The Good Old Days

Henry Stimson
Henry Stimson; drawing by David Levine

In 1976, Godfrey Hodgson, a British journalist with long experience covering American politics, published America in Our Time, a remarkable study of America’s fall from the enormous power and confidence of the 1950s and early 1960s to the disillusionment of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. Among the principal culprits in this tale of failure, Hodgson argued, was the foreign-policy “establishment,” which had dominated American international relations throughout the postwar era, guiding the country from triumph to disaster.1 Now, fifteen years later, Hodgson has written a biography of the man who by almost all accounts was the founder and patron saint of the postwar foreign policy establishment: Henry L. Stimson, one of the most widely revered American statesmen of the twentieth century, whose extraordinary public career spanned four decades and six presidencies.

Thirty years have passed since the last major study of Stimson appeared: Elting Morison’s Turmoil and Tradition, an impressive biography authorized (and partially paid for) by the Stimson estate. 2 It is a measure of the aura surrounding Stimson that throughout those decades his reputation remained virtually untouched by the many harshly critical reassessments of modern foreign policy. Indeed to most chroniclers of recent American history, he is still what his protégé John McCloy often called him, “my hero statesman.”3

Hodgson’s study is still another indication of how successfully Stimson’s historical reputation has weathered the years since his death in 1950. The Colonel is less thorough and less exhaustively researched than Morison’s 1960 biography, but it is an important book nonetheless. Hodgson raises troubling questions about Stimson’s understanding of what we now call the third world, discusses Stimson’s racial and ethnic prejudices (largely ignored by Morison and other, earlier biographers), and pays particular attention to Stimson’s central role in the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. What most clearly distinguishes this book from its predecessors, however, is Hodgson’s continuing interest in the idea of the American establishment and his effort to define its values. The skepticism that marked America in Our Time is still visible here, but Hodgson’s opinion of the traditional foreign policy elite seems to have softened since 1976. In Stimson’s notable career he discovers not only the weaknesses but also the strengths of the foreign policy establishment between 1920 and 1950.

That there was such a thing as an “establishment” in the United States had barely occurred to Americans in 1960, when Morison’s biography appeared. Henry Fairlie had introduced the concept to England in 1955, in a celebrated essay on Britain’s ruling elite in the London Spectator. But no one made the case for an American establishment until Richard Rovere’s half-joking article about it in the American Scholar in 1961. By the mid-1960s, however, the concept had caught hold. “Since then,” Hodgson noted in America in Our Time, “the idea that there is indeed an American Establishment, and that it exercises influence particularly over…

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