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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 735

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This is the grave of Henry Stimson.

Born into the New York elite in 1867, Stimson grew up wealthy. His father was a rich surgeon. But that doesn’t mean his childhood was particularly happy. His mother died when he was nine and he was sent away to boarding school. He went to Phillips Academy and then onto Yale. He was a member of Skull and Bones there. Then onto Harvard Law. Can’t get more elite than Stimson in the late nineteenth century.

After he passed the bar, he joined the elite New York law firm of Root and Clark in 1891. The Root was Elihu Root, another member of the American foreign policy elite. Root took the young Stimson under his wing and became his mentor. A big time hunter, he worked closely with George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt in the Boone and Crockett Club, which advocated for game laws in order that rich people could hunt for sport instead of poor people for food. He helped Grinnell survey what is now Glacier National Park, stolen from the Blackfeet so that it would be protected for white use, and there is a Mount Stimson in the park named for him.

In 1906, Stimson, a good Republican of course, became U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He became Roosevelt’s preferred attorney for antitrust cases. Stimson was also quite politically ambitious. He ran for governor of New York in 1910 and won the Republican nomination but lost the general election. Instead, when Root stepped down as Taft’s imperialist Secretary of War, he named Stimson to the job. Stimson served the last year plus of Taft’s term. It wasn’t a particularly eventful moment; mostly he just continued Root’s policies, especially around reorganizing and modernizing the military.

Stimson became a preparedness guy during the early years of World War I, with clear sympathies with the Allies over the Central Powers. When the U.S. entered the war, Theodore Roosevelt really wanted to fight. Wilson told him no. So instead Roosevelt tried to recreate the Rough Riders by getting his elite friends to start their own volunteer divisions. Stimson was one of the people who led these. But Wilson didn’t make use of them either. He did serve in France as an artillery officer and was a colonel, rising to brigadier general in the reserves in 1922.

Thanks to American intervention, Nicaragua was a mess in the 1920s. The Marines were engaged in a long-term occupation and the nation could not right itself so long as that continued. There was a civil war. Coolidge sent Stimson to Nicaragua to try and settle it. But see, here was the problem with a guy like Stimson. He was such a racist that he simply didn’t believe the world’s brown peoples were capable of self-government. He opposed the U.S. giving independence to the Philippines for the same reason. So when he went to Nicaragua, he was hopeless in terms of dealing with them as equals, though there was some progress made on the civil war. He even wrote, Nicaraguans “were not fitted for the responsibilities that go with independence and still less fitted for popular self-government.” Definitely Elihu Root’s boy! And after that time in Nicaragua, in 1927, he went to Manila to be governor-general of a nation he thought filled with lesser humans than himself. While in the Philippines, he wrote up his awful beliefs about Nicaragua in his book American Policy in Nicaragua.

When Hoover won the presidency in 1928, he named Stimson Secretary of State. The first thing he did was stop spying on other nations’ diplomatic correspondence because he thought it was unseemly. He stated of it,
“gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Says a lot about how Stimson thought the world worked. He desperately tried to salvage the already failing Washington Naval Treaties, representing the U.S. at the 1930 London Naval Conference, which added regulations to submarine warfare and regulated shipbuilding. Probably his biggest contribution was his outrage over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and his statement that the U.S. would not recognize any conquest of land by force, the so-called Stimson Doctrine.

During the early years of the Roosevelt administration, Stimson was back practicing law, but was a public advocate of preparing to fight Japanese militarism. In 1941 though, Roosevelt asked Stimson to become Secretary of War again. Why would he bring in such a conservative Republican? Well, first of all, they were both New York elites and so knew each other. But also, FDR wanted to create greater bipartisan support for the war he knew now was inevitable even if most of the nation didn’t want to see it. Stimson agreed and led the department through World War II. Obviously this was a huge task for a man in his 70s; the expansion of the military alone was unprecedented. Although he was initially pretty skeptical of Japanese interment, he eventually signed off on it though he never was the biggest proponent of the evil policy. But it was his department that followed through on the order to place them in concentration camps and he did not resign over this so he deserves his share of responsibility for it. He also opposed the deindustrialization of Germany after the war, arguing that it was a critical nation for rebuilding Europe and it needed to be held together. He also feared a repeat of the aftermath of World War I with a bitter and angry Germany. He might have been right about that.

Stimson also ran the Manhattan Project. It was Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer’s deal on a day-to-day basis, but Stimson was the ultimate boss here. It was Stimson who made sure Congress funded the project, even if they didn’t really know what was going in Los Alamos, and he overruled generals who opposed it. He made sure FDR was on board with it all the way. He later regretted not telling Japan it could keep the monarchy before dropping the bombs. However, Stimson deserves a ton of credit for one thing. He routinely vetoed the military’s plans to bomb Kyoto. As it so happens, Stimson had honeymooned in Japan, mostly in Kyoto. He knew how beautiful that city was. And he knew how important it was to the Japanese. Thanks to him, the city was saved.

Like a lot of American policy makers, Stimson justified the dropping of the atomic bomb as something that saved the lives of Americans. It is however worth noting that no one in 1945 was claiming that a million Americans might die in the invasion of Japan. That is a myth that became the common narrative only in the 1950s, as a post-hoc justification for the bomb. That it might have saved 20,000 lives or whatever should have been justification enough, but the million number did psychological work for those feeling guilty about it.

In September 1945, with the war over, Stimson finally retired. He then wrote his memoirs. Remember how he was Root’s protege? Well, he had a young protege of his own who helped him write those memoirs–McGeorge Bundy, who would later become National Security Adviser to Kennedy and Johnson and was a key player in leading the nation down the disastrous path to Vietnam. The foreign policy elite was a pretty closed club of rich guys. Hasn’t really changed all that much either. That book, On Active Service in Peace and War, was published in 1948 and received very positive reviews.

But Stimson’s health was already declining. He suffered a heart attack shortly after retiring and while he recovered, he was also left with a speech impediment. He fell in the summer of 1950 and that was pretty much the end. Confined to a wheelchair, he died of a heart attack that fall. He was 83 years old.

Henry Stimson is buried in Memorial Cemetery of St. John’s Church, Laurel Hollow, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other people who were Secretary of War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harry Woodring, who was Roosevelt’s Secretary of War for his second term, is in Topeka, Kansas, and George Dern, who preceded Woodring, is in Salt Lake City. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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