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10 American Diplomats from the 20th Century

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America quickly rose to power in the 20th century, partly due to the nation’s ability to establish lucrative political and economic relationships with foreign nations. American diplomats were especially integral to the rise of the United States during this time period, as these officials helped to establish the pivotal international connections that helped transform the nation into a global political leader. The American diplomats noted below played vital roles in not only assisting the federal government with developing critical foreign policies, but these diplomats also helped to establish the international relationships that effectively transformed the U.S. into a world power.

Karl L. Rankin

Born in 1898, Karl Rankin served the Foreign Service in a number of different nations across the world. Rankin began his professional career as a diplomatic civil engineer who offered his services to humanitarian projects in Turkey, Prague, Athens, Albania, and several other nations in the Middle East. During one such project, Rankin was captured by the Japanese military and interned for a short period. Following this imprisonment, Rankin was assigned to be general consul of Shanghai, China, but when the city was overtaken by the People’s Republic of China, Rankin found himself suddenly displaced. The Department of State responded by placing him in Taipei as charges de’affaires, and later into Taiwan where he was named Ambassador to the Republic of China on Taiwan. Today, Rankin’s work in these nations is remembered in his book, The China Assignment, which chronicles his experience arguing for the protection of Taiwan from mainland China, in an effort to prevent the communist ideals of China from spreading throughout the region. The strong attitude that is portrayed of Rankin in his book greatly influenced the direction that American foreign policy took at the time and offers an interesting perspective on the general American opinion of China throughout the 1950s.

Richard Clark Barkley

Richard Barkley was a career Foreign Service Officer, and the last American ambassador assigned to communist East Germany before its fall in 1990. Barkley was born in 1932 and led an exceptional career that featured many tours of diplomatic service in the European region, and a brief stint as Deputy Chief of Mission in Pretoria, South Africa. Due to his longstanding commitment to building international relationships through diplomacy, Barkley was able to witness one of the most pivotal points of world history: the fall of the Soviet Union. As Barkley offered aid to the dissolved Soviet Union’s former residents, he took note of how the people all came together to help one another in this time of chaos, quickly adjusting their lifestyles to conform to an entirely new, non-communist societal structure. Barkley remains a prominent example in the diplomatic profession, namely for his extensive experience within the field and his strong belief in the human ability to adapt to new situations.

Llewellyn Thompson

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a dramatic confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. At that time, it was the closest the two global superpowers had ever come to true nuclear conflict. Llewellyn Thompson was an important diplomatic figure during this conflict as he played a critical role in the de-escalation of the Missile Crisis, striving for peace in a time when other ambassadors were seeking a clash between the two nations.

During the early days of his career in American diplomacy, Thompson was present in the Soviet Union for pivotal moments such as the Nazi invasion of 1941-42. He was also present at most of the conferences that concerned Soviet-Western relationships. The expertise gained from these experiences was essential in guiding President John F. Kennedy’s response to telegrams from the Soviet leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the incident, Thompson worked hard to ensure that President Kennedy was fully informed at all times regarding pertinent Soviet diplomatic and military data. By providing President Kennedy with critical information consistently during the Missile Crisis, Thompson helped to prevent the U.S. government from making any rash military decisions.

George V. Allen

In 1946, the United States was under great pressure to ease tensions between Iran and the Soviet Union, especially after the Soviet military began occupying Iranian territory. George Allen was tasked with being on the front lines of diplomatic protocol during this crisis, with his diplomatic tour as the United States Ambassador to Iran starting in 1946. Throughout his career, Allen’s other diplomatic posts included Yugoslavia, India, Nepal, and Greece. Allen is also particularly well known for the collection of his correspondences as an American diplomat, referred to as the George V. Allen Papers. The papers include a large, unpublished manuscript that specifically documents the Iranian Crisis of 1946, and they have been studied extensively, as they helped to inform U.S. diplomatic policies with the Soviet Union following World War II and during the Cold War.

Kelly C. Degnan

Since joining the United States Foreign Service in 1993, Kelly Degnan has participated in overseas diplomacy efforts in several Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. However, her service has not been strictly confined to work abroad, as Degnan also served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of State and Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs while stationed in Washington, D.C. One of Degnan’s most notable assignments was as political advisor to the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2010. In this position, she collaborated with other members of the U.S. mission to help direct NATO policy in a direction that furthered American interests.

