Key decisions involving the United States’ role in World War II, from the nonrecognition of Japan’s Manchurian conquest in 1931 to the bombing of the Hiroshima in 1945, were influenced by Henry L. Stimson. As President Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state, he created the main obstacle in Japanese-American relations before World War II, the Stimson Doctrine. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Stimson backed the president’s forceful actions against the Axis powers. As the man responsible for home-front security, Stimson’s term “ military necessity” helped put Japanese Americans behind barbed wire. And as the cabinet member most knowledgeable about the Manhattan Project, Stimson told the newly sworn-in President Harry S Truman about the atomic bomb and later urged him to use it.
Henry Lewis Stimson was born in New York City on September 21, 1867. His ancestors had fought in every American conflict stretching back to King Philip’s War in 1675. His father, Lewis Atterbury Stimson, set a high example for his son by making a fortune as a young banker and then dedicating his life to the practice of medicine. Meanwhile, his uncle , the Reverend Henry Albert Stimson, taught the young boy the gospel of social reform, laying the foundation for his nephew’s future progressivism.
Educated at Yale and Harvard Law School, Stimson began his career in 1893 with the law firm of Root & Clark, where Elihu Root became his mentor and the model for Stimson’s later career in government. Investing wisely in the stock market, Stimson became a wealthy man. He also served as a National Guard sergeant during the Spanish-American War.
But the noblesse-oblige philosophy of his father and uncle led Stimson to the progressive wing of the Republican Party and particularly to his Long Island neighbor, Theodore Roosevelt. Stimson’s association with Root, Roosevelt’s influential secretary of war, brought Stimson within the president’s orbit.
In January 1902, while in Washington, D.C., Stimson was riding his horse near Rock Creek Park when he heard Roosevelt calling to him from the other side of the creek. The president wanted Stimson to swim across and join his group, which included Root. Looking at the rain-swollen creek, Stimson hesitated until he heard the voice of his former law partner: “The president of the United States directs Sergeant Stimson of Squadron A to cross the creek and come to his assistance by order of the secretary of war.” Stimson saluted smartly and shouted back, “ Very good, sir.” Stimson and his horse nearly drowned thanks to the swift current, but they made it to the opposite bank.The president said, “ I thought you could see the bank on the other side was impossible.” Stimson answered, “ Mr. President, when a soldier hears an order like that, it isn’t his business to see that it is impossible.”
After that incident , TR called Stimson “ young Lochinvar” and appointed him to his first public office as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. After trust busting for Roosevelt and making a failed bid for the governorship of New York, Stimson was appointed President William H. Taft’s secretary of war in 1911.
Stimson described himself politically as a “ progressive conservative.” Like his hero TR and mentor Root, he was also an unabashed internationalist, believing that the United States must take a leading role in world affairs. When World War I started in 1914, Stimson— now a private citizen — distrusted the German empire and hoped for an Allied victory, but backed President Woodrow I Wilson’s stand on neutrality. Stimson believed in pre paredness and supported his friend Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood’s Plattsburgh, N.Y., military camp for training businessmen as military leaders, attending the camp himself in the summer of 1916.
Following the April 1917 U.S. declaration of war, the nearly 50- year-old former secretary of war wangled his way into second-in-command of the 305th Field Artillery Regiment, 77th Division, with a rank of lieutenant colonel. After Stimson landed in France, he attended the 12-week officer staff school at Langres, where one of his classmates was George S. Patton Jr. Following the armistice, Colonel Stimson left the Army, viewing his experience as a “ lesson in American democracy.”
In 1927 President Calvin Coolidge sent Stimson to mediate the Nicaraguan civil war. His success in the Latin American country led to his appointment later that year as governor general of the Philippines. He served in that capacity until the end of the Coolidge administration.
President Hoover appointed Stimson secretary of state in 1929, placing him on a collision course with Japan’s expansionist policies. The Japanese army occupied Manchuria in 1931 and created a puppet regime the following year. The Hoover administration reacted with a nonrecognition policy and a demand for troop withdrawal. The Stimson Doctrine, adopted in 1933 by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and invoked again when Japan invaded China in 1937, led to the American economic sanctions of 1940-41, which in turn led to Pearl Harbor.
Throughout the 1930s, Stimson— once again a private citizen— spoke out against fascism. He worked to repeal U.S. neutrality laws, believing they aided aggressors. In 1938 he became honorary chairman of the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression.
