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Robert Lansing

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Robert Lansing
42nd United States Secretary of State
In office
June 24, 1915 – February 13, 1920
Acting: June 9 – 24, 1915
PresidentWoodrow Wilson
Preceded byWilliam Jennings Bryan
Succeeded byBainbridge Colby
3rd Counselor of the United States Department of State
In office
April 1, 1914 – June 23, 1915
PresidentWoodrow Wilson
Preceded byJohn Bassett Moore
Succeeded byFrank Polk
Personal details
Born(1864-10-17)October 17, 1864
Watertown, New York, U.S.
DiedOctober 30, 1928(1928-10-30) (aged 64)
New York City, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseEleanor Foster (1890–1928)
EducationAmherst College (BA)

Robert Lansing (/ˈlænsɪŋ/; October 17, 1864 – October 30, 1928) was an American lawyer and diplomat who served as Counselor to the State Department at the outbreak of World War I, and then as United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson from 1915 to 1920. A conservative pro-business Democrat, he was a strong advocate of democracy and of the United States' role in establishing international law. He was an avowed enemy of German autocracy and Russian Bolshevism.[1] Before U.S. involvement in the war, Lansing vigorously advocated freedom of the seas and the rights of neutral nations. He later advocated U.S. participation in World War I, negotiated the Lansing–Ishii Agreement with Japan in 1917 and was a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at Paris in 1919. However, Wilson made Colonel House his chief foreign policy advisor because Lansing privately opposed much of the Treaty of Versailles and was skeptical of the Wilsonian principle of self-determination.


Robert Lansing was born in Watertown, New York, the son of John Lansing (1832–1907) and Maria Lay (Dodge) Lansing. He graduated from Amherst College in 1886, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1889.[2]

From then to 1907, he was a member of the law firm of Lansing & Lansing at Watertown. An authority on international law, he served as associate counsel for the United States, during the Bering Sea Arbitration from 1892–1893, as counsel for the United States Bering Sea Claims Commission in 1896–1897, as the government's lawyer before the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal in 1903, as counsel for the North Atlantic Fisheries in the Arbitration at The Hague in 1909–1910, and as agent of the United States in the American and British Arbitration in 1912–1914. In 1914 Lansing was appointed counselor to the State Department by President Woodrow Wilson. Lansing, who had argued cases before Judge Nicholas D. Yost in Watertown, was responsible for encouraging the judge's son, future Ambassador Charles W. Yost, to join the Foreign Service.[2][3] He was a founding member of the American Society of International Law and helped establish the American Journal of International Law.[2]

Lansing's Secretary of State nomination
Lansing and Solicitor General of the United States John W. Davis in 1917

World War I[edit]

Lansing advocated "benevolent neutrality" at the start of World War I but shifted away from the ideal after increasing interference and violation of the rights of neutrals by Britain.[4]

Following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 by the German submarine U-20, Lansing backed Woodrow Wilson in issuing three notes of protest to the German government. William Jennings Bryan resigned as Secretary of State following Wilson's second note, which Bryan considered too belligerent. Consulting Colonel House, Wilson was advised to select Lansing as replacement secretary because he did not have "too many ideas of his own". Unlike Bryan he lacked a political base, though he had technical knowledge of international law and diplomatic procedure. Wilson told Colonel House that as president he would practically be his own Secretary of State, and "Lansing would not be troublesome by uprooting or injecting his own views."[5]

According to John Milton Cooper, appointing Lansing and then "treating him like a clerk" would be one of Wilson's worst mistakes as president. While Wilson set foreign policy directions almost entirely on his own, Lansing resented this treatment, and attempted to undermine the president in various ways.[6] As Lansing said in his memoirs, following the Lusitania tragedy he had the "conviction that we would ultimately become the ally of Britain". According to Lester H. Woolsey, Lansing expressed his views by manipulating the work of the State Department to minimize conflict with Britain and maximize public awareness of Germany's faults.

Woolsey states:

Although the President cherished the hope that the United States would not be drawn into the war, and while this was the belief of many officials, Mr. Lansing early in July, 1915, came to the conclusion that the German ambition for world domination was the real menace of the war, particularly to democratic institutions. In order to block this German ambition, he believed that the progress of the war would eventually disclose to the American people the purposes of the German Government; that German activities in the United States and in Latin America should be carefully investigated and frustrated; that the American republics to the south should be weaned from the German influences; that friendly relations with Mexico should be maintained even to the extent of recognizing the Carranza faction; that the Danish West Indies should be acquired in order to remove the possibility of Germany's obtaining a foothold in the Caribbean by conquest of Denmark or otherwise; that the United States should enter the war if it should appear that Germany would become the victor; and that American public opinion must be awakened in preparation for this contingency. This outline of Mr. Lansing's views explains why the Lusitania dispute was not brought to the point of a break. It also explains why, though Americans were incensed at the British interference with commerce, the controversy was kept within the arena of debate.[7]

German historian Gerhard Ritter wrote of Lansing in this period: "Lansing had the coolest head among all of Wilson's advisers. His power politics were least inhibited by moral considerations and pacifist impulses."[8]

In 1916, Lansing hired a handful of men who became the State Department's first special agents in the new Bureau of Secret Intelligence. The agents were initially used to observe the activities of the Central Powers in America and later to watch over interned German diplomats. The small group of agents hired by Lansing would eventually become the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).

Later life[edit]

In 1919, Lansing became the nominal head of the US Commission to the Paris Peace Conference. Because he did not regard the League of Nations as essential to the peace treaty, Lansing began to fall out of favor with Wilson, who considered participation in the League of Nations to be a primary goal. During Wilson's stroke and illness, Lansing called the cabinet together for consultations on several occasions. In addition, he was the first cabinet member to suggest for Vice President Thomas R. Marshall to assume the powers of the presidency. Displeased by Lansing's independence, Edith Wilson requested Lansing's resignation. Lansing stepped down from his post on February 12, 1920.[9]

After leaving office, Lansing resumed practicing law. He died in New York City on October 30, 1928, and was buried at Brookside Cemetery in Watertown, New York.

