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Dire And Diabolical

July 2024
4min read

It is a theory of democracy that a free society will produce men fitted for leadership when leadership is needed. It does this sometimes in unlikely ways. No one could have foreseen, for instance, that frontier Illinois would bring forward an Abraham Lincoln, or that the narrow Knickerbocker society of New York would send up a Theodore Roosevelt, at the precise moment when such men were wanted. But it does happen; not invariably, but often enough to make all the difference.

How this happens is a mystery. Men get hammered into shape, somehow. Occasionally the process is painful, with greatness coming out of what looks like a succession of failures. At other times it looks like nothing more than the simple progression, in a job or profession, of a rather ordinary person who is trying to do nothing much more than make an honest living. Then, when a man of special talents and stature is needed, suddenly there he is.

As a case in point, consider the career of Henry L. Stimson. He may or may not have been a “great” man; a good deal depends on how you define greatness, and perhaps even more depends on your appraisal of the final effect which his life and career had on his country. But he was a man of vast strength and of profound integrity at the exact time when such a man was desperately needed in a position of very great importance.

His life, in other words, deserves study, and a genuinely first-rate biography is now available in Elting E. Morison’s Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson . Like all really good biographies, this examines not only the man himself but the times that produced him.

Stimson was not exactly a typical American. (It would be interesting, as a matter of fact, to try to figure out if there ever was such a person.) He came out of the upper crust in New York City, went through the Harvard Law School, and became an eminently successful and prosperous corporation lawyer—excellent things, all of these, but not quite characteristic of the generality of men who are remembered as great public servants. He came, in fact, out of what is slightingly called the Gilded Age. Born in 1867, he grew up in a period that is generally supposed to have been a time of unrestrained getting and spending, when no standard much higher than the standard of the market place prevailed. But the Gilded Age contained various strata, and Stimson’s happened to be one which could implant in a young man an abiding sense of duty and responsibility, even a firm desire—as a distinguished preacher of that generation said—“to do good, do good, do good.” Even as a teen-ager, Stimson recognized “the dead level of materialism and mercantilism” about him, and when he came to choose his profession he wanted more than anything else a channel “for the right use of strength and influence.”

Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson , by Elting E. Morison. Houghton Mifflin. 686 pp. $7.50.

The practice of corporation law does not always offer such a channel; which means, perhaps, that a man finds what he really wants to find no matter where he looks for it. Stimson found what he was looking for. He became a successful lawyer, prospering financially, and he became also a public servant of distinction, a Theodore Roosevelt Republican at a time when great reforms were in the making. He served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York during Roosevelt’s second term as President, fighting and winning important antitrust cases, doing much to implement his chief’s demand that “malefactors of great wealth” be detected, punished, and kept from riding roughshod over American society.

He served President Taft as Secretary of War, doing as much as anyone could have done to help bring an archaic War Department up to date; helping, also, to rivet down the basic American conception that the civil authority is always superior to the military. He served Calvin Coolidge as governor general of the Philippines, and at last he became President’s Hoover’s Secretary of State.

It was a bad time to be Secretary of State. The European world was in the process of going off to perdition in a hand-basket, and in Asia things were moving even more rapidly in the same direction; and under the circumstances—including the profound weight of American isolationism—there was very little the Secretary could do about it. Stimson did his best, and he summed up his failure in an illuminating sentence about the difficulties President Hoover and he labored under: “We were then fighting in the hopeless cause of working for peace when there wasn’t going to be any peace and when we didn’t have any weapons to compel peace and we both were helpless.” In 1933 Hoover’s term ended, and Stimson went out of office. He was sixty-six. To all appearances, his public career was over.

Then came World War II; and, in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt called this veteran back into service and made him Secretary of War again. That he was a strong Secretary of War, at a time when a strong Secretary was desperately needed, is a matter of recent memory. What was more important is that he was one of the few men who pushed to a successful conclusion the enormous task of getting the atomic bomb ready for use—after which he was one of the even smaller group that finally decided to use it.

That this decision must have come hard is evident from jottings in Stimson’s diary, where he referred guardedly to the power which was being developed as “the dreadful,” “the terrible,” “the dire,” and “the diabolical.” But he had learned, from hard experience, the sad things that can happen when (as Mr. Morison puts it) available power is “renounced as an instrument of policy.” Now, in 1945, there was “an available force commensurate with the apparent needs of the occasion, a force that could put an end to an evil situation that would otherwise continue.” In the early thirties he had to work for peace without any weapons that would compel peace. Now he had a weapon that would compel the most recalcitrant. He voted to use it.

He did not stand alone, of course. He followed the recommendation of a carefully chosen advisory committee; and after he had delivered the recommendation, the final determination rested with Harry S. Truman. Nevertheless, it was Stimson who delivered the recommendation. He decided, as Mr. Morison says, that “the bomb was needed and should be used.”

Stimson was fully aware of the sweeping implications of the use of atomic energy as a weapon. It would take everyone, he confessed, “right down to the bottom facts of human nature.” It placed upon the nation a terrible responsibility, still not entirely faced; gave it, also, an opportunity “to bring the world into a pattern in which the peace of the world and our civilization can be saved”—this, likewise, not yet wholly faced. Stimson, in other words, did not make his decision blindly. In that moment of unspeakable crisis America had at least produced a man big enough to see what the epoch-making choice meant; big enough, as well, to leave a final word of warning: “Unless we now develop methods of international life backed by the spirit of tolerance and kindness, viz.: the spirit of Christianity, sufficient to make international life permanent and kindly and war impossible, we will with another war end our civilization.”

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