Biography and History

Lansing was born in Watertown, New York on October 17, 1864. The son of John and Maria Lay (Dodge) Lansing, he could trace his American ancestry to the middle years of the seventeenth century. His religious and political loyalties were Presbyterian and Democratic. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1886, and, like his father and grandfather before him, entered the legal profession. He joined his father's practice following his admission to the bar in 1889, but it was his father-in-law and one-time Secretary of State, John Watson Foster, who interested him in global affairs and the international arbitral panels before which he would appear more often than any American lawyer of the time. In 1892, he was named associate counsel for the United States in the Bering Sea Arbitration, an appointment which took him to Paris. In the years which followed, he represented American interests before such bodies as the Bering Sea Claims Commission, the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, the North Atlantic Coast Fisheries Arbitration, the Fur Seal Conference, and the British and American Claims Arbitration. In addition to private interests, he served as counsel for the Mexican and Chinese legations in Washington between 1894 and 1895 and 1900 and 1901. In 1906, Lansing helped to found the American Society of International Law, and, in 1907, he helped to launch the American Journal of International Law, of which he became an associate editor.

On March 27, 1914, he was appointed Counselor for the Department of State, unaware of the burdens soon to be imposed on him by the outbreak of the First World War. As the second highest official in the department, he was called upon to serve as acting secretary in the absence of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan's resignation over the ramifications of the sinking of the Lusitania opened the way for Lansing's appointment as Secretary of State on June 23, 1915, an unusual choice on Wilson's part in light of Lansing's lack of political stature. The President and his confidant, Edward Mandell House, exercised far more influence over the conduct of foreign policy than Lansing, but his familiarity with the workings of international law was an asset as the administration grappled with the thorny questions arising from the need to define and safeguard the rights of neutrals in a world at war.

Neutrality, which had grown steadily more untenable as hostilities intensified, was abandoned in 1917. Diplomatic ties with Germany were severed on February 3, and a state of war was declared to exist between the countries on April 6, developments Lansing both expected and welcomed. In the first days of his tenure, he had outlined in a private memorandum his views on Germany, noting that “German absolutism is the great menace to democracy” and raising the specter of a triumphant reich allying itself with an autocratic Russia and Japan in a coordinated assault on human liberty. He was not, however, an advocate of revenge, dubbing the reparations bruited by Great Britain and France “simple madness.” The positions of foreign leaders were not the only ones he questioned as the spotlight shifted from the battlefield to the conference table. Lansing, who travelled to Paris as a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, found himself in irreconcilable disagreement with Wilson over a number of issues, the most important of which concerned the nature of the President's beloved League of Nations and the wisdom of framing its covenant in conjunction with the treaties of peace. Lansing went so far as to question the appropriateness of his superior's presence in Paris on the grounds that it would lessen his stature and, thus, his influence at home and abroad. Lansing's advice on these and other matters was unwelcome, and though he was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles, his ability to influence events was minimal.

While issues associated with the First World War occupied center stage during his time in office, Lansing was also obliged to deal with the volatile political situation in Mexico and the tensions which threatened to spark a full-scale war between this strife-torn country and the United States. Differences with Wilson over the propriety of intervention in Mexican affairs in the fall of 1919 did nothing to narrow the rift between them. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which were occupied by American troops in 1915 and 1916 respectively, constituted minor flash points and, as such, afforded Lansing greater scope for independent action. Strains in Japanese-American relations were a matter of concern as well, particularly in regard to the status of China. The Lansing-Ishii Agreement, negotiated in the fall of 1917, was intended to preserve China's territorial integrity and political independence while recognizing – ominously in light of later events – Japan's “special interests” there. The Bolshevik revolution posed challenges as novel as they were farreaching, not least of which was the collapse of the eastern front. Lansing loathed Bolshevism, which he described in a private memorandum as “the most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived,” and opposed extending diplomatic recognition to the new regime.

The last months of Lansing's tenure as Secretary of State were overshadowed by domestic opposition to the peace settlement arrived at in Paris, culminating in the refusal of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and the physical and psychological collapse of Wilson in the fall of 1919. In the resultant vacuum, Lansing felt it proper to summon meetings of the cabinet, a practice which aroused the ire of the convalescent President, who accused him of usurping presidential power. Lansing's resignation, which took effect on February 13, 1920, was as willingly offered as it was accepted. Lansing had, in fact, considered resigning well before this point, privately likening his position to that of “a school boy or a rubber stamp,” but his sense of duty had restrained him.

Now he happily returned to private life. He resumed the practice of international law in partnership with Lester Hood Woolsey, who had served as Solicitor for the Department of State, and was retained by a number of countries. They included Chile, whose interests he and Woolsey represented in the Tacna-Arica Arbitration. Lansing used his new leisure to record his opinions and impressions of the peace conference, though he refrained from publicizing his disagreements with Wilson until the change in administrations in 1921, and he was working on an extensive account of his years as Secretary of State at the time of his death. His examination of the peace conference took the form of two books, The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative and The Big Four and Others of the Peace Conference, and part of his unfinished manuscript was published posthumously under the title, War Memoirs of Robert Lansing. He died in Washington, D.C. on October 30, 1928.

Source: From the finding aid for MC083

Occupations

  • Lawyers -- United States..
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