The Foreign Service Act of 1924, known as the Rogers Act, created the U.S. Foreign Service as we know it today. Here is the story of how it happened.
BY JIM LAMONT AND LARRY COHEN
Ninety years ago this month, the Rogers Act, officially known as the Foreign Service Act of 1924, merged the Department of State’s Diplomatic Service and Consular Service—separate institutions since the nation’s earliest days—into the United States Foreign Service. Equally important, it established a meritocracy-driven personnel system, and established or extended vital allowances and benefits that had been either lacking or seriously inadequate.
The need for such sweeping reform had been evident many years before Representative John Jacob Rogers, R-Mass., introduced his first Foreign Service reform bill in 1919. A decade earlier President Theodore Roosevelt had declared: “The spoils system of making appointments to and removals from office is so wholly and unmixedly evil, is so emphatically un-American and undemocratic, and is so potent a force for degradation in our public life, that it is difficult to believe that any intelligent man of ordinary decency who has looked into the matter can be its advocate. As a matter of fact, the arguments in favor of the merit system against the spoils system are not only convincing; they are absolutely unanswerable.”
The status quo was also inefficient. Although the Consular Service was in dire need of modernization, it was widely seen as business-oriented and was the more respected of the two divisions. The Diplomatic Service lacked many attributes for an effective professional career and was perceived by the public as elitist and snobby. Little interaction occurred between the two divisions, whose members followed unrelated career paths. Both suffered from a dearth of essential benefits. Salaries were discouragingly low for consuls and ridiculously low for diplomats.
The leading internal catalyst for reform at State during the early years of the 20th century was Wilbur John Carr. Born in Ohio in 1870, Carr entered the State Department as a shorthand clerk in 1892. Through talent and hard work, he rose to become chief of the Consular Bureau in 1902; seven years later, he became director of the Consular Service. Under his leadership, the Consular Service became better organized and more effectively managed than its stodgy diplomatic counterpart.
Carr’s forward-looking ideas about administration and management caught the attention of Elihu Root, President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. In 1906 Secretary Root worked with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass., to pass the first bill to restructure the Consular Service along merit-based lines. Drafted almost entirely by Carr, the Act of April 5, 1906, reorganized the Consular Service in almost every way. Among other things, it classified officers by salary, increased the overall pay scale, and provided for the creation of a corps of consular inspectors who were to report on the operation of each consular post at least once every two years.
These reforms did not address State’s larger structural problems, however. The Diplomatic Service was clearly not equipped to meet its growing responsibilities in the post-World War I world. No inspection system supervised diplomatic posts. The State Department lacked the authority to support disabled officers, fund sick or home leave, provide for a retirement system with benefits or allow officers to serve in positions outside of their specialty. And neither service possessed legal authority for officer training; post, representational or cost-of-living allowances; or the dismissal or retirement of ineffective officers.
While executive orders promulgated by Presidents Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had introduced some merit principles to both services, leading Progressives realized that effective reform required comprehensive legislation. But how could an increasingly isolationist and economy-minded Congress enact such legislation?
Luckily, Rep. John Jacob Rogers, R-Mass., rose to the challenge.
Born in 1881 in Lowell, Mass., Rogers graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. In 1912 he was elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives for the state’s Fifth Congressional District. A fervent supporter of institutional reform, Rogers well deserved his eventual nickname, “the father of the Foreign Service.”
With Wilbur Carr as his legislative ghostwriter, Rogers introduced a series of reform bills beginning in 1919. Generally, changes were made to the bills either when Rogers and Carr wanted to incorporate improvements, or when a new Congress required a new bill to replace one that had died with the previous session. Despite occasional variations in content and language, all were precursors to the Foreign Service Act of 1924. Carr also ensured that the consuls maintained a united front in support of passage of the bills.
The Diplomatic Service was another story. William Castle, chief of the Bureau of Western European Affairs, exemplified the resistance to some to Carr’s efforts. Castle remarked that he did not regard an increase in diplomatic salaries as wise. “No man … not possessed of a large income” should be admitted to the Diplomatic Service, Castle sniffed.
