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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.4 (2002) 106-108

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Book Review

Henry L. Stimson:
The First Wise Man

David F. Schmitz, Henry L. Stimson: The First Wise Man. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001. 222 pp. $60.00.

In this small book David F. Schmitz offers a fine biography of Henry L. Stimson, with a focus on Stimson's service as U.S. secretary of war (1909-1913, 1940-1945) and secretary of state (1929-1933). A lawyer whose public service spanned nearly half a century, Stimson may well be considered "the first wise man," as Schmitz puts it.

Every U.S. secretary of state from the 1890s through the Second World War was a lawyer, and it is not surprising that their legal training and cast of mind gave U.S. foreign policy a special coloration. Among the lawyer-secretaries of state, Stimson stands out not only because he believed in the rule of law at home and abroad, but also because he was convinced that the rule of law ultimately depended on force and the willingness of the society (domestic or international) to punish lawbreakers.

Rule of law, of course, implies the preservation of order, which in turn presupposes the existence of a community of like-minded, similarly oriented people (or states). It is not surprising that for Stimson the United States and, more broadly, Britain and some other European countries exemplified this type of community. He kept referring to "civilization," which for him meant above all order, stability, and evolutionary (rather than radical) change.

This was a conservative ideology backed up by a view of the world's people that was unabashedly hierarchical. Stimson shared the racism of the age of imperialism, putting the white race at the top of the pyramid. Unlike some others who held these [End Page 106] views and then came to modify them, he seems to have retained them to the end of his life. Hence his refusal to desegregate the armed forces or to acknowledge the injustice of incarcerating American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War.

Why, then, was Stimson a "wise" man? Schmitz shows that, within the limitations of Stimson's own racism and parochialism, he served the country well during moments of crisis. In the 1930s, in particular, he did perhaps more than anyone else to warn about the danger of self-complacent isolationism. Once war came, he worked energetically, despite his old age, to mobilize the armed forces for their ultimate victory. Few would deny Stimson credit for these accomplishments.

A question still arises, however. Would Stimson have been an even "wiser" statesman if he had shed some of his racist and imperialistic views? Would the country and the world have been better off if a man of his stature had given stronger support to Woodrow Wilson's call for a new world order after the First World War? As Schmitz notes, Stimson was skeptical of Wilson's internationalism because he believed it required too much trust in international organizations and universalistic principles. (It is strange, in this context, to see Stimson using the very Wilsonian notion of "world public opinion" when dealing with the Manchurian crisis and seeking to punish Japan. He had never referred to public opinion when he served in the Philippines or Nicaragua, just prior to the Manchurian incident.)

Stimson's internationalism, the author implies, was more realistic and therefore more workable than Wilson's. Did it really work, though? In probably the best section of the book, Schmitz describes Stimson's efforts in the spring and summer of 1945 to think through the implications of nuclear weapons for postwar international relations. The secretary of war knew that the bomb would hasten the end of the Japanese war, but, in light of its awesome power, he sought to persuade President Harry Truman to consider assuring the Japanese that they could keep their imperial institutions if they surrendered. This is a well-known story, but Schmitz gives it fresh significance by linking it to Stimson's thinking about postwar U.S...