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History of U.S. Foreign Affairs

1775 – 1961

The Department of Foreign Affairs was the first of the executive departments established under the Constitution, and two months later it was renamed the Department of State. Since the founding of the Department, its diplomats have played important roles in the nation’s history. They secured support from France, Spain, and the Netherlands that won America its independence, and in the next two centuries U.S. diplomats have continued to protect the nation’s citizens, promote its values, and foster its commerce.

Rise to World Power

1867  through  1914

Following the Civil War, America’s agricultural society was transformed by industrialization. Americans searched for new overseas markets and trading partners. Their interest in expanding trade coincided with the era of imperialism, as European powers, as well as Japan and Russia, were expanding into Africa and Asia and establishing empires. The United States joined in the worldwide competition and, for the first time, controlled territories beyond its continental borders.

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The United States a Global Power

Chapter One

In the years between 1867 and 1914, the United States rose to become a global power. Walter Gresham, secretary of state, observed, “Every nation, and especially every strong nation, must sometimes be conscious of an impulse to rush into difficulties that do not concern it.” So, while European nations were expanding their influence in Africa and Asia, the United States looked to strengthen its ties in the Americas. 

The United States exercised an influential role in Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823, had halted new colonization in the Americas by European nations and protected newly independent countries in Latin America from being colonized again. The Spanish colony of Cuba was an exception. By the late 19th century, Cuban nationalists had agitated for independence from Spain and won support from Americans sympathetic to their revolutionary ideals. American businessmen had investments in the island, too, so when, in 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor, the United States soon went to war. The Spanish-American War lasted just four months. 

Portrait of Walter Q. Gresham, 33rd Secretary of State under President Grover Cleveland

Frank M. Pebbles (American, 1839-1928)

oil on canvas

The war has brought us new duties and responsibilities which we must meet and discharge as becomes a great nation.

President William McKinley 1898
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Elihu Benjamin Washburne


As a friend of President Ulysses S. Grant, he accepted the position of secretary of state as a temporary measure, until he could be appointed minister to France, two weeks later. His tenure as secretary of state was the shortest.

Hamilton Fish


As secretary, Fish successfully resolved claims related to the British-built Confederate warship Alabama and sought new territories for the United States. 

Elihu B. Washburne begins what is the shortest term of any secretary of state.

March 5, 1869

Appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant, he resigns on March 16, less than two weeks later, and is appointed minister to France the next day.

State, War, and Navy Building

July 1875–April 1947

The two fires that had broken out in the building leased by the Department of State convinced President Ulysses S. Grant to propose a new executive office building in his annual message to Congress in December 1870.¹ It would house the State, War, and Navy Departments, and Congress approved the proposal soon afterward.

Old Executive Office Building

William Maxwell Evarts


As secretary, Evarts grappled with the decision of whether to recognize the new Mexican government led by Porfirio Díaz.

James Gillespie Blaine


As secretary in the brief Garfield administration, Blaine advocated commercial expansion and increased naval power. He also encouraged peaceful relations within the Americas and, like his predecessor, tried to negotiate peace in the War of the Pacific.

Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen


As secretary, Frelinghuysen inherited a number of diplomatic issues related to the expansion of U.S. power. While he mediated a peaceful settlement to the War of the Pacific among Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, he withdrew from further actions in Latin America.

Thomas Francis Bayard


As secretary, Bayard appointed diplomats known for their skill and expertise rather than their political loyalty.

James Gillespie Blaine


When James Gillespie Blaine became secretary of state for a second time, appointed by President Benjamin Harrison, he oversaw the Pan-American Conference that he had envisioned during his first term. 

John Watson Foster


As secretary, Foster was involved in negotiations for trade agreements with nations in Latin America.

Walter Quintin Gresham


As secretary, Gresham opened an investigation into the failed U.S. attempt to annex Hawaii and worked to counter British influence in the Americas.

Richard Olney


Olney played a significant role in arranging for an arbitrated settlement to the boundary dispute between Venezuela and the British colony of Guyana, thus enhancing the role of the United States as a power player in the Western Hemisphere. 

John Sherman


Sherman’s tenure as secretary was marked by the tension with Assistant Secretary of State William R. Day, who, with the support of President McKinley, often replaced Sherman at cabinet meetings. Sherman was influential in matters of international commerce, but Assistant Secretary Day was the one who negotiated the annexation of Hawaiian Islands and managed U.S. policy toward Spain over the question of Cuban independence.

William Rufus Day


When Sherman resigned, Day succeeded him as secretary. Congress had just declared war against Spain following the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, and Sherman eventually vacated his position to lead the peace commission following a decisive U.S. Victory. 