Another critic of the Rogers bills was Joseph C. Grew. Like Rogers, he was a Massachusetts native and Harvard man. A Boston Brahmin, Grew began his government career in 1904 as a consular clerk at the U.S. consulate in Cairo, but soon entered the Diplomatic Service and rose swiftly through the ranks. During the early 1920s he served first as minister to Denmark, then Switzerland. In March 1924, he was made under secretary of State.
Unlike Castle and his ilk, Grew and his colleagues were not motivated by snobbery or a desire to protect privilege or patronage. They also shared the desire of Carr, Rogers and others to enhance the department’s professionalism and its ability to conduct diplomacy. In fact, they opposed union with the consuls precisely because they considered unity an obstacle to achieving those goals. Only diplomats, Grew believed, possessed the specialized experience and ability required for such important work. Interservice union, he argued, would seriously harm their esprit de corps.
Still, Grew and his supporters knew they held a weak hand. It was true that the Diplomatic Service occupied the most senior positions and exercised greater influence within the department. But it also suffered from a reputation as a haven for political-patronage appointees. One of Rogers’ strongest diplomatic supporters, Minister Hugh Gibson, played on this stereotype at a congressional hearing by deploring “the boys in the white spats, the tea drinkers, the cookie pushers … the specimens who have become poor imitations of foreigners.”
Rogers himself characterized the diplomats as “men to whom social opportunities strongly appeal,” and expressed the hope of eliminating from the Service “the idle rich young man who thinks in terms of silk hats, spats and afternoon teas.” Another witness from the Diplomatic Service, Hugh Wilson, attempted to defend his peers by declaring that diplomats were “more spat upon than spatted.” This was decidedly a minority view, however.
In the end, career diplomats sensitive to their service’s negative reputation and desirous of its professionalization had to go along with Rogers and Carr.
Rogers’ legislation eventually gained the endorsement of Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, who wryly remarked, “It is a poor patriot who would sink his ships and his diplomats at the same time.” Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge also supported the measure.
Since the president, the secretary of State, and both houses of the Republican-controlled Congress favored the legislation—with the Senate minority leader lending his backing—opposition was not substantial. Yet final passage was not smooth. Congressional indifference and a lack of political attention at key points in time delayed action. In the House of Representatives, vocal partisan attacks came in early 1923 from four Texas Democrats who challenged almost every aspect of the bill, its sponsors and the means by which it had progressed in Congress. Rogers himself and the Republican Party were specifically assailed.
A fervent supporter of institutional reform, John Jacob Rogers well deserved his eventual nickname, “the father of the Foreign Service.”.
In March 1923, the House of Representatives passed Rogers’ bill. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it. Congress was about to adjourn, and unanimous consent was required to bring the bill to the Senate floor for debate. As Carr waited anxiously in the gallery, no motion came to allow debate, so the bill died.
The problem was unanimous consent. Senator Thomas Sterling, R-S.D., was seen as likely to block the bill from coming to the floor because of concerns about its retirement feature. Lodge told Carr that he could do nothing with Sterling. Carr asked Secretary Hughes to write to President Harding, who wrote to Sterling. But the senator remained unconvinced.
Carr suspected that Lodge was not being sufficiently active, but hesitated to “nag” him. One of the leading consuls, Tracy Lay, thought that Lodge had not pushed the bill strongly enough, possibly because he was jealous of Rogers and did not want him to get credit for it.
Carr himself was less harsh toward Lodge: “I am disposed to think … that if Lodge did refrain purposely from pressing the bill, it was because he was loaded up with distasteful administration measures at the last moment … and became tired and displeased and unwilling to fight for anything anymore. It may be, on the other hand, that he had learned that Sterling would continue his opposition, and that there was no use trying to pass the bill by unanimous consent.” He added: “A mere onlooker cannot judge without being put in possession of all the facts.”
If not for the adjournment of Congress, the bill would likely have passed easily in 1923.
In 1924 such opposition as existed was again politically powerless to stop it. On May 1, the House of Representatives passed the bill for a second time. Two weeks later, Sen. Lodge called the bill up. With the addition of four amendments, it passed the full Senate with little floor debate and no real opposition.
