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 foreign affairs, has taken root in earnest and become part of the common coin of political debate.”4

This idea was an article of faith to revisionist historians in the late 1960s and 1970s, who blamed that establishment for locking the United States into a rigidly anticommunist position which led to the Vietnam War; and to the far right, which saw the establishment as an elite conspiring to destroy freedom.5 The same idea has appealed more recently to some “postrevisionists,” who credit the establishment with the creation of a stable and intelligent postwar foreign policy that, on the whole, served the nation well from the beginning of the cold war to very near its end.6

Most definitions of the establishment rest on two interlocking sets of characteristics: one social and one ideological. Socially, the establishment was characterized by the privilege and self-conscious elitism of its members. Not all were born to wealth and influence, but those who were not usually attained both at a relatively early age. They had the help of connections made at prestigious prep schools (especially Andover and Groton), Ivy League colleges (particularly Yale), and important law schools (mainly Harvard). Much of the social cohesion that lay at the heart of the idea of the establishment was, therefore, a result of shared educational experiences and old school ties. It was a result, too, of Wall Street, where almost everyone identified with the establishment worked for at least some time, either in a law firm or an investment bank; and of New York City, which provided a network of institutions—the Century Association, the Council on Foreign Relations, and others—that helped to preserve the sense of fellowship that began in college clubs and law-school seminars.

The ideological affinity that made the establishment an effective force in public policy was in many ways a reflection of these social characteristics. Establishment figures were almost always successful men (and, on rare occasions, women) who had inherited, or acquired, a sense of entitlement mixed with civic responsibility that in another time or place might have been called noblesse oblige. Although they were usually Republicans, they were rarely partisan and indeed looked with some misgivings upon electoral politics and elected politicians. (Relatively few establishment figures ever ran for public office, and even fewer succeeded.) A sound foreign policy, they claimed, must be insulated from politics and guided by disinterested people capable of distinguishing the national interest from individual interests. It was, therefore, the duty of such people to serve the nation when called; what went without saying was that prestige in their own circle came from such service.


Most of all, perhaps, establishment foreign policy rested on the assumption of America’s right and duty to take a leading position in world affairs and on an almost unquestioned faith in the moral and practical wisdom of their nation’s values and its capitalist institutions. When Winston Churchill described the Marshall Plan as “the most unsordid act in history,” he was, perhaps unintentionally, expressing the establishment’s sense of its goals: that there was a seamless connection between American national interest and the interests of the world.

The foreign policy elite deplored the chauvinism of the most militant internationalists as much as they detested isolationism. They also displayed a limited ability to understand social or political systems markedly different from their own. They were, therefore, always more successful in dealing with Britain and Western Europe (and even at times with the entrenched political leaderships of the Soviet Union and, later, China) than with the more volatile nations of the third world. They were skilled at doing business with “gentlemen,” but often maladroit in dealing with less polished leaders. They prized stability and identified all but the most modest challenges to the status quo as “radicalism,” and hence a danger.

In reality, of course, the establishment was never the coherent entity that its critics (and some of its defenders) claimed. Nor did its members have as much control over American foreign policy as popular myth suggests. Even when they dominated policy making, they had to contend with presidents, members of Congress, and competing bureaucracies with interests often very different from their own. And yet it is hard to look at the workings of postwar American diplomacy and not be struck by the intimacy, at times bordering on incestuousness, that has characterized its leadership. Occasionally the connections were literally ones of blood (the Bundys, the Dulleses). More often, they were ties of friendship. To an astonishing extent, the postwar foreign policy elite was bound together by its association with and loyalty to Henry Stimson.

“I was born in New York City on September 21, 1867,” Stimson wrote in the preface to his 1948 memoir, On Active Service in Peace and War. “Less than nine years thereafter my young mother died…but the doors of my grandparents’ house immediately opened and took us in to the loving care of the large family within.”7 Stimson says almost nothing about what he calls his “hard-working father,” but in fact he was all but abandoned by him as well. For all the affection he undoubtedly received at home from his grandparents, Hodgson writes, “the little boy must have been cruelly bewildered by the double shock of his mother’s death and his father’s apparent rejection.” Perhaps that was one source of Stimson’s lifelong and, even by the standards of his own time, unusually intense loyalty to almost all the institutions that embraced him in his youth; they gave him a sense of acceptance and security that his distant and disapproving father seldom offered.

