Henry L. Stimson


ALTHOUGH the Secretary of War was born in the heart of New York City and has practised law there for many years, he is by temperament and preference a country squire of a type less rare in England than in America — a gentleman with a traditional sense of obligation to his community and the state. Indeed, a striking parallel could be drawn between him and such statesmen as Grey and Balfour and Asquith, with their scholarly education, their fondness for the land, their versatility, their superficial aloofness combined with their capacity for constructive popular leadership, especially in appointive positions. Stimson has served the United States well, but almost always in appointive office, and he has never really enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of the political arena. But at heart he is thoroughly democratic. For many years his farm, Highhold, on Long Island, was the scene at Thanksgiving of a frolic with his farmer neighbors, at which all the countryside participated in outdoor sports, both afoot and on horseback. Stimson not only managed the entire show, but entered as a contestant in many of the games, and the informal atmosphere of the occasion was long remembered in the township.

In public contacts, Stimson does not readily cast off that native dignity which is for him an instinctive protection, but which in any scramble for votes would react to his disadvantage and keep him from being ‘one of the boys.’ Like many unpretentious and shy men, however, he does crave companionship and stimulating conversation. He is perhaps at his best in argument or exposition, especially when good-naturedly defending his code and theories. He avoids gossip or scandal, but when for a few days he is relieved from strain he is full of diverting reminiscences of people he has met. Under such circumstances, in the woods or on the golf links or before a library fire, he is most genial and entertaining.

When duty is involved, Stimson is obedient to the call of conscience. Personal ambition, the promise of wealth or power, have never been determining motives in his career. Contrary to the general impression, he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, a distinguished surgeon, was a man of modest means, and Stimson had to make his own way. He has done so by hard work. But when it has been suggested that he could help in public affairs he has been capable of any sacrifice. In June 1940, when President Roosevelt suddenly asked him to join the Cabinet, Stimson, weary after a tedious and exacting law case, was looking forward to a restful summer. Nevertheless his response to the telephonic summons from the White House was immediate and favorable. ‘Just let me talk with Mrs. Stimson and my partners,’ he replied. ‘If they have no objection, I am ready.’ Thus he accepted with cheerfulness a responsibility at least as heavy as any American War Secretary has been forced to bear.

Stimson has always prided himself on keeping fit. During the summer of 1939, in the Adirondacks, he climbed mountains, holding his own with younger companions. One morning on the trip back from a fishing camp he was rowing a guide boat, — a very delicate, unstable craft, — with a gale blowing us along in fitful gusts. The waves ran high on the narrow lake, and the intermittent squalls threatened to turn us into the trough, in which case nothing could have saved us from a bath in the chilly water. Stimson finally had to shift both hands to one oar in an effort to bring us about, and for a few seconds the struggle was indecisive. I was sure that we were going over and, in precaution, had removed my trousers and shoes. At last, with one mighty tug, he pulled the boat around, and we drifted to the nearest lee shore. Not for one instant did he betray any alarm, except to remark in a matterof-fact manner, ‘I suppose you can swim.’

Beginning with his freshman year at college, for almost a quarter of a century he spent virtually every vacation in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains or of Canada. He explored and mapped what is now the Glacier Park, climbing and naming many of its peaks, and one of them is now called Mount Stimson. He killed and cooked his own game, made his own camps, and handled his own pack train, being a master of the now almost forgotten ‘diamond hitch.’ It was this love of the wilderness that first brought him into touch with Theodore Roosevelt. In later life he has retained his love for fishing and hunting, and he is still completely at home in the saddle or in the field shooting quail.

Today he is still a man of exceptional physical vigor. During recent months he has faced with skill and patience the most searching cross-examination of critical Congressional committees. In the very controversial hearings last January on the Lease-Lend Bill he was under fire for two days, — longer than any other witness, — and when he left the stand the audience spontaneously burst into applause. So far he has been equal to every demand made upon his resiliency, and he possesses reserves of vitality which will carry him through crises. Those who see him constantly are unaware of any weakening under pressure.

The Stimson home in Washington is Woodley, an old historic house packed with treasures, the mementos of the Secretary’s active career. Here he rises at six-thirty and before breakfast dictates his diary for the previous day. He is at his desk in the Munitions Building by nine o’clock, remaining, with a brief rest at lunchtime, until five, or later if necessary. As an executive, Stimson is orderly, thorough, and positive in his decisions, and keeps each engagement punctually. In the late afternoon he relaxes in a game of deck tennis or has a massage treatment before dinner, which comes at eight. The Stimsons are by no means recluses and on two or three evenings a week entertain guests in delightful, informal fashion. They have, however, reduced their more formal social obligations to a minimum. Furthermore the Secretary declines all but the most urgent demands for speeches, such as that at the West Point graduation exercises. A seasoned Cabinet veteran, he has learned how to resist importunity and avoid needless depletion of nerve energy. Under this healthful regimen, Stimson thrives. Occasionally he goes by army plane to his Long Island farm for a recreative week-end. Even there, however, he devotes time to consultations with people whose advice he desires on a pressing problem.


