Back in the 1940s, columnist Joe Alsop described then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson as a “granitic statue to the old virtues.” The same could be said of Stimson’s current successor, Robert Gates. When Gates steps down as Secretary of Defense later this year, as he is scheduled to do, he’ll be taking his signature integrity, candor, and sense of noblesse oblige along with him. In a town clamoring with partisan orotundity, Gates distinguished himself with straight talk to leaders of both parties.
Though widely respected for their character as men, Stimson and Gates regarded America and the world around it in starkly different terms. The distance between the two is a precise measure of how much the nation has been transformed in the years that separate Stimson’s era from our own. [Read more about national security and the military.]
Born of a wealthy New York family, Stimson served as secretary of state under Herbert Hoover, where he famously shut down the department’s intelligence-gathering agency because “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail.” Like his contemporaries--men like Gens. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower--Stimson was alert to the moral hazards of a standing army, let alone permanent deployments overseas. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, just before his retirement as war secretary, he argued passionately in a memo to Harry Truman that the United States should share its atomic-bomb technology with Moscow lest the two sides become ensnared in a nuclear arms race “of a rather desperate character.” (Stimson was virulently opposed by James Forrestal, Truman’s tightly wound secretary of the navy, who warned against trusting the “Oriental” Russians with America’s nuclear patrimony. The Soviets of course, developed their own bomb a few years later.)
The Hoosier Gates, in contrast, joined the Central Intelligence Agency right out of Indiana University and would eventually, under President George H.W. Bush, become its director. As secretary of defense under two presidents, Gates would preside over a Pentagon with the largest and most lethal expeditionary force in history with an arsenal of nuclear weapons big enough to destroy the world several times over. This, a generation after the Soviet Union, the closest thing to a symmetrical threat America would face, had crumbled under its own dead weight.
As secretary of war, Stimson, carefully deferred to the secretary of state when testifying before Congress. So too has Gates, a gesture that is more theater than substance given the magnitude of America’s armed might relative to its enfeebled diplomatic corps. To be fair, Gates, unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, has disparaged what he calls the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy. He has diverted money from the Pentagon to fund diplomatic initiatives and he has called for a restoration of civilian control over U.S. foreign policy.
At the same time, Gates has worked tirelessly to ensure nothing inhibits the military’s prosecution of endless war. Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon for the first time was allowed a foreign aid budget it could tap into with only nominal civilian oversight. That fund, which is drawn upon to build counter-terrorism capability among developing countries, has swelled to more than $1 billion and is growing at a faster rate than the nation’s civilian-run foreign aid programs. It was Gates who, alongside his most senior general officers in late 2009, boxed President Obama into widening the war in Afghanistan. When Gates talks about the need for a robust policy making role for civilians, it is often for the sake of waging imperial missions of the Pentagon’s choosing. The Defense Department, for example, is well into an interagency initiative that would unify aid activity across its far-flung combatant commands, a jurisdiction that, by definition, allows the Pentagon to determine the scope and character of aid programs. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
It is probably no coincidence that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “three Ds”--Defense, Diplomacy and Development--which she frequently recites as the touchstones of civilian-led policy making assume the order that they do. So vast is the disequilibrium in authority between the Pentagon and the State Department that it is probably irreconcilable. Gates’ calls for civilian-military “partnerships” is a pale palliative that would have scandalized men like Stimson and Marshall, to say nothing of the founding fathers.
Stimson and his cogenerationalists were the last of a dying breed, informed as they were by Victorian codes of restraint resonant of John Quincy Adams’ warning against chasing monsters from one hemisphere to the next. Gates is the product of a different era, one defined by the doctrine of endless conflict--first with the Soviets, then with radical Islam, and soon with China. He could have used his most valuable resource--the respect he rightfully commanded from both sides of the aisle--to ease America out of the empire business. Instead, he expanded its franchise.