Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is stepping down with a 69% approval rating. While she is widely admired for her efforts, she is not one of the five greatest Secretaries of State in the history of the Republic.
There are many opinions and books on the subject, but my five nominees are: John Quincy Adams, William Seward, Hamilton Fish, George C. Marshall, and Henry Kissinger.
Success and greatness are separated by what former President George H. W. Bush called the “vision thing.” The truly great Secretaries of State share the same courage and tenacity that Secretary Clinton has demonstrated, but their accomplishments were rooted in a vision of the “manifest destiny” of the United States to be the “super power” on earth through peaceful commerce, “modern technology,” and moral support for republican governments everywhere.
1) John Quincy Adams
There is no better example of this spirit than John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State to President Monroe. Adam’s greatest accomplishment was the Monroe Doctrine (1823). The Doctrine, most recently invoked by Presidents Reagan and Clinton, established a United States guarantee of independence from foreign domination for all the Americas.
But this future President, must also be remembered for the Treaty of 1818 that established the 49th parallel as the US/Canadian border. This treaty marks the turning of a page in the relationship between Britain, Canada, and the United States. Today, that relationship is arguably the strongest commercial and diplomatic alliance in the world – a bulwark of global stability.
2) William Seward
William Seward, President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, built on this improving relationship with the British. First, by negotiating an 1862 treaty (Lyons-Seward) where the U.S. and Britain agreed to enforce an end to the Atlantic slave trade; followed by British agreement to honor the Union boycott of Confederate ports (1863). The second measure crippled the Confederacy economically and led to its eventual collapse.
But Seward must, equally, be remembered for his vision of the United States as The Pacific Power. To further this ambition, he bought Alaska from Russia for about two cents an acre! He, also, advocated for annexation of Hawaii.
3) Hamilton Fish
While Hawaiian statehood would not occur until 80 years after his death, Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State under President Grant, initiated the process with a reciprocal trade agreement for the island nation’s sugar supply.
But, arguably, Secretary Fish’s great accomplishment was the introduction of international arbitration panels to settle diplomatic disputes (Treaty of Washington). It is this concept that underlies both the failed League of Nations and the current United Nations structures.
4) George Marshall
It was within the context of strengthening the newly formed United Nations that George C. Marshall, Secretary of State under President Truman, proposed the United States finance a long-term post WWII European economic recovery plan – the Marshall Plan. Marshall was alarmed, in equal measure, by the deplorable human and economic conditions of post World War II Europe and the threat that those conditions might lead to further Soviet domination. Without the Marshall Plan, it is unlikely that a democratic European Union would be 25% of the world’s economy today.
5) Henry Kissinger
Last, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford, is nominated for his (politically) courageous advocacy of renewed diplomatic relations with Communist China. Playing a game of economic and political chess, Secretary Kissinger reasserted the United States’ strategic interest as the dominant Pacific Power; while, at the same time, exploiting growing divisions in the Sino/Soviet relationship.
John Kerry's greatest challenge and President Obama's second Secretary of State is managing U.S. strategic power in the Pacific and containing the growing Chinese influence in the region. We know he has the courage. We wait to see if he has the vision?