Granby/William Hamilton " Henry Stimson and Harry Truman: Still shaping history
February 13, 2008
Recently, Dr. George Friedman, the founder and CEO of Strategic Forecasting Inc., explained how events shape world leaders, rather than world leaders shaping events:
“The most important decisions made by Roosevelt before and during World War II were never anticipated by him or by the voters when he was first elected. [President] Wilson didn’t know he would be judged by [the Treaty of] Versailles. [President] Truman didn’t know he would be judged by Korea and Bush  didn’t know he would be judged by 9/11 and its aftermath. None of them had position papers on these issues because none of them anticipated the events. They couldn’t.”
Arguably, Dr. Freedman’s thesis is one of the reasons why it is almost always accurate to opine that U.S. foreign policy is discernible only in retrospect. But like all rules, there are exceptions. The story of the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in order to end World War II in the Pacific comes to mind.
Some would say that President Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson shaped history rather than history shaping them. Godfrey Hodgson in his 1990 biography: The Colonel: Henry L. Stimson: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson, 1867-1950, suggests Henry Stimson had a profound impact upon American foreign and military policy ” an impact that lasted beyond his death in 1950 and throughout the Cold War.
Colonel (as he liked to be called) Henry Stimson had no way of knowing as a boy attending Phillip’s Academy in Andover, Mass., that he would grow up to serve as President Howard Taft’s secretary of war, President Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state and as secretary of war for presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
Not knowing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was less than 18 months away. Henry Stimson gave the commencement address at his old prep school. In 1940, thinking of Hitler, Stimson told the boys that a civilization built up on over four centuries was under attack. Some of the boys went on to distinguish themselves in World War II combat. One of the boys also distinguished himself in politics.
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During World War I, Col. Stimson and Cpt. Harry Truman served as artillery officers. That experience may have informed their thinking when, 28-years-later, the two men contemplated whether or not to drop atomic bombs on Japan. The idea of getting the Japanese to surrender without further bloodshed was central to their decision making. Historians may differ forever on the morality of their decision; however, the short-term impact isn’t debatable. Five days after the second bomb was dropped, Japan surrendered.
The presidency of George H.W. Bush (41) was shaped by Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Following the success of Gulf War I and the fall of the Berlin Wall, few thought a bona fide war hero of World War II could be defeated in his re-election bid by someone who refused to answer the call to don his nation’s uniform. But an economy making the painful transition from Cold War to peace went into recession.
Spending the “peace dividend” shaped the 1992 presidential election.
In 2001, George W. Bush, entered office with a domestic-agenda focus, thinking his mission was to improve public education and to prevent the looming failure of the Social Security System. But Sept. 11 gave Bush (43) a national-security mission, causing him to try to re-shape history from Jerusalem to the Khyber Pass. Who is shaping whom remains in doubt.
Today, echoes of the decision made by Secretary Stimson and President Truman in 1945 can still be heard. Recently, Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani who ordered the assassination of Mrs. Benazir Bhutto, says the jihadist killings of innocent women and children are justified by the U.S. use of atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. Apparently, the ghosts of Henry Stimson and Harry Truman linger on.
Almost forgot. One of the boys who listened to Henry Stimson’s commencement address at Andover in June of 1940 was George H.W. Bush.
” Syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, William Hamilton of Granby, is a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and a former research fellow at the U.S. Military History Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. He is also the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy ” two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
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