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1838-2013: 175 Years of Diplomatic Relations

The year 2013 marks the 175th anniversary of U.S.-Austrian diplomatic relations. It was on February 8, 1838, the United States appointed its first diplomatic envoy, Henry A. Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania, to Vienna, Austria. The Hapsburg monarchy reciprocated by sending an envoy, Baron de Mareschal, who presented his credentials to President Martin Van Buren in October 1838. Muhlenberg and de Mareschal were charged with establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

1. The Beginning of the Relationship: Trade and Commerce

Treaty of Commerce and Navigation signed in Washington, D.C., August 27, 1829

Although official diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Austria began in 1838, the relationship between the two countries started decades earlier with the Austrian Empire’s interest in exploring opportunities for trade and commerce in the New World. As history shows, the relationship did not always progress harmoniously. More importantly, however, it did evolve to overcome obstacles of historic impact. Now, 175 years later, the two countries are closely bonded in their pursuit of common goals for a secure and just world.

In 1777 Congress appointed William Lee as the first U.S. representative to Vienna. Austria, however, did not receive him, declining to recognize a country that had rebelled against a monarchy. The Hofkanzlei’s files referred to American officials as “rebels” and “insurgents.” The Empire nonetheless conducted trade in arms with the colonies during the American Revolution, and pursued commercial interests in cotton and tobacco markets. This ambiguity marked the Empire’s position toward the U.S. until the late 19th century.

Austria did, however, recognize the United States in 1797 by accepting Conrad Frederick Wagner as U.S. Consul at Trieste. In 1820 an Austrian Consulate was established in New York under the direction of Alois (Lewis) Baron von Lederer. On December 20, 1825, Secretary of State Henry Clay announced that the United States was ready to conclude a commerce and navigation convention with the Austrian Empire. In 1828 Emperor Francis I instructed Baron von Lederer to negotiate a treaty, leading to formal discussions on trade. The Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between the United States and Austria was signed in Washington, D.C. on August 27, 1829, and entered into force February 10, 1831, after the exchange of ratifications. It remained in force until the U.S. entered World War I.

Official diplomatic relations, however, were established with the appointment of Henry A. Muhlenberg as first American Minister to Vienna on February 8, 1838. He presented his credentials November 7, 1838. The Austrian Empire’s first Minister to the United States, Wenzel Philipp Baron de Mareschal, established an Austrian Legation in Washington, D.C. presenting his credentials October 13, 1838.

By 1850 Austria had established 11 honorary Consular Offices mostly along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, focusing mainly on trade in tobacco and cotton. Over time and despite two world wars, the U.S. and Austria built and rebuilt trade relations that prosper today. The U.S. is Austria’s third largest investor. For U.S. companies, Austria represents an attractive and affluent export market. American companies have invested more than $20 billion in Austria and now employ more than 30,000 Austrians; 130 Austrian companies have invested more than $6.9 billion in the U.S. and employ 25,000 Americans. For the U.S. and Austria, trade and investment is a dynamic, continuously expanding two-way street.

2. Building the Relationship: Immigration

Passenger list
Passenger list from the Martha Washington, a ship in the fleet of Austro-Americana,
founded in 1895 to offer freight and passenger service between Austria and the U.S.

In 1734 fifty families of exiled Lutherans from Salzburg undertook a two-month trip across the Atlantic Ocean and established a community in Ebenezer, Georgia. These Salzburgers and their descendants have played an important role in the history of the state of Georgia and the U.S. They were among the first settlers in America to oppose slavery and they distinguished themselves through their service and contributions to the economic, social, religious and political life in America.

Immigration from Austro-Hungary continued through the 19th century, peaking during the first decade of the 20th century. Because of Austria’s status as a multi-ethnic empire, it is difficult to determine the actual number of Austrian immigrants to the United States prior to 1918. Records show, however, that more than 2.1 million immigrants from the lands of the Austro-Hungarian empire came to the U.S., the largest group of all immigrants during that time.

With the onset of the First World War, Austrian immigration practically came to a standstill. During the postwar period of 1919 to 1924, fewer than 20,000 Austrians came to the United States; and of those, an estimated 60% came from Burgenland.

According to the U.S. Census, 735,128 Americans claim Austrian heritage. They live mostly in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. Like their ancestors, they continue to enrich the relationship between the United States and Austria.

3. Relationship with a New Republic: World War I and the Inter-War Years

Poster from 1919 announcing American assistance for Austrian children post-WWI

In the years leading up to WWI, the U.S. pursued policies to avoid conflict while trying to broker peace. Despite those efforts, President Woodrow Wilson, citing Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare, went before a Special Session of Congress to deliver his “War Message” and request a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. Four days later, Congress overwhelmingly passed the War Resolution. Austria-Hungary then severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. on April 8, 1917. Eight months later, on December 7, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Austria- Hungary.

On January 8, 1918, Wilson presented his historic “Fourteen Points” to Congress, providing a framework for a post-war world order. The tenth point called for the “freest opportunity to autonomous development” of the peoples of Austria-Hungary which contributed to the consequent break-up of the Empire. Unlike its allies, the U.S. did not ratify the Treaty of St. Germain on September 10, 1919, because it included the Covenant of the League of Nations, a concept that the U.S. Congress would not support at the time. Instead, the United States signed the Treaty Establishing Friendly Relations and recognized the Republic of Austria on August 24, 1921.