In his attitude and behavior, Mr. Stimson is a model gentleman, not only of the old school but of any school, and his elevated standards of integrity and decency are discernible in everything he says or does. With all his soul he abhors flashiness and vulgarity, and his own tastes are of the simplest. It is inconceivable that any temptation could induce him to compromise with his ideals for the sake of advancement. His sturdy character is controlled by moral fastidiousness to a degree very rare in such a masculine nature. One cannot help recalling Wordsworth’s description of the Happy Warrior: —

Who, if he rise to station of command,
Rises by open means; and there will stand
On honorable terms, or else retire,
And in himself possess his own desire;
Who comprehends his trust, and to the same
Keeps faithful with a singleness of aim;
And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait
For wealth, or honors, or for worldly state.

If I stress this attribute, it is only because such unswerving, quiet rectitude is rare among men in public affairs. In this respect, as in others, Stimson belongs in the same distinguished category with John Hay and Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes, gentlemen statesmen who found their proper métier in the Cabinet or on the bench.

He has a consistent, well-organized political philosophy, evolved from study and experience—a pattern of thought to which each new difficulty is automatically submitted and adjusted. Throughout life a Republican, he now occupies a key post in a Democratic administration, and some feeble and abortive attempts have been made by partisan managers to outlaw him as a renegade. Even before 1940, however, he was no blind adherent to any party creed. For example, on the issue of the League of Nations, he was drawn far closer to Woodrow Wilson than to Henry Cabot Lodge; and he obviously has been unorthodox on the tariff. By any definition he belongs to the more liberal branch of his party.

Because he has unequivocal convictions and moral principles, transcending party platforms, he has not been obliged to temporize or evade. Everyone knows how, as President Hoover’s Secretary of State, he took the position that Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, in September 1931, was a direct repudiation of well-recognized treaty stipulations, as well as ‘a direct assault upon the good relations which must exist between neighbor nations if order and stability are to be preserved in the North Pacific.’ He looked upon the Sino-Japanese controversy before the League of Nations — to employ again his own words — as ‘the record of the arraignment, the trial, and the condemnation of a great power for the violation of certain new standards of conduct aimed at preventing international aggression.’ Feeling that Japan’s unjustified attack defied not only the League but also the signators of the Nine-Power Treaty in 1922, Stimson condemned it unreservedly, as he would have done a similar case of treachery in private life. The Secretary of State assumed, perhaps too naïvely, that great nations would adhere to their solemn pledges, as gentlemen do in well-ordered society. In future years he did not wish to face the verdict of posterity that his government, and he himself as Secretary of State, had not expressed themselves forcefully on a matter involving international morality. The full story may be read in his The Far Eastern Crisis, published in 1936.

It is not difficult to reconcile Stimson’s theoretical desire for world peace with the rigorous resort to force which he has advocated in some historic cases. Very few men have done more in various ways to help abolish war. Again and again he has endeavored to encourage amicable relations between the United States and the other peoples on the American continent, as well as with the European and Asiatic powers. But when, in spite of all his earnest efforts, the League of Nations and later the Pact of Paris were repudiated by their signers, he had no alternative but to take a strong stand in condemnation of their action. We must, as he saw it, either establish international good will through some form of common agreement or, that failing, be adequately prepared to hold our own in the test of brute force. It is fatal to place ourselves at the mercy of any lawless government which flouts the moral concepts of modern society. Hence it is that Stimson has been both the promotor of a Disarmament Conference and the ardent advocate of active resistance to what he regards as a menace to civilization.

Stimson’s political philosophy is the product of careful study and thought, substantiated and corrected through ample practical experience. He has a clear, alert intelligence, fortified by extensive reading and a perception of cause and effect in social evolution. I doubt whether nowadays he has time to read much poetry or drama or current fiction, but he does cover the field of economics, government, sociology, law, and history, with some attention to biography and memoirs. His lectures delivered at Princeton in the spring of 1934, and later published under the title Democracy and Nationalism in Europe, are the distillation of wide reading and reflection, presenting a scholarly defense of the League of Nations and the motives of those behind it, together with an appeal to the United States to join as far as possible in ‘the deliberate and mature effort of the statesmen of Europe to save their continent and incidentally the rest of the world from the perils of a modern war.’

