The history between the US and Switzerland

The history between the US and Switzerland

Switzerland’s history and relationship with the United States of America has its roots in the very beginning of both nations. While not in unison on all issues, the alpine nation and the US have a positive relationship that sees Switzerland take the lead in helping the country communicate with its rivals, while nearly 1 million people in the land of the free trace their routes back to Swiss cities and cantons.

The history of Swiss people in the USA

The first known Swiss arrivals to what would soon become the United States of America were Bernese nobles in the 16th century led by Theobald von Erlach. Some of the first regular immigrants to the continent from Switzerland were members of the "Swiss Brethren", who much like the Puritans of England, would move to America to avoid religious persecution created by the Reformation. These groups of Swiss would later become the Amish communities we know today.

Between the 1700s and 1820, some 25.000 to 30.000 Swiss citizens moved to North America, with most choosing to settle and farm new lands in Pennsylvania and North and South Carolina - which is why some American cities have Swiss names.

In the century that followed, some 222.000 people from Switzerland would move to the USA. During the American Civil War in the 1860s, Swiss-Americans played their part, with historian David Vogelsanger writing that "more Swiss participated in the American Civil War than in any other foreign conflict except the Battle of Marignano in 1515 and Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812."

Swiss communities in America today

As of 1890, the states with the largest Swiss populations were New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania and California - in fact, winemakers from Canton Ticino have been credited as helping to build California’s winegrowing industry. Today, Swiss clubs (Vereins) are dotted across the United States, focused on promoting and preserving Swiss culture.

Some of the most notable include the Helvetia Verein of Sacramento and the West Coast Swiss Wrestling Association - practitioners of Schwingen.

As of 2019, the Census Bureau estimates that 905.079 American citizens have Swiss heritage - around 0,28 percent of the population - while 80.218 Swiss nationals were reported as living in America in 2015. In contrast, Americans make up 0,985 percent of the expat population in Switzerland - just under 19.000 people.

Diplomatic history between Switzerland and the USA

The first interaction between the US and Swiss governments was a letter sent from the President of the Federal Diet, Niklaus Rudolf von Wattenwyl, to United States President James Monroe in 1822, asking that two consuls be given the right to officiate in America. Officials in Bern were concerned that amid rising immigration, the “American-Swiss” needed representation in order to protect their interests. The request was granted.

For America’s part, the first diplomatic mission to Switzerland was in 1830, when the first American consulate was set up in Basel to oversee goods headed across the Atlantic. Full diplomatic relations were established by the US in 1853 and by Switzerland in 1868. 

Today, the US Embassy for Switzerland and Liechtenstein is in Bern, although the country maintains agencies in Geneva and Zurich. Switzerland has an embassy in Washington D.C, as well as consulates in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Was the Swiss constitution copied from the US?

One of the striking similarities between the two countries is their systems of government. In fact, the United States Constitution is said to have been a guiding document for the first Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848 - the treaty which created the modern political system in Switzerland. 

Political aficionados will also notice the similarities between the American and Swiss systems. For example, both include:

  • Executive, legislative and judicial branches
  • A lower house with seats decided by proportional representation
  • An upper house where cantons (states) are given two representatives (one for half-cantons)
  • Balance of cantonal (state) and federal power
  • A similar cycle of elections

However, the two do still have their differences, most notably the frequency of referendums in Switzerland, the rigidity and partisan nature of the US Constitution and Supreme Court and the use of US presidential power compared to the “one among equals” system used for Swiss presidents.

Swiss role in American foreign and economic policy

As a neutral nation, Switzerland has played a pivotal role in American foreign policy as a mediator and go-between. From 1980 to this day, the alpine nation acts as the “protecting power” between the United States and Iran, keeping lines of communication open and performing consular and diplomatic functions for Iranian citizens living in America and Americans living in Iran.

Switzerland also assumed this role between the US and Cuba from 1963 until 2015, but this ended once both nations’ embassies reopened. The Swiss also offered to become the protecting power between Russia, Ukraine and the US in 2022, but this was rejected by Russian authorities.

Today, Switzerland and the US also maintain a strong economic relationship, with Swiss firms providing 300 billion US dollars' worth of investment and providing around half a million jobs in America as of 2020. In return, US exports to Switzerland totalled 60,3 billion dollars in 2020, making the country Switzerland’s second-largest trading partner after Germany.

Where do Switzerland and the US disagree?

The two countries haven’t always seen eye to eye, though. For instance, during the World Jewish Congress lawsuit of Swiss banks in the 1990s, over their handling of stolen Nazi gold in World War Two, the US put its full weight behind the victims of the Holocaust and called for Switzerland to agree that it had helped the Nazi regime beyond what was necessary for a neutral country and that their actions prolonged the war - a claim fiercely rejected by Swiss officials at the time.

The Volcker and Bergier Commissions formed by the government in 1996 would rule that compensation was necessary, but that Switzerland did not prolong the war through its actions. As of 2015, 1,28 billion US dollars have been paid to over 450.000 victims and their families.

Finally, the last thorn in the side of what is generally considered to be a good relationship is the continuing policy of Swiss banking secrecy. The US has been long opposed to the policy, with the Helsinki Commission of Congress stating in 2022 that the idea was being exploited by people who wish to hide ill-gotten funds without being caught.

Swiss - US relations explained

Despite disagreements and the lack of a formal alliance like the US has with Germany and the Netherlands, Switzerland and America have enjoyed close ties both among their populations and governments. Both nations now continue to work together to ensure global prosperity and stability.

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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