During the 1930s, the combination of the Great Depression and the memory of tragic losses in World War I influenced American policy toward non-entanglement in international politics. While the rise of fascism was perceived as a threat to international peace, the economic depression restrained American action.

In March 1938 U.S. Chargé d’Affaires ad interim John C. Wiley reported from Vienna that “the visa section is in a state of siege.” Between the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938 and the entry of the U.S. into the War in 1941, 29,000 Austrians emigrated to the U.S. Approximately 80 percent were Jews: professionals and intellectuals that included doctors, lawyers, architects, scientists, musicians and composers, and artists of film and stage. In the U.S. they found opportunities to continue making significant contributions to world culture that benefit society today.

In 1940 U.S. policy shifted from neutrality to non-belligerency by providing aid to the nations at war with Germany, Italy and Japan. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval installation at Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States formally into WWII. While this meant that relations were again severed with Austria, the post-WWII years nonetheless provided political and economic opportunities that redefined the relationship between the U.S. and Austria. Despite of a few controversies and disagreements, such as the 1986 “Waldheim Affair,” the United States and Austria have built the foundation for a mutually shared commitment to humanitarian values and democratic institutions that influence contemporary society.

4. Forging a new Friendship

Marshall Plan in Austria
This poster depicts examples of the U.S.
contribution to the rebuilding of Austria:
Marshall Plan funds partially paid for the wages of workers building the power plant in Kaprun; supported Austrian industries through
the importation of raw materials for factories; and helped with the building of infrastructure.

In the long-term interest of avoiding another global war, the U.S. for the first time used economic assistance as a strategic element of its foreign policy, offering significant aid to Europe. By June 1947, when the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration stopped shipments of food to Austria, the U.S. had spent $300 million in food aid to avert a hunger crisis.

On April 3, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Economic Cooperation Act, authorizing establishment of the European Recovery Program (ERP), later known as the “Marshall Plan.” The Austrian government accepted the offer to join, and on July 2, 1948, a bilateral agreement was signed. The U.S. government funded the delivery of food, machinery, and raw materials to Austria. Marshall Plan aid to Austria from July 1948 to December 1953 totaled $962 million, making Austria the highest per capita recipient of ERP aid after Norway. In tandem with the ERP, Amerika Häuser, representing a “Marshall Plan of the Mind,” were established across Austria, serving as libraries, concert halls, and movie theaters to build and strengthen cultural ties and shared values between Austrians and Americans.

On March 29, 1961, Austrian Federal Chancellor Julius Raab and U.S. Ambassador H. Freeman Matthews signed the “ERP Counterpart Settlement Agreement,” which turned control of the ERP Fund over to the Austrian government. With assets of about $3.5 billion and annual loans of $356 million, the ERP Fund is operational to this day and remains one of the most important and dynamic instruments of Austrian structural and economic policies. In June 2007, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of George Marshall’s historic speech, the Marshall Plan Foundation was established with the goal of supporting educational exchange for Americans and Austrians.

As part of post-WWII reconstruction, the Fulbright Act (1946) provided economic assistance for education and research and laid the foundations for the United States’ renowned academic exchange program. In 1950 Austria was among the initial handful of countries to establish a bi-national Fulbright Commission. This flagship U.S. academic exchange program was conceptualized by Senator J. William Fulbright to: “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries…and thus to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic and peaceful relations.” Since 1951, more than 2,300 American and 3,500 Austrian grantees have participated in the Fulbright Program. Since 1963, it has been co-funded by Austria. The Fulbright Commission has placed more than 2,800 U.S. university graduates at secondary schools in communities all over Austria under the auspices of the Austrian Ministry of Education’s Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program.

Austrian-American exchanges have grown steadily since World War II. IES Abroad, the largest facilitator of study abroad programs for U.S. students, was founded at the Institute of European Studies in Vienna in 1950. Every year, about 1,000 Austrians study at universities in the U.S., and some 2,700 Americans study in Austria through programs developed by Austrian and American educational institutions.

Over the past 60 years, more than 1,000 Austrians have been invited to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. Through short-term visits to the United States, current and emerging leaders from a variety of specialized fields experience American culture and society firsthand and can cultivate lasting relationships with their American counterparts.

5. Continuity and Cooperation

Chruschtschow and Kennedy in Vienna
U.S. President John F. Kennedy (right) and USSR Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, June 3, 1961

On May 15, 1955, the U.S. was a signatory to the Austrian State Treaty, ending the Four-Power occupation and declaring Austria to be a free, independent and neutral state. Because of Austria’s neutrality, Vienna has frequently been chosen as a venue of key superpower summit meetings and an official location for multi-lateral and international organizations. In addition to the bilateral Mission to Austria, the U.S. State Department maintains embassies to the United Nations in Vienna (UNVIE) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

While respective approaches to regional and international issues may differ at times, the United States and Austria share many common values and perspectives: support for human rights and the rule of law, commitment to reducing threats posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation, and a shared vision of peace and freedom for all. Austria and the United States, partners in promoting global security and prosperity, cooperate in addressing issues of global concern such as terrorism, illegal drug trade, organized crime, and trafficking in persons.

The two countries are bound together through family ties, people-to-people exchanges and contacts in business, the arts, education and research, sports and recreation. Last year, more than 175,000 Austrians visited the U.S., and nearly 500,000 Americans visited Austria.