James F. Byrnes (1879-1972) was the United States Secretary of State for two years after World War II, an important period in the development of Cold War policy.
Byrnes was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the child of Irish Catholic immigrants. Byrnes’ father died seven weeks after he was born and he was raised by his widowed mother, who worked as a dressmaker. Byrnes left school at age 12 but was later employed as an office boy at a Charleston law firm. With the help and encouragement of his employer, Byrnes learned shorthand and studied law in his spare time. He passed the bar exam in 1903 began work as a lawyer. He also sought public office, first as a district attorney and later as a candidate for Congress.
Byrnes was elected to Congress in 1911. He served three decades, first in the House of Representatives (1911-25) and later in the Senate (1931-41). In Congress, Byrnes was a Democrat who supported the initiatives of Woodrow Wilson.
Byrnes was appointed Secretary of State by Harry Truman in July 1945, despite having minimal experience abroad or with foreign policy matters.
In December 1945, Byrnes visited Moscow to attend a trilateral meeting with the foreign ministers of Britain and the Soviet Union. These meetings finalised several post-World War II peace treaties, established the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission and clarified positions on China and Korea.
The Moscow Agreements proved unpopular in the United States and led to Truman becoming more involved in foreign policy. Byrnes toughened his position, strongly opposing Soviet expansion and, in early 1946, insisting on the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Iran.
Byrnes is best known for his September 1946 address in Stuttgart, Germany, the so-called ‘Speech of Hope‘. In this speech, Byrnes promised Germans two things: a return to political independence and self-government, and an opportunity to restore their industrial economy. Byrnes resigned as Secretary of State in early 1947 and was replaced by George Marshall.
He later became governor of South Carolina (1951-55). He died in April 1972, aged 89.