Michael KreponThe Stimson Center’s Origin Story

Quote of the week:

“There is good as well as evil, and the man who tries to work for the good, believing in its eventual victory, while he may suffer setback and disaster, will never know defeat. The only deadly sin I know is cynicism.” – Henry L. Stimson

Note to readers: The Stimson Center has an internal, informal, weekly circular to help keep everyone connected and sane during the pandemic. I contributed a piece on the origin of the Stimson Center. On the chance that it might have broader interest, I’m offering an expanded version to readers of ACW, adding a tip of the cap to my colleagues, who exemplify the Center’s founding motto, ‘Pragmatic Steps Toward Ideal Objectives’.

The University of Pennsylvania has a ranking system for think tanks. I can’t vouch for its methodology, but I’m proud of its findings: The Stimson Center, now in its thirty-second year of operation, ranks tenth in the United States and eighteenth globally among think tanks working on hard international security problems. Stimson also gets special recognition for creative, paradigm-shifting work. Sure, I’m obviously biased as Stimson’s co-founder, but still, this is pretty impressive, especially when taking into account that Stimson lacks an endowment. We’re a minnow compared to the budgets of think tanks that rank above us.

How did this happen? The short answer is as a result of one well-conceived and well executed project at a time by people who appreciate and exercise the gift of meaningful work. Under Brian Finlay’s leadership, we’ve made huge strides since Barry Blechman and I took the plunge in 1989.

The two of us worked together twice before Stimson’s creation. Barry recruited me from Capitol Hill to work on arms control for President Jimmy Carter and Paul Warnke, the most head-butting Director ever to run the dearly departed Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at the State Department. Then during the Reagan administration, Barry and Doug Bennet (father of the Senator from Colorado) assembled a powerful crew, including me, for a newly created think tank called the Roosevelt Center.

The money came from a headstrong guy from Chicago who made a fortune in the futures market. Pork bellies? Not sure. Anyway, shortly after setting up the Roosevelt Center, our benefactor had a change of mind: he wanted a grass roots activist organization rather than a think tank that would play an inside game. Moral of the story: Beware of donors who second guess themselves and who are micromanagers.

Barry and I again went our separate ways. He worked from home to begin to build a business and to work on public policy. I landed at the Carnegie Endowment – again with Barry’s help. Back then, Senior Associates at Carnegie spent a year or at most two there. I extended my stay by securing foundation grants for my work.

Six years later, in the summer of 1989, my time at Carnegie was up and Barry was feeling squirrely working from home. The timing seemed right for us to work together again. Little did we know how impeccable our timing was. The world was about to change dramatically, the usual policy prescriptions were stale, and fresh thinking was needed. It was an ideal time for a startup.

We asked our foundation benefactors if they would continue to support our work if we set up a new think tank, and they all said ‘sure’. So, we gulped and co-signed a lease, renting six rooms at what I called the Daily Planet Building–the one fronting Connecticut Avenue at Dupont Circle that looks like where Superman would fly off the rooftop to rescue Lois Lane and commit justice against evildoers. (Now housing a KrispyKreme on the ground floor.)

As we grew, we rented space at two other buildings on Dupont Circle. The third was—and get this—the top two floors of 11 Dupont Circle in the Carnegie Endowment’s old offices. The space was available because Carnegie had moved into a new building on Massachusetts Avenue.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We needed a name for our think tank. We quickly dismissed an alphabet soup name like CSIS (the Center for Strategic and International Studies) or CATAWP — the yet-to-be-created Center for Advanced Thinking About the World’s Problems. There were plenty of these acronyms already. Then we considered names of people that weren’t already taken — people who exemplified nonpartisanship and public service and who worked on issues that our new think tank would try to tackle.

Picking a person’s name is a tricky business. Many of the people who made big contributions in American history had serious skeletons in their closets or in plain view. Henry and Mabel Stimson, like most of their cohort, didn’t consort with a great many hyphenated Americans. They were anti-Semites. They didn’t invite divorcées to dine with them.

Barry and I had a chuckle or two about this, as we are both Jewish, with roots in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews escaped pogroms in the Old Country for the freedoms of the New World. My mother was born in Lithuania, along the Polish border. She was introduced to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island at the age of ten. My father’s parents came over from Ukraine. He shortened his last name, Kreponitsky, when he married my mother to improve his chances of making a living. My sisters and I are first generation college goers.

Back to Stimson: On the positive side of his ledger sheet, he left a lucrative law practice to serve as the District Attorney of the Southern District of New York. He was a progressive trust buster in the mode of his friend and neighbor, Teddy Roosevelt. That’s why William Howard Taft chose Stimson to become his Secretary of War—to try to make peace with TR.

Stimson was also a model of nonpartisanship, working for every President but one from Taft to Truman. The exception was Wilson, when he volunteered for service as an artillery officer in World War I after previously serving as Secretary of War. Stimson answered FDR’s call to run the War Department for a second time when another world war had begun in Europe and the Pacific — a war that the United States couldn’t sit out. FDR tapped Stimson because the Republican Party was mired in isolationism, and he thought that his new Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy (another Republican) could help bring the country together for the trials to come.

Stimson oversaw the Manhattan Project and authorized the use of the atomic bomb to end the war as quickly as possible. This was a popular decision at the time, but became controversial later, when some argued that there was no need to use atomic bombs because Japan was ‘virtually’ defeated.

