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granted representation allowances for diplo-

mats, and extended retirement benefits. By

professionalizing the State Department, the

Rogers Act opened the possibility of diplo-

matic service to a broader range of Ameri-

cans, not just the independently rich.

Congress and the Press

Despite the view of Hughes as a whis-

kered iceberg, he engaged legislators in

highly effective ways. As part of his strat-

egy for the naval conference, for instance,

Hughes persuaded President Harding

to appoint Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

(R-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations

Committee, and Senator Oscar Underwood

(D-Ala.), the Senate minority leader, to the

U.S. delegation. This avoided Woodrow Wil-

son’s mistake of excluding Congress from the

Paris Peace Conference deliberations. Only one senator voted

against the naval treaty.

In 1922 the Senate introduced a bill to unilaterally settle Ger-

many’s World War I reparations payments to the United States

using German assets seized during the war. American prefer-

ences for high tariffs, which Hughes supported, contributed to

Berlin’s repayment problems. (This was one of the few black

marks on his record.) Nevertheless, he vehemently objected to

the proposed legislation as contrary to international norms and

suggested instead creating a special commission to negotiate

repayment with Germany.

Even though establishment of such a commission did not

require Senate consultation, Hughes met with Senator William

E. Borah (R-Idaho), a leading isolationist voice in Congress, to

explain his plan, and carefully laid out the legal precedents.

Borah was convinced, and Congress did not pursue the heavy-

handed reparations legislation. As a result, the commission

reached a satisfactory agreement with Berlin.

And so it went throughout his tenure as Secretary of State.

Hughes’ willingness to consult and inform Congress was a key to

his success. By one estimate, the Senate approved all but two of

the 69 treaties submitted during Hughes’ tenure.

Another break from the pattern of the Wilson administration

was Hughes’ handling of the Washington press corps, which had

become a demanding, professionalized force crucial to win-

ning—or losing—public opinion. Whereas President Wilson and

his Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, alienated journalists with

their disdain and misleading statements,

and often worked at cross purposes with

each other in their pronouncements, Hughes

“was the most satisfactory source of interna-

tional news in the government in our time,”

wrote Fred Essary, a

Baltimore Sun


who had been a fervent supporter of Wilson.

Hughes met twice a day with journal-

ists. He was candid and clear. After Harding

misstated an aspect of the Washington Naval

Conference negotiations, Hughes tasked one

of his assistants to make a verbatim report of

all foreign policy statements at White House

press briefings to ensure the administration

spoke with one voice.

A True Statesman

Whether he was championing state

regulation of public services as governor of

New York, or pressing unsuccessfully for the establishment of a

Permanent Court of International Justice as Secretary of State,

Hughes believed progress could be achieved incrementally.

He supported the gradual evolution of international behav-

ior toward “greater rationality and order.” He was skeptical of

attempts to outlaw war, considering armed conflict an unavoid-

able condition of international relations. Yet he believed war

could be limited through the development of international laws

and institutions to arbitrate disputes. In his finest moment at the

Washington Naval Conference, Hughes made a realistic assess-

ment of what was possible under the circumstances and jetti-

soned unworkable provisions—such as the inclusion of auxiliary

naval craft—to achieve a limited agreement.

Arthur Balfour, the highly respected British delegate to that

conference, called Hughes “the most dominating figure I have

ever met in public life.” The lessons of his statesmanship still

resonate nearly a century later.

Back in the 1920s, like today, the United States faced ques-

tions about its proper role in an evolving international system.

Secretary of State Hughes effectively managed the president,

Congress and public opinion to find common ground on chal-

lenging foreign policy questions. He seized opportunities to

shape a new world to America’s advantage, but he understood

progress would take years if not decades. Hughes was unusual

not only because he was capable of decisive action, but also

because he had the judgment, patience and wisdom to know

when U.S. leadership could make a difference.



Charles Evans Hughes, 1908.