The amendments were not minor. They provided that officers could accept any position in the government without giving up their right to reinstatement in the Service; that officers on special duty or duty as inspectors should receive per diem instead of subsistence pay; that officers retiring before reaching 65 should receive 75 percent rather than 50 percent of their contributions to the retirement and disability fund; and that Carr’s position as director of the Consular Service be abolished and a new assistant secretary job created. The House quickly concurred with the bill as amended.
President Calvin Coolidge signed it into law on May 24, 1924.
The legislation addressed several longstanding goals of Carr and his allies:
After the act’s passage, messages of appreciation poured in to those most responsible for the outcome: Rep. Rogers and Wilbur Carr. The latter received extensive expressions of congratulation, including the pen Pres. Coolidge had used to sign the bill into law. In public Carr maintained his customary modesty. But in his personal diary, he confided: “It was I … who drafted the legislation and who carried through most that we have that is valuable.”
While the Foreign Service Act specified what was to be done and set in place the framework for the modern Foreign Service, it required executive orders and administrative regulations to come to life. Accordingly, Executive Order 4022 of June 7, 1924, established the Foreign Service Personnel Board and named the under secretary of State as its chairman. Other board members included the assistant secretary for consular affairs—Carr—and an assistant secretary from the diplomatic branch so that both former services would be represented. The order also provided for the creation of a Board of Examiners and a Foreign Service School.
Now that the institution’s basic structure was defined, the Personnel Board went to work. In its first major action, it retired older officers and jettisoned other “dead wood” in the united officer corps, clearing the way for more meritorious officers to rise through the ranks.
The board acted with remarkable unanimity on a multitude of matters, following a tacit understanding that consular members would generally leave final decisions on diplomatic questions to their diplomatic colleagues and vice versa. It established standards for entry tests and efficiency reports, assigned members to promotion review boards and clarified the requirements for entrance to the Foreign Service. Of particular note, it opened up the institution to women and African-Americans.
The first woman to enter the Foreign Service after passage of the Rogers Act was Pattie H. Field, who was sworn in on April 20, 1925, and served as a vice consul in Amsterdam. However, Field was not the first woman in the United States Foreign Service. That honor belongs to Lucile Atcherson, who was appointed to the Diplomatic Service in 1922. (See “Lucile Atcherson Curtis: The First Female American Diplomat,” by Molly W. Wood, in the July-August 2013 Foreign Service Journal.)
According to the State Department’s Office of the Historian, the first African-American to join the U.S. Foreign Service following passage of the Rogers Act was Clifton R. Wharton, whose diplomatic career spanned nearly 40 years. Before 1924, some African-Americans had been admitted, but were assigned only to a handful of countries in Africa and the Caribbean, such as Haiti and Liberia. Now assignments of African-American FSOs were to be made worldwide—at least in theory. (See “African-American Consuls Abroad, 1897-1909,” by Benjamin R. Justesen, in the September 2004 Foreign Service Journal.)
To the continuing concern of Grew and his fellow diplomats, some issues were left unresolved. But as Carr commented, “The law is only the instrument which we are authorized to employ to the end we wish to obtain. We shall have only the kind of Service we are willing to make.”
Unfortunately, a rocky road lay ahead for the system, due in large measure to the State Department’s failure to aggressively pursue congressional funding for training, allowances and other requirements. Congress even cut previously granted post allowances. This timidity seriously debilitated the Foreign Service, both in terms of efficiency and morale. One story that made the rounds told of a London bobby who encounters a solitary man sitting on a curb. The bobby asks him, “Gov’nor, why don’t you go ‘ome?” The man replies, “I have no home. I am the American ambassador!”
Ironically, interchangeability between the services, a key sticking point prior to passage of the legislation, proved almost totally non-controversial. Just before its May 1924 passage, Grew wrote in a letter to a fellow diplomat that Carr “realizes … the branches must represent two separate professions” and there must be “no weaving back and forth” between them. His judgment about Carr’s views was essentially correct. The Personnel Board subsequently made clear that “indiscriminate transfers from one branch to the other clearly would not be in the interest of the government or of the officers themselves.” Carr had to agree.
Foreign Service officers “particularly adapted” to one branch were expected to serve in it permanently, while officers with equal talents in both fields would be given their choice. However, Grew and his fellow diplomats also recognized that there had to be some exceptions. As an indication of its acceptance of interchangeability, the Personnel Board decided that most Foreign Service School graduates, regardless of career goals, would initially be assigned to a consular office for about 18 months.
