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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Arthur H. Vandenberg

Republican Arthur Hendrick Vandenberg served as a United States senator representing Michigan from 1928 until his death in 1951. During his tenure, Vandenberg became famous as a maverick, willing to buck his party and even alter his political positions when he believed that circumstances required a change. He initially, and reluctantly, supported Franklin Roosevelt’s early New Deal policies, but he changed his position when he saw that the president had moved too far to the left and, in Vandenberg’s view, usurped the power of Congress. In 1943, a contemporary political observer described the Michigan senator as an accomplished elder statesman, arguably one of the most influential members of Congress on foreign affairs, and a man who harbored presidential aspirations. I discuss Vandenberg’s life and career in my 2019 book, Congressional Lions: Trailblazing Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History.

Vandenberg initially appears to be an odd figure to include in a discussion of trailblazing legislators. Aside from amendments to the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, he sponsored few landmark pieces of legislation. His major claim to fame was his dramatic reversal from isolationism to internationalism in foreign policy during the 1940s, which influenced a generation of legislators at a crucial period in American history. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1929, he had supported internationalism, but he evolved away from this view when Europe became entangled in fascist politics. During the 1930s, Vandenberg emerged as one of the most diehard isolationists in the United States Senate.

Yet he acknowledged the changing nature of the world in a famous speech he delivered on January 10, 1945. Sometimes called “the speech heard ‘round the world,” the address signaled the senator’s movement away from isolationism toward internationalism.

He also supported Harry S. Truman’s presidential administration. Although Truman was a Democrat, Vandenberg reached across the aisle to lend his support for the Truman Doctrine opposing Communism in Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe, and the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). With the Vandenberg Resolution, the senator, at the time serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was at the apogee of his power and influence. The resolution laid the foundation for the NATO postwar framework by agreeing that the United States should enter into defense alliances with western European nations. To explain his support for a Democratic presidential administration and his evolution on foreign policy, Vandenberg said that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge.” The senator’s willingness to change with the times made him one of the most influential American legislators of the twentieth century.

He was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 22, 1884, the son of a harness maker. His family was staunchly Republican. In fact, his grandfather had been a delegate at the 1860 Republican Convention that named Abraham Lincoln as the party’s presidential nominee. Raised in his hometown, he attended school there, eventually studying law at the University of Michigan. His family’s declining fortunes required that sacrifices be made, and so Vandenberg did not graduate from Michigan.

Vandenberg worked in odd jobs before he joined the staff of his hometown newspaper, the Grand Rapids Herald. There he found his calling as a journalist. At the age of 22, he became the newspaper’s general manager. Senator William R. Smith became the owner, and he trusted Vandenberg to run the operation profitably. The young editor did so, becoming president of the Herald Publishing Company in 1919.

After he published a series of editorials espousing Republican causes, Vandenberg became a force to be reckoned with in Michigan politics. By 1916, he was prominent enough to become chairman of the Republican State Convention. During World War I, he stepped away from the newspaper for a year to support the country’s liberty loan campaign, raising money for the war effort.

His prominence in Republican politics expanded during the 1920s. In 1920, national Republican leaders sought his advice about presidential candidates. From 1921 until 1928, he served as a member of the state Republican committee. Some observers said that Vandenberg’s searing editorials opposing U.S. participation in the League of Nations helped to solidify public opposition to ratification of the treaty.

The newspaper editor might have remained a journalist but for a fortuitous event. Senator Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, a Democrat, died of complications from pneumonia on March 23, 1928. It fell to Michigan Governor Fred W. Green, a Republican, to appoint a replacement. As one of the most outspoken and well-known Republicans in the state, Arthur Vandenberg was a logical choice. Governor Green was not sold on Vandenberg, but the political pressure on the governor was unrelenting. On March 31, Green, bowing to the inevitable, announced his selection. Vandenberg had just turned 44 years old a few days earlier. He won election to a full term in November 1928, and went to serve in the Senate for the rest of his life.

Vandenberg arrived in Washington, D.C., intent on challenging the old guard. He was among a group of young Turks who believed that they should be assigned to committees and work on legislation based on ability and interest, not seniority. He also took a special interest in foreign policy, arguing that the United States should pursue policies based on realistic self-interest, promoting measures not as they wished them to be, but as they were and as they served national interests. He styled himself a pragmatist.