As of November 2015, Kelly Degnan now holds the diplomatic role of Deputy Chief of Mission to the United States Mission to Italy, where she used her vast knowledge and experience in diplomacy to progress the United States’ efforts to renew its scientific cooperation agreement with Italy and help progress America’s scientific interests.

Cavendish W. Cannon

Cavendish Cannon was born in 1895, and after spending some time as a member of the Marine Corps during World War I, he transferred to the United States Department of State where he served in several different capacities. Cavendish held posts as Vice Consul in Zurich, Consul to Sofia, and, most notably, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in five different nations – Yugoslavia, Syria, Portugal, Greece, and Morocco. Cannon is known for his contribution to the efforts of Czech Ambassador Josef Korbel in his plea for asylum in the United States. As a result of Cannon’s support, Korbel later found favor as a prominent international diplomat, supporter of democracy and lauded professor of international studies with the University of Denver, Colorado.

Lawrence Eagleburger

During his tenure as an American diplomat and Foreign Policy Adviser, Lawrence Eagleburger became known for his ability to develop effective strategies and solutions for critical diplomatic issues. Eagleburger began his Foreign Service career in the 1960s, spending several years touring nations in Europe and the Middle East, and by the 1980s, Eagleburger was assigned to serve as an ambassador to Belgrade. Later in his career, Eagleburger helped to persuade the Israelis to not become involved in the Persian Gulf War—a success that led to Eagleburger being the first United States Foreign Service Officer to be appointed as Secretary of State. During his career, Eagleburger was also in the fray of events that would eventually lead to the split of Yugoslavia into separate states. Given his extensive training and diverse range of experiences, Eagleburger became a highly sought after international relations professional.

J. Wayne Fredericks

J. Wayne Fredericks was an African policy expert during his long career in international affairs, playing an instrumental role in the development of valuable connections between American officials and the African continent. After flying the maximum allowed number of bombing missions allowed during World War II, Fredericks became a Liaison Officer to the Royal Air Force, setting the stage for his career as a diplomat. Capitalizing on his diplomatic connections, Fredericks also directed several projects for the Ford Foundation, an organization dedicated to international philanthropy and the advancement of global human welfare. Fredericks was then selected as First Deputy Assistant Secretary of the State for African Affairs, a role he used to open the lines of communication between Southern African groups and to aid the Anglo-American-Canadian groups working to develop postcolonial Africa.

John Dyneley Prince

Born in 1868, John Prince contributed greatly to American diplomacy in the 20th century. After acquiring a strong interest in foreign language at a young age, Prince practiced the Romani and Shelta languages and later studied Semitic languages formally at the University of Berlin. He was elected as Minister to Denmark in 1926 and also served as Ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1929. While Prince’s career largely revolved around his tenure as professor of languages at Columbia University, his expertise in language made him a uniquely impactful diplomat who aided politicians hoping to reach out to ethnic groups using their native tongue.

Thomas Watson Jr.

An innovator and political figure, Thomas Watson was born in 1914 and participated in World War II as aide and pilot for the United States Air Forces’ inspector general, Major General Follett Bradley. This experience gave him the confidence to lead one of America’s largest companies, IBM, before eventually becoming the 16th United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union. While working for the United States, Watson pushed for mutual disarmament of American and Soviet atomic weapons, leveraging his ties to American trade networks to gain the respect of Russian officials. Watson distinguished himself enough that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award available to civilians, was included in Time Magazine’s “100 Persons of the Century,” and is remembered for his philanthropy, diplomacy, and strong leadership.

Serving in a diplomatic capacity provides hardworking professionals with a unique experience that involves building critical diplomatic, leadership and communication skills while working and traveling abroad. As seen from exploring the experiences of these lauded 20th century diplomats, individuals that embody such knowledge and skills can bring meaningful progress to their country. Pursuing a degree in diplomacy can allow individuals to acquire the foundational diplomatic knowledge which these veterans of the industry relied on for their ongoing success in the field.

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Recommended Readings:

Career Overview: Foreign Service Officer
Castles Made of Sand: Territorial Turmoil in the South China Sea
The Rise of Cyber Threats

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July 2017