State Department and Policy Making

June 26, 1968

Report Outline
Erosion of State Department's Influence
Organization of the State Department
Effort to Update Foreign Policy Procedure

Erosion of State Department's Influence

Paris Peace Talks as Test of U.S. Diplomacy

The peace talks now going on in Paris with representatives of North Viet Nam pose the severest test for American diplomacy since the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Upon the outcome of the talks depend the easing of bitter divisions among the American people and the reaffirmation of this country's position of leadership in the Western world. Negotiations with North Viet Nam, which began May 13, have conformed so far to traditional concepts of diplomacy, whereas the Cuban missile crisis was resolved by resort to power politics; it was the threat of a nuclear showdown with the United States that finally moved the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles from Cuba. But in neither exercise of diplomacy, old-style or nuclear, has the State Department played a dominant part.

The two negotiations illustrate to what extent the department's leadership in the conduct of foreign affairs has eroded in recent years. As American global involvement has become more extensive and more complex, the department has been compelled to share its influence in the making of foreign policy not only with the White House but also with military and intelligence officials and other “outsiders.” Of the two chief American negotiators at the Paris peace talks, one (W. Averell Harriman) is an experienced but non-career diplomat and the other (Cyrus R. Vance) is a former Deputy Secretary of Defense.

The degree of State Department influence in the highest councils of government bears directly on the relations of the Secretary of State with the President. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a biographer of President Kennedy, who was in the White House during the missile crisis, has insisted that Secretary of State Dean Rusk had virtually no voice in decision-making during those eventful days. Rusk appears to have enjoyed a closer relationship with President Johnson, but his reputation as a “hard-liner” on Viet Nam runs counter to the conciliatory position taken by President Johnson since March 31, 1968.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Diplomacy and Diplomats
Regional Political Affairs: East Asia and the Pacific