The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

22 DECEMBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Sara Berndt is a historian at the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian. She has provided historical research for posts and domestic bureaus, interviewed foreign policy officials for oral history projects, developed course modules for the Foreign Service Institute, and compiled and edited documents on U.S.–Latin American relations for inclusion in the 150-year-old Foreign Relations of the United States series. Her volume on U.S. policy in South America during the Jimmy Carter administration was published in 2018. Foreign Service Officer Holly Holzer is the senior U.S. coordinator for lawful migration in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and leads the U.S. Lawful Migration Task Force. Most recently she served as deputy director of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P), where she oversaw the Dissent Channel. or more than 52 years, the Dissent Channel has endured as a mechanism for the workforce to express dissenting views in a privileged and confidential way to senior leadership at the State Department without fear of retaliation or exposure. The channel has become a cherished institution, serving as the primary example of the value that Secretaries of State have placed on dissent as a critical part of creating and implementing U.S. foreign policy. Upon learning about the Dissent Channel, other foreign ministries often express shock that the State Department has a formal way for its employees to disagree with the department’s policies and senior leaders. Some have minimized the Dissent Channel as lacking influence and rarely affecting foreign policy, or as a public relations tool for senior department officials to tout their open-mindedness. The success of the Dissent Channel lies in its longevity and continued use, the dedication of the foreign policy community to its preservation and importance, and its broad influence on the policy process. Understanding the channel’s history, and seeing the kinds of messages received in the channel, affords us a chance to see why it matters and what makes for a strong dissent message. A Short History The Dissent Channel is an outgrowth of both the tumultuous politics of the Vietnam War and a period of institutional modernization. As protests against the Vietnam War grew across the U.S., newer officers—including those in the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency, and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency—saw the impact that the war had on their generation. Under Secretary for Political Affairs George Ball’s views opposing U.S. involvement and escalation in Vietnam were the worst-kept secret in the State Department. Between 1965 and 1975, 39 Foreign Service officers were killed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Inevitably, these generational experiences shaped younger officers’ views on U.S. policy toward Vietnam and built the demand COVER STORY The Dissent Channel institutionalized dissent at the State Department a half century ago, but it is by no means the only way to register disagreement or propose policy alternatives. BY SARA BERNDT AND HOLLY HOLZER The State Department Dissent Channel History and Impact