Throughout his long life, Stimson remained unwaveringly loyal to Andover, which he entered at thirteen, and which “opened to me a new world of democracy and of companionship with boys from all portions of the United States.” His four years at Yale, he recalled, were “most important to my life, both in the character developed and in the friendships formed.” Even decades later, he remained active in Yale’s Skull and Bones society (and was present in the clubhouse one night in the spring of 1947 to initiate a new class of members that included George Bush). Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1890, created a “revolution in my power of thinking.”8 Later, as a rising attorney in New York, he developed similar lifelong attachments to his law firm, Winthrop and Stimson, to the Century Association, to the St. Hubert’s Club in the Adirondacks (“a glorified summer camp for wealthy, old-family New Yorkers,” Hodgson calls it). He built a country house on Long Island in 1903 and lived there until he died. Always finding time for riding and hunting, he sought to make his days (including, apparently, his long and successful but childless marriage) as stable and correct as possible.


Stimson developed similarly intense loyalties to several of the aristocratic heroes of his age: to Theodore Roosevelt, whose friend and neighbor he became, and whose political causes he championed until they conflicted with his own ambitions; and above all to the prestigious New York lawyer Elihu Root. Secretary of war, secretary of state, revered statesman, Root was to Stimson’s generation what Stimson became to the generation that followed: an exemplar of the ideal of disinterested public service. Shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School, Stimson joined Root’s law firm in New York and remained associated with it until he died. His relationship with Root—a man of stern rectitude and unwavering conviction—became one of the most important of his life, both because it immensely aided his advancement and because it provided him with a model for his own public career. Forty years later, he kept a copy of Root’s collected writings within reach of his desk in the War Department. “Where others would later ask, ‘What would Colonel Stimson have done?’ ” Hodgson observes, “no doubt Stimson asked, ‘What would Mr. Root have done?’ ”

Although Stimson ultimately became one of the richest and most powerful members of the New York Bar, aggressively litigating complex cases in the courts for his corporate clients, he never much liked the practice of law (and seemed to suffer especially from the insomnia and hypochondria that afflicted him throughout his life whenever he was confined within the legal world). Unsurprisingly, therefore, he almost always leaped at opportunities to move beyond Wall Street. Theodore Roosevelt appointed him United States attorney for the southern district of New York in 1906. His success there led him into a hopeless race for governor in 1910, where his unfitness for popular politics quickly became clear. “His cultured accent,” one journalist later wrote, “his uneasy platform presence, his cold personality, almost every detail of his manner betrayed his birth and breeding, gave his electorate an impression of a young aristocrat who condescends to rule…. The opposition press called him ‘the human icicle.’ ” But those same qualities served him well in other worlds.

In 1910, he accepted an offer from William Howard Taft to become secretary of war (even though it precipitated a temporary rupture in his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt) and spent an uneventful but dignified two years presiding over the nation’s small and, for the moment, unimportant army. He served briefly as an artillery officer in World War I (at the age of fifty-one), a crucial experience for men of his generation, who had grown up in the shadow of the heroes of the Civil War. “I have seen and felt real war now,” Stimson wrote proudly at the time, “and been under more fire (little as it was) than many of the civil war ‘patriots’…to whom we have so long looked up.” He clung tenaciously to his military title and was known for the rest of his life as “Colonel Stimson.”