Stimson’s thoroughness has led commentators to describe him as having a ‘one-track’ mind; and indeed he does concentrate with a passionate absorption on whatever engages his attention, and will allow nothing to divert him from his aim. Even in ordinary conversation he prefers to adhere to one topic at a time, and becomes annoyed at the introduction of trivial or irrelevant material. If the talk is temporarily deflected into another channel, he is likely to await the opportunity of turning it back to its original theme. When he was practising law, he showed a tenacity of purpose which was disconcerting to his opponents, and he checked up on every item of evidence relating to the case. In any litigation Stimson was dangerous, for he overlooked nothing.

All this is deep-rooted in his character. He just can’t be satisfied with halfway measures or hasty, shallow conclusions. If he undertakes a quest, he will pursue it to its logical end. On the pros and cons of our national attitude towards the present European War he made up his mind months ago, and has not wavered. Without ignoring the trends of public opinion, he holds the theory that a government member should create and lead popular thinking on important matters and should not himself be swept lightly in one direction or another by some fleeting breeze of mass doctrine. ‘How are you voting on the Lease-Lend Bill?’ I asked a Congressman last winter. ‘Well, I’m waiting to hear what my district thinks,’ was the reply. Such an answer would seem to Stimson iniquitous. He is a stout-hearted, dynamic person who, when he has established his own views, maintains them staunchly, indifferent to ridicule or condemnation. His firm lips and hard-set jaw show indomitable resolution. He has always been regarded as a stubborn statesman.

In presenting his ideas in speech or writing, Stimson is not facile or fluent, but chooses to prepare himself carefully. I have known him to work an entire morning over a ten-minute address. When he speaks without notes he talks deliberately, as if weighing the significance of each phrase, with the result that his sentences are never blurred or confused. He believes that language should be used to reveal, not to conceal, thought. But he does not confine himself to cold logic. Some of his public utterances during the past year have literally throbbed with emotion. It is difficult to be cynical or flippant when you listen to his sincere, convincing words. He means what he says.


Stimson has had an adventurous, varied, and rich life, as a much condensed summary of his career will indicate. After being graduated at sixteen from Phillips Academy, Andover, he went to Yale, where he made a fine record in his studies and won more than his share of college honors as a member of the class of 1888. He took a law degree at Harvard, was admitted to the bar in 1891, and two years later joined the firm of Root and Clark, of which Elihu Root was then the senior partner. In the same year he married Mabel Wellington White, of New Haven, who has been ever since his companion on his trips into the wilds and his missions to foreign countries. A woman of unusual charm, she has, with remarkable abnegation, subordinated her own inclinations to his, and her reward has come in his reliance upon her judgment. Theirs has been an exceptionally happy and fortunate comradeship of congenial tastes and joint accomplishments.

Root took a fancy to Stimson, and the younger man profited by the relationship. Gaining rapidly in prestige and influence, he was appointed in 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt, as United States Attorney for the Southern New York District, and achieved wide recognition by his prosecution of some dramatic law cases. In 1910 Roosevelt, after returning from his African hunting expedition, jumped into the New York political campaign by leading a revolt against what he called ‘the tyranny of party machines and party machinery.’ He needed some friendly adherent to run for Governor, and Stimson yielded to persuasion. The election, however, occurred at a time when disappointment with President Taft had aroused a strong Democratic reaction throughout the nation; furthermore Stimson was linked by the press with Roosevelt’s alleged manœuvring for a third term. The combination of factors led to Stimson’s defeat by his Democratic opponent, John A. Dix. It was the first and last real political contest in which he was to be a candidate, although later he was elected as a delegate at large to the New York Constitutional Convention.

In May 1911, President Taft appointed him as Secretary of War to succeed Jacob M. Dickinson, and he remained in the Cabinet until the Republicans went out on March 4, 1913. During the campaign of 1912, in which his two friends, Roosevelt and Taft, were pitted against one another, he had a divided allegiance, but pledged his support to the latter. ‘Archie’ Butt, in the White House, put the case clearly for friends of the administration when he wrote, ‘No matter how much we may love the Colonel, we must remain true to the President, or else we should have left him a month ago. Any other course is full of dishonor and baseness.’ This was Stimson’s position. In 1913 he returned to his law office, but in the spring of 1915 he was chiefly occupied with the Constitutional Convention, of which he was one of the controlling spirits. The revised Constitution proposed by the Convention was rejected at the polls, although many of the specific reforms suggested by Stimson and his friends have since been embodied gradually in the State Constitution.

