Other Foreign Policy Advisors

Despite its expanded operational responsibilities and its increased respectability, the Department of State lost much of its influence on the formulation of major foreign policy decisions. Almost all the significant decisions of the conflict—to pursue strict neutrality in 1914, to intervene on behalf of the Allies in 1917, to champion the League of Nations in 1918, and to negotiate a peace treaty on American terms in 1919—emanated from the White House without decisive contributions from the Secretary of State and his subordinates.

Several factors contributed to the displacement of the Department of State as the principal source of advice about the most crucial questions of war and peace. One key factor was that none of President Wilson’s Secretaries of State had a close and confidential relationship with him. Wilson relied primarily on others for advice, notably an intimate friend, Edward M. House of Texas. A less obvious but equally significant factor was that the Department was poorly organized to meet the requirements of wartime. It tended to act slowly, and it lacked expertise in dealing with military issues. Moreover, the exigencies of the national emergency dictated the participation of many agencies in decisions about foreign relations, notably the War Department, the Navy Department, and the Treasury, as well as temporary organizations such as the War Industries Board. The Department of State was not prepared to take a leading role in coordinating these activities. Finally, modern communications rendered the President less dependent on the Department for accurate information than past presidents had been.