History of the Secretary of State: Robert Lansing



ROBERT LANSING

Ex-Secretary of State; b. at Watertown, N. Y., Oct. 17, 1864; Educ. A.B., Amherst, 1886; (LL.D., Amherst, 1915, Colgate, 1915, Princeton, 1917, Columbia, 1918, Union, 1918, U. State of N. Y., 1919); Admitted to bar, 1889; Asso. counsel for U. S. in Bering Sea Arbitration, 1892-3; counsel for Bering Sea Claims Commn., 1896-7; solicitor and counsel for the United States under the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, 1903; counsel, North Atlantic Coast Fisheries Arbitration at The Hague, 1909-10; agent of United States, Am. and British Claims Arbitration, 1912-14; counselor for Dept. of State, Mar. 20, 1914-June 23, 1915; Secretary of State in Cabinet of Pres. Wilson, June 23, 1915-Feb., 1920; mem. Am. Commn. to Negotiate Peace, Paris, 1918-19 . . . .

***

HE who believes in luck should study the career of Robert Lansing. Mr. Lansing probably thinks that the goddess of chance played him a scurvy trick, after having admitted him to the Olympian heights, to break him as suddenly as she made him.

Robert Lansing's real misfortune was not knowing how to play his luck. It is curious the fear men have of death. The former Secretary of State's only hope of immortality was to commit political suicide, and he lacked the courage or the vision to fall upon his sword.

When Woodrow Wilson was elected President for the first time he appointed Mr. Bryan Secretary of State. The opinion Mr. Wilson entertained of Mr. Bryan we all know. Mr. Wilson was not given to letting his thoughts run wild, but on one occasion, with pen in hand, he permitted himself the luxury of saying what he thought and expressed the pious hope that somebody would knock the distinguished Nebraskan into a cocked hat and thus dispose of the perpetual candidate who was the Old Man of the Sea to the Democratic Party.

Circumstances alter cases; Mr. Wilson as a private citizen could say and think what he pleased; as President he was compelled to make Mr. Bryan Secretary of State. As Mr. Bryan knew nothing of history and less of European politics and had a superb disdain of diplomacy--diplomacy according to the tenets of Bryanism being an unholy and immoral game in which the foreign players were always trying to outmaneuver the virtuous and innocent American--he was provided with a political nurse, mentor, and guardian in the person of John Bassett Moore, who had a long and brilliant career as an international lawyer and diplomatist. Mr. Bryan busied himself with finding soft jobs for deserving Democrats, preaching and inculcating the virtues of grape juice to the diplomatic corps, and concocting plans whereby the sword was to be beaten into a typewriter and war become a lost art. Meanwhile Mr. Moore was doing the serious work of the Department.

No two men were more unlike than Mr. Bryan and Mr. Moore; Mr. Bryan a bundle of loosely tied emotions to whom a catchy phrase or an unsound theory is more precious than a natural law or the wisdom of the philosopher; Mr. Moore an intellect who has subordinated his emotions, and to whom facts are as important as mathematics to an engineer. It was an incompatible union; it could not last. Mr. Moore became impatient of his chief's vagaries and, about a year later, returned to the dignified quiet of Columbia University.

This was early in 1914. Now for the random way in which chance weaves her skein. Mr. Moore went out of the Department and left the office of Counselor vacant, an office, up to that time, so little known that the public, if it gave the matter any thought, believed its occupant was the legal adviser of the Department, while, as a matter of fact, he is the Under Secretary, which is now the official designation.

At this stage of his career Mr. Lansing was connected with the Department as an adviser on international affairs and had represented the United States in many international arbitrations. He was known to a small and select circle of lawyers specializing in international law, but to the public his name meant nothing. He had always been a good Democrat, although he was married to the daughter of the late John W. Foster, who wound up a long and brilliant diplomatic life as Secretary of State in President Harrison's Cabinet after Mr. Blaine's resignation.

Mr. Lansing had made Washington his home for many years, and when the new Democratic Administration came into power he believed his services to the party entitled him to recognition, and he sought the appointment of Third Assistant Secretary of State. The Third Assistant Secretary is the official Social Secretary of the Government. When royalty or other distinguished persons come to this country as the guests of the nation the Third Assistant Secretary is the Master of Ceremonies. He has to see that all the forms are properly complied with and nothing happens to mar the visitors' enjoyment; he sends out invitations, in the name of the State Department, to the funerals of Ambassadors or the inauguration of the President. But for some reason Mr. Lansing's praiseworthy ambition was defeated.

