From the archives: a founding father of the foreign service on political appointees.

Author:Langbart, David A.
Position:J. Butler Wright on political appointments

From time to time the news media carries commentary about ambassadorial appointments. In most cases, the interest is engendered by the political nature of the appointment. For example, the appointment of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg as United States ambassador to Japan drew a great deal of attention and the Washington Post recently ran an article about Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Norm Eisen. The July 9 and November 14, 2013, "In the Loop" columns of The Washington Post included significant comment on recent appointments, too. The first, headlined "Nice work, if you can afford it," enumerated a number of ambassadorial appointments, all of which went to persons not in the Foreign Service, seemingly as rewards for political support to the President. The second, titled "Mixing politics and diplomacy," discussed the percentages of the current administration's ambassadorial appointments that are career and non-career in nature.

Given the overt political nature of many of the appointments, the founders of the Foreign Service would have been disappointed. They had a vision of a service filled with expertly trained, disinterested, and capable professionals supplemented by appointments of qualified outsiders on occasion.

As a memorandum from May 1925 shows, the fathers of the Foreign Service clearly wanted to see an end to the practice of making non-career appointments as a political reward as being incompatible with the basic tenets of a professional foreign service. The unified Foreign Service came into existence in 1924, as a result of the Rogers Act. The previously separate Diplomatic Service and Consular Service, both rife with politically motivated appointments, were combined into a single entity--the Foreign Service. Given the increased American involvement in world affairs, a major motivating force behind the unification effort was the development of a professional staff and the concomitant ending of the practice of using overseas appointments as political spoils.

J. Butler Wright, the author of the memorandum, was at the time an Assistant Secretary of State. In the mid-1920s, the Department's assistant secretaries did not have the functional titles so familiar today. While the three assistant secretaries had specific responsibilities, they all carried the title "Assistant Secretary of State" and were bureaucratically differentiated only by their correspondence symbols. Wright's symbol was "A-W" and he was responsible for the administration...

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