53. Memorandum From the Ambassador to Yugoslavia (Kennan) to President Kennedy1

I offer the following observations for whatever they are worth, in connection with your questions about the Foreign Service:2

There is not just one thing wrong with the State Department and Foreign Service, but many things.
There is no sudden and drastic action that could taken to remedy these ills. Both organizations are the victims of many past mistakes, and particularly of erratic and misguided treatment on the part of a long succession of masters. A good professional organization is like a tree: you can affect its growth but only by long, patient and constant action. What the Foreign Service needs, in particular is fifteen years of consistent treatment along sound lines of personnel selection and advancement.
The quality of the Foreign Service is today surprisingly good—much better than one would have a right to expect, in the light of the treatment the organization has received in recent years. The Department, too, contains hundreds of first rate men; but they are all embraced in a system too cumbersome to be fully manageable—in a machine so over-elaborate that the bulk of its energy is consumed by its own internal friction.
So far as I know nobody inspects the Department of State. Our missions abroad (the civilian component, that is) are the objects of at least four inspection systems today. Whether it would be better if there [Page 102]were a single unified system, I do not know. The regular Foreign Service Inspection Corps is about to be taken over by an excellent man: Norris Haselton. I think he should be given support and a chance to show what he can do. It would be very inadvisable, in my opinion, to try to set up an inspection corps composed of, or headed by, outsiders who have had no experience in the Service. What is needed here are experienced competent, and conscientious Foreign Service Officers. One of the great troubles is that the Department does not like to assign its ablest officers for this work; when it does so, it leaves them there for too short a time, and yanks them out whenever it wants them for something else. The work of the Inspection Corps should be up-graded, the men should be kept in it for longer periods; arrangements should be made so that their home life would not be inordinately disrupted by this sort of work, as it now unfortunately tends to be.
I do not profess to be an expert on the administrative problems of the Department. I feel fairly confident that there are far too many people and too many layers of authority. I suspect the Department needs a more rigid system of designation of respectability [responsibility?], with a view to getting away from the evils of the “clearance” system and committee rule. With fullest sympathy for the Secretary of State in the face of the demands made upon him for commitment of his personal time to travel and negotiation and attendance at conferences, I would submit that if the Department of State is to work more smoothly, it must have on duty at all times a full-time boss armed with authority to resolve promptly any and all questions within the competence of the institution.
The Foreign Service officers with whom you meet on Thursday are by and large the victims, not the authors, of the inadequacies of the present system. Many of them are excellent and deeply devoted public servants. They will have heard something of your questions and anxieties about the Service. They will know that these are generally justified. Nevertheless, there will be some nervousness about your attitude toward them.

It seems to me that the best thing that you could do would be to indicate your awareness of the seriousness and recalcitrance of the administrative problems with which the Department and Foreign Service are beset; to remind them of the brevity of the time that has been available for the correction of these various evils or inadequacies by the present administration, and to assure them that this problem will have serious and continued attention of yourself and the Secretary of State. It could be pointed out that whereas there is a science of administration and management that has been worked out for mechanical processes such as the work of men at machines, where the relation of function to human effort can be statistically measured and defined, there is no such [Page 103]science for the work of bodies whose task in essentially analytical and advisory, such as the Department of State. The objective to be sought might well be defined, it seems to me, as the avoidance of the two extremes of (1) an apparatus so bloated and over-elaborate that it loses all the advantages of intimacy, flexibility and smartness of operation, and (2) such drastic and brutal curtailment as to involve injustice to those who are dropped and an inordinate burden on those who are retained. There must be a reasonable middle ground between these two extremes. The problem is to find it. The United States already has a Foreign Service second to none other in many respects. But it is spotty in quality, diffuse, inadequately coordinated, shaken by too many past changes of policy, uncertain as to what is expected of it and what can be expected. These deficiencies cannot be cured over night. But with time, patience, and imaginative insight they can be cured, and they will be.

George F. Kennan3
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, State Department, General, 5/26/62–5/31/62. Confidential.
  2. Kennan’s memorandum was one of several documents assembled by Bundy to aid the President in preparing remarks at a luncheon to be held by the American Foreign Service Association in Washington at the end of May. In a May 29 covering memorandum to the President, Bundy wrote in part: “The more I look at this, the more I doubt that you should make a speech about the Foreign Service as such. It would not stay off the record, and I am impressed by what George Kennan said to me yesterday: the Foreign Service is like a badly trained horse—if you try to punish him, you will only make him worse. So I would vote for a modified version of your January remarks to the NSC, with perhaps just a few informal comments on the fact that the State Department has the role of leadership if only it will grasp it. On this you could well refer back to Acheson.” (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Bundy Chron Files, Staff Memos 5/21/62–5/31/62)

    President Kennedy delivered his off-the-record remarks before a luncheon meeting of the American Foreign Service Association at the Sheraton-Park Hotel in Washington on May 31. An edited transcript was forwarded by Woodruff Wallner, Chairman, Editorial Board, Foreign Service Journal, under cover of a June 18 letter to Bundy. (Ibid., Departments and Agencies Series, Department of State, General, 6/l/62–6/18/61) For the published version, see “The Great Period of the Foreign Service,” Foreign Service Journal, July 1962, pp. 28–29.

  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.