In late middle age, Stimson had become a widely respected lawyer-statesman with an impressive record of official positions he had held but, as yet, no particularly striking accomplishments. He was a reliable man, of undeniable intelligence and unquestioned integrity, but also, perhaps equally important, of utterly predictable values. Nothing he had confronted in his career to that point, and virtually nothing that would confront him in the far more important career to come, succeeded in shaking the stolid, Victorian morality that produced his memorable denunciation of modern espionage: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Nor did his remarkable experiences ever challenge his extraordinary social isolation. His circle of friends and associates was defined by Andover, Yale, Harvard, the Century, St. Hubert’s, and the Long Island aristocracy. Divorced people were never welcomed in the Stimsons’ house. Nor, on the whole, were Jews, with occasional exceptions such as Stimson’s friend and protégé Felix Frankfurter. (Stimson once recommended against donating the proceeds of a bequest to Columbia University by citing, among other things, “the tremendous Jewish influence” there.) An avid hunter and outdoorsman, he made frequent trips into the wild and came into contact with many people very different from himself. But much like a British colonial official of the nineteenth century, he nevertheless stuck to his unwavering moral and social code.

In 1927, Stimson undertook his first major diplomatic assignment when he led an American negotiating team to Nicaragua to mediate a dispute between warring factions in that unstable nation, which had long been, in effect, an American protectorate. His mission was superficially successful, producing a ceasefire in the civil war and free elections supervised by the United States Marines. The lesson of the agreement was a simple one, Stimson observed in his memoirs:

If a man was frank and friendly, and if he treated them as the equals they most certainly were, he could talk turkey with the politicians and other leaders of Latin America as he could with his own American colleagues. And they would not let him down.9

But the prerequisite for talking turkey was that the “politicians and other leaders” must embrace Stimson’s own gentlemanly code. Not all did. The agreement he negotiated conspicuously excluded the rebel general Augusto Sandino, who went on to become the leader of a spirited guerrilla resistance and a revered hero to future generations of Nicaraguan revolutionaries. “It is hard to avoid the impression that there was an element of class consciousness in Stimson’s evaluation” of Sandino, Hodgson notes. General José Moncada, the rebel leader with whom Stimson negotiated, was a man whose “manner and bearing” he greatly admired and whom Stimson later pronounced “as good as his word.”10 The rising politician Anastasio Somoza, graced with good manners and fluent English, impressed Stimson “more favorably than almost any other” and struck him as a “very frank, friendly, likeable young liberal.” Sandino, by contrast, was more common (and more popular) and hence a “bandit…plainly unprincipled and brutal.”11 “By any count,” Hodgson notes, “it was a disastrous mistake to underestimate Sandino” and “a catastrophic mistake to be taken in by Somoza.”

To the government in Washington, however, Stimson’s Nicaragua mission was a huge success and propelled him to larger diplomatic assignments. Early in 1928, he became governor-general of the Philippines, where his subdued and tactful personal style made him immediately popular—particularly since it was such a welcome contrast to the swaggering bravado of his predecessor, General Leonard Wood, who had died suddenly the previous summer. But Stimson was no less an imperialist than Wood, no less certain of the redemptive value of American capitalism,12 and at least equally committed to what Hodgson calls “the doctrine that the United States was justified in using its military and economic strength to protect those who might want to go to hell in their own way but ought not to be allowed to do so.”

He spent less than a year in Manila, long enough to soothe the sensitive feelings of local politicians, but not long enough to do much else. When he returned home in March 1929 to become secretary of state in the Hoover administration, however, he was widely praised in the American press for his “brilliant” success.

Much of Stimson’s four-year term in the State Department was dominated by the unsuccessful effort to find an effective American response to Japanese aggression in Manchuria. A committed internationalist, he was hamstrung and frustrated by the legislated neutrality of United States policy and found himself working to stimulate international opposition to Japanese aggression while unable to commit his own country to participate in any boycotts or sanctions that might result from his efforts.13 His principal contribution to American diplomacy was the 1932 “Stimson Doctrine,” by which the United States refused to recognize “any situation, treaty or agreement…brought about by means contrary to the Pact of Paris”—that is, by war or the threat of war. Highly popular at the time, it had no practical effect.

