The Long Foreign Service Hangover

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.Image via Wikipedia

In 1961 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was a Special Assistant to President Kennedy. In that capacity, he wrote to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy concerning the Bowles Memorandum to the President. Chester Bowles was the State Department’s Under Secretary of State at that time, and was writing about the Agency’s organizational needs. The Schlesinger memo below is probably one of the few coherent insights into the Foreign Service culture. I think it is relevant today as when it was written 48 years ago. The risk aversion did not happen overnight … it did not come out of thin air … it came about because of what happened to people like John Service and others. The organization as a living system remember even as we generally suffer from short memory…

Washington, August 11, 1961.

Subject: Mr. Bowles’s Memorandum of July 28

1. I agree with the essential argument of the Bowles memorandum—that the State Department would be more effective as an instrument of government if more top officials believed vigorously in the purposes and objectives of the Administration. Old Frontier people cannot carry out New Frontier policies. Or rather I agree with this argument so far as it goes, while at the same time wishing to emphasize that, in my judgment, it only covers a part of the problem. If Mr. Bowles’s concentration on personnel suggests that he thinks bringing in more New Frontiersmen will solve all the troubles of the State Department, I do not agree with this. The appointment of more able Kennedy outsiders will help create the conditions for solution; but the problems are deeper and more obstinate than the Bowles memorandum suggests.

2. My few months at the White House have convinced me that the traditional tripartite division of the national government into executive, legislative and judicial branches is inadequate. With a strong President, there are really four branches of government: the executive, the legislative, the judiciary and the Presidency. A President who advances new ideas and policies may well encounter as much resistance in the executive branch as in the Congress or the Supreme Court. I was academically aware of this from my excursions into the Roosevelt era; but I know much more vividly today how acute and deep-rooted the problem is of mobilizing the executive branch behind new programs and purposes.

3. This problem may be especially acute in the State Department because of the ‘non-political’ and ‘elite’ character of the Foreign Service.

The typical Foreign Service officer is well above the average in decency, intelligence and devotion. However, the typical Foreign Service officer also tends to be somewhat emasculated so far as policy commitment is concerned. One reason for this is that Foreign Service training has the effect of divesting the professional officer of strong views on substantive policy. It almost seems as if the Foreign Service receives a group of spirited young Americans at the age of 25 and transforms them in the next twenty years into a collection of eunuchs (or possibly my protracted exposure to ARA has distorted my judgment).

Why this process of emasculation?

(a) Foreign Service traditions derive from the time when America’s role in the world was passive and spectatorial; consequently Foreign Service officers still tend to be reporters rather than operators.

(b) Foreign Service officers are regularly shifted from one country to another and from one job to another. This lack of continuity—Iceland one year, Tanganyika the next—discourages them from developing a very intense interest in policy issues. (In any case, they are taught that their job is to carry out the policy, however idiotic they may personally consider the policy to be.)

(c) It is no coincidence that the areas where the problem of learning a difficult language compels continuity—the Russia Service and the China Service—are precisely the areas where the Foreign Service professionals have been least emasculated and most independent and outspoken. But it was precisely these areas which suffered most heavily in the Dulles period. Dulles’s punitive action against the men in the Foreign Service who were most conspicuously free and strong individuals (Bohlen, Kennan, Davies, Service, Thayer, etc.) proved to the rest of the Foreign Service what a mistake it was ever to go out on a limb. The Department is still suffering from the hangover of the Dulles period.

(d) The system of promotions within the Foreign Service further discourages policy initiative, because it is hard to propose new policies without seeming to criticize present ones. Junior officers may well hesitate to challenge Assistant Secretaries with power over their next assignments or, indeed, over their future careers.

Obviously the Foreign Service cannot consist of a collection of freewheelers each pursuing his own foreign policy. But the factors listed above have exaggerated an inherent tendency toward caution to a dangerous point. And Foreign Service resistance to innovation is further reinforced-and often in a most unwholesome way—by the prevailing sense that the Foreign Service is an exclusive club which must jealously guard foreign policy from the meddling of naive and presumptuous amateurs.

4. How to overcome this built-in resistance to change? How to annex the State Department to the Kennedy Administration?

The answer begins, of course, with strong leadership at the top-of the sort which has enabled McNamara and Gilpatric to proceed so successfully in their reconquest of the Pentagon. Strong top leadership has been lacking in State.

It is also important, as Mr. Bowles suggests, to get able, Kennedy-oriented men in jobs of middle-level administrative responsibility. I believe that he is, in the main, right when he claims that the New Frontiersmen have done much more to revitalize our conduct of foreign affairs than the Foreign Service professionals. It is natural enough that this should be so. Men who were in tune with John Foster Dulles are not likely to come up with bold initiatives for the New Frontier. Probably too many such men are still in key jobs. In ARA, and no doubt elsewhere, some of the Foreign Service officers are out of sympathy with the Kennedy foreign policy. It would certainly help to get more men of the Ball-Cleveland-Coombs-Chayes-Williams order at the Assistant Secretarial level.

At the same time, there should be no crusade against Foreign Service officers. They have to do most of the work. Many of them will begin to adjust to the new dispensation. The best among them (Bohlen, Kennan, Thompson, Woodward, Gullion and others) enjoy the New Frontier and flourish in the new expansive atmosphere.

5. More important: new men are only part of the problem. The Bowles memorandum ignores a number of structural questions which increase the Department’s inherent tendencies toward inaction and postponement. Making policy in the State Department is like negotiating a hopelessly intricate obstacle course. One may recognize the need for interminable clearance and concurrence while at the same time wonder whether these things are not sometimes erected into excuses for doing as little as possible. The Bowles memorandum also ignores fundamental, long-run questions, like that of the training and philosophy of the Foreign Service.

In short, we require more Kennedy-oriented men in State, especially, as Bowles suggests, in ARA, FE and European Affairs. Why not develop a general pattern for the geographic areas of insider/outsider teams, one as Assistant Secretary, the other as Deputy? But we also require a hard and skeptical reexamination of the policy-making process within the Department. (This reexamination might also be carried out by insider/outsider teams; it cannot be entrusted to the Foreign Service alone—or to the Council on Foreign Relations alone!)

6. In the end, let us face the fact, only one man can exert the leadership to do the job. That is the Secretary of State.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Schlesinger) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)
Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963

Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, State Department, 8/5/61–8/14/61. Secret.


Document 35
. A draft memorandum to President Kennedy from David E. Bell, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, dated August 9, also commented on Bowles’ July 28 memorandum. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, State Department, 8/5/61–8/14/61)

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