For years Stimson had been a member of the famous New York Squadron A, having worked up from private to first lieutenant; and as early as the autumn of 1915 he was a pioneer, with Colonel Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, in advocating preparedness measures. Although he attended the Plattsburg Training Camp in 1916, he could not be commissioned in the Reserve Corps because he was over age, but in June 1917 he was appointed a Major Judge Advocate and later transferred to the Field Artillery. Assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces in France, he saw combat service as lieutenantcolonel, later as colonel, and was decorated by the Belgian and French governments. He is the only man who has been Secretary of War and later served in the army under generals whom he had formerly commanded. Colonel Stimson was a fine officer. No swivelchair soldier, he knows from vicissitudes and hardships what modern war is like, and he talks the robust language of army men.

After this military interlude, Colonel Stimson again resumed his practice in New York City. He was frequently consulted during the Coolidge period, and finally the President asked him to go as his Special Representative to Nicaragua to bring about peace in that revolution-ridden country. His quick success on this mission led to his appointment as Governor-General of the Philippine Islands — which he had already visited unofficially in 1926 — as the successor to General Leonard Wood. There his tact and sympathy made him very popular with the natives. In the spring of 1929 he was named by President Hoover as Secretary of State, remaining throughout that ill-fated administration. It was inevitable that he should be Chairman of the American Delegation to the London Naval Conference of 1930 and of the Disarmament Conference at Geneva in 1932. At both he proved himself to be a lover of peace and an advocate of all reasonable disarmament measures. Unfortunately his dreams were not to be realized.

Not quite thirty years after he had become Secretary of War under Taft he returned to the same Cabinet position, this time under a Democratic President with many of whose domestic policies he had not hitherto been in accord. In 1940 he was a trusted statesman who had been nearly everywhere and met nearly everybody, who had been praised by such different Chief Executives as Taft, Coolidge, and Hoover, and who was at the moment outstanding because of his uncompromising views on Nazi aggressions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the hope of uniting Republicans and Democrats on the broad issue of national defense, asked Stimson and Knox into the Cabinet; and they, although lifelong Republicans, accepted their appointments as their patriotic duty.


Stimson is a diplomat, and therefore usually discreet. But he can also be refreshingly blunt, and, as an Elder Statesman with an assured reputation, he can and does express his views without mincing words, even to the President himself. He has rightly been regarded as the spokesman for those in the Cabinet who approve of American intervention on the side of Great Britain to the full extent of our resources. From the day when England, under stress, declared war on Germany in September 1939, Colonel Stimson has been in advance of American public opinion and has used his influence to guide it properly. He has advocated successively the modification of the Neutrality Act, the exchange of our destroyers for bases on British soil, the adoption of compulsory military training, the passage of the Lease-Lend Bill, and all other subsidiary measures intended to promote national defense and cement our relations with Great Britain. His position has been declared so openly that no one can be in any doubt where he stands. In an address on June 14, 1939, he summarized his belief as follows: —

‘The world today is divided into two necessarily opposed groups of governments. These governments are divided both by irreconcilable principles for international behavior without their borders as well as by irreconcilable principles of human rights and behavior within their borders. One group is striving for international justice and freedom, both without and within, while the other group recognizes only the rule of force, both without and within.’

Not long afterward he asserted, ‘The battle now being waged by the Allies is our battle. . . . There is no time to lose.’ Today he is still encouraging the administration to assume the leadership which, in his judgment, a large majority of Americans are craving.

It must be emphasized that Colonel Stimson has an obvious rugged virtue, a forthright independence, like that shown by Cato and Gladstone, by Grover Cleveland and George F. Hoar. He will not resort to compromise or appeasement for the sake of tranquillity of mind. He has never, so far as I know, dodged an unpleasant task or feared to confront a critic. Last winter a little group of young people, presumably representing the American Youth Movement, started to picket the War Department beneath the Secretary’s window, carrying banners alleging discrimination against Negroes in the army. After watching them for a few minutes, Stimson went down into the chilly morning air without his hat or coat, halted the procession, and addressed the paraders very simply and candidly, telling them that they had evidently not investigated the situation and outlining what the War Department had done and was proposing to do to give black soldiers a square deal. It was an impetuous but salutary method of driving home the truth, and the picketers did not appear again.

