of Washington, had 34,000 employees in 2006. The federal budget for foreign affairs in 2007 was $33.9 billion, including $4.7 billion for diplomats and $1.5 billion for embassies.[3] Over 4,700 Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) worked at some 265 diplomatic and consular offices abroad as well as at the Washington, headquarters. They handle political reporting and analysis; economic reporting and analysis; consular affairs (primarily handling visa applications and assistance to U.S. citizens); and administration.


Before 1789

American foreign affairs from independence in 1776 to the new Constitution in 1789 were handled under the Articles of Confederation directly by Congress until the creation of a department of foreign affairs and the office of secretary for foreign affairs on January 10, 1781.


The cabinet-level Department of Foreign Affairs was created on July 27, 1789, by the First Congress. War and Treasury soon followed. Because of the need to provide for the administration of "home affairs," and the reluctance of Congress to add a fourth department, Congress on September 15, 1789, changed the name of the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Department of State and changed the title of secretary for foreign affairs to secretary of state.

Until the establishment of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1849, the secretary of state handled both foreign affairs and home affairs, including responsibility for the Patent Office and the censuses.

The number of staff members in the Department of State grew very slowly during its first decades. Thomas Jefferson, appointed the first secretary of state on September 26, 1789, had a staff of five clerks; only two diplomatic agents were stationed abroad, and only four foreign governments had representatives in New York, the national capital. By 1820 the number of personnel had reached fifteen, but the work of the department continued to be severely hampered, particularly since all copies of documents had to be made by hand. Secretary of State John M. Clayton wrote in 1850 that he hoped his successor would have enough clerical assistance to reduce the drudgery then associated with the office. Until 1853, when the Office of Assistant Secretary of State was created, the senior official under the secretary was the chief clerk.

By 1870 there were two assistant secretaries and a total of thirty-one officers. By the time of the expansion of the American role in world affairs toward the end of the 19th century, the State Department had begun to take on more suitable dimensions. Even so, in 1938 there were still only 766 Foreign Service officers (as compared with 1,360 in 1948 and 3,379 in 1968). The total State Department personnel, including other personnel categories, such as Foreign Service reserve, Foreign Service staff, civil service employees, and foreign nationals, increased from 5,692 in 1938 to 20,327 in 1948 and 25,495 in 1968.

The landmark Rogers "Foreign Service Act" of 1924 created well-defined career paths in the U.S. Foreign Service. Previously all appointments were made in a casual way. Change had begun in 1906 with President Theodore Roosevelt's executive order providing that appointments at the lower consulate grades were to be made only after examination. In 1909, by a similar order, President William Howard Taft extended the merit system to the appointment and promotion of diplomatic service personnel below the grades of minister and ambassador. Even so, because of the small salaries, none but the sons of the wealthy could actually afford making diplomacy a career. Under Secretary William Jennings Bryan in 1913, patronage again became a major factor in distributing major and minor offices. President Woodrow Wilson felt, "Every day, I feel more and more keenly the necessity of being represented at foreign courts by men who easily catch and instinctively themselves occupy our point of view with regard to public matters"--that is to say, loyal political supporters.

The 1924 Rogers Act brought together consular and diplomatic personnel and established a system of difficult written and oral qualifying examinations. Adequate salaries were introduced, and promotion was made on the basis of merit-promotion up or selection out. As a consequence of these reforms (and later modifications, such as the Foreign Service Act of 1946) a true career service came into being. An exception came at the highest level, so that in 1940 only half the ambassadors and ministers were career men.

Who shapes foreign policy?

In large measure Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt worked through aides Colonel House and Harry Hopkins, avoiding the secretary. Since 1947 presidents have had available the National Security Council as their personal diplomatic service. Thus John F. Kennedy relied on adviser McGeorge Bundy. Some presidents, most famously Nixon, intensely distrusted career diplomats and ignored them when possible. Indeed, he handled the main diplomatic initiatives in collaboration with White House aide Henry Kissinger; in 1973 Nixon finally made Kissinger secretary. Jimmy Carter relied heavily on national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. During the administrations of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and George H.W. Bush (1989-1993), the secretary overshadowed the national security adviser because of the forcefulness of secretaries Alexander Haig, George P. Shultz, and James Baker. In the George W. Bush administration (2001-present) , observers believe Vice President Dick Cheney has been more influential in shaping policy than the secretary.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 states, "Positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the [Foreign] Service," but presidents often appoint political supporters to minor posts, and famous or ex-politicians people to top embassies. In the last four decades, 70% of the ambassadors have been career diplomats.[4]

One political weakness of the department is the lack of a domestic constituency. During the first quarter of the 20th century, department officials were able to mobilize support from the business community for their work on behalf of promoting foreign trade and reforming the consular and diplomatic services. When Herbert Hoover, himself well versed in world affairs, became Secretary of Commerce in 1921 business support shifted to the Commerce Department's commercial attachés. Other agencies, especially the Departments of Defense and Agriculture, have developed powerful domestic pressure groups lacking in the Department of State. The Marshall Plan of 1948-51 briefly opened up an alliance between the department, which gave out $12 billion under the plan, and the business community, but that soon faded away. Indeed domestic pressure groups, especially those oriented toward peace movements, have rarely cooperated with State.