Stimson was also alarmed by the growing instability in Europe and the increasing strength of totalitarian movements there. But he never developed as much mistrust and suspicion of the new European leaders as he did of their Japanese counterparts. He was, in fact, rather taken with Mussolini when he and Mrs. Stimson visited Italy in 1931. “He showed his attractive side,” Stimson wrote after a Sunday outing in the Duce’s new speedboat, “and we both liked him very much.” Hodgson observes, “He shared with most white Americans of his generation a hierarchical view of the world’s nations and peoples,” in which Asians ranked consistently below Europeans—and Africans ranked lowest of all. (When Franklin Roosevelt asked him about the prospects of a new Haitian government in 1932, he replied: “I did not think it would stay permanently put and I asked him whether he knew any self-governing negro community which had stayed put.”)

Presiding over American diplomacy in the early years of a great world crisis, Stimson displayed both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach to public life. He recognized the seriousness of the dangers of fascism and spoke eloquently of the possible costs of inaction. But he showed as well a striking lack of imagination—both in envisioning the likely consequences of the policy failures over which he reluctantly presided and in judging the worth of the leaders with whom he dealt. His leisurely and opulent travels through Europe in 1931 and 1932 were, as Hodgson uncharitably but not inaccurately describes them, a “rich man’s holiday” which Stimson “was somewhat complacently enjoying…while the world was falling apart.” In Germany, he was much impressed by Kurt von Schleicher, who helped prepare the way for the Third Reich. In France, he was drawn above all to Pierre Laval (“an able, forceful and I think a sincere man”), who was soon to become a notorious Nazi collaborator. Stimson was a skillful negotiator and a superb diplomatic insider when dealing with those he considered his social and moral equals. But only intermittently did he show much awareness that gentlemanly diplomacy had become obsolete as the international order that followed World War II was, in Ramsay MacDonald’s words, “crumbling under our feet.”

Had Stimson retired from public life in 1933, as he fully expected to do, he would be remembered dimly as a respected but relatively minor statesman of the early twentieth century. But his service as secretary of war during World War II earned him his large place in history. Hodgson appropriately devotes nearly half his book to the last five years of Stimson’s official career.

Stimson’s appointment to the war department in 1940 was in part a political ploy. Franklin Roosevelt believed that adding prominent Republicans to his cabinet would undercut his opposition in the presidential election that year (just as William Howard Taft had lured Stimson into his cabinet thirty years earlier to undercut the challenge from Theodore Roosevelt). But Stimson was attractive to Roosevelt for other reasons, too. By 1940, he had become an outspoken advocate of a more internationalist foreign policy—including aid to Britain. And he would give weight and stature to the beleaguered war department, demoralized by years of bitter infighting between the previous secretary, the feckless isolationist Harry Woodring, and his wildly ambitious undersecretary, Louis Johnson. Stimson cleaned house immediately. He assembled a stable of deputies drawn from his own social and professional milieu—a remarkably able group of younger men (Robert Patterson, John McCloy, Harvey Bundy, Robert Lovett, George Harrison) who would go on to form the nucleus of the postwar foreign policy elite. All were Republicans. Most had graduated from Yale (and Skull and Bones) and Harvard Law School. All but one had worked in the law firms or investment banks of Wall Street. “The plain fact is,” Hodgson observes, “that, during a war for democracy conducted by a Democratic President…the War Department was directed by a tiny clique of wealthy Republicans, and one that was almost as narrowly based, in social and educational terms, as a traditional British Tory Cabinet.”

Hodgson does his best to portray Stimson as deeply involved in the running of his department, but most evidence (including much of Hodgson’s own) suggests otherwise. Stimson presided magisterially over the vast bureaucracy. He involved himself directly in broad strategic decisions and a few particularly crucial issues. But he never really ran the army. That was partly because Franklin Roosevelt was himself directly involved in policy decisions, partly because Stimson’s chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, moved outside the chain of command and established direct relations with the President (which Stimson seems not to have opposed). But it was also because Stimson himself chose to leave most of the daily work in the hands of subordinates. In fact, Stimson spent relatively little time in his office. He returned home by 4:00 PM every day to ride or play golf. He spent long weekends on his country estate and took long vacations every summer. He combined his official travels with leisurely visits to resorts. Stimson’s detached style of management was no doubt partly a result of his age—he was seventy-two years old when he took office in 1940, complaining that “I am pretty nearly at the limit of my strength.” William Bullitt exaggerated in 1942 when he described Stimson (to his face) as a “mere housekeeper of the War Department,” but there was enough truth in the remark to irritate the secretary greatly.

