With Hillary Clinton leaving the State Department, and John Kerry becoming the 68th Secretary of State, it is a good time to assess who are the most influential Secretaries of State we have had in American history.
Notice I say “most influential”, rather than “best”, as that is a better way to judge diplomatic leadership in the State Department.
Without ranking them, which is very difficult, we will examine the Secretaries of State who have had the greatest impact, in chronological order:
Thomas Jefferson (1789-1793) under President George Washington—set the standard for the department, and was probably the most brilliant man ever to head the State Department.
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) under President James Monroe—brought about the Monroe Doctrine, treaties with Canada, and the acquisition of Florida.
William H. Seward (1861-1869) under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson—brought about the neutrality of Great Britain and France in the Civil War, and purchased Alaska from Czarist Russia, a fortunate development.
Hamilton Fish (1869-1877) under President Ulysses S. Grant—involved in many diplomatic issues in Latin America, had America become more engaged in Hawaii, and settled differences with Great Britain, and often considered the major bright spot in the tragic Grant Presidency.
James G. Blaine (1881, 1889-1892) under Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester Alan Arthur briefly, and full term under President Benjamin Harrison—helped to bring about eventual takeover of Hawaii, and promoted the concept of a canal in Central America.
John Hay (1898-1905) under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt—-involved in the issues after the Spanish American War, including involvement in the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and a major influence over TR’s diplomatic initiatives in his first term.
Elihu Root (1905-1909) under President Theodore Roosevelt—-a great influence in TR’s growing involvement in world affairs in his second term in office.
Robert Lansing (1915-1920) under President Woodrow Wilson—a major player in American entrance in World War I and at the Versailles Peace Conference.
Charles Evan Hughes (1921-1925) under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge—-had major role in Washington Naval Agreements in 1922.
Henry Stimson (1929-1933) under President Herbert Hoover—-was a major critic of Japanese expansion, as expressed in the Stimson Doctrine of 1932.
Cordell Hull (1933-1944) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt—-was the longest lasting Secretary of State, nearly the whole term of FDR, and very much involved in all of the President’s foreign policy decisions.
Dean Acheson (1949-1953) under President Harry Truman—-involved in the major decisions of the early Cold War, including the Korean War intervention.
John Foster Dulles (1953-1959) under President Dwight D. Eisenhower—had controversial views on Cold War policy with the Soviet Union, including “massive retaliation”.
Dean Rusk (1961-1969) under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson—highly controversial advocate of the Vietnam War escalation, but served under the complete terms of two Presidents, and never backed away from his views on the Cold War.
Henry Kissinger (1973-1977) under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—-easily one of the most influential figures in the shaping of foreign policy in American history, earlier having served as National Security Adviser.
George Shultz, (1982-1989) under President Ronald Reagan—-very close adviser to the President on his major foreign policy initiatives.
James Baker (1989-1992) under President George H. W. Bush—very significant in Persian Gulf War and end of Cold War policies.
Madeleine Albright (1997-2001) under President Bill Clinton—-first woman Secretary of State and played major role in many issues that arose.
Colin Powell (2001-2005) under President George W. Bush—-involved in the justification of the Iraq War based on Weapons of Mass Destruction, which undermined his reputation because of the lack of evidence on WMDs.
Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009) under President George W. Bush—second woman Secretary of State and intimately involved in policy making.
Hillary Clinton (2009-2013) under President Barack Obama—third woman Secretary of State, and hailed by most as a major contributor to Obama’s foreign policy initiatives.
This is a list of 21 out of the 68 Secretaries of State, but also there are 15 other Secretaries of State who were influential historical figures, including:
Martin Van Buren
John C. Calhoun
William Jennings Bryan
So a total of 36 out of 68 Secretaries of State have been major figures in American history, and contributed to the diplomatic development of the United States in world affairs!