Stimson: National Security & Social Reform

March 24th, 2010 at 1:05 pm | 7 Comments |

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This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”

Secretary of War under William Howard Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover, Henry Stimson was the prophet of the American Century and the paragon of pragmatic yet idealistic Republican statesmanship.  He was a role model and mentor to two generations of Cold Warriors inspired by his example of service to the nation and his vision of American global power.

Stimson was born into one of New York’s ruling families and became one of America’s earliest corporate lawyers.  When his law partner Elihu Root was named Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Stimson came under TR’s wing and began his political career when Roosevelt appointed him U.S. Attorney for New York.  He called himself a “progressive conservative” in the Roosevelt tradition, and advocated Rooseveltian policies of enlightened reform at home and interventionism in the service of enlightened reform abroad.  As Stimson wrote to TR in 1910, “To me it seems vitally important that the Republican party which contains, generally speaking, the richer and more intelligent citizens of the country, should take the lead in reform and not drift into a reactionary position.”

The sort of East Coast, upper-class Republican progressivism that Roosevelt and Stimson embodied manifested itself through liberal policies undertaken for conservative reasons, social reform not necessarily motivated by social conscience.  Because Stimson and other progressives wished to preserve the social order from which they had benefited handsomely, they thought it necessary to prevent a violent working class revolution by creating a modern welfare state, much as Otto von Bismarck had done in Germany in the 1880s.  The policies advocated by Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” included government regulation of corporate power, a minimum wage, child labor laws, unemployment compensation for workers, progressive income taxes and inheritance taxes.  Progressives also opposed the boss rule of corrupt (and usually Democratic) urban machines and formed Good Government Clubs (leading their detractors to mock them as “goo-goos”).  Many progressives left the GOP after Roosevelt’s bolt from the 1912 convention to form the Bull Moose Party, and some never returned, but the progressive tradition survived within the Republican ranks through individuals like Stimson.

In foreign policy, Stimson carried forth the Roosevelt maxim to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  He was an ardent internationalist, at odds with the prevailing isolationism of Republican conservatives (especially in the Midwest).  He felt that it was in the nation’s best interest to engage with the rest of the world in forums such as the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations.  At the same time, Stimson was convinced that the U.S. could only maintain peace by preparing for war; the country “could not long remain safe in a world where aggressors were allowed to roam free.”  Stimson led the military preparedness movement before the First World War, and helped lead the fight for rearmament and a military draft before the Second.  As Hoover’s Secretary of War, in the wake of Japan’s seizure of Manchuria from China in 1931, he articulated the Stimson Doctrine: the U.S. would not recognize any international territorial gains based on conquest.  The U.S. invoked the Stimson Doctrine following the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1940, and the policy of non-recognition remained in effect until those countries regained their independence in 1991.  The doctrine to which he gave his name was not, in the case of Manchuria, Stimson’s preferred policy; he wanted Hoover to impose sanctions on the Japanese and was disgusted that the president refused to brandish the “big stick” of American power against aggression.

In some ways Stimson would strike later Republicans as excessively idealistic – he dissolved a predecessor organization to the CIA on the grounds that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” and stood foursquare for unquestioning bipartisanship in foreign policy.  But he was also capable of taking hard and even brutal decisions, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Some Republicans were angry that in 1941 he would lend his considerable prestige to the administration of “that man,” their arch-enemy Franklin Roosevelt, by accepting the offer to serve (for the second time) as Secretary of War.  But with the country facing an impending war, Stimson believed that partisan politics had no place in foreign policy; as Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg later expressed it, such politics should end “at the water’s edge.”

Stimson headed a network of influential “Wise Men” who shuttled between the elite professions and high unelected offices in government.  His protégés included key post-World War II foreign policy decision-makers like Robert Lovett, John McCloy, and McGeorge Bundy, members of the so-called establishment that helped America take on quasi-imperial world responsibilities after the war.  Critics on the right called this elite group an unaccountable “invisible government,” while leftists saw, in the establishment’s readiness to exercise U.S. military force globally to maintain American hegemony, the assumptions that led to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Nonetheless, Stimson and his descendants personified establishment ideals of bipartisanship, toughness, sound judgment, trustworthiness, and mature wisdom that most Americans felt was required of statesmen to navigate the perils of an atomic age.

Originally posted on January 28, 2009

Recent Posts by Geoffrey Kabaservice

7 Comments so far ↓

  • coleman

    Thank you, great post. The current GOP is intellectually bereft. NM is about ideas, policy, and books! Limbaugh has made knowing very little about very many things quite chic. He’s dumbed us down. NM can and will smarten us up.

  • jonesny

    This was an excellent article. At this crucial juncture in history, when our party stands in need of direction as well as leadership, we can learn a great deal from the past. Too often, we look back no further than Reagan.

  • Burns


    A superbly written article. I look forward to reading your future contributions. Finally, source of conservative erudition, and none too soon.

  • dragonlady

    Great article. It is interesting to note the Democrats do succeed much more in appearing to champion the “little guy” and often paint GOPers as the party of big business.” We do need to figure out how to undo that image. On foreign policy, I prefer the GOP go back to realpolitik (with American ideals and values guiding it) and educate folks on why the world requires American leadership. We should be both for a strong military and robust diplomacy.

  • Remember the Moderates: Henry Stimson | Republicans United.

    [...] One of the knocks against moderate Republicans have been that we don’t really have any principles. But the fact is we do have values that have long been a part of the GOP. Earlier this year, Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote a series of articles on famous moderates in the GOP. The figures give us a road map for today to claim our seat at the GOP table. I am reposting this series which originally appeared at New Majority now called Frum Forum. The first one is on Henry Stimson. Stimson: National Security & Social Reform [...]

  • ottovbvs

    …..Colonel Stimson….a great man….He’s up there in the top ten Americans of the 20th century…….now instead of the fortunes of the GOP being directed by someone like him it’s hicks with no sense of responsibility whatever

  • sinz54


    I wonder if today’s schoolkids are ever taught about Stimson.

    Anybody here have kids in school? Do you know?