THE COLONEL

The Life and Wars of

Henry Stimson, 1867-1950

By Godfrey Hodgson

Knopf. 402 pp. $24.95

MOST PEOPLE have never heard of Henry L. Stimson. But Godfrey Hodgson's first-rate biography of the old statesman and warrior, who died 40 years ago, has a particular relevance to the events gripping the world today. It is as good a guide as any to understanding what George Bush is up to in the Middle East.

Stimson was the patron saint and founder of the old foreign policy establishment. A cabinet officer for three presidents and FDR's secretary of war, he was the link between turn-of-the-century imperialists like Teddy Roosevelt and the postwar Best and the Brightest. As much as anyone else, writes Hodgson, Stimson pushed America "from the edge to the center of the world." He ardently believed that the United States had a civilizing mission, that it could not afford to sit off in splendid isolation. Stimson did his best to get America into two world wars, and then, too frail to go on, bequeathed his sense of global duty to like-minded lieutenants, cold warriors such as Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett and John McCloy. Like Stimson, these militant statesmen believed that America had to be willing to use force to preserve peace. At times of crisis, they often invoked Stimson's name. When Khrushchev installed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1963, JFK's national security adviser McGeorge Bundy sought the advice of former defense secretary Robert Lovett. "Mac," said Lovett, "I think the best service we can perform for the president is to approach this as Colonel Stimson would."

The Pax Americana of the old foreign policy establishment came asunder over Vietnam. When America heeded Ronald Reagan's call to "walk tall again" in the 1980s, the governing ideology was quite different. The conservatives under Reagan were in many ways heirs of the isolationists that Stimson despised. They did not oppose intervention -- but only if the wars were brief and successful, like the invasion of Grenada. While the technique of the old establishment was private diplomacy -- the "quiet chat," writes Hodgson -- Reagan led by mass appeal, by the manipulation of television and popular imagery. Aside from his flirtation with Mrs. Thatcher, Reagan did not devote much time to developing allies, whose names he could hardly remember.

George Bush's intervention into the Middle East represents a return to the ideal of collective security. In his rhetoric ("This will not stand!"), his relentless personal diplomacy, his willingness to use force, and his firm belief that America has a moral duty to stop aggression, he represents everything the old foreign policy establishment stood for. Bush today sounds exactly like the Col. Stimson of Hodgson's biography.

In fact, Bush knew and admired Stimson. In June of 1940, while most Americans were still isolationists, Stimson gave a speech to his old school, Andover, exhorting the nation to stand up to international bullies like Hitler who pushed around smaller countries. Among his listeners was George Bush, then a 16-year-old schoolboy. After the war -- in which Bush had enlisted as the youngest aviator in the U.S. Navy -- Stimson helped initiate Bush into the mysteries and rituals of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society that served as a kind of ruling-class training ground.

Stimson was an unabashed elitist. He believed that the best men came from the right schools by definition. On one occasion, Stimson was so impressed by the work of another lawyer that he simply assumed the man had been educated at Andover and Yale. "It was with some difficulty," writes Hodgson, "that partners persuaded him that, in spite of the man's excellence, this was not the case." Stimson was ambivalent about democracy; he preferred "responsible government" and once noted that the flat side of his sword was "useful for dispersing rioters." He could "never quite conceal his contempt for what politicians had to do," writes Hodgson. By contrast, Bush the politician hates to be called an elitist. He tries hard to show his common touch, eating pork rinds and bombing around in a speedboat. But by his actions, if not always by his style, he has shown that he is a creature of the old establishment, that he is Col. Stimson's true heir.

The foreign editor of the Independent in London, Hodgson knows foreign policy, and he knows establishments. His concluding chapter in The Colonel is the best essay I have ever read in a genre that could be loosely termed "establishment studies." Hodgson writes with a sure hand and lively touch, about the private man as well as the public one. For all his moral certainty, Stimson was a complicated character, prone to fits of temper, insomnia and indigestion. In a careful way, Hodgson attempts some psychohistory, suggesting that Stimson's maladies and his hard sheen were symptoms of his mother's early death and his father's aloofness from his children. But it can be only a guess, because the 13,000 pages of Stimson's diary are utterly unrevealing of psychological self-awareness. Not once is there a mention of the consciousness raisers of the early 20th century, of Freud or Joyce or Kafka, nor of the Modernist movement in art and literature. Aside from an occasional visit to a museum, Stimson's recreations were limited to shooting at animals with other men. But if Stimson was a stoic, so be it; his sense of duty left no time for self-pity.

Evan Thomas, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek magazine, is the co-author of "The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made."