126. Memorandum From the Secretary of State’s Executive Assistant (Eagleburger) to Secretary of State Kissinger1


Two studies of the Cone System are attached. At Tab I is Nat Davis’ report to you with recommendation on the future of the Cone System; at Tab II is the AFSA paper on the Cone System.2 The Davis paper is a far more thoughtful product, which includes some good arguments from various pro-Cone quarters (Tabs B, C, D, and F of Tab III).3 The AFSA study is less thorough but generally arrives at the same basic conclusions as the Director General’s report.

The Director General’s Study (Tab I)

I very much recommend you take a half hour to read the Davis 13-page cover memo. You may also want to leaf through the attachments to the Davis report which are included at Tab III. The report will not only give you more insight into the Cone System and its impact on the Service, but will also be a good introduction to some of the broader and more complex problems that afflict the Foreign Service (promotion, assignment, recruitment, etc.).

The Director General discusses the effects of the Cone System on the following areas of personnel administration:

Recruitment—The Cone System has improved the quality, morale and self-respect of young FSO’s in non-political specialities. However, differential exam scoring and directing uninformed young FSO’s into career specialities are cited as inequities of the system.

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Assignment—For the individual case, cones don’t help much. A sophisticated, well-managed assignment system can match individual skills to specific needs with or without cones. However, cones do help in shaping and matching aggregate supply with demand.

Promotion—Political officers no longer dominate the promotion lists; hence their dislike for cones. Cones encourage FSO’s to eschew non-coned (linguistic and geographical) in favor of coned specialities. Shifting from less to more promising cones (lately out of the political cone) is not uncommon.

The Davis paper then presents you with the following three options (pages 7 to 13):

  • 1) continue the present Cone System;
  • 2) abolish cones;
  • 3) the DG proposal: “Modify the Cone System to retain its best features in recruitment but eliminating grossly differentiated standards . . . Retain a modified Cone System in middle ‘professional’ grades. Relax cone designations at junior grades up through the threshold (6 to 5), and at senior grades. Revive a staff or specialist corps. Reestablish a meaningful junior officer complement and some rotation, or at least variety of job experience for junior officers.”

The DG asks you for an indication of which option you want him to pursue in forthcoming talks with AFSA (page 13).

The AFSA Study (Tab II)

Based on an “in-depth analysis and a thorough Service pulse-taking,” AFSA argues for changes that extend beyond the “narrow issue of the Cone System itself.” Lateral entry and assignment procedures also come under the AFSA gun. AFSA makes the familiar argument that the Cone System, devised to encourage specialization, has failed to produce leadership. AFSA’s goal is a system that would produce both specialists and policy leaders.

Two categories of recommendations are made: those for immediate action, and those to be implemented after further consultations between AFSA and Management. Briefly, AFSA wants you to:

  • 1) Eliminate cones at Senior levels to restore the system’s ability to move the Service’s best people to the top.
  • 2) Eliminate cones at Junior levels to obviate career specialization decisions by uninformed young Service entrants.
  • 3) Modify and redefine cones at Middle levels—where specialization is admittedly important—to encourage functional and area specialization, and to reconcile this sort of specialization with the need for broad experience. Promote mid career officers in two groupings: specialists and an across-the-board group.
  • 4) Provide a cross-training program and adopt an “open assignments system” to broaden backgrounds for tomorrow’s Senior-rank policy leaders.
  • 5) Establish a single Foreign Service Specialist Corps to absorb the current multiplicity of specialist systems (FSS, FSR, FSRU, etc.) as well as any FSO’s who prefer to serve and compete as specialists.
  • 6) Crack down on lateral entry “abuses.”
  • 7) End differential passing scores on the entrance exam based on cones; instead, obtain specialists through recruitment efforts.

My View

While there are substantial arguments for the total elimination of the Cone System immediately, I believe the Davis proposal for elimination of the cones at the bottom and top of the Foreign Service ladder is the best way to proceed now. It would add substantial flexibility to the Foreign Service recruitment, assignment and promotion systems, while preserving basic needs for ensuring adequate specialization where it is most necessary, i.e., at the middle levels. In addition, from a purely political point of view, it would probably avoid the wild cries of outrage that would come from the specialists in the Foreign Service and from special interest groups outside the Department, such as Commerce, Labor, and OMB (see Tab III, f).

If in a year or two you still want to move to total elimination of the Cone System it would be far easier to take that step after some experience with a modified Cone System and when the political heat would probably be somewhat less.


1) I recommend that you approve the Director General’s option for a modified Cone System and instruct him to initiate consultations with AFSA on this and AFSA’s other proposals immediately.

2) That you give specific blessing to the Davis proposal that we reinstitute the “junior officer complement” which provides a wide variety of training for junior officers in various functional areas.

3) That you instruct the Director General that the Promotion Panels now meeting on senior officers rank order their recommendations for [Page 444] promotion across the board rather than by cone. (Davis already has informally laid the groundwork for this; all he needs is your go-ahead.)

  1. Source: Department of State, Files of Lawrence S. Eagleburger: Lot 84 D 204, Chron—February 1974. No classification marking. Drafted by Eagleburger.
  2. Tabs I and II are not attached and were not found. Beginning in 1963, the Foreign Service Board of Examiners examined candidates based on three functional specialties or “cones”: administrative, economic, and political. This was institutionalized in P.L. 90–494, signed on August 20, 1968. The consular cone was added in 1970. In the Secretary’s Staff Meeting on October 29, 1973, Rush stated that a proposal by the Departments of Labor and Commerce to create a new labor cone within the Foreign Service had been rejected by the Department of State. On this, Kissinger commented, “I am against all cones,” adding, “I want to abolish the ones that exist.” (National Archives, RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s Staff Meetings, 1973–1977, Entry 5177, Box 1, Secretary’s Staff Meeting, 10/29/1973) Later, following a meeting between Department and AFSA officials on December 6, 1973, Kissinger instructed Director General Davis to conduct a thorough study of the cone system. Telegram 241487 to all posts, December 10, sought the views of Department personnel and offered a number of alternatives for reform. (Ibid., Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973)
  3. Tab III and its tabs are not attached and were not found.
  4. On the copy printed here, none of the options under the recommendations is marked approved, disapproved, or see me. However, a summary of the options for reform of the cone system was printed in the July 1974 Department of State Newsletter. The summary’s preface states that Kissinger had instructed Davis to initiate discussions with the American Foreign Service Association on the implementation of a modified cone system. To retain the “best features” of the system and eliminate “grossly differentiated standards,” the new system would “relax” cone designations at junior grades and senior grades while maintaining the current system for middle “professional” grades. The new system would revive specialist corps and reestablish “a meaningful junior officer compliment and some rotation [of duties], or at least variety of job experience, for junior officers.” (“The Cone System Study Report,” Department of State Newsletter, July 1974, pp. 64–67) See also Document 131.
  5. Printed from a copy with Eagleburger’s typed initials.