Annexation of Hawaii


Many of these new responsibilities came in the Pacific. In Hawaii, native rule had been overthrown in 1893, and in 1898 the United States annexed the island, important for its strategic location and its sugar production. The United States now also had to manage the Philippines, where an independence movement gained strength and fighting continued for several years. In 1899 the United States gained a protectorate over several islands in Samoa following a treaty with Germany and Great Britain.

John Milton Hay


With possessions in the Pacific—the Philippines and Hawaii—Hay amplified U.S. interests in the region and also secured the settlement of the Alaska-Canada boundary controversy. When President McKinley was assassinated, Hay stayed on as secretary of state to serve under President Theodore Roosevelt, helping to secure, by a 1903 treaty, the right for the United States to construct and defend the Panama Canal.

Boxer Rebellion


U.S. troops joined an international expedition to Peking (today Beijing) that relieved a siege of the Legation Quarter by an antiforeign group called the Boxers. In the treaty agreement that followed, Secretary John Hay reinforced the Open Door Policy, which sought to guarantee equal opportunities for trade and commerce in China to all nations and to respect Chinese territorial integrity.

Boxer Rebellion Eagle [Chinese Export Silk Embroidery Made for the American Market]


silk, textile


Portrait of John Milton Hay, 37th Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt

Ellen Emmet Rand (American, 1876-1941)

oil on canvas

Panama Canal


Secretary John Hay signed agreements with Britain that opened the way for a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. When a revolt against Colombia broke out in Panama, President Theodore Roosevelt quickly recognized the new Republic of Panama and forced an agreement that gave the United States control over a 10-mile-wide canal zone. Construction began almost immediately, and the canal was completed in 1913.

Panoramic view of the canal of Panama, From the relief constructed by Ch. Muret on official documents by L. Wuhrer and Charles Muret


Panoramic view of the canal of Panama

Ch. Muret on official documents by L. Wuhrer and Charles Muret

Roosevelt Corollary and Dollar Diplomacy


Roosevelt offered the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, threatening U.S. intervention in Latin America in cases of political unrest, social disorder, and “chronic wrongdoing.” President William Howard Taft added “Dollar Diplomacy,” encouraging wealthy American businessmen to invest in Latin America and Asia. American dollars would promote order and stability in these regions, he believed, while also increasing U.S. influence abroad. Addressing Congress, Taft explained, “This policy has been characterized as substituting dollars for bullets.” Thus in these decades the United States came to exercise what Taft called “an international police power,” sending in troops to suppress local revolts and protect its business investments on multiple occasions.

Elihu Root


Root supported arbitration as a means for resolving international disputes and in 1912 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to international peace, including the negotiation of arbitration treaties with 24 nations.

Robert Bacon


Roosevelt named Bacon assistant secretary of state in 1905, and in 1909 he served briefly as secretary of state during the last months of Roosevelt’s term. As secretary, Bacon worked diligently to ratify treaties between Colombia, Panama, and the United States regarding the Panama Canal.

Philander Chase Knox


As secretary, Knox encouraged and protected U.S. investments abroad, practicing “Dollar Diplomacy,” as it was called, in using trade to promote democracy and stability in Asia and Latin America.

William Jennings Bryan


Bryan’s major accomplishment as secretary was his negotiation of peace treaties that pledged the 30 signatories to refrain from hostilities during arbitration of disputes. He also negotiated the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty in 1914 (ratified in 1916) that permitted the United States to construct a canal across Nicaragua and secured rights to build naval bases in the region.

Arbitration Treaties


In these years the United States actively promoted arbitration, a diplomatic technique for resolving disputes by putting them before a neutral third party for settlement. Secretary William Jennings Bryan secured arbitration agreements and treaty commitments to the peaceful resolution of conflict with dozens of nations. An enthusiastic proponent of these treaties, he claimed, “There is no dispute that must necessarily be settled by force.”


Portrait of William Jennings Bryan, 41st Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson

Irving Ramsay Wiles (American, 1861-1948)

oil on canvas

William Jennings Bryan’s Plowshare Paperweight


A plowshare was a common agricultural tool in America. Its hardened steel blade turned over the top layer of earth and prepared fertile grounds for planting. This miniature plowshare is a paperweight, a souvenir commissioned by Secretary Bryan. Inspired by the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who envisioned a peace on earth where weapons of war would be transformed into symbols of peace, Bryan engraved his paperweights: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4). For added effect, Bryan had old military swords melted down and the steel cast into these paperweights and presented them as gifts to diplomats who had signed peace treaties with the United States.

William Jennings Bryan's Historic Steel Plowshare Paperweight

William Jennings Bryan’s Historic Steel Plowshare Paperweight


metal, nickel-plated, steel

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Foundations of U.S. Foreign Affairs

1775 – 1830

The Expansionist Years

1830 – 1867

Rise to World Power

1867 – 1914

The Challenge of Global Conflict

1914 – 1945

Containment and Cold War

1945 – 1961