On June 19, 1940, 72-year-old Henry Stimson was summoned to duty by President Roosevelt — who offered him his old position as secretary of war. Trying to put a bipartisan veneer on his administration, FDR had just appointed Republican newspaper publisher and 1936 GOP vice presidential candidate Frank Knox as secretary of the Navy and wanted Stimson to join his cabinet. Stimson accepted.
Stimson immediately threw himself into the job of pushing through Congress the first peacetime draft in American history. Following the bill’s passage on September 16, 1940, Stimson and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall began the long, slow process of building an army, then authorized at 1.4 million.
Equally daunting was the need to equip the new army with modern arms from an American industry just recovering from the Depression. The industrial problem also hampered aid to Great Britain, which needed American war goods. When, just two months before the 1940 presidential election, the Roosevelt administration proposed swapping 50 old destroyers to Britain in exchange for British bases in the Western Hemisphere, Stimson not only urged the president to do so but also used his Republican credentials to ensure no opposition from GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. He then wrote in his diary, “ very possibly the turning point in the tide of the war…from now on we could hope for better things.”
Those better things came on December 29, 1940, when FDR made his “ Arsenal of Democracy” Fireside Chat— an overture for Lend-Lease. Five times the secretary of war went before Congress to testify on behalf of the Lend-Lease bill, which he described in his diary as an economic declaration of war against Hitler. On the day Lend-Lease became law, March 11, 1941, Stimson ordered the first supplies shipped to Britain.
By the winter of 1940-41, Stimson knew the United States would have to fight and was pushing the always cautious FDR in that direction. On April 22 he met with Roosevelt and spoke to him can didly, insisting that the president show leadership by preparing American public opinion for war. When FDR ordered the U.S. Navy to patrol the western Atlantic for U-boats, Stimson cheered, but felt the president needed to go further. At the next cabinet meeting, FDR called the increased patrol area a step forward. Stimson replied: “ Well, I hope you keep on walking, Mr. President. Keep on walking.”
In July Japan marched into French Indochina. Stimson believed the Japanese had embarked on their final course of Far Eastern conquest. He supported the president’s full embargo against Japan and the freezing of Japanese assets. Furthermore, Stimson believed the United States must immediately beef up defenses in the Philippines, while the State Department should continue its “ diplomatic fencing” with Japan. At the end of October, Stimson told Secretary of State Cordell Hull that he objected to an immediate declaration of war against Japan because the War Department needed extra time to build up the Philippines. He quoted his old friend TR, “ Speak softly and carry a big stick,” adding that he needed time to strengthen the stick.
In November 1941, fearing Japan was about to strike at British and Dutch possessions in the Pacific without attacking the United States, Stimson wrote in his diary, “ We should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot.”
The Pearl Harbor attack put the patriotism of Japanese Americans in question. Racists, bigots and many fair-minded but shortsighted people clamored for the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Stimson, to his discredit, finally sided with the exclusionists, calling the removal policy a “ military necessity.” But lawyer Stimson knew the injustice of the order, writing in his diary that the Japanese Americans were being removed “ frankly…on the ground that their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even citizen Japanese….I’m afraid it will make an awful hole in our constitutional system.”
Stimson’s most important mark on World War II and the postwar world lay in the war’s greatest secret— the Manhattan Project. In 1941 FDR appointed Stimson to a committee on the employment of nuclear fission. By 1943 Stimson was senior adviser, coordinating work between the War Department and the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Moreover, Stimson’s well-known integrity resulted in Congress pouring millions into a project the lawmakers knew nothing about. Shortly after Truman succeeded FDR, Stimson informed the new president about the nearly completed project.
On July 2, 1945, Stimson submitted a “ Memorandum for the President,” urging Truman to use all means available to force Japan’s surrender before launching a costly invasion.Two weeks later, when the atom bomb’s first test lit up the pre-dawn New Mexican sky, Stimson suggested a “ last chance warning” to the Japanese— the Potsdam Declaration. When Japan rejected the demand for surrender, Stimson approved the atom bomb target list and sent it to the president.
Less than a month after the Japanese surrender aboard USS Missouri, the 78- year-old Stimson retired to private life. He died at his Long Island home on October 20, 1950.
Henry Stimson’s influence on America’s role in World War II stretched from the war’s seedlings planted in Manchuria to the full flowering of its final tragedies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like most Americans, he hated war but believed it was the only way to destroy the warmongers. And that war transformed Stimson and the country he served. Japan’s air bombardment of Shanghai civilians in 1932 shocked and horrified Stimson and all Americans. But 13 years later two American bombs wiped out two Japanese cities in the blink of an eye. Forty-four months of vicious global warfare had profoundly changed Stimson and his countrymen.
Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.