Stimson considered and dismissed this argument. Japan was, indeed, virtually defeated but was still fighting on its home turf and fighting fiercely. From April through June of 1945, U.S. forces suffered 49,000 casualties, including 12,520 deaths on Okinawa. The War Department sent out over 400,000 letters of condolence to grieving families under Stimson’s name, signed in blue ink.

I have one of these letters, written to my grandmother. I am named after my Uncle Mickey, who died at Anzio. My father, Mickey’s senior by ten years, had two young daughters. (I didn’t arrive until 1946.) During the war he worked at the Watertown (Massachusetts) arsenal making munitions. He, too, was a casualty of war, dying of kidney cancer when I was thirteen.

I didn’t second-guess Stimson’s decision to authorize the use of atomic bombs before or after visiting the military cemetery at Nettuno to pay my respects at Mickey’s gravesite. There are almost eight thousand graves there, meticulously and lovingly tended. Stimson believed, rightly, that the atomic bomb would shock the Japanese Emperor and all but the dead-enders in the War Cabinet into surrender. He had no way to explain sending out even more letters of condolence when he had the means to end a war as quickly as possible — a war that had already cost perhaps seventy-five million lives, mostly civilian.

Barry and I knew that our new think tank would work on Stimson’s final cause — to have no more mushroom clouds in warfare. Another tie was that we were committed to strategic arms control, and Stimson brokered the 1930 London Naval Treaty as Secretary of State for President Hoover. (Capital ships with big guns were the ‘strategic’ forces of their day.) We wanted to convey our think tank’s intention to avoid partisanship, and for this Stimson’s name fit the bill. Little did we suspect that Stimson’s record of public service would become increasingly relevant thirty years after the Center’s founding, during another phase of corporate gigantism and allegiance to ‘America First’.

I came up with idea of naming our think tank after Stimson and Barry quickly agreed. The Stimsons were childless, so who would we approach to seek permission? We both knew the answer: McGeorge Bundy. His father, Harvey Bundy, was a close confidante of Stimson at both the War and State departments. McGeorge Bundy helped Stimson write his autobiography, On Active Service in Peace and War, the first step in a career that culminated as President Kennedy’s national security adviser.

Barry and I met with McGeorge Bundy in his book-filled office at NYU. He didn’t know us from Adam. He said he’d think it over while checking us out. He also suggested that we meet with Stimson’s first law clerk, Peter Kaminer, who later rose to become the managing partner of Winthrop, Stimson (later Winthop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts), the white shoe law firm that Stimson co-founded in Manhattan. I met with Kaminer at his private club for lunch — a memorable experience. He heard me out, he and Bundy conferred, and we had a name for our new think tank.

Postscript: Before he died, Bundy was thinning out his library and clearing out his attic. He gave the Stimson Center some books and memorabilia from his father. His most meaningful gift was the briefing that General Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, gave to Harvey Bundy. (Groves gave the same briefing to Truman, Stimson and a few others.) Back then, briefings were presented on easels, consisting of 2X3 foot slabs of cardboard. This briefing consisted of ‘before and after’ images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki taken from observation planes. The ‘before’ pictures outlined in black ink military targets in both cities; the ‘after’ pictures showed jaw-dropping damage.

While I never second-guessed Stimson’s decision, I couldn’t endorse it, either. One of the many essential construction projects after the war ended was to erect humanitarian laws of warfare. Cities were fair game during World War II — by firebombing and then by atom bombs. For me, the enduring meaning of Hiroshima is never again. The meaning of Nagasaki is how hard it is to stop the machinery of nuclear warfare after first use.

After Truman heard Groves’ briefing and saw these images, he intervened to order a halt to preparations to drop a third atomic bomb on a Japanese city. Alex Wellerstein surmises that Groves’ briefing was instrumental in disabusing Truman of his false comfort in thinking that ‘only’ military targets were destroyed by atomic bombs.

Truman never professed to be bothered by the death and destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there is ample reason to doubt that. After hearing the remorse of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the driving force at Los Alamos, Truman refused to see him again. If Oppenheimer had blood on his hands, Truman was bathed in it. During the hell scape that was the Korean War, Truman refused to authorize the use of another atomic bomb. The nuclear taboo began after Nagasaki with Truman. Despite close calls, it continues to this day.

After receiving Bundy’s gift, I took steps to preserve and protect the briefing, which was placed in one of our conference rooms. Very few visitors saw it, so the Stimson Center regifted it to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2016, where it now resides.


  1. Pete Grandgeorge (History)

    Well chosen.

  2. Belleruth Krepon Naparstek (History)

    Kudos on this wonderful piece from one of your admiring, first generation college going sisters, Michael!

  3. Sarah Stimson Karis (History)

    Michael, I agree with your sister ~
    Wonderful and excellent article. So impressive, what you and Barry created.
    Congratulations, Michael, Barry, Brian and team on your continuous achievements and major success. Well done!

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you, Sarah, for being part of the Stimson Center’s family–

  4. Debra Decker (History)

    I never knew all this! Thank you for sharing – and thanks to you and Barry for starting this wonderfully innovative and effective institution.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thank you, Debra. Look forward to your daughter Josephine’s next film project.

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