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Alanson B. Houghton: Ambassador of the New Era

Author(s):Matthews, Jeffrey J.
Houghton, Alanson B.
Reviewer(s):Westerman, Thomas D.

Published by EH.NET (June 2006)


Jeffrey J. Matthews, Alanson B. Houghton: Ambassador of the New Era. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004. xxii + 263 pp. $27 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8420-5051-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas D. Westerman, Department of History, University of Connecticut.

When done well, biography provides insights into history that monographs often lack. Jeffrey J. Matthews’s “diplomatic biography” of Alanson B. Houghton, the United States’ first post-Word War I ambassador to Germany, offers a helpful entr?e into the background of U.S.-European interwar diplomacy. Matthews, an associate professor of cross-disciplinary studies at the University of Puget Sound, tells the personal and professional story of Houghton, whom Matthews calls “the most influential ambassador in Europe” in the 1920s (p. xi). Matthews’ study of Houghton is not only a biography but also an argument about the complexity and dangers of interwar U.S.-European economic and diplomatic relations. Matthews argues that U.S. relations with Europe should not be characterized as “independent internationalism” but rather as “a conservative and frequently reactionary form of internationalism” and that Houghton “became not only its leading diplomat abroad but also the chief policy critic within the Harding and Coolidge administrations” (p. 4).

Matthews presents Houghton as a perceptive and farsighted diplomat who, before such a view was fashionable, advocated a coherent U.S. policy promoting European recovery, reconstruction, and stability. Houghton received his appointment to Berlin (and later London) through political patronage. He was educated at Harvard and in Germany. He inherited and expanded the family business — the Corning Glass Works — and served two terms as a congressman from New York. While in Congress from 1918 to 1922, he served on the foreign affairs committee and then on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Houghton, it seems, was a good progressive Republican and “[d]uring his two terms, Representative Houghton proved less concerned with the division of federal authority and more interested in creating an effective and efficient national government” (p. 33). His appointment by President Warren G. Harding in 1922 was received positively by the Senate and the German government.

Matthews positions Houghton as the lynchpin in U.S.-German-European relations. Time and again, Matthews argues, Houghton served as an advisor, facilitator, and confidant to those in higher positions. This is especially evident in the discussion of the Dawes Plan of 1924-25 that sought to break the impasse over of German reparations. Indeed, Matthews titles one chapter “America’s Honest Broker” and tells us that upon Houghton’s appointment to London in 1925, he was “the most powerful ambassador in the world, and he meant to exercise his influence” (p. 117).

Houghton’s power derived from the confidence the White House had in him, the sober knowledge he had of German politics, and the friendships he formed in Berlin. He continued to advise on German matters even during his posting in London. Houghton was even rumored to be a possible nominee for secretary of state in the Coolidge administration. Though Europe was certainly a crucial focus for U.S. foreign policy, it was not the only important area of concern. Matthews’ thesis of a “conservative internationalism” may work well when applied to Houghton’s ambassadorship, but it would be interesting to see how well it would work when applied worldwide.

Though other politicians sought to restrain the emergence of U.S. power on the international stage, Houghton wanted to help implement that power in a responsible and efficient manner, particularly in Europe. This outlook did not simply stem from American vanity. Matthews writes that Houghton “meshed hardheaded realism with optimistic idealism” (p. 6) and that he understood “the integration of the global economy through raw material and capital exchanges, trade competition, and technology transfers … [and] he came to appreciate America’s changing position within the international system” (p. 41). Matthews positions Houghton as the main internal critic of the reactionary conservatism that seemed dominant in U.S. diplomacy, hampering European recovery and stability.

For instance Houghton criticized Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover’s plan in 1926 to “develop ‘the potent weapon’ of independent rubber supplies” (p. 160). The British had a monopoly on rubber and, Matthews asserts, Houghton feared such a policy would force the U.S. to “embark on a colonial policy that would ‘put us head on with England'” (p. 161). The so-called independence that Hoover advocated ran counter to the global (or, at least, U.S.-European) interconnectedness that Houghton perceived profitable. Rhetoric and policies such as Hoover’s harmed the United States’ standing as a leader for reconstruction because they antagonized European nations in the narrow hope of securing domestic favor. This is just one example of how Matthews uses Houghton’s ambassadorship as a way to illuminate the complexities of U.S. foreign relations in the 1920s and the difficulties related to the emerging global economy.

Matthews’s biography is the eleventh in the “Biographies in American Foreign Policy” series published by Rowman and Littlefield’s SR Books. His study of Houghton fulfills the series’ mission to “humanize and make more accessible those decisions and events that sometimes appear abstract or distant.” Matthews gives a human face and voice to the tense and complicated economic, business and political relations between the United States and Europe in this period. The author not only scoured the traditional source base of diplomatic historians — presidential libraries, newspapers, memoirs, and institutional archives — but he also had unrestricted access to Corning Incorporated’s store of family records in Corning, NY. Matthews was also able to glean remembrances from one of Houghton’s grandsons and conduct an interview with Andrew Elder, who worked for Houghton immediately after his ambassadorial work.

Thomas D. Westerman is a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs where he is working on a history of the Commission for Relief in Belgium and its effect on the development of international institutional humanitarianism.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII