Eugenie Anderson’s Historic Firsts

Today’s post comes from John P. Blair with the National Archives History Office.

A portrait of Eugenie Anderson, ca. 1956. (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives)

The observance of Women’s History Month prompts us to explore the lives and experiences of some of the many female trailblazers in our nation’s history.

One such woman, Helen Eugenie Moore Anderson, known as Eugenie, accomplished not only one, but several “historic firsts” for women within the field of U.S. international affairs.

Eugenie Anderson officially became the first female U.S. ambassador upon her appointment by President Harry S. Truman to lead the embassy at Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1949. Her success led to a second appointment in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy appointed her as the Minister to Bulgaria, thus becoming the first woman to serve behind the “Iron Curtain.”

Her contributions to the American political scene before her appointment strongly illustrate her commitment to liberal democracy and her advocacy of America’s leadership role in the world.

One of five children born to Reverend and Mrs. Ezekial Moore in 1909, she grew up in Adair, Iowa, and studied music at several academic institutions, including the Juilliard School in New York City. Eugenie had hoped to become a concert pianist and following her marriage to John Anderson, wanted to be a Bach expert.

From their home in Minnesota, she traveled to Germany in 1937.  She later recalled in an interview seeing “a group of five-year-old boys goose stepping in lock step” and how that sight “sickened and frightened her.” This visit changed her outlook on the world, her country’s place within it and set her upon the path of public service.

In 1938 Anderson joined the League of Women Voters. This first political act was followed by her joining a group, which included future Vice President and U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, to form the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party in 1944.

Her enthusiasm and ability took her to the floor of the 1948 National Democratic convention as a delegate-at-large. It was here that she is credited with putting forth the suggestion for Humphrey to add “we commend President Truman for the report of his Commission on Civil Rights,” as part of the minority plank, which was opposed by Truman regulars. Humphrey’s civil rights speech at the convention committed the Democratic Party to pursue federal legislation against lynching and the end of racial segregation and job discrimination based on skin color.

Anderson’s involvement in politics also gave her an opportunity to work with India Edwards, the executive director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party from 1948–50. Tammy K. Williams from the Truman Library described Edwards’s leadership as “tenacious about suggesting women for just about any position in the [Truman] administration, and always had names at the ready.” There is no doubt that Edwards and Humphrey, now a freshman U.S. senator, were instrumental in suggesting and advocating for Anderson’s appointment as U.S. ambassador.

Eugenie telegram
Telegram from Eugenie Anderson to Mrs. India Edwards, Democratic National Committee, 1959. (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives)

Truman nominated her, and the Senate approved Anderson’s appointment in October 1949. Following her presentation of credentials to King Frederik, Eugenie quickly established her brand of what would be known as “people’s diplomacy” by inviting all the workers (and their wives) who had just refurbished her 37-room official residence to a house-warming party. She quickly learned the Danish language, an unheard of notion for most diplomats, and gave a speech in the nation’s tongue less than six months after her arrival.

Anderson overcame sexism in the American press and within the U.S. Foreign Service to successfully accomplish several key diplomatic goals. She convinced Denmark to play a more active role in NATO, negotiated the use of bases on Greenland for American aircraft, and became the first woman to sign a treaty when she penned her name to the Treaty of Commerce and Friendship.

The election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower prompted Anderson’s resignation, but before departing, she became the first woman to be presented the Grand Cross of the Order of Dannebrog by the King of Denmark in 1953.

Returning to Minnesota, Anderson remained active in both state and federal politics, serving various commissions. She mounted her own campaign for the DFL nomination for U.S. Senate—she lost to Eugene McCarthy—and assisted with others, including her old friend Hubert Humphrey’s 1960 Presidential run.

With President Kennedy’s win, it was Humphrey once again who argued on her behalf.  Kennedy agreed that her style of diplomacy and staunch anticommunist stance was just what Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe needed.

Eugenie was off once again to Europe, but this time as Kennedy’s Minister to Bulgaria (the minister position resulted from the different diplomatic relationship that existed between the U.S. and Bulgaria at that time). The posting to Sofia became a difficult one, with restrictions, isolation, and constant surveillance.