Still another of his conspicuous attributes is his passion for justice. Unyielding though he is on certain issues, he recognizes that, unless an evil motive is involved, every man is entitled to a hearing; and he himself is watchful not to pronounce a judgment without considering all the evidence. He is never affected by a personal prejudice in reaching a decision. Furthermore he is extremely loyal to those who have his confidence. On one occasion, when he was sitting quite comfortably with a group after dinner, somebody uttered a half-slurring criticism of Mr. Justice Frankfurter. Stimson sat up a little straighter in his chair, caught the attention of the guests, and then began with a good-natured smile, ‘Gentlemen, perhaps you’ll let me tell you what I know of Felix Frankfurter.’ He then proceeded to describe Frankfurter’s career from the time when, as a young graduate of Harvard Law School, he became Stimson’s assistant as United States Attorney for the Southern New York District to the period when he declined a nomination for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and finally, in 1939, became Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It was a thrilling story, punctuated at intervals by picturesque incidents and decorated with humor. Gradually Stimson built up a picture of a keen-minded, farsighted, very honorable lawyer and jurist, and some of his audience found themselves modifying their preconceived and not very well substantiated opinions. ‘I do not agree with the Justice in all that he has said,’ concluded Colonel Stimson, ‘but I regard him as a fine American citizen and an ornament to the bench.’ I have never heard a worthier tribute paid by one friend to another.

Among the Secretary’s other generous traits is his consideration for those around him. At the very moment when he is allowing himself no respite, he is admonishing others not to work too hard or get too tired. Like all true gentlemen, he is thoughtful of servants and subordinates. He is exacting, impatient of delay, and disturbed when a task is done slowly or badly; but he does not expect from his staff what he is not ready and willing to do himself. He is a shrewd judge of men and has surrounded himself with able associates, like Robert P. Patterson and Robert A. Lovett, John J. McCloy and Harvey H. Bundy, who have been infected with his own zeal and industry. According to the calendar he may be an Elder Statesman, but he has the audacity, the courage, the ceaseless drive, which are conventionally ascribed to younger leaders. And that he is a leader no one in the War Department has any doubt.

He can still, if necessary, carry through a program which would exhaust a less tough-fibred campaigner. Last April he flew one Friday morning from Washington to Long Island, leaving Mrs. Stimson there at their home. Continuing on to Camp Edwards, on Cape Cod, he examined the cantonment and troops and had luncheon and a conference with some divisional officers. In the late afternoon he boarded a plane for the Boston Airport, where he was met and motored to Andover, twenty miles to the north. After a short rest and dinner, he insisted on inspecting the Phillips Academy Rifle Club and talking with those who had it in charge. Incidentally, although he has always shot left-handed because of an eye difficulty, he is still a first-class marksman. On the following morning he was up by seven o’clock and, after breakfast, strolled about the campus revisiting his schoolboy haunts; he lunched at his own request with about twenty of the undergraduates and answered their eager queries about the war; he presided from two until five at a meeting of the Andover Trustees, and finally flew down from Boston to Huntington in time for a late dinner with his wife. Throughout the trip he was on the alert, remembering names without hesitation and never missing an appointment on his schedule.

Stimson has not escaped some very human weaknesses. Quick of temper, he succumbs to moods of irascibility when the fur is likely to fly in his immediate vicinity. He is completely intolerant of meanness or rascality. He has his periods of doubt and dejection as well as those of optimism. In his long career he has made, like everyone else in authority, his mistakes of omission and commission, and often in his idealism he has trusted cynical statesmen too far. But he has been right most of the time — never more so than in the last decade. Unquestionably, too, he does inspire confidence. I have already quoted the ‘Happy Warrior’ as in several respects peculiarly applicable to Mr. Stimson. Certainly, since he has come back to the War Department, he has shown himself to be a chieftain

. . . Who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a Lover; and attired
With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired.

Fortunately for the country, Stimson did reënter public life at such an ‘awful moment,’ when ‘great issues, good or bad for human kind,’ are being decided, and he has measured up to the need. His influence is now very potent in administration circles, for it is realized that he has so far been a true prophet. Moreover he has no political axe to grind. He has no desire to be involved in the domestic policies and program of the Democrats. He came into the Cabinet for one entirely patriotic purpose, — to defend his country against the threat of the totalitarian states, — and he has pushed ahead steadily, unflinchingly, towards the victory which seems to him to be of supreme importance if the United States is to continue free. History is likely to reach the conclusion that Henry L. Stimson, by his early intuitive analysis of the moral issues involved in this war and by his insistence that the American people should resolutely give all-out aid to Great Britain, provided the nation with additional wise leadership at a time when it was decisive. He has not faltered even when the Little Americans have been most denunciatory. He has crowned a distinguished career with an act of conspicuous renunciation and loyalty.