Yet Stimson’s personal achievements in the war department were considerable. He was one of the few, perhaps the only, official in government who could speak frankly and unfawningly with the evasive Roosevelt. (“Mr. President, I don’t like you to dissemble with me,” he once reportedly said.) In 1940 and 1941, his was one of the most influential voices prodding Roosevelt to move more decisively toward intervention at a time when American policy seemed mired in what Dean Acheson called an “agony of irresolution.”14 Within the war department, he was intolerant of personal rivalries and political ambitions and created an atmosphere of common purpose. His subordinates may have done most of the work, but they did it according to rigorous standards Stimson set and maintained. He was an invaluable asset to the administration in its relations with Congress, a man whose integrity helped to insulate the administration’s military policies from criticism and scrutiny. When Stimson told Senator Harry Truman that a project he was investigating in 1943 was “top secret” (it was, in fact, the Manhattan Project), Truman promptly abandoned the inquiry. “I’ll take you at your word,” he told the secretary. That Stimson was “a great American patriot and statesman” was assurance enough that nothing was amiss.15 Stimson’s diplomatic skills and his long and close relationships with the ruling circles in Britain helped win Winston Churchill’s agreement that the Normandy invasion should be placed under a single, American commander. His withering attacks on the Morgenthau Plan for the dismantling of Germany’s industrial capacity after the war helped consign that radical proposal to oblivion.

Stimson’s stern moral code and insular social vision made him a hard man to cross even when his policies were controversial or abhorrent. His support for the internment of Japanese-Americans in early 1942 was crucial to the success of the policy. Stimson brushed aside arguments that imprisoning American citizens without due process was both illegal and immoral, summoning what Hodgson calls “the ancient and profoundly un-American code of statecraft that is summed up in the phrase raison d’état: the state has its own reasons.” And perhaps, too, Hodgson argues, he was receptive to the internment policy because he “never clearly dissented much from the frank belief in racial inferiority proclaimed by his closest friends, men like Elihu Root and Leonard Wood.” Whatever his reasons, Stimson’s reputation for probity helped to undercut the position of those within the administration who opposed the decision.

Stimson successfully defended the army’s control of military contracts against the civilian agencies created to supervise the war mobilization. And he fought effectively against all efforts to increase civilian production, even in the very last days of the war. He undercut the authority of Donald Nelson, the ineffectual director of the civilian War Production Board, who complained that Stimson’s goal (“complete [war department] authority over the disposition of the nation’s resources”) would “inevitably produce disorder, and eventually balk their own efforts by undercutting the economy in such a way that it could not meet their demands.”16 Stimson’s policies also undercut efforts to assist small businesses and limit corporate profits, and they helped to bring antitrust prosecutions to a virtual halt during the war. He argued that he was simply protecting military production from delay and disruption. But he was doing so on the basis of an unquestioned assumption that production would proceed most efficiently and effectively if left in the hands of the great corporations whose interests he had served for years on Wall Street.

Certainly the most controversial event of Stimson’s career was his part in the development and use of atomic weapons in the last years of the war. Stimson supported and protected the Manhattan Project, ensured that it was generously funded, and pressed its leaders to complete their work speedily. Like most other policy makers aware of the enterprise, Stimson believed (incorrectly, it later turned out) that Germany was nearing completion of an atomic weapon and that the United States must make one first. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Stimson continued to press the project forward, although it was clear that the only potential remaining target, Japan, had no nuclear capacity. Roosevelt’s death in April had placed the final decision on whether and how to use the new weapon in the hands of Harry Truman, who knew nothing of the bomb’s existence until Stimson took him aside in the first moments of his presidency and told him about it. From that moment on, Truman largely deferred to Stimson’s judgment. The bomb was simply another weapon, Stimson told him, and should be used to end the war. Truman adopted that position as his own and clung to it for the rest of his life.

