A Founder of the United States Foreign Service Writes: Joseph Grew on the Importance of Diplomatic Service, 1921

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In August 1921, the Department of State sent a circular to all American diplomatic posts asking for answers to a multi-page questionnaire soliciting information to clarify “the needs of the Government in the matter of appropriations for its diplomatic representation abroad.”  In particular, the Department wanted to know “specific ways . . . the Diplomatic Service is of use to the economic interests of this country.”  It asked posts to provide specific examples.  In 1921, the present Foreign Service of the United States did not yet exist.  American representation overseas was handled by two distinct organizational entities, the Diplomatic Service and the Consular Service.  Consuls were usually thought of as being the most active in promoting U.S. business and economic interests overseas while diplomats handled the formal relations between the U.S. and other countries.[1]

Among the respondents was Joseph Grew, then U.S. minister to Denmark and later a senior official in the Department of State.  In a lengthy reply, Minister Grew provided answers to the Department’s queries.  Even though he was on his first assignment as a chief of mission, Grew’s answers are an important statement.  He was a thoughtful diplomat who had already seen significant overseas duty.  Perhaps more importantly, Grew was very active in the longstanding movement pushing for the professionalization of foreign service in the United States.  That campaign began before World War I and received further impetus because of the complexity of issues that arose during the war and the increased international involvement of the United States afterwards.  The result was passage of what is commonly known as the Rogers Act in 1924.  Under the provisions of that law, the separate Diplomatic Service and Consular Service that previously handled U.S. overseas relationships, were combined into the Foreign Service of the United States.    

Grew, a graduate of Groton and Harvard (1902), at both of which he knew Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a long and varied career.  Before going to Denmark he received the following assignments:

  • 1904 Cairo as a consular officer
  • 1906 Mexico as Third Secretary[2] of Embassy
  • 1907 Russia as Third Secretary of Embassy
  • 1908 Germany as Second Secretary of Embassy
  • 1911 Austria-Hungary as First Secretary of Embassy]
  • 1912 Germany as First Secretary/Counselor of Embassy until the break in relations in 1917 (as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim in the absence of the ambassador)
  • 1917 Austria-Hungary as Counselor of Embassy until the break in relations in 1917 (as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim in the absence of the ambassador)
  • 1918 Acting Chief, Division of Western European Affairs in the Department of State
  • 1918 Versailles, France, as Secretary to the American delegation, Armistice Conference of the Supreme War Council
  • 1919 Paris as Secretary General of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace and the American Secretary on the International Secretariat of the Peace Conference
  • 1919 France as Counselor of Embassy
mustached man in dark suit sitting at desk with pen to paper
Joseph Grew, Secretary General of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at his desk in the Hotel Crillon in Paris, 1919 (NAID 86707306, cropped)

After his tour in Denmark he held the following positions:

  • 1921 Switzerland as Minister
  • 1924 Under Secretary of State, the second-ranking position in the Department  
  • 1927 Turkey as the first U.S. ambassador to that country
  • 1932 Japan as ambassador until the attack on Pearl Harbor[3]
  • 1942 Special Assistant to the Secretary of State
  • 1944 Director, Office of Far Eastern Affairs in the Department of State
  • 1944 Under Secretary of State    
  • 1945 Secretary of State ad interim for several months

Grew retired at the end of September 1945.

The following are selections from the response Grew sent to the Department 100 years ago today.  (At the end of each section that has been edited, you will find a link to an image of the complete text.)  Grew noted that his answer was “necessarily . . . set down in a somewhat rough and hasty manner” due to his imminent departure from Copenhagen for his next post.  While much of what Grew describes is similar to the present day, the report also reflects differences from the current situation, especially as to the expenses for which the chief of mission was responsible.  Despite those differences, Grew’s reply, if at times quaint, is an eloquent statement of the importance of diplomatic work then, and now, a century later, even if it does reflect the sexism of the time.[4]


What are the outstanding facts with regard to our international relations which seem to make necessary in the public interest as large or larger appropriations than we have this year for the Department and the Diplomatic Service?

There is one simple outstanding fact with regard to our international relations that makes absolutely necessary larger appropriations than we have this year for the Department and the Diplomatic Service, and that is that our international relations, both commercial and political, have assumed such magnitude and overwhelming importance that the pre-war equipment, or the equipment to which we have been reduced by post-war economy, is no longer sufficient – if it ever was sufficient – adequately to protect our interests.

For the purpose of analysis, the functions of the Diplomatic Service may be divided roughly into three categories: observation, representation, assistance.

