Henry Stimson’s Lasting Legacy
By Allerton Kilborne & James Giles
Perhaps no statesman cast a longer shadow over the 20th Century than Henry Stimson. In an era of partisan ferocity, Henry Stimson provides a glimpse into a past which enabled apolitical service, holding positions as cabinet secretary in four administrations, two Republican and two Democrat.
Born in New York City in 1867 to a prestigious family and educated at several of this country’s finest institutions, Stimson quickly established a reputation of honesty and ambition. “The best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” he once said. “The surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.”
Upon graduation from Harvard Law School, Stimson joined the law firm of Elihu Root, a former Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Along with his father and Theodore Roosevelt, Root would become a life mentor. Root provided the example of an attorney statesman, a role Stimson sought to emulate throughout his career.
Stimson’s first call to public service came in 1905 when President Theodore Roosevelt made him US attorney for the southern district of New York.
In 1911, the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft had greatly deteriorated. Taft recognized the importance of the bond Roosevelt and Stimson shared and seized the opportunity to heal the divide between himself and Roosevelt by appointing Stimson Secretary of War. During his first tenure in the position, Stimson streamlined the army from within, following the methods employed by Elihu Root.
On May 17, 1917, just shy of his 50th birthday, Stimson was commissioned as a major in the US army. He eventually served in an artillery battalion in western France. While in uniform, he never lost sight of his hopes for the post war world with “dreams of a peace that will be universal and permanent.” He would later say that the United States’ failure to join the League of Nations was the worst mistake of the 20th century.
From 1928 to 1929, Stimson served as governor general of the Philippines, only departing to return to Washington as Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state.
While absent from government between 1929 and 1940, Stimson continued to play a decisive role in shaping American public opinion. Through speeches, radio addresses, newspaper articles, and testimony in front of the Senate Armed Service Committee, he forcefully made the case for escaping the confines of isolationism.
He returned at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, who nominated him to run the war department in July of 1940, as the Nazis were advancing through Europe and the Japanese were advancing across the Pacific. Despite protest from the Republican party, and a blistering confirmation hearing, Stimson was approved by the Senate.
At the age of 73, Stimson assembled a brilliant staff and oversaw the American war effort. Two days after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, Stimson suffered a mild heart attack.
On October 20, 1950, at the age of 83, Henry Stimson passed quietly away at his estate on Long Island, his ever-devoted wife, Mabel, seated by his bedside.
Throughout his career, Stimson’s innovative ideas and pragmatic leadership helped shape our nation’s history, and helped make the world a more peaceful and prosperous place.
Today, we celebrate what would have been his 151st birthday by continuing to seek pragmatic solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. Stimson’s aversion to cynicism, his belief in the achievable peace, and his commitment to service are the values we, at The Stimson Center, hope to emulate through our work.