Hodgson has little patience with the claims of revisionist historians that the United States bombed Japan in an effort to cow the Soviet Union into submitting to its proposals for the postwar world.17 After the war, in fact, Stimson actively (and unsuccessfully) opposed using America’s nuclear potential as a diplomatic tool in its emerging rivalry with the Soviet Union. Instead, he urged Truman to share the new technology with the Soviets unconditionally. “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life,” he wrote in an often quoted letter to the President, “is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.” Nor does Hodgson agree with those who have seen a tinge of racism in the decision to bomb Japan (a decision, some suggest, that would never have been made had Europe been the target). Whatever racist assumptions Stimson may tacitly have embraced, they were nowhere visible in his deliberations on this issue. Stimson even overrode the wishes of military commanders and ordered that Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital and a major cultural shrine, be stricken from the list of potential targets.18

But Hodgson is harshly critical of the decision nonetheless. Stimson himself, he notes, lamented the “appalling lack of conscience and compassion that the war had brought about [and] the complacency, the indifference, and the silence with which we greeted the mass bombings in Europe and, above all, in Japan.” But having deplored the saturation bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, Stimson raised no serious objections to the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, he opposed all proposals to give the Japanese advance warning or to drop a “demonstration” bomb on a relatively uninhabited area. The minutes of the crucial meeting on May 31, 1945, show that “the Secretary agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses” and that he recommended “that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible.” Hodgson makes his own moral revulsion from that reasoning clear in an uncharacteristically sarcastic rejoinder:

In the brief interval before they were incinerated, or the longer and more painful interval before they died of radiation sickness, such a course of action could certainly be relied on to produce a very profound psychological impression.

Yet Hodgson also notes that, almost alone among the principal officials who made the decision to use the bomb, Stimson sensed the enormity of the step the United States was now taking. He spent much of the remainder of his life in a futile effort to limit the spread of atomic weapons through international control and supervision. “In this last great action of the Second World War we were given final proof that war is death,” he wrote in 1947, in Harper’s. “Now with the release of atomic energy, man’s ability to destroy himself is very nearly complete. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war. They also made it wholly clear that we must never have another war.”

In October 1962, twelve years after Stimson’s quiet death at age eighty-three, a group of his protégés gathered in the White House to shape an American response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the meetings began, Robert Lovett told McGeorge Bundy, “Mac, I think the best service we can perform for the President is to try to approach this as Colonel Stimson would.” Hodgson begins his book with this slightly shopworn anecdote to suggest the extent of Stimson’s legacy. But of what does Stimson’s legacy actually consist?

Stimson was never a major conceptual architect of American foreign or military policy. Many of the diplomatic efforts with which he was most closely associated—in Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Japan—later turned out badly. He was an influential man, of course, but never a genuinely powerful one—someone never capable of, and only rarely interested in, pursuing a vision or program of his own or in any serious way challenging the judgment of his superiors. When his views on controlling atomic weapons were out of step with the cold war consensus that emerged after World War II, no one in power paid much attention to him. Stimson’s legacy rests less on specific achievements or failures than on the way he conducted himself in public life—and on how his conduct helped to shape the ethos of the next generation of the foreign policy elite. Stimson’s bequest included a certitude about the righteousness of American ideals and their suitability for other nations; a conviction that diplomacy must be insulated from popular and legislative whims (and hence from democracy); and a social and cultural elitism—born of his own rarefied station—that survived in foreign-policy circles long after it had been repudiated by the rest of American society. But Stimson also brought to public life a personal integrity, a lack of self-interest and of hypocrisy, and a commitment to the ideal of public service that compensated for many of the shortcomings of his social and political vision.

It is difficult to look at the lurching, reactive, political opportunism of recent American diplomacy without finding such qualities appealing. Whatever their flaws, Stimson and the postwar establishment he helped to shape brought to American foreign policy, at least for a time, a consistency, intelligence, and stability that their successors have conspicuously failed to match. Hodgson’s sensitive account of Stimson’s public career makes a convincing case for the relative advantages of an all but vanished world.

This Issue

January 17, 1991