It was January 10, 1945, and a world war that had devastated cities across the globe, and cost the lives of more than 50 million people, was drawing to a close. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan — for years a stout isolationist and one the fiercest opponents of American involvement in European entanglements — stood before a rapt Senate chamber and signalled the completion of his conversion. “I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action,” he told fellow senators:
Since Pearl Harbor, World War II has put the gory science of mass murder into new and sinister perspective. Our oceans have ceased to be moats which automatically protect our ramparts. Flesh and blood now compete unequally with winged steel. War has become an all-consuming juggernaut. If World War III ever unhappily arrives, it will open new laboratories of death too horrible to contemplate. I propose to do everything within my power to keep those laboratories closed for keeps. I want maximum American cooperation, consistent with legitimate American self-interest, with constitutional process, and with collateral events which warrant it, to make the basic idea of Dumbarton Oaks succeed. I want a new dignity and a new authority for international law. I think American self-interest requires it.
With his “speech heard ’round the world,” Vandenberg gave President Franklin Roosevelt his stamp of approval — and that of Senate Republicans — to American involvement in the United Nations. There would be no echo of Henry Cabot Lodge’s fight against the League of Nations; no Republican Hercules of the isolationist cause.
Senator Vandenberg did more than endorse the creation of the U.N. — he played an indispensable role in shaping it. President Roosevelt took 50 copies of Vandenberg’s speech with him to Yalta, where he, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin began planning the new international organization. FDR died before the dream could be realized. But by the start of the San Francisco Conference, convened to draft a charter for the U.N., Vandenberg alone held the ability to powerfully influence the framing of the document and to persuade Congress to accept American participation. In April 1945, Time Magazine reported:
… Arthur Vandenberg was unquestionably the most important U.S. delegate present, and perhaps the single most important man. Molotov would loom large because of the power he wields by proxy from the Kremlin; Eden would command consideration as the spokesman and heir apparent of Churchill. But by & large the success of a world security organization would stand or fall on the question of U.S. adherence. And the answer to that question lay with Senator Vandenberg.
The United Nations charter was only the beginning of Senator Vandenberg’s foreign policy exploits. After Republicans won control of the Senate in 1946, Vandenberg became president pro-tempore and chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. As Harry Truman’s chief Republican ally on foreign affairs, his work was crucial to forging bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO, as well as to organizing the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, and U.S. Department of Defense. A champion of bipartisan foreign policy, Senator Vandenberg called on Americans to “unite our official voice at the water’s edge.”
When Arthur Vandenberg died of cancer in April 1951, after twenty-three years in the U.S. Senate, the New York Times wrote, “Perhaps more than any other political figure of his time, he typified America’s capacity for change and growth, and symbolized our political conversion from a policy of isolation to world responsibility.” His is a legacy that survives in the post-9/11 world.
Today, Arthur Vandenberg’s portrait hangs among the “famous seven” of the U.S. Senate, alongside Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. A nine-foot bronze sculpture in his likeness watches over his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yet the man’s name is not easily recalled by most Americans, nor is it strongly-associated with the foreign policy successes of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as it should be.
America’s Senator: The Unexpected Odyssey of Arthur H. Vandenberg, a two hour documentary film produced by M. W. Grass Strategic Communications in joint venture with the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, and based in part on the forthcoming book by Hendrik Meijer, will examine the life and statecraft of a forgotten giant in American history.