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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

The Challenge of Global Conflict

1914  through  1945

The political isolation appropriate during the 19th century became untenable in the 20th century, and the United States was pulled into the foreign entanglements it had long sought to avoid. During the first four decades of the 20th century, the United States participated in two world wars. At the end of the second one, the nation took on a leadership role in world affairs that it has exercised ever since.

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The First World War and the Treaty Settlement

Chapter One

In 1914 Europe went to war. On one side were the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and later Italy; on the other were the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. In keeping with tradition, the United States announced a policy of strict neutrality. But as in the wars a century earlier, it was hard to stay neutral when commercial shipping was attacked by hostile nations. Civilian lives were lost, including 128 Americans when the British steamer Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in 1915. After Germany reinstated its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare — meaning submarines would attack commercial vessels without warning — the United States in April 1917 declared war on Germany and some months later on Austria-Hungary. By that time, the war had reached a global scale in death and destruction completely unlike any conflict before it.

369th Infantry Regiment in march formation, crossing a bridge in New York City, circa 1917

U.S. Infantry Regiment crossing a bridge in New York City

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.

President Woodrow Wilson

August 1, 1914

With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan sends a circular telegram to all U.S. chiefs of mission authorizing them to issue emergency passports to American citizens stranded overseas in war zones.

Portrait of William Jennings Bryan, 41st Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson

Robert Lansing


During World War I, Lansing at first advocated for neutrality but later supported U.S. participation in World War I.

Fourteen Points


In January, in a speech delivered before Congress, President Woodrow Wilson outlined a peace plan known as the Fourteen Points. Many of the provisions addressed longtime U.S. foreign policy goals such as free trade and freedom of the seas. Most important to Wilson was the establishment of an association of nations that would resolve conflict peaceably and protect the political independence of its member states. Building on this concept, Wilson helped establish the League of Nations.

Woodrow Wilson


President Woodrow Wilson. Photograph by Edmonston, Washington D.C.

Versailles Peace Conference


After the armistice of November 1918, President Wilson played an important role at the Versailles Peace Conference as the architect behind the League of Nations, a covenant attached to the treaty. But the horrors of World War I seemed to confirm to many Americans the wisdom of avoiding foreign entanglements. The Senate rejected the treaty, since it would have forced the United States to join the League of Nations, and the United States signed a separate peace with Germany.

Washington Naval Conference


In the postwar years, the Department of State expanded, and its efforts for peaceful cooperation gained it the respect of the American people. In 1921–22 Secretary Charles Evans Hughes oversaw the Washington Naval Conference, which set a schedule for reducing naval armaments for the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.


Portrait of Charles Evans Hughes

Adrian Lamb (American 1901-1988), after Philip Alexius de László (Hungarian, British, 1869-1937)

oil on canvas

Rogers Act


In January, Secretary Robert Lansing, writing to a sympathetic congressman, John Jacob Rogers of Massachusetts, described the problem: “The machinery of government provided for dealing with our foreign relations is in need of complete repair and reorganization.” For the department to function effectively in the aftermath of World War I, important reforms would be needed. Congressman Rogers then led efforts to modernize the department. The act that bore his name created the American Foreign Service, which combined the Diplomatic and Consular Services in a single unit. Entry continued to be by competitive examinations, and promotions were based on merit. Salaries were set, officers were regularly rotated, and home leave and a retirement system all helped make foreign service a career. Next Congress authorized the Foreign Service School, which taught specialized languages and set up a fund under the Foreign Service Buildings Act to manage U.S. embassies and consulates overseas.

The machinery of government provided for dealing with our foreign relations is in need of complete repair and reorganization.

Secretary Robert Lansing


Portrait of Robert Lansing, 42nd Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson

Philip Alexius de Laszlo de Lombos (British, 1869-1937)

oil on canvas

Let us strive for a foreign service which will be flexible and democratic; which will attract and retain the best men we have; which will offer reasonable pay, reasonable prospects for promotion, [and] reasonable provision against want when old age comes to a faithful servant.

John Jacob Rogers the purpose of the Rogers Act of 1924

Great Depression


Many of these gains under the Rogers Act proved temporary, however. Between 1920 and 1930 the department’s workforce increased only slightly. Then, with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, budgets were slashed and growth in the department halted.

Good Neighbor Policy


President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Cordell Hull, worked to implement a new policy toward Latin America that improved cooperation and trade. As part of this so-called Good Neighbor Policy, the United States renounced the threat of armed intervention that had dominated U.S. policy in the region for three decades.

No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.

Declaration Supported by Secretary Hull and Other Nations Montevideo Conference of December 1933


Portrait of Cordell Hull, 47th Secretary of State under President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Edward Morris Murray (American, 1902-1946)

oil on canvas

The Second World War and Wartime Diplomacy

Chapter Two

In the 1920s and 1930s the world grew increasingly dangerous with the rise of aggressive totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, in Italy under Benito Mussolini, and in Germany under Adolf Hitler. Japan had already begun its conquest of Asia when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, marking the beginning of World War II. The Soviet Union, at first Germany’s ally, attacked Poland at the same time but was itself invaded by Germany in June 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt at first tried to remain neutral, but he sympathized with the Allied Powers, France and Britain. The United States sent aid to Britain, and then, in December, when Japanese forces bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, the United States went to war.

Workers of many races push plane output

Women in wartime America

Pearl Harbor naval base and U.S.S. Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack


Pearl Harbor naval base and U.S.S. Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack

Germany’s invasion of Poland begins World War II in Europe.

September 1, 1939

The department responds by establishing the Special Division, which arranges the repatriation of American citizens from war zones in Europe (Department Order 810). It is later renamed the Special War Problems Division.

Atlantic Charter


In August, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the popular British prime minister, Winston Churchill, met secretly and issued a joint statement. The Atlantic Charter, as it was called, outlined postwar aims. Among them were freedom of the seas and free trade, plus the right of self-government and a permanent structure for peace.

gas masks


Women at U.S. Steel’s Works

New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library. "Schomburg Collection Mrs. Roosevelt presenting the President's manuscript copy of the radio address on the Atlantic Charter: Mr. Francis R. St. John, Chief of Circulation Department, New York Public Library; Dr. Lawrence D. Reddick, Curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature; Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt" The New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Mrs. Roosevelt presenting the President's manuscript copy of the radio address on the Atlantic Charter

January 19, 1942

The department adopts new working hours during wartime: 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays. The new hours take effect February 2, 1942 (Department order).

Edward Reilly Stettinius Jr.


Stettinius accompanied President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and chaired the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Conference, which brought together delegates from 50 Allied nations to create the United Nations.

November 30, 1944

Cordell Hull resigns after nearly 12 years, the longest term of any secretary of state thus far. Under Secretary Edward Stettinius Jr. succeeds him.

James Francis Byrnes


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

Yalta Conference


Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, leaders from the “Big Three” Allied nations, — Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union — convened a second time. Meeting in Tehran, Iran (Persia), in 1943, they discussed an invasion in northern France codenamed Operation Overlord. D-Day was successful, and now at the end of World War II, they met again to outline their plans for a postwar future. Stalin agreed to hold free elections in eastern Europe, join the League of Nations if the Soviets had veto power, and invade Japan with U.S. forces. The Allied countries agreed to divide Germany, as part of its demilitarization, but these spheres of influence led to Cold War divisions between the capitalist West and the communist East.

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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