Robert Lansing and American Neutrality, 1914-1917

By Daniel M. Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
LANSING ENTERS THE CABINET

THE RESIGNATION of Secretary of State Bryan on June 9, 1915, offered Lansing an exceptional and unanticipated opportunity for advancement. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, Lansing succeeded Bryan as head of the Department of State.

Cabinet posts were normally occupied by individuals selected on the basis of political expediency. The American political system of divided powers and responsibilities made almost mandatory the appointment of high executive officials with political influence sufficient to facilitate the attainment of desired legislation from Congress. As a consequence, the requisite qualifications for cabinet secretaries usually consisted of political power; it was merely adventitious when a given appointee combined political strength with the qualities of aptitude and experience. The State Department was no exception to the general rule. Large numbers of American secretaries of state have qualified for office solely by reason of their political utility. Ordinarily, persons of Lansing's type, possessing great ability and experience in diplomacy but lacking in political influence, were predestined to subordinate positions within the State Department or in foreign service.

Lansing, however, was most fortunate. The resignation of Bryan came after the congressional elections and well in advance of the next presidential campaign and thus reduced political considerations to a minimum. In addition, the government was experiencing a crisis in its relations with Germany, hovering on the precipice of armed hostilities. Experienced and fully acquainted with the work of the department, Lansing was able to achieve the dream of most career diplomats: he was selected to succeed the Great Commoner, thereby becoming one of the few nonpolitical secretaries of state in American history.

* * *

The official relationship between Secretary Bryan and his counselor, Lansing, was an anomalous one. Bryan had been appointed by President Wilson in 1913 primarily because of his large following within the Democratic party. As secretary of state, he was a well-intentioned and sincere person, but without professional qualifications for his high position. Devoid of experience, lacking familiarity with problems of foreign policy, and with only limited comprehension of the factors of national interests and world politics, Bryan entered office with a two-

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