Robert Lansing (October 17, 1864 – October 30, 1928) served in the position of Legal Advisor to the State Department at the outbreak of World War I where he vigorously advocated against Britain's policy of blockade and in favor of the principles of freedom of the seas and the rights of neutral nations. He then served as United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson between 1915 and 1920. He was nominated to the office after William Jennings Bryan's resignation. He negotiated the Lansing-Ishii Agreement with Japan in 1917 and was a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at Paris in 1919.
Born in Watertown, New York, he graduated from Amherst College in 1886 and was admitted to the bar in 1889. From then until 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 in the Bering Sea Arbitration in 1892-93, as counsel for the United States Bering Sea Claims Commission in 1896-97, as solicitor for the government before the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal in 1903, as counsel for the North Atlantic Fisheries in the Arbitration at The Hague in 1909-10, and as agent of the United States in the American and British Arbitration in 1912-14. In 1914 Lansing was appointed by President Wilson counselor to the State Department.
Lansing advocated benevolent neutrality in World War I, and eventually of American participation. According to the 1972 book "Lusitania" by Colin Simpson, a reporter with the London Sunday Times, Mr. Lansing actively participated in covering up the fact that the passenger liner Lusitania was carrying weapons for the British. The sinking of the Lusitania by the German U-boat U-20 was a major factor in the eventual entry of the United States into World War I. Mr. Lansing's activities in covering up the facts regarding the sinking led to an irreparable breach between him and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. As a result of this rift, Bryan resigned, and Lansing assumed his former superior's office. In 1916, using funds discretionary to himself, he hired a handful of men to become the State Department's first special agents in the new Bureau of Secret Intelligence. These agents were initially utilized to observe Central power activities in America, and later to watch over interned German diplomats. The small group of agents hired by Lansing would eventually become the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) many years later.
In 1919, he became the nominal head of the U.S. 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. During Wilson's stroke and illness, Lansing called the cabinet together for consultations on several occasions. In addition, Lansing was the first cabinet member to suggest that Vice President Thomas R. Marshall assume the powers of the presidency. Wilson was disturbed by Lansing's independence, and Lansing resigned in 1920 at Wilson's request. Afterward, he practiced law in New York City.