In domestic affairs, the senator initially supported Herbert Hoover’s economic conservatism, but over time he came to see the flaws in the president’s policies. While Vandenberg never became a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, he generally acquiesced when the administration championed programs that assisted Midwestern farmers and factory workers hit hard by the Great Depression.

Despite his willingness to cross the aisle when common sense and political expediency required it, Vandenberg was suspicious of Roosevelt’s efforts to assist Europe, notably Great Britain, in opposing Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Vandenberg feared that any overt attempts to supply goods to the allies would draw the country deeper into European affairs. When Roosevelt announced the Lend-Lease program to provision the British in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War II, the senator warned that the administration was acting recklessly.

Vandenberg’s conversion to internationalism occurred during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and it was a gradual evolution. Even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he began to recognize the reality that, in his words, “It is probably impossible that there should be such a thing as old fashioned isolation in this present foreshortened world when one can cross the Atlantic Ocean in 36 hours.” Nonetheless, “We still want all the isolation we can get, although it would more aptly be described as 'insulation.’”

The Michigan senator clearly was inching away from isolationism even as he pushed for American neutrality throughout the 1930s. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the senator realized that the nation, like it or not, had been dragged into the war, and isolationism was no longer a viable policy. Reflecting on the changed circumstances, he characterized the congressional declaration of war as “an unavoidable decision.” He had opposed what he viewed as the Roosevelt administration’s bellicose foreign policy initiatives before the country entered the war, but after the decision had been made, Vandenberg believed that it was time for national unity.

He still was an isolationist at heart, which made Vandenberg’s public announcement of his evolution all the more dramatic. On January 10, 1945, he stood in the well of the Senate and made his new views official. The United States could no longer afford to remain isolated, he told his colleagues. The country must assert its leadership boldly, especially if it wanted to ensure permanent German demilitarization. “I want maximum American cooperation, consistent with legitimate American self-interest,” he said.

Reaction was almost uniformly positive, praising the senator for daring to change his opinion in the face of possible criticism for going against isolationist leaders in his own party. Senator Austin of Vermont characterized the speech as “one of the most important addresses to the people of America, to our Allies, and especially to our enemies, that I have heard.” Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. remarked that Vandenberg’s comments were “very helpful” in establishing a new postwar organization to promote cooperation among the allied nations.

Aside from desiring to rein in Germany, Vandenberg’s new-found conversion was based on his fears about the authoritarian impulses of the Soviet Union. He was not naïve. Although the Soviets had been a U.S. partner in defeating Nazi Germany, Vandenberg recognized growing evidence that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin represented a danger to the stability of the postwar epoch. Vandenberg would become one of the key players in crafting American policy toward the Soviet Union during the early Cold War era, always mindful that Stalin and his minions could not be trusted. He reached across the aisle to work with first FDR and later Harry Truman to keep the Soviets in check and build the postwar world.

Despite his willingness to forge a bipartisan coalition upon occasion, Vandenberg did not rubber stamp everything the Truman administration proposed. For example, when he learned that Truman intended to replace Secretary of State Edward Stettinius with James F. Byrnes, a former Supreme Court justice as well as a prominent administration insider, Vandenberg was displeased. “Jimmy Byrnes is a grand guy (for any other job down here),” he wrote to his wife. “But his whole life has been a career in compromise.” Despite his opposition, however, Byrnes won the appointment, and the senator did he best to get along with the new secretary.

Throughout the 1940s, Vandenberg toyed with the idea of running for president. For a variety of reasons, he never positioned himself to capture his party’s nomination. By 1950, it was too late; he was battling cancer. Vandenberg died on April 18, 1951, at age 67. He was buried in Grand Rapids, his hometown.

For later generations, Arthur Vandenberg became a symbol of the legislator who changed his position when circumstances changed. From being the foremost champion of isolationism in the United States Senate to being a prominent proponent of internationalism in the years after World War II, the Michigan senator came to see that the world had changed, and he had better change with it. His calls for bipartisanship appeared quaint in subsequent eras, but he genuinely believed that only through cooperation between domestic political parties could the management of American foreign affairs become nimble enough to adapt to a fluid global context.

In the Trump era, when few lawmakers are willing to put country over party, the Vandenberg model reminds us that from time to time, elected officials have been willing and able to look out for the common good instead of only looking out for themselves.

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