Mr. Moore had knowledge, learning, and experience, but he was denied the gift of divination. Had he known that a few months later a half crazed youth in an unheard of place was to be the unconscious agent to set the whole world aflame, undoubtedly he would have put up with Mr. Bryan's curious ideas and peculiar methods and stuck to his desk at the State Department, and Mr. Lansing would never have been heard of. But at the turning point in Mr. Moore's career his luck deserted him and Mr. Lansing became the beneficiary. Mr. Lansing, who would have been satisfied with the appointment of Third Assistant Secretary of State, a minor place in the hierarchy, was appointed by Mr. Wilson Counselor of the Department of State.

The appointment created no excitement. In March, 1914, foreign affairs had little interest for the American people. There was Mexico, of course, and Japan; there were the usual routine questions to form the customary work of the department; but the skies were serene; murder, rape, and sudden death no one thought of; Lloyd's, which will gamble on anything from the weather to an ocean tragedy, would have written a policy at a ridiculously low premium on the maintenance of the peace of Europe; any statesman rash enough to have predicted war for the United States within three years would have aroused the concern of his friends and the professional solicitude of his physician. Apparently Mr. Lansing had tumbled into an easy and dignified post which would not unduly tax his physical or mental strength. He could congratulate himself upon his good fortune.

A few months later the situation changed. The State Department became not only the center about which the whole machinery of the Government revolved but on it was focused the attention of the country and the thoughts of Europe. The Counselor of the Department was lifted out of his obscurity; dispatches to the belligerents signed "Lansing" were published in the newspapers, statements were issued by him, he was interviewed; he received Ambassadors, and when an Ambassador visited the State Department the nerve centers of the whole world were affected. Again, a few months later, in June, 1915, Mr. Bryan kindly accommodated Mr. Wilson by knocking himself into a cocked hat, and Mr. Lansing was appointed Secretary of State. Few men had risen so rapidly. He had no reason to complain of his luck.

Mr. Wilson made some extraordinary appointments--a close observer has said he could read motives but not men--and his appointment of Mr. Lansing at a time of crisis would have been inexplicable were it not logical as Mr. Wilson reasoned. Mr. Wilson did not invite as his associates his intellectual equals or those who dared to oppose him; it was necessary that the State Department should have a titular head, but Mr. Wilson was resolved to be his own Secretary of State and take into his own hands the control of foreign policy. No great man, no man great enough to be Secretary of State when the world was in upheaval, would have consented to that indignity; no man jealous of his own self-respect could have remained Mr. Wilson's Secretary of State for long. A Secretary of State or any other member of the Cabinet must of course subordinate his judgment to that of the President, for the President is the final court of appeal. But Mr. Wilson went further than that; he heaped almost unparalleled affront upon Mr. Lansing; he made the great office of Secretary of State ridiculous, and he invested its incumbent with no greater authority than that of a copyist.

Perhaps Mr. Wilson reads men better than his critics believed; perhaps Mr. Wilson had fully taken the measure of Mr. Lansing and knew how far he could go.

Nature never intended Mr. Lansing to be a leader of men, to fight for a great cause, or to engage in physical or intellectual combat. His life has been too soft for that, and he is naturally indolent. He is fond of, and has more than the amateur's appreciation for, music, painting, poetry, and the classics of literature. He has dabbled in verse, he sketches and he has written, but without brilliancy. Accident made him a lawyer, but he was really intended to be an artist; he would have produced no masterpiece, for genius is not in him, but he would have been happy in his work and perhaps have given inspiration to men of greater talent. Without being a fanatic or dogmatic, he is strongly religious; religion to him has a meaning and is not merely a convention; he has a code which he has always observed and ideals which he has preserved; he is charitable in his judgments and has never allowed his prejudices to influence his actions; he is, to use a word so often misapplied, a gentleman, and his motto is Noblesse oblige. Typical of the standard he sets for himself was the admirable restraint he showed after his abrupt dismissal from the Cabinet. He neither sought vindication through the newspapers, nor posed as a victim, nor soothed his feelings by denunciations of the President; he did not make a nuisance of himself by inflicting the recital of his grievances upon his friends of hinting darkly at revelations.

He kept quiet and went about his affairs as a gentleman should.

Why, it may be asked, should a man with so many fine qualities have cut such a sorry figure? The answer perhaps is that he suffers from the defects of his qualities, fine as we must admit them to be; too fine, perhaps, for a coarser world.

When a weak and somewhat easy-going man, immensely pleased with his own exalted position, has to deal with a man of iron will, ruthless in his methods, he is necessarily at a disadvantage. Considering Mr. Lansing's temperamental defects and the effect of his training, his failure is no mystery.