1.  Observation

The war and general world development has necessarily brought the United States into closer relationship with Europe and the rest of the world than ever before.  We may avoid “entangling alliances”, but we can no longer avoid taking a direct and practical interest in foreign affairs, for the reason that the interests of our country are, many of them, by their very nature inextricably bound up with conditions abroad.[5]  The economic welfare of the United States is more than ever dependent upon economic conditions in other countries.  In our own interests, therefore, our Government is obliged to follow foreign developments, both economic and political (for the two go hand in hand), more and more closely; to study local and international conditions abroad with ever greater intelligence and thoroughness; to collect accurate and comprehensive data on these conditions; and to digest, analyze and interpret these data as a basis for its actions and decisions.

The Government cannot rely upon the press nor upon unofficial agents for accurate and comprehensive reports on conditions and developments abroad, nor can it shape its general policies to the best interests of its citizens, nor act intelligently in specific cases, without such information.  As the eyes of an army are centered in its air service, so the eyes of a government, so far as other than domestic questions are concerned, are and must be centered in its foreign service, particularly in the diplomatic branch.  Just as inaccurate or incomplete intelligence in war may ruin an army, so faulty or superficial data on foreign conditions and developments may seriously handicap a government.  Thus lack of efficiency in observation means lack of efficiency in action, and the public suffers accordingly.  The Diplomatic Service, as the eyes of the Government abroad, must “observe” both politically and commercially, and it must be kept in a state of high efficiency for this purpose.

Politically the world is in turmoil.  The situation is perhaps even more clouded than when the statesmen gathered in Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles.[6]  There is still a German question, a Balkan question, a Japanese question, an Irish question and other heritages of the pre-war days, and to these must now be added the all-important Russian question.[7]  All over the world, in fact, forces and tendencies, pulling now this way now that, threaten to undermine again in the future the peace of the world, and more particularly, as was amply demonstrated in the World War, the peace of the United States.  This being the case, it is of the utmost importance that our Government be fully and accurately informed of political developments in every part of the world.

Commercially the situation is almost equally unsettled, particularly as regards the United States.  A “debtor” nation before the war, our two and a half years of neutrality irrevocably brought us, after an enormous outlay of capital and energy, into the position of the world’s greatest exporter and we became a “creditor” nation.  After maintaining this position through our own period of belligerency, there then came the armistice, redirecting into peaceful channels the energies of the other belligerent powers, principally Great Britain and Germany, and creating a competition which the high exchange value of our currency and our still comparative inexperience in exporting methods make it increasingly difficult for us to meet.  Unless then, we are to return to our pre-war status, writing off the books as a total loss the enormous outlay of capital and energy which was necessary to bring us into the world markets, we must be prepared to meet this situation.  To this end all commercial developments, especially those tending to lighten competitive conditions for the United States, must be brought to the attention of the Government, and in the light of information thus obtained, solid diplomatic backing given to American firms.

2. Representation.

The Government must have attorneys to plead its cases before other Governments.  This can no more be done by writing or by telegraph than can a business firm effectively plead its case in a civil suit in court by this method.  Even although the general policy of the United States in foreign affairs is to lay its cards face up on the table at the start, the personal character and equipment of its foreign agents, their intelligence in grasping an issue, their tact and force in presenting it, are of paramount importance in determining the result.  Practical common sense is a great asset in such work, but it is by no means the only requisite.  Knowledge of the people with whom one has to deal, knowledge of foreign languages, knowledge of local and international conditions which may influence those with whom one is negotiating, are essential to success.  The diplomatic officers of the Government fulfill this duty, and upon their efficiency the outcome of the case often depends.  Efficient officers cannot be trained and retained without sufficient appropriations for the purpose.

It may be advanced in some quarters that the function of commercial representation is adequately covered by the Consular Service and the corps of Commercial Attaches under the Department of Commerce.  Were it only a matter of observation and reporting, this position might be a strong one, although the Diplomatic Service even in this field, is able, through its wider connections with officers of the Government and with its colleagues from other countries, to gather economic and commercial information of great value which conceivably might not come to the attention of the consular officers or the commercial attaches.  But in another respect the Diplomatic Service becomes indispensable, and that is in making representations to protect the interests of American business, representations which can be made only by the Diplomatic Service.

3. Assistance.

This category includes so long a list of activities, activities in which a diplomatic officer can and is expected to help his fellow countrymen, that it can be defined only by enumerating some of these activities in detail. Part III of the list that follows under Section V indicates the kind of work which, in actual practice, falls in this class in one of our smaller diplomatic missions.


