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History of U.S. Foreign Affairs

1775 – 1961

The Department of Foreign Affairs was the first of the executive departments established under the Constitution, and two months later it was renamed the Department of State. Since the founding of the Department, its diplomats have played important roles in the nation’s history. They secured support from France, Spain, and the Netherlands that won America its independence, and in the next two centuries U.S. diplomats have continued to protect the nation’s citizens, promote its values, and foster its commerce.

The American Commissioners

Containment and Cold War

1945  through  1961

Following World War II, much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. As recovery began, new tensions emerged between former allies. The world was gradually divided between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which became locked in a deadly competition for power and economic prosperity. Representing fundamentally different political, economic, and social systems — democratic capitalism versus authoritarian communism — they fought a new kind of war, a Cold War, for global supremacy.

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Soviet Relations

Chapter One

The Second World War was not yet over when on April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died. His vice president, Harry S Truman, took the Oath of Office that same day. A month later Germany surrendered, and in August Japan also surrendered. In the years following World War II, Soviet troops retained control over the nations in Eastern Europe that they had liberated from Germany. An Iron Curtain fell across the continent, as Winston Churchill noted, separating the democracies in the West from the Soviet satellites in the East. It became clear that the United States and the Soviet Union, allied during World War II, had competing aims for the postwar future. At the same time, Western European nations ravaged by World War II withdrew from the Asian and African nations they had colonized during the era of imperialism, and these new democracies were susceptible to Soviet pressures. Americans viewed the spread of communism around the world with great suspicion. Among those was President Harry S Truman, the nation’s 33rd president. Working closely with remarkable secretaries of state, Truman took decisive steps to limit Soviet expansion in regions where the United States had vital interests.

Franklin D. Roosevelt at his desk

Franklin D. Roosevelt at his desk

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.

Winston Churchill
Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill.


Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill.

James Francis Byrnes


Byrnes accompanied President Truman to the Potsdam Conference and advised in the use of atomic bombs against Japan. 

Department of State and the Cold War


The Department of State prepared for the nation’s postwar future and the responsibilities of global leadership. With foreign policy now the nation’s top priority, the department gained importance. Secretaries of state began to travel extensively to meet with their foreign counterparts and chiefs of state. The next year, 1947, the department  moved to new quarters in Northwest Washington, D.C., in an area known as Foggy Bottom.

George Kennan and Soviet Containment


One who understood Soviet motivations and tactics was George F. Kennan, an American diplomat stationed in Moscow. He sent an 8,000-word telegram to the Department of State explaining his views; it was later published anonymously as an essay in Foreign Affairs. “Any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of . . . containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” He thus coined the word “containment” and outlined the U.S. policy aiming to stop Soviet expansion and influence. It would last for decades.

George Catlett Marshall


Marshall’s primary achievement as secretary was the European Recovery Program, known by his name—the Marshall Plan—that rebuilt the war-torn regions and industries of Europe, whether of allies or former enemies.

Truman Doctrine


In March, when communists threatened the stability of Greece and Turkey, President Truman asked Congress to grant emergency assistance to these countries. Truman believed that, by helping these democratic nations rebuild their capitalist economies, the United States could counter the spread of communism. Soon this general principle, known as the Truman Doctrine, was applied to Western Europe as well.

Marshall Plan


In June, Secretary George C. Marshall announced, in carefully worded language, that the United States would commit itself to reviving Western Europe’s war-torn economies. The United States, by this thinking, emphasized free markets as the best path to economic reconstruction and the best defense against communism in Western Europe. Congress authorized the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan, as it was called, investing $13 billion in Europe over the next few years to build economies and protect democracies.


Portrait of George Catlett Marshall, 50th Secretary of State under President Harry S Truman

James Anthony Wills (American, b. 1912)

oil on canvas

It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.

George C. Marshall

Rio Pact


Fearing the spread of communism to the Americas, too, in September President Truman signed the Rio Pact with 22 other countries, pledging that an attack against one country was the same as an attack on all of them. Such a defensive pact reversed the longtime U.S. policy of avoiding entangling alliances first announced by President George Washington.

April 3, 1948

The Economic Cooperation Act (62 Stat. 138) establishes the Economic Cooperation Administration to administer the European Recovery Program, also known as the Marshall Plan.

Dean Gooderham Acheson


As secretary, Acheson played an important role in shaping U.S. policy during the early Cold War and supported the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization


In April Truman signed a second defensive alliance treaty, initially with 12 nations of Europe (now 30 members), that established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It was the first time the United States committed itself to a European alliance in peacetime. From this point on, economic assistance and collective defense agreements became the cornerstone of the U.S. containment policy.

The Age of the Superpowers

Chapter Two

In the 1950s and 1960s proxy wars between the superpowers flashed in divided Korea and later in divided Vietnam. Truman’s successor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander during World War II, maintained an uneasy peace through an arms race and the threat of mutual annihilation.



“Twin shocks” in 1949 increased the danger to the United States. When the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb and Mao Zedong’s communist party took control of mainland China, many Americans were surprised, including top diplomats at the Department of State. Fearing the spread of communism, especially to the newly independent nations in Asia and Africa, the department ordered a complete review of American policy. The report, presented to the president as National Security Council Paper-68, called for a much-enlarged military budget to counter Soviet expansion.

Korean War


The next year came another shock, when in June communist North Korea, eventually aided by communist China, invaded democratic South Korea. The United Nations Security Council voted to defend South Korea, and although the Korean War was a UN military action, most of the troops were U.S. soldiers. The war was difficult to fight and unpopular domestically. Armistice talks began in 1951 but were not signed until 1953. The Korean peninsula remains, as it did before the war, divided between the communist state of North Korea and the capitalist Republic of Korea in the south.

July 20, 1950

A Senate subcommittee chaired by Senator Millard F. Tydings of Maryland issues a report denying Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges of Communist infiltration at the Department of State.

John Foster Dulles


As secretary, Dulles worked to contain the spread of Soviet communism. He was the first secretary of state to be directly accessible to the media, holding the first Department of State press conferences.

Portrait of John Foster Dulles, 52nd Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower Policy


President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was a staunch anticommunist, and under his direction U.S. foreign policy became increasingly militarized. With substantial increases in the military budget, an arms race ensued as the Soviet Union sought to match the U.S. military buildup. Soviet aggression was kept in check by the U.S. threat of “massive retaliation.” By the 1960s, some said this policy of deterrence by “mutually assured destruction” was MAD, but it kept the Cold War from turning hot.

May 18, 1955

Blair House, the President’s Guest House, becomes the official residence for visiting heads of state and other high-ranking foreign dignitaries, according to the department’s announcement.

Front of Blair House

Christian Archibald Herter


Upon John Foster Dulles’s resignation, Herter became secretary of state. As under secretary and then secretary, Herter helped oversee U.S. diplomacy during continuing Cold War crises.

David Dean Rusk


As secretary, Rusk saw his role as being an adviser. He supported President Kennedy’s 1961 Cuban Bay of Pigs Invasion. A believer in “dignified diplomacy,” Rusk worked to establish civility and communication between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Diplomatic Reception Rooms


Clement Conger, the first curator, established the Americana Project to transform the modern entertaining spaces in the Harry S Truman Building into rooms celebrating America’s founding years, 17401840, in art and architecture.

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Foundations of U.S. Foreign Affairs

1775 – 1830

The Expansionist Years

1830 – 1867

Rise to World Power

1867 – 1914

The Challenge of Global Conflict

1914 – 1945

Containment and Cold War

1945 – 1961