Other agencies abroad

The Rogers Act and subsequent amendments did not solve all the personnel problems. Between 1927 and 1935, for example, the United States had in effect four or more foreign services operating abroad. In 1927 the U.S. Department of Commerce formed a separate foreign commerce service. In 1930 the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a smaller foreign agricultural service, while the Bureau of Mines operated a small service of mineral specialists. The U.S. Treasury Department created a foreign service. The foreign services of the Commerce and Agriculture departments and the Bureau of Mines were merged into the U.S. Foreign Service in 1939 and 1943, respectively. But the Treasury Department kept its separate foreign service, and in 1954 the Department of Agriculture created a new foreign agricultural service, with more than sixty foreign posts.

By the early 1960s only 7,200 of the 30,000 U.S. federal civilian employees abroad worked for the State Department. To deal with them in 1961 a presidential order put the chief of a diplomatic mission in a country in charge of all the Americans at the mission. A 1969 order gave the chiefs of mission "affirmative responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all activities of the United States Government in their respective countries." Thus foreign affairs personnel abroad came, in principle, under the Department of State.

Coordination in Washington

Coordination in Washington between State and other agencies involved in foreign affairs was a growing problem after 1941. A major reason in 1947 for creating the National Security Council (NSC) under the president was to ensure a unified foreign policy formulation and implementation. NSC at first was only advisory and it was headed by a State Department official. Changes under President Dwight D. Eisenhower increased NSC's functions, while the tendency under Kennedy was to concentrate control in the White House. Nixon and his powerful national security adviser Henry Kissinger established "Interdepartmental Groups in the NSC system," each chaired by the appropriate assistant secretary of the State department and each having representatives of the assistant to the president for national security affairs, the secretary of defense, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Senior to the other "interdepartmental groups" was the NSC Under Secretaries Committee, chaired by the under secretary of state and including the deputy secretary of defense, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In major crises, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a special NSC executive committee chaired by the president operated on a daily basis.

Internal management

As the Department of State grew coordination within it became more complex. In 1870 the department had only sixteen separate units; by 1931, thirty-six; by 1948, 113; and the problem has continued to grow. The number of top management employees also increased, so that in 1971, the principal officers of the included the secretary, an under secretary, an under secretary for political affairs, a deputy under secretary for economic affairs, a deputy under secretary for administration, a counselor, and four other senior officials, plus twenty others who held the rank or equivalent rank of assistant secretary. There were also 121 chiefs of diplomatic missions reporting to these officials. In addition, there were special missions to the United Nations, Organization of American States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Atomic Energy Agency and so on.

The department has pursued a sort of affirmative action in the early twentieth century for white male Democrats from the South in order to create the fact and the image of greater political diversity in the foreign service.

The role of women was practically nonexistent before the 1960s. Increasingly, wives of FSOs have demonstrated a strong desire for careers of their own, yet traditionally they have acted as unpaid hostesses; until 1972 their hostess role was an element in their husbands' annual performance evaluations. In 1978 the department established the Family Liaison Office to help with careers for spouses. Women Foreign Service officers likewise gained ground. As late as 1971 a woman FSO was expected to resign if she married and women were routinely assigned to consular rather than to diplomatic work.

Blacks were historically few in number ans assigned to a few countries, such as Haiti and Liberia. By the late 1980s and early 1990s the department's affirmative action efforts were achieving results. From 1987 to 1993 women and minorities eligible for promotion were advanced at rates slightly higher than other eligible FSOs. The push for affirmative action increased when Bill Clinton became president in 1993; he called for a government that "looks like America." He appointed the first woman as secretary in 1997; George W. Bush appointed the first black secretary in 2001. The recruitment pool of the service also has been changing, with a sharp decline in the proportion possessing Ivy League degrees and a significant rise in the fraction of alumni from state universities and Catholic schools like Georgetown University.


  1. CNN: 'Hillary Clinton sworn in as secretary of state.' January 21, 2009.
  2. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named USEmbassyLondon
  3. See budget details
  4. See chart