The unsung, heroic U.S. diplomats of World War I

Ambassador Daniel B. Smith (left) led the panel discussion between historians Seth Rotramel, Lindsay Krasnoff, Charles Hawley and Thomas Faith at the State Department. (State Dept.)

U.S. diplomats worked behind the scenes in World War I to help alleviate suffering and bring an end to the war.

One former and three current historians of the State Department’s Office of the Historian brought those stories to life during a panel session called “In the Diplomatic Trenches: Department Heroes Alleviate Suffering During World War I.” It was the second event of the State Department’s new series Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy.

“By the time the war had ended in 1918, America had assumed a major role on the global stage … promoting peace,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip T. Reeker said in introducing the discussion.

The four historians — Seth Rotramel, Lindsay Krasnoff, Charles Hawley and Thomas Faith — each highlighted a part of the world where U.S. diplomats worked to bring peace, foreign aid and diplomacy to the conflict.

Examples of State Department employees’ efforts during World War I:

  • James W. Gerard III, the ambassador to the German Empire when the war started, helped many of the 10,000 U.S. citizens traveling in Germany to return home after German banks froze foreigners’ credit at the start of the war.
  • William H. Hunt, a consul serving in Saint-Étienne, France, and one of the only African-American diplomats in Europe at the time, used sports diplomacy to reach out to the community, protecting both French and American citizens throughout the war.
  • 26 consular officers spread out over seven Russian posts ensured the welfare of over 2 million German, Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war.
  • Diplomats at the understaffed U.S. Embassy in London became the center of U.S. foreign assistance, addressing the humanitarian needs of U.S. citizens scattered throughout Europe.

“By the post-1945 period, the foreign service as it’s constituted looks very similar to the functions and roles that were pioneered in 1914 in France,” Krasnoff said at the discussion.

“Our counterparts from 100 years ago were in so many ways just like us, and I think that’s one of the really powerful parts of the entire story of U.S. diplomats operating … during the war years,” Krasnoff said.