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…and The Five Worst

March 2023
1min read

The historians who responded to the poll were less united in their choices of the five worst secretaries, and their nominees seem to have little in common, other than the comparative brevity of their incumbencies and the fact that all but one of them—John Foster Dulles- were purely political appointees with little or no experience in the wider world.

1. John Sherman served (1897-98) President McKinley. An Ohio senator (and the younger brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman), he was seventy-four at the time of his appointment—made purely in order to create a vacancy in the Senate for McKinley’s mentor, Mark Hanna, to fill. In failing health and absentminded—he once forgot entirely that his department was engaged in annexing Hawaii—he resigned when an assistant secretary was invited to attend Cabinet meetings in his stead.

2. Robert Smith, a Pennsylvanian who had served as Secretary of the Navy under Jefferson, was appointed in 1809 by James Madison when a Senate cabal barred the President from appointing the man he really wanted, Albert Gallatin. Madison, who had himself been Secretary of State, planned to direct foreign policy in any case. Smith was inept and unschooled in diplomacy—Madison complained that he personally had to rewrite all the Secretary’s papers- and was replaced in 1811 by James Monroe.

3. Elihu Washburn, President Grant’s first Secretary of State, served the shortest of all terms—just five days (March 5 to March 10,1869). An Illinois congressman and long-time political ally of the new President, he was made Secretary out of gratitude for past favors—and perhaps to add luster to his next appointment: minister to France. His successor, Hamilton Fish, would prove one of the ablest Secretaries.

4. John Foster Dulles served (195359) under President Eisenhower. A stern, pious lawyer and diplomat, he was ranked among the worst primarily because of his dangerous tendency toward overstatement—he was the champion of “brinkmanship” and “massive retaliation”—that caused distrust among America’s allies and bewilderment among her potential adversaries.

5. William Jennings Bryan, three times Democratic candidate for President, was made Secretary of State in 1913 because he had thrown his support to Woodrow Wilson at the 1912 Democratic convention. Bryan knew little of foreign affairs: his chief concern when asked to take the job was whether he would be expected to serve intoxicants. Assured that he would not, he accepted, only to find his unbending pacifism increasingly out of favor with the growing interventionist spirit of the President and public. He resigned in 1915, charging that Wilson’s notes to the Germans following the sinking of the Lusitania were too belligerent.

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