To what extent and for what reasons would these facts influence appropriations for the Diplomatic Service?

The answer is that the business men of the country – and this term includes the farmers and the cattle-raisers of the Middle West – are becoming keenly cognizant of the situation described above which is so vital to their future prosperity.  They must be assured that the representatives of their country abroad are going to be able efficiently to gather the most complete information regarding the constantly changing world markets, and to protect their interests when they are threatened with discrimination or injustice in any form.  In short our international relations have become so important, and so vitally connected with the prosperity of our nation, that the public of the United States will no longer be satisfied in having any but the most efficient and most forceful foreign service. It must observe, represent and assist, efficiently. It cannot do so if handicapped or crippled by inadequate appropriations.


What are the new duties that would devolve upon missions as a result of the war?

This would seem to be a question not of new kinds of duties but that missions have infinitely more duties of the same kinds.  For example, the correspondence of this mission (Copenhagen) for the year 1913 was bound in two volumes while that for 1920 will require at least eight volumes of the same size.  The necessary field of observation has vastly enlarged; the importance of that observation vastly increased.  The more our country’s legitimate interests extend into foreign fields, foreign seas and foreign markets, the more is the Diplomatic Service called upon to represent those interests. . . .  


Are there not unnecessary activities both as regards routine work and news and information gathering?

This Legation knows of no such unnecessary activities. Its feeling is constantly that with increased appropriations and increased personnel it could cover broader fields in the direct interest of the American public than can now be covered.  As a result of the decreased appropriations this year, its work has been reduced to the minimum of necessity. . . .

. . . .  Other diplomatic services are working at steadily increased tension to supply their governments with economic data essential to the business interests of their respective countries, to give the diplomatic backing and representation necessary to their business firms, to assist their nationals in the legitimate pursuit of their business interests abroad.  If our Diplomatic Service is behindhand – handicapped or crippled through inadequate appropriations – the others will win the race and we shell fail in the competition.  The British, the Germans, the Japanese all know this and their diplomatic services are working at ever increased pressure.  This Legation has not the slightest hesitation in answering emphatically in the negative the question at the head of this section.


What are the specific ways in which the Diplomatic Service serves the public in the United States?

     The list that follows aims to answer this question.  This list contains a general and probably incomplete survey of the work of the American Legation at Copenhagen during the past year.  It should be borne in mind that it applies to one of our smaller and less important missions, during a period in which no outstanding or critical cases or developments have occurred. . . .


I. Observation.

[At this point, the report includes as examples descriptive lists of reports under various headings: Economic – 56 entries; Political – 15 entries; Miscellaneous – 14 entries; and Soviet Russia – 34 entries.  The reports on the latter subject reflected the absence of a U.S. embassy in Russia.  In its place, the Department turned to posts on the periphery to collect and report whatever information they could collect.] 

II. Representation.

. . . .

In social representation, every diplomatic mission has certain essential duties to carry out.  The Chief of Mission must receive and entertain the American Colony at his own expense on some at least of our national holidays; indeed this is usually a gratifying duty, as is also the duty of entertaining at luncheon or dinner such prominent American citizens as may visit the country, and many others who come with personal letters of introduction.  He must likewise entertain at his own expense the officials of the country to which he is accredited, his colleagues in the diplomatic corps and many unofficial persons.  He must, on occasion, make public addresses, giving great care to their preparation lest some inadvertent remark be made which could cause embarrassment to his own Government or to the Government to which he is accredited.  He must obtain audiences with the Chief of State and other officials for American officials and prominent citizens.  He must give much time, thought and labor to the requisites of diplomatic and social etiquette in the country of his residence.  These are not the least of the diplomatic officer’s functions, and, paradoxical as it may seem at first sight, they relate directly to the furtherance of American business interests, for (1) they enable the diplomatic officer to establish the personal relations with officials and private individuals of the country to which he is accredited, through which alone he can efficiently obtain information for, represent and assist his own Government and his fellow countrymen; (2) they give the diplomatic officer the necessary opportunity to interpret to others the national thought of his own country, to raise its prestige abroad, and thus to establish in the foreign country an atmosphere favorable to the foreign interests of his own Government and to the business and other legitimate activities of his fellow citizens.

All this directly hinges on the question of appropriations: for with insufficient salaries and inadequate post and other allowances, neither the Chief of Mission nor the commissioned members of his staff can adequately fulfill these duties and obtain the best results in the interests of the American public.  Here again comes the question of unequal competition with the diplomatic representatives of other nations which pay their representatives, in many cases, double and treble the amounts paid by the United States.[8]

III. Assistance.

[Here, the report includes 64 examples of the assistance given by the legation to the U.S. Government, American businesses, and individual American citizens.]


