In the TV series Madam Secretary, there seems to be this folklore about the State Department and the Department of Defense conflicting somehow. How do the departments conflict, and where can I find a neutral credible resource describing such conflict/s?

  • I first noticed this conflict when, sometime towards the end of Season 1, Henry McCord was invited to work for the Department of Defense. Apparently, this was a potential conflict of interest because his wife Elizabeth McCord works for the State Department as of the series premiere. It wasn't explained how there was a conflict of interest, such conflict was introduced as an assumption. Perhaps it was explained earlier, and I missed it, but I have a feeling it's more likely a folklore that need not be explained to presumably familiar audiences. I suspect this may not be exclusive to the US, but just in case, I'll ask based on the context. Here is the transcript from S01E19

But our students need to understand the beliefs and customs of a potential enemy. You would be teaching all the future military and national security leaders.

And working for the Defense Department.

If you're worried about a conflict of interest, we're not. It all falls under the dome of national security. Give it some thought.

  • I tried looking it up, but this (and maybe State vs. Defense, but the summary doesn't say anything about departments.) is all I found so far. I'm looking for something official that describes how the two departments somehow conflict. I couldn't find on Wikipedia, and I'm not sure this is something to find on Wikipedia because of neutrality. This could be found on the department websites, but I wouldn't know where to look (And rather than try myself, why not ask experts who do?)

  • I'm assuming this conflict is reflective of reality, otherwise the show would be kind of weird for assuming something unrealistic or at least fictitious without explaining this to the audience.

  • Of course, one could always guess something like theoretically one department is about how to defend, if need be, while the other department is about how to avoid the need, but then practically, DoD relaxes the 'if need be' assumption (DoD wants to fight, but State doesn't or something), but I want to be precise about this,

- in particular because Henry takes the job as of the season 2 premiere, and so such conflict/s may be important to my understanding of season 2. So far, I'm just guessing the one in round brackets in preceding paragraph.

  • If the potential conflict of interest is realistic but specific to characters of the show such as the secretary of defense having some kind of vendetta against Elizabeth, I really must not have been paying attention, but that would explain such.
  • 1
    I don't have a specific citation at hand, but the Washington Post (which has the best coverage of the DC bureaucratic insider issues) has been reporting on these kinds of conflicts for as long as I've been reading newspapers and long before that.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 16:34

2 Answers 2


The topic may be hard to research, because both the actions and motivations of both roles are typically classified, and because internal deliberations of an administration are not subject to freedom of information act disclosure

However, it seems likely that such conflicts will arise in situations where a political decision to use military force in limited ways. For example, in Fighting With One Hand Tied Behind Our Back in Vietnam and Afghanistan author Dr. Harold Pease points out how technological advantages the U.S. DoD had were restricted due to State Department involvement. The "Pentagon Papers" might be another source of information that meant to remain classified, but none the less was disclosed.


I have no idea how realistic this conflict is, but the State Department is in charge of diplomacy and the Department of Defense is in charge of the military. This, presumably, State will prefer negotiation and a peaceful resolution to a potential conflict and the DoD will prefer military threats or action to deal with it. It’s easy to see how a rivalry can be presumed, regardless of the reality.

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