The Rogers Act

After the war ended, Congress completed the pre-war movement toward a fully professional and democratic Foreign Service. Representative Rogers, who led the congressional campaign, stated his objective in 1923: “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.” Hugh Gibson, a respected diplomat interested in reform, supported Rogers, arguing that improvements in the Diplomatic and Consular Services would attract the most qualified candidates so that “we can choose our men by the only good method—that is, by keen competition.” He hoped for creation of “a real diplomatic career, which is open to any American citizen who has the necessary qualifications.”

In 1924, the Rogers Act fundamentally reformed the foreign services by establishing a career organization based on competitive examination and merit promotion. The Diplomatic and Consular Services were unified into one organization performing both functions. Members of the new “Foreign Service of the United States of America” would be commissioned in a given class at a set salary rather than commissioned for service at a specific overseas mission or post. Salaries would range from $3,000 for the lowest level (Class 9) to $9,000 for Class 1 officers. Officers would be placed in positions for three years with the presumption of regular rotation to other assignments. The Rogers Act granted regular home leave and set up a retirement system. It also allowed for representational expenses, although these allowances were not authorized until 1931. A special reinstatement provision permitted career officers who became chiefs of mission to remain in the Foreign Service after completing their tours of duty. Earlier they had been required to resign without assurance of a future presidential appointment to other responsible duties, which led at times to the discarding of the most experienced and competent officers at the height of their abilities.

Several other measures also furthered reform. In 1925, the Foreign Service School was founded to provide specialized training in languages and other necessary skills. The following year, Congress passed the Foreign Service Buildings Act; among other things, it established a fund of $2-million per year—gradually increasing in later years—for the construction, purchase, and maintenance of missions and consulates overseas. The U.S. Government also took responsibility for the purchase or rental of office space and living quarters, further reducing a need for private wealth as a prerequisite to a diplomatic career.

Despite these improvements, certain flaws in the Rogers Act became apparent, especially inequities in the promotion of those serving in consular assignments. Congress moved to correct the problems in the Moses-Linthicum Act (1931), which reorganized the Board of Foreign Service Personnel to ensure impartial promotion practices. Other sections of the law improved salaries, authorized representation and post allowances and paid annual leave and sick leave, set up an improved retirement system, and conferred career status on clerks in the Foreign Service. Reflecting on these reforms, Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur J. Carr noted that “the Foreign Service had finally attained the goal for which Presidents, Secretaries of State, and businessmen of the country had striven for years, namely, a reasonable, adequate provision in the way of pay and allowances for the men who served the United States in a diplomatic or consular capacity in foreign countries.”

Unfortunately many of these gains proved temporary. During the Great Depression, economies in government led to the suspension of promotions, a 15 per cent reduction in salaries, abolition of representational and living allowances, elimination of paid home leaves, and suspension of recruiting for four years. The result was a 10 percent reduction in the size of the Foreign Service between July 1932 and December 1934.