What would it be expected to accomplish in the way of definite results through increased appropriations for the Diplomatic Service?

This question has already been answered: increased appropriations afford broader and more thorough observation, more efficient representation, more means and methods of assistance.


Describe concisely a number of examples, by way of illustration, in which the work or the activities of the Diplomatic Service has been of direct benefit to the individual citizen or business man in this country commercially.

A conspicuous example of the way in which the Diplomatic Service has been of direct benefit to the individual citizen or business men of the United States is the recent case handled by this Legation of an American corporation which had secured a contract for the construction and operation of wireless stations in China.  The Danish Legation in Peking (watchful, as may be observed, of the interests of Danish business) lodged a protest with the Chinese Government against this contract as contrary to the provisions of a monopoly granted to a Danish company for the operation of telegraphs in China.  The Department of State immediately instructed the Legation in Copenhagen to obtain information as to the grounds upon which this protest had been lodged.  Not only were these instructions carried out, but the Department was furthermore supplied with information regarding the Danish company in question and its present and proposed activities.  Subsequently through an exchange of notes conducted through this mission the Department of State was able to furnish adequate protection to these American interests and to uphold their contract.



The principal necessity for a courier service, now that the war is over, is to maintain an inviolable means of communication between the Department of State and the various missions and between one mission and another for the transmission of important confidential matter.  This applies especially to the transmission of codes and ciphers which must be preserved inviolate and changed frequently to be of any value. 

A courier service should be maintained in all countries where political conditions are so unsettled that there is a possibility of diplomatic mail being lost or tampered with.  For example, since the armistice there have been serious strikes of the postal and telegraph employees in Italy during which large numbers of letters, packages, etc., entrusted to the mail were never delivered.  Under such conditions the authorities in countries not absolutely scrupulous as to methods employed might easily make away with diplomatic pouches and obtain information the possession of which could seriously embarrass the United States.  Or if, for example, a diplomatic bag containing a new code should go astray, that code would immediately be regarded as compromised and another have to be prepared at a cost perhaps exceeding the total cost of a courier service for a year.  Another point to be considered in this regard is that instances are liable to arise, and frequently do arise, where extremely confidential material is obtained, and because without a courier service the transmission of diplomatic pouches by the mails cannot be regarded as absolutely safe, must either be held until advantage can be taken of an officer’s proceeding to the United States, or transmitted by telegraph in cipher at great cost.[9] 

The discontinuance of the pouch service between the Scandinavian countries and London and Paris, which formerly were connected by a pouch service with other posts in central and eastern Europe, thus forming a network between most of the European capitals, has proved a distinct and noticeable [sic] handicap to this mission, since it can no longer correspond and exchange views and information on confidential matters with other missions in the service.  Such cooperation between missions is often of great value and sometimes absolutely essential to understand and to act intelligently on a given situation.  Its necessary discontinuance through the termination of the European pouch service is severely felt.



This mission, so far as can be seen at present, can be run efficiently on its present contingent allotment provided (1) that the monetary exchange remains at its present comparatively high rate and (2) that no urgent matter arises demanding  telegraphic correspondence of any great volume.  It is fully equipped with furniture and has two safes for the storing of valuable papers and money.

It must be stated, however, that a small change in conditions would make it absolutely impossible to run efficiently on the present allowance. . . . 

Under instructions from the Department to use the telegraph only in the most urgent and necessary cases, the estimate for this item has been set at an extremely low figure.  It is quite conceivable, however, that a case might arise making necessary the transmission of diplomatic notes between the Danish Government and the Department of State by telegraph through this mission; the transmission of three or four such telegrams would entirely exhaust the amount estimated under this head.  When exhausted, it would become impossible to telegraph further, no matter how urgent the case, since Congress has made it illegal to incur a deficit.



At this Legation only three people are employed as clerks, one Chief Clerk, one stenographer and a translator and it is believed that this number probably represents the average number employed in a typical legation under the present appropriations.

. . . .  It is certain, however, that the proviso against the employment of any but American citizens in diplomatic missions abroad does militate against efficiency and furthermore is uneconomical.  Practically no mission throughout the world can run efficiently without a translator, and these can better and more cheaply be secured on the spot than by having them sent out from the United States.  If economy is the real issue, it is not to be secured by substituting for a competent alien translator, who can generally be obtained for less than a thousand dollars a year, one sent out from the United States who is generally of less value because of his unfamiliarity with political and economic conditions in the country, but to whom must be paid generally as much as two thousand dollars a year in addition to his travelling expenses.  He can moreover seldom know the language as well us a native.