True to form, Anderson remained tenacious and steadfast in overcoming obstacles of sexism in the press and her communist host’s interference. She implemented her “people’s diplomacy” by again attempting to learn the language and promoting American interests where she could. Anderson negotiated the successful U.S.-Bulgarian Financial Agreement in 1963. Yet, three years had been enough, especially for Eugenie’s husband.  She submitted her resignation to President Johnson in 1964.

A year later, Anderson obtained an appointment as an ambassador to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and was the first woman to sit on the Security Council.

Retiring in 1968, Anderson continued to work for Humphrey’s political campaigns. Eugenie, forever known for her “people’s democracy,” was guided by her disgust for communism and elitism, and represented not just a government, but the American people.

Anderson died March 31, 1997, in Red Wing, Minnesota.

From Eugenie Anderson JFK Library Oral History
Eugenie (Helen) M. Anderson oral history interview, March 11, 1973. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives)

5 thoughts on “Eugenie Anderson’s Historic Firsts

  1. March is Women’s History Month in the United States, an opportunity to examine how far women have come and the areas where there is still work to be done.

  2. Reblogged this on Kevin Dayhoff Time Flies and commented:
    Wonderful, well-written story about an American woman trailblazer, Helen Eugenie Moore Andersonâ?¦ by John P. Blair with the National Archives History Office: â??Eugenie Andersonâ??s Historic Firsts.â?

    The observance of Womenâ??s History Month prompts us to explore the lives and experiences of some of the many female trailblazers in our nationâ??s history. One such woman, Helen Eugenie Moore Anderson â?¦ accomplished not only one, but several â??historic firstsâ? for women within the field of U.S. international affairs. Read this fascinating story here:

  3. Interested in why you consider her the first Ambassador?

    “Eugenie Anderson officially became the first female U.S. ambassador upon her appointment by President Harry S. Truman to lead the embassy at Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1949.”

    There were three other women before her that are documented in the press of the day. They were referred to as “ministers” and not Ambassadors, though, it seems: “On July 7, 1949, Perle Mesta took the oath of office as Minister to the Duchy of Luxembourg. To this point, according to the press of the day, only two other women had been so honored: Mrs. J. Borden Harriman, minister to Norway from 1937–40 and Mrs. Ruth Bryan Owen, as minister to Denmark from 1933–36.”

    This is only a cursory bit of research as my focus is on Thomas J. Watson Sr., traditional founder of IBM, and I was trying to add some details behind a luncheon he held for her (Perle Mesta) which she called, “one of the greatest honors” of her life.

    There were an amazing number of men in attendance, so although women had to overcome hurdles there were strong men, such as Tom Watson Sr., supporting them in their achievements. It would be nice to see such items of a positive nature highlighted as well . . .

    Naming a “first” is always hard, you have to be prepared to defend or modify your position, eh? But in this case there are three other women who should be mentioned as “blazing a path for Eugenie,” or mentioned in passing, or your “first Ambassador” modified/qualified so that we get history correct.


    – Peter E.

  4. So after reading “Perle: My Story” I can elaborate on my comment above and bring it to completion.

    This is the excerpt from Perle Mesta’s book discussing the “evolution” of the “top ‘ambassadorial’ ” position in Luxembourg after she was replaced in a changeover of administrations: Truman to Eisenhower.

    “I was so glad that the people of Luxembourg could have such a wholesome example of an American family [she is referring to “Ambassador” and Mrs. Wiley Buchanan and their three children] representing the United States, and was also pleased that President Eisenhower had seen fit to raise the post [in Luxembourg] from that of “Minister” to “Ambassador.”

    So, technically Perle Mesta was a “Minister” and not an official “Ambassador” although nothing changed in the position she held in Luxembourg. The responsibilities were still, for either a “Minister” or an “Ambassador” to carry the full and top-dog responsibility of representing the U.S. in their assigned country.

    History, properly treated, is always going to be updated with footnotes. I hope that anyone reading this will understand that there were at least three other women before Eugenie Anderson–one of them being Perle Mesta–who did not carry the “title” of Ambassador, but they sure did carry the “responsibilities!”



    – Peter E.

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