Personal life and family[edit]

Eleanor Foster

Through his father Lansing was descended from Thomas Dudley, John Allin, Samuel Appleton and Thomas Mayhew. Through his mother he was descended from Miles Morgan, John Mason, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and John Cutt.[10] In 1890, Lansing married Eleanor Foster, the daughter of Secretary of State John W. Foster.[11] Eleanor's older sister Edith was the mother of John Foster Dulles, who also became Secretary of State, Allen Welsh Dulles who served as Director of Central Intelligence, and Eleanor Lansing Dulles, an economist and high level policy analyst and advisor for the State Department.[12][13]

New York State Senator Robert Lansing (1799–1878) was his grandfather; Chancellor John Lansing Jr. and State Treasurer Abraham G. Lansing were his great-granduncles.


Lansing was associate editor of the American Journal of International Law, and with Gary M. Jones was the author of Government: Its Origin, Growth, and Form in the United States (1902). He also wrote: The Big Four and Others at the Peace Conference, Boston (1921) and The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative,[14] Boston/New York (1921).

Lansing kept a voluminous archive of US government communications during WWI, which are a key resource on US thinking and decision making in this period.

  • "Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, The Lansing Papers, 1914–1920, Volume I". 1939.

Legacy and honors[edit]

During World War II the Liberty ship SS Robert Lansing was built in Panama City, Florida, and named in his honor.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ David Glaser (2015). Robert Lansing:A Study in Statecraft. Xlibris Corporation. pp. 1–3. ISBN 9781503545014.
  2. ^ a b c "Robert Lansing - People - Department History - Office of the Historian". history.state.gov. Retrieved 2023-03-08.
  3. ^ "Robert Lansing | United States statesman | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2023-03-08.
  4. ^ Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, The Lansing Papers, 1914–1920, Volume I, Document 277. The enclosure states, "If the British Government is expecting an attitude of “benevolent neutrality” on our part—a position which is not neutral and which is not governed by the principles of neutrality—they should know that nothing is further from our intention."
  5. ^ Arthur S. Link, Wilson: the struggle for neutrality 1914-1915 (1960) 3:427-428
  6. ^ John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: a biography (2009) p. 295
  7. ^ Lester H. Woolsey, "Robert Lansing's Record as Secretary of State." Current History 29.3 (1928): 386-387
  8. ^ Ritter, Gerhard (1972). The Sword and the Scepter vol III: The tragedy of statesmanship. University of Miami Press. p. 143.
  9. ^ Williams, Joyce G. (1979). "The Resignation of Secretary of State Robert Lansing". Diplomatic History. 3 (3): 337–343. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1979.tb00319.x. JSTOR 24910117.
  10. ^ Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine
  11. ^ Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Robert Lansing accessed 13 January 2010
  12. ^ Internet Accuracy Project, John W. Foster accessed 13 January 2011
  13. ^ Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Biographies of the Secretaries of State: John Watson Foster accessed 13 January 2011
  14. ^ Lansing, Robert (21 November 2018). "The peace negotiations, a personal narrative". Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin company – via Internet Archive.
  15. ^ Williams, Greg H. (25 July 2014). The Liberty Ships of World War II: A Record of the 2,710 Vessels and Their Builders, Operators and Namesakes, with a History of the Jeremiah O'Brien. McFarland. ISBN 978-1476617541. Retrieved 7 December 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Craft, Stephen G. "John Bassett Moore, Robert Lansing, and the Shandong Question." Pacific Historical Review 66.2 (1997): 231-249. Online
  • Glaser, David. "1919: William Jenkins, Robert Lansing, and the Mexican Interlude." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 74.3 (1971): 337-356. Online
  • Glaser, David. Robert Lansing: A Study in Statecraft (2015).
  • Hannigan, Robert E. "The New World Power." (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. excerpt
  • Hannigan, Robert E. The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24 (2016) excerpt
  • Kahle, Louis G. "Robert Lansing and the Recognition of Venustiano Carranza." Hispanic American Historical Review 38.3 (1958): 353-372. Online
  • Lazo, Dimitri D. "A Question of Loyalty: Robert Lansing and the Treaty of Versailles." Diplomatic History 9.1 (1985): 35-53. [ Online]
  • Seymour, Charles. "War Memoirs of Robert Lansing, Secretary of State." American Historical Review 41#3 (1936), pp. 561–563. online
  • Smith, Daniel M. Robert Lansing and American Neutrality, 1914-1917 (U of California Press, 1958).
  • Smith, Daniel M. "Robert Lansing and the Formulation of American Neutrality Policies, 1914-1915." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43.1 (1956): 59-81. Online[dead link]
  • Smith, Daniel M. "Robert Lansing." in An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century (1961) pp: 61+.
  • Williams, Joyce G. "The Resignation of Secretary of State Robert Lansing." Diplomatic History 3.3 (1979): 337-344.
  • Woolsey, Lester H. "Robert Lansing's Record as Secretary of State." Current History 29.3 (1928): 384-396. online

Primary sources[edit]

  • Grenville, John Ashley Soames. "The United States decision for war, 1917: Excerpts from the manuscript diary of Robert Lansing." Culture, Theory and Critique 4.1 (1960): 59-81.
  • Lansing, Robert. War Memoirs of Robert Lansing (1935) online
  • Lansing, Robert. The Peace Negotiations (1921) online

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by U.S. Secretary of State
Served under: Woodrow Wilson

1915 – 1920
Succeeded by