The following table shows roughly the volume of the business of this mission for the fiscal year ending June 30th, 1921.

     a. Telegrams received

               From the Department—60[10]

               From other missions—144


          Total telegrams rece3ived—249

     b. Telegrams sent

               To the Department—111[11]

               To other missions—138


          Total telegrams sent—311

   c. Instructions from the Department

        (Numbered, unnumbered and circulars)—158

     d. From the Department, other than instructions—64

     e. Despatches to the Department—289

     f. Miscellaneous received

        (All notes, letters, etc., from all places other than Department)—1246

     g. Miscellaneous sent

        (All notes, letters, etc., to all places other than Department)—1203



The retention of the post allowance system is in any case advisable, and if the Diplomatic Service is not to be closed to all but those with independent incomes, it is necessary.  It is certain that under present conditions diplomatic officers of the United States cannot live abroad in the manner which the dignity of their position and the importance and character of their work demands, on the salaries which they are paid.  Relief from this situation may of course be afforded by a further increase in salaries, but to this course the post allowance system is preferable.

But whether it be by an increase of salary or by the appropriation of a generous sum for allotment as post allowances, there are two important reasons why diplomatic officers of the United States should be paid sufficient amounts on which to live.  The first reason is that by not doing so the service is being restricted to the comparatively small class of men with independent incomes, thereby often necessitating, purely through lack of material, the acceptance into the service of men who are sufficiently well-educated to pass the examinations (generally after being tutored and cramming particularly for them} but who lack some or all of the qualities which a diplomatic officer, to perform his duties efficiently, should have.  It cannot be said that our country is lacking in the proper material.  Our colleges and universities are filled with the very type of young men who should be attracted to the service and who, with a proper amount of specialized preliminary training would make excellent diplomatic officers, but by far the larger number of them have their own living to make in the world and are immediately precluded from any thought of this career by the fact that the first quality demanded of them is a wealthy father, or a personal income.[12]

This brings us to the second reason, which is that the present system is undemocratic in that it tends to exclude the ambitious and patriotic young man with his own future to make, at the same time throwing open the service to his more opulent brother who often desires to enter it less to advance American interests than to go abroad and obtain the rights and privileges and social prominence which the position brings.

[1] Department of State to Diplomatic Officers of the United States, Diplomatic Serial No. 54, August 22, 1921, file 121.7/7a, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Record sf the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.  The questionnaire arrived in Copenhagen on September 27.

[2] A secretary in the Diplomatic Service was not an administrative position.  They handled substantive matters under the direction of the chief of mission.

[3] While serving as Ambassador in Tokyo, Grew opened his letters to President Roosevelt with “Dear Frank.”

[4] U.S. Legation Denmark to Department of State, Despatch No. 367, October 4, 1921, file 124.594/94, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Record sf the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.  Punctuation is as in the original.  Typos have been silently corrected.

[5] This is a reference to George Washington’s Farewell Address in which he warned against “passionate attachments” to “permanent alliances.”

[6] The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I was signed in 1919.  The U.S. Senate refused to ratify that agreement.

[7] Reflecting the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 and the persistence of the Soviet regime.

[8] These comments echo those of former President U.S. Grant in 1881.  After his trip around the world, he wrote his successor a long letter that included this:  “We labor under many disadvantages from our system of representation, which does not, in the first place give compensation sufficient to command the services of proper representatives while the European governments, and notably England, Germany and France, are represented by men whose career is in the diplomatic or consular service and who give the whole of their time and their energies to the cultivation of trade . . . .”  U.S. Grant to the President, December 5, 1881, file: Young, Jno. Russell, Letters of Application and Recommendation During the Administrations of Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur, 1877-1885, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

[9]  At this time, the United State did not have its own worldwide communication network and the Department relied upon commercial telegraph companies for which it had to pay commercial rates.

[10] In 1978, there were more than 550.

[11] Compare this with the more than 1300 sent in 1978.

[12] In order to provide for the systematic training of new members of the Foreign Service, the Department established the Foreign Service School in June 1924.  Those attending the School split their time between classroom lectures and practical training in the various offices of the Department.  The numerous lectures included administrative topics such as “Allowances and Estimates” and “Documentation of Merchandise, Invoices, Customs Regulations, Etc.,” as well as substantive subjects like “Relations with Japan,” “The Monroe Doctrine,” and “The Petroleum Situation.”  The first class of 17 officers, all men, graduated on September 1, 1925.