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Executive Branch & Presidents

Executive Branch & Presidents

Home Civics Executive Branch & Presidents Key Concepts The State Department and the Growth of American Foreign Policy

The State Department and the Growth of American Foreign Policy

  • Secretary of State is most prestigious cabinet official
  • Executive branch is most powerful in realm of foreign policy
The Secretary of State is considered the most high-ranking cabinet position—and understandably so; foreign affairs have always been the area in which the president possessed the most unilateral power. Negotiating treaties and conducting foreign affairs necessitated a single, clear, authoritative voice. When called into service, the American military required a commander-in chief—a single buck-stops-here leader.

But the powers of the president in this area, like all others, have grown over time. Just look at the numbers. In 1789, Congress authorized the raising of a 1000-man army; when George Washington left office in 1797, the United States Navy consisted of only three almost-completed warships.3 When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, he inherited an army of only 16,000 men. During the 1930s, the United States maintained a peacetime army of only 175,000 soldiers.4 But today, the president commands a combined military force of about 1.4 million people—and that is reduced from the 3.5 million-man military maintained during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.5

In addition, the president's network of foreign policy and defense advisors has grown equally large. In addition to the Secretary of State, the president receives counsel from the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Advisor. The United States State Department employs close to 15,000 people in more than 250 offices around the world. 6 The president also has his own personal A-Team—the Central Intelligence Agency—to collect information and perform the missions deemed too "sensitive" to be made public.

The creation of the CIA speaks volumes about the way in which the president's foreign policy power has grown over the course of the twentieth century. Immediately following World War II, American concerns shifted from fascist Germany to communist Russia. American policymakers worried that our recent allies, the Soviets, represented a threat to free governments and free markets around the world. So Congress legislated a handful of tools for the president's use in combating the Soviet menace. One of these new tools was the CIA. Authorized by Congress to gather intelligence, and to do whatever else the president deemed necessary from time to time, the CIA quickly became the president's own agency, authorized to do whatever he asked, answerable only to him, and largely shielded from Congressional or public oversight.

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