Until Mr. Lansing became Secretary of State he had never known responsibility. Practically his entire life had been spent as a subordinate, carrying out with zeal and intelligence the tasks assigned to him, but always in obedience to a stronger mind. Nothing more weakens character or intellect than for a man habitually to turn to another for direction or inspiration; always to play the part of an inferior to a mental superior. For years Mr. Lansing had been connected with many international arbitrations which, theoretically, was a magnificent training for a future Secretary of State, and actually would have destroyed the creative and administrative usefulness of a much stronger man than Robert Lansing.

In the whole mummery of international relations there is nothing more farcical than an international arbitration. It is always preceded by great popular excitement. A ship is seized, a boundary is run a few degrees north or south of the conventional line, something else equally trivial fires the patriotic heart. The flag has been insulted, the offending nation is a land grabber, national honor must be vindicated. Secretaries of State write notes, ambassadors are instructed, the press becomes rabid, speeches are made; the public is advised to remain calm, but it is also assured there will be no surrender. After a few weeks the public forgets about the insult or the way in which it has been robbed; but the responsible officials who have never allowed themselves to become excited, continue the pleasing pastime of writing notes.

Months, sometimes years, drag on, then a new Secretary of State or a Foreign Minister, to clean the slate, proposes that the childish business be ended by an international arbitration. More weeks, more often months, are spent in agreeing upon the terms of reference, and finally the dispute goes before an "impartial arbitral tribunal." Both sides appoint agents and secretaries, an imposing array of counsel, technical experts; and as the counsel are always well paid they have a conscientious obligation to earn their fees.

More months are required to prepare the case, which frequently runs into many printed volumes; and the more volumes the better pleased everybody is, as size denotes importance. The arbitrators, although they are governed by principles of law, know what is expected of them, and they rarely disappoint. Almost invariably their decision is a compromise, so nicely shaded that while neither side can claim victory neither side suffers the humiliation of defeat. As by that time both nations have long forgotten the original cause of the quarrel their people are quite content when they are told the decision is in their favor. As junior counsel Mr. Lansing's name appears in many international arbitrations, and it was precisely the work for which he was fitted.

If Mr. Lansing had been a man of more robust fiber, he would have returned his portfolio to Mr. Wilson as early as 1916, for the President was writing notes to the belligerents and did not, even as a perfunctory courtesy, consult his Secretary of State; he made it only too patent he did not consider his advice worth asking. Mr. Lansing was too fond of his official prominence to surrender it easily, and that is another curious thing about the man. Somewhat vain, holding himself in much higher estimation than the world did, few men have so thoroughly enjoyed office as he. But he remained the quiet and unassuming gentleman he had always been; and he certainly could not have deluded himself into believing that there was a still higher office for him to occupy.

Mr. Lansing could not screw up his courage to resign in 1916. The following year the United States was at war and he naturally could not desert his post; but in 1919 Mr. Lansing was given another opportunity, and still he was obdurate. He has told us in his public confession that he tried to persuade the President not to go to Paris. Mr. Wilson, as usual, remained unpersuaded, and Mr. Lansing humbly followed in his train.

Then, of course, Mr. Lansing could not resign, but in Paris he was even more grossly humiliated; he was completely shut out from the President's confidence; he wrote letters to Mr. Wilson which the President did not deign to answer; so little did Mr. Lansing know what was being done that he sought information from the Chinese Delegates! It sounds incredible, it seems even more incredible that a Secretary of State should put himself in such an undignified position, and having done so should invite the world to share his ignominy. But he has set it down in his book as if he believed it was ample defense, instead of realizing that it is condemnation.

Curious contradictions! One might expect a sensitive man, a man who has never courted publicity, who has none of the genius of the self-advertiser, to crave forgetfulness for the Paris episode, to shrink from publicly exposing himself and his humiliations, but Mr. Lansing seemingly revels in his self-dissection. The President slaps his face; in his pride he summons all the world to look upon the marks left by the Executive palm. He feels the sting, and he enters upon an elaborate defense to show it is the stigmata of martyrdom. A treaty was framed of which he disapproved, yet he could sign it without wrench of conscience. Unreconciled to resignation in Paris, he returned to Washington as if nothing had happened, again to resume his subservient relations to the President.

Opportunity, we are told, knocks only once at a man's door, but while opportunity thundered at Mr. Lansing's portal "his ear was closed with the cotton of negligence."

Early in 1920 Mr. Wilson dismissed him, brutally, abruptly, with the petulance of an invalid too tired to be fair; for a reason so obviously disingenuous that Mr. Lansing had the sympathy of the country. He should either have told the truth then and there or forever have held his peace; and had he remained mute out of the mystery would have grown a myth. The fictitious Lansing would have become an historical character. But he must needs write a book. It does not make pleasant reading. It does not make its author a hero.

It does, however, answer the question the curious asked at the time of his appointment: "Why did the President make Mr. Lansing Secretary of State?"





Return to Mirrors of Washington