Dean of US Foreign Policy
For half of this century, Henry L. Stimson was at the center of events
AS a Yale undergraduate in 1887 summering in Colorado, Henry L. Stimson witnessed a small uprising of Ute warriors, one of the last skirmishes in the long wars between Indians and white settlers in America. Fifty-eight years later, Secretary of War Stimson presided over the fateful decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This passage in American military history, over a single remarkable career, from horse troops to ``Fat Boy,'' is an apt metaphor for the development of the United States over the same span from a young, inward-looking nation still intent on taming a continent to the most powerful country in the world. Stimson participated in, and often was at the center of, nearly all the climactic events of the first half of the ``American Century.'' Before his great service as Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of war from 1940 to 1945, Stimson served in the same office under President William Howard Taft (1911-12), where he furthered the modernization of the tiny US army that made possible its effective intervention in World War I; as a 50-year-old volunteer artillery officer in France, where he picked up the rank that became the honorific he relished all his life (1917); as a special negotiator during the Nicaraguan civil war (1927); as American proconsul in the Philippines (1928-29); and as President Herbert Hoover's secretary of state during the first thrusts of Japanese militarism in Manchuria and the world financial crisis that helped breed fascism in Europe (1929-32).
As British journalist Godfrey Hodgson explains in this superb biography, moreover, the long shadow Stimson cast over American foreign and defense policy extended for two decades after his retirement in 1945. In his career, Stimson became the prototype and patron of the American foreign policy establishment. After his return to the War Department in 1940, he assembled the small band of Wall Street lawyers and bankers who, together with Gen. George Marshall, ran America's war effort in Washington and who, with Dean Acheson and a few others, became the ``wise men'' who devised US cold-war policies.
Until the American foreign policy consensus broke up on the reef of Vietnam, men groomed by Stimson and their prot'eg'es in the State and Defense Departments and the National Security Council exerted extraordinary influence on US policy, imitating - sometimes expressly - both the substance and style of the great man.
Hodgson has drawn on Stimson's published reminiscences and vast private writings (including his 51-volume, 13,000-page diary), together with an impressive array of other biographical, historical, and scholarly works, to produce both a rounded portrait of his character and informative descriptions of the major events and issues of Stimson's times. A reader would have a hard time finding, in so concise a form, better backgrounders for such complex matters as American imperialism, the United States's entry into World War I, the naval disarmament conferences of the '20s and '30s, or the great reparations-and-debt crisis in 1931 that pushed Europe to the brink of economic collapse - and Nazism.
Henry Stimson - Andover, Yale (Skull and Bones), Harvard Law, cofounder of a major Wall Street law firm that still bears his name - carried as if in his veins some of the prominent strains of the American character. As a brilliant corporate lawyer, he was Yankee shrewd. His devotion to work and duty and his austere rectitude were pure Puritan (of a promising development in the US's ability to intercept and decode foreign cables, Stimson sniffed, ``Gentlemen don't read each other's mail''). And in his unabashed nationalism and aspirations for American world leadership, he was cut from the same cloth as his early hero and friend, Theodore Roosevelt.
His faults, which Hodgson examines without flinching, were not idiosyncratic (other than a short-fuse temper) so much as the shortcomings of his time and class. Aristocratic in temperament and mien (as secretary of state he bore himself as a ``grand seigneur,'' in the words of one American diplomat), Stimson had little emotional sympathy for those less fortunate. For all his personal uprightness, he didn't resonate with the deepest American aspirations for democracy and social justice. His views toward Jews and blacks, though not purposefully racist, were all too consistent with the stereotypes held by his social class. In what Hodgson identifies as probably the most shameful episode in Stimson's life, the secretary of war allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor with hardly a qualm, or even a thought.
Yet Stimson was unquestionably a noble American patriot and one of the most farsighted men of his day on the great issues of war and peace. More clearly than nearly all his contemporaries, he recognized the dangers of American isolationism and did more than perhaps anyone else in the years before World War II to sound the call for a reluctant United States to don the mantle of world leadership.
The culminating event in Stimson's public service was the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. Perhaps Hodgson's most impressive achievement is his careful and balanced account of the development of the bomb and the strategic, political, and moral issues it raised. Stimson, like nearly everyone else involved with the Manhattan Project, regarded the bomb as a military weapon that should be used to shorten the war as soon as it was ready. Yet in his waning days in office - 78 years old, exhausted, and in poor health - Stimson called for international control of nuclear power to avoid an arms race. His counsel, as history sadly knows, was ignored.