Today’s post was written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.
In an unusual move, given that the incumbent President remained in office, after winning the election of 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt requested the formal resignation of all chiefs of U.S. diplomatic missions overseas (ambassadors and ministers), both career and non-career.
As explained in the following circular telegram of November 28, this was done “In the interest of the efficiency of the Foreign Service” and because the President believed he “should be completely free at the outset of the new administration to make such changes or replacements . . . as in his judgment may be desirable.” Left unstated were the obvious changes in the World situation occasioned by the beginning of World War II in September 1939 and the continuing American efforts to stay out of that conflict.
The following is the background to this telegram.
On November 15, Robert M. Scotten, a career Foreign Service Officer serving as U.S. minister to the Dominican Republic, submitted his resignation to President Roosevelt “in accordance with traditional usage.” Upon receipt, FDR sent a copy of the letter to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles requesting preparation of a response for the President’s signature.
The same day, Welles drafted a letter that included the following paragraph:
I do not expect, nor do I desire, chiefs of mission who have been promoted from the ranks of the Foreign Service to present their resignations solely because of the commencement of a new administration. During my term of office I have felt that members of the Foreign Service who have been promoted to become chiefs of mission solely because of their demonstrated efficiency, experience, and special qualifications should continue to serve the Government no matter what the change of administration in Washington might be. I still hold to that policy. The Foreign Service, as a whole, has done well during these recent years of crisis, and many of the chiefs of mission who have been promoted from the Foreign Service have rendered notable service.
The Under Secretary sent the draft to the President under cover of a letter that read, in part:
It had been my understanding that during your Administration you have not expected chiefs of mission who have been promoted by you from the ranks of the Foreign Service to present their resignations before the commencement of your new term of office. In 1936, and again in recent weeks, I have told certain chiefs of mission who come within this category that that is my understanding.
In that belief I have drafted a reply for you to send to Scotten along these lines.
If I am mistaken in this understanding, will you let me know accordingly?
President Roosevelt responded with the following long memorandum:
After receiving the President’s memorandum, Welles discussed the issue with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Afterwards, Welles drafted the telegram shown above and a new letter to Minister Scotten and on November 26 sent both to Roosevelt for approval. The next day, Edwin Watson, Secretary to the President, returned both with the President’s approval. That same day, the Department sent the letter to Minister Scotten by diplomatic pouch. In the letter, Roosevelt noted:
I appreciate your letter very much and the spirit which prompted you to send it. I am, however, entirely satisfied with your performance of your duties and I therefore request you to continue in your present post.
* * * * *
A review of diplomatic representation to the countries with which the United States had diplomatic relations in 1940 reveals the following personnel changes in the period November 1940 through March 1941. Despite the ominous sounding nature of the telegram requesting resignations, the number of changes actually made was relatively small and in some cases a chief of mission simply was moved from one post to another. Furthermore, the results are somewhat skewed by the German occupation of a number of countries during the first 18 months of World War II ending normal diplomatic representation there and the subsequent establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the various governments-in-exile.
|Australia||February 1941. Nelson T. Johnson appointed minister to replace Clarence E. Gauss.|
|Belgium||February 1941. Anthony J.D. Biddle appointed ambassador to the government in exile.|
|China||February 1941. Clarence E. Gauss appointed ambassador to replace Nelson T. Johnson.|
|Costa Rica||No change.|
|Dominican Republic||No change.|
|Egypt||February 1941. Alexander Kirk appointed minister to replace Bert Fish.|
|El Salvador||No change.|
|France||November 1940. William D. Leahy appointed ambassador to the French government in Vichy to replace William C. Bullitt who left post after the German occupation of Paris.|
|Haiti||November 1940. John C. White appointed minister to replace Ferdinand L. Mayer.|
|Hungary||February 1941. Herbert C. Pell appointed minister to replace John F. Montgomery.|
|Luxembourg||February 1941. Jay Pierrepont Moffat appointed minister to the government in exile.|
|Morocco||January 1941. Diplomatic Agent and Consul General John C. White reassigned and post left in the hands of a Charge d’Affaires ad interim.|
|Netherlands||February 1941. Anthony J.D. Biddle appointed minister to the government in exile.|
|Nicaragua||March 1941. Pierre de L. Boal appointed minster to replace Meredith Nicolson.|
|Norway||February 1941. Anthony J.D. Biddle appointed minister to the government in exile.|
|Portugal||February 1941. Bert Fish appointed minister to replace Herbert C. Pell.|
|Saudi Arabia||February 1941. Alexander Kirk appointed minister to replace Bert Fish.|
|South Africa||No change.|
|Union of Soviet Socialist Republics||No change.|
|United Kingdom||February 1941. John C. Winant appointed ambassador to replace Joseph P. Kennedy who left post in October 1940.|
|Uruguay||February 1941. William Dawson appointed to replace Edwin C. Wilson.|
Information about U.S. diplomatic representation is derived from the publication Principal Officers of the Department of State and United States Chiefs of Mission, 1778-1990 (USGPO, 1991) prepared by the Office of the Historian in the Department of State. Up-to-date information on chiefs of mission is on the website of the Office of the Historian.
 Circular Telegram to All Chiefs of Mission, November 28, 1940, file 121.41/112A, 1940-44 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives. Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent separate letters to those chiefs of mission in the United States at the time.
 President Roosevelt to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, November 19, 1940, enclosing copy of the November 15, 1940, resignation letter of Robert M. Scotten, file 123 SCO 3/319-1/2, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
 Draft letter attached to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to President Roosevelt, November 19, 1940, file 123 SCO 3/320-1/2, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
 Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to President Roosevelt, November 19, 1940, file 123 SCO 3/320-1/2, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
 President Roosevelt to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, November 22, 1940, file 123 SCO 3/321-1/2, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
 Under Secretary Sumner Welles to President Franklin Roosevelt, enclosing draft telegram and letter, file 123 SCO 3/322-1/2, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
 Secretary to the President Edwin Watson to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, November 27, 1940, file 123 SCO 3/323-1/2, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
 President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Minister Robert M. Scotten, November 27, 1940, enclosed with Under Secretary Sumner Welles to President Franklin Roosevelt, file 123 SCO 3/322-1/2, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.
 Ambassador Hugh Wilson was recalled from Berlin after Kristalnacht in November 1938. He did not return and no ambassador was appointed to replace him. Instead, from that point forward until Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, the senior American representative in Germany was a Charge d’Affaires ad interim.