A rocky road lay ahead for the system, due in large measure to the State Department’s failure to aggressively pursue congressional funding for training, allowances and other requirements.
During the transition to a merit-based promotion system, a serious problem emerged. For the consuls, an officer list drawn up in order of excellence was no problem. But personnel records for their diplomatic colleagues were woefully inadequate. The Personnel Board felt constrained under the circumstances to use separate lists on a purely “temporary basis” until standards became more uniform. Carr had to concur. As a result, equal numbers of officers in each specialty were promoted during the first year of the new system. But this failed to take into consideration the greater number of consuls (375 to 117), their longer average time-in-class and Service seniority.
The issue came to a head in October 1925. Robert Skinner, an influential, high-ranking consular officer who had been actively involved in the Rogers reform effort, complained to Grew that half-measures and grudging concessions regarding Foreign Service unity did not fulfill the spirit of the Rogers Act. Most significantly, he provided figures that proved promotions favored diplomats. The Personnel Board researched the numbers and found, to its surprise and chagrin, that Skinner was right. But it took no action to remedy the situation.
By mid-1926 Congress got wind of the dispute. With pressure mounting, the board asked the State Department’s solicitor to rule on the legality of maintaining separate promotion lists. Instructed that such a practice was illegal, the board belatedly unified its two lists, and followed this action in 1927 with a proposal for 44 additional consular officers to be granted immediate “reparation” promotions.
That response failed to resolve the flap, however. Grew saw the writing on the wall, remarking: “We seem to have our hands particularly full of wildcats.” He was right. House and Senate resolutions called for a full investigation, and in April 1927, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, upset by the whole situation, sought a shakeup of the Personnel Board. He proposed to President Coolidge that Grew be nominated as ambassador to Turkey, and that two other board members be nominated for ministerial positions overseas.
Although the three nominees were eventually confirmed, the department’s clumsy handling only reinforced the growing belief that reform of the Foreign Service was incomplete.
Accordingly, Congress held hearings in 1928 with an eye to rewriting the Rogers Act. A bill strongly influenced by the consuls was introduced that year and served as a template for similar bills introduced over the next three years. In 1931, Senator George H. Moses, R-N.H., and Representative John C. Linthicum, D-Md., introduced a bill that passed and was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover. Carr called it “one of the most important measures, and perhaps the most important, for the future welfare of the Foreign Service that has yet been enacted.”
The Moses-Linthicum Act ordered a reorganization of the department’s personnel system, establishing a Division of Personnel led by an assistant secretary to handle efficiency records and their evaluation. This official, together with two other assistant secretaries, would form a personnel board with the sole duty of recommending officers for promotion, demotion, transfer or separation. FSOs who were board members were made ineligible for promotion to minister or ambassador until three years after serving on the board.
The act also set more liberal compensation rates and leave-of-absence rules and instituted optional retirement after 30 years of service, retroactive credit for service at unhealthful posts, more equitable representation, post allowances, within-class salary increases and other benefits. Further, it spelled out more stringent examination and appointment rules, and created new opportunities for clerks to advance into the Service.
The new act’s most important result, however, was psychological. It served to reassure all FSOs that there would be no recurrence of the administrative stumbles that had led to the crisis of 1926-1927.
Nearly a century later, the Rogers Act, buttressed by the Moses-Linthicum Act, still serves as the foundation of the current Foreign Service. Of course, in hindsight it suffered from weaknesses that somewhat limited the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy.
Nevertheless, to a very large degree it accomplished the goals Rogers and his fellow reformers envisioned. Not until 1946, 22 years after its passage, was any noteworthy change to the Foreign Service’s structure deemed necessary. And even then, the Foreign Service Act of 1946 was, in essence, only an updated expression of the ideas Rogers had promulgated in 1924. His vision—and Wilbur Carr’s—still determine to a large degree the conditions under which today’s Foreign Service personnel work and live.
Sadly, neither Sen. Lodge nor Rep. Rogers lived long beyond the act’s passage. Lodge suffered a fatal stroke in November 1924, less than six months after its enactment, while Rogers died at the age of 43 in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 1925.