America’s Senator: The Unexpected Odyssey of Arthur H. Vandenberg is a 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.
The following text is excerpted from Hendrik Meijer’s forthcoming biography, America’s Senator: The Unexpected Odyssey of Arthur Vandenberg:
Spring was late in Grand Rapids. Outside the windows of the upstairs room the limbs of the old maple stood bare. But on March 22, 1951, his sixty-seventh birthday, the dying Senator again surprised his children and the nurses. He sat up in bed and sipped champagne. He smoked a denicotinized cigar — “sexless,” he called it, as if that mattered. The room smelled the way it should: acrid, not so medicinal. By this act was he still alive. Only slowly did his puffy hand brush the ashes from the bed sheet, but this was one of those increasingly rare days when he could summon someone for a chat or pick up a book.
His daughters thought sometimes the reading was just a pretense, to persuade visitors he was still lucid. The cancer had metastasized along his spine. The slightest movement was excruciating. Changing the sheets was torture. Even the drugs were a mixed blessing; he had come back from Washington with a morphine addiction that was exacting its own toll.
By late 1950, Arthur Vandenberg had become increasingly isolated from everything but the pain, which seldom left him alone. He could no longer dress for visitors, as he had in the first months at home. Then, when someone flew out from Washington, perhaps John Foster Dulles or a Senate colleague or an old newspaper friend, he might rise from bed to the wonder of his nurse and appear suddenly at the bottom of the stairs. There he stood, pale and drawn, his big dark eyes unnaturally large — even too bright as they stared out from the haggard frame — dressed to receive a guest with the frail dignity of an old knight strapping on his armor one more time.
Now the Senator was asking his doctor, who was also his best friend, the closest question he could pose to the one he feared most. He said he had to know, not, as he put it, “How much longer I have to live, but what service I shall be able to render” in the two years left of his Senate term. He had not yet come to terms with dying. He had grown accustomed to saving the world — or at least the American way of life.
To dwell on the past was to admit the inevitable. Instead, when visitors arrived, he wanted to know what
was going on. Truman and Acheson had their hands full with a war in Korea. This McCarthy from Wisconsin was an embarrassment, or worse, for fellow Republicans. Why was Bob Taft giving him so much rope?
Half a decade had passed since the Senator’s famous speech on January 1945, when he had proposed a post-war treaty among the Allies of the Second World War. This had been the beginning of his late-blooming fame. He had reversed field from a career countering interventionists in the State Department, a career as Franklin Roosevelt’s most effective congressional adversary. The isolationist had turned world statesman — and Washington’s darling. One after the other had come his appointment as delegate to the first UN conference, his role in post-war peace talks, his success in steering through Congress the Marshall Plan and NATO. Harry Truman was in trouble without him.
In the ensuing five years, a long-awaited peace turned into the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and its satellites ranged behind the infamous Iron Curtain. The Kremlin descried the sinister influence of the senior Senator from Michigan. He was a bogeyman, the devil on Truman’s shoulder, exemplar of American imperialism.
In November 1950 the dying Senator received a letter from Edward R. Murrow outlining plans for an hour-long CBS Radio documentary. The subject was the war of nerves between East and West in the shadow of the atomic bomb, “the story of the cold war and the fight for peace in the actual recorded voices of the key figures of these five years,” Murrow wrote. The network wanted a bipartisan story, with Vandenberg “the central pivot of the entire era.”
The Senator’s speeches and interviews would create “a sort of running narration to this drama.” Murrow knew Van was sick, and would not presume to ask him to read the lines himself. Instead, he said, “we intend, with your permission of course, to ask the distinguished actor, Spencer Tracy (or someone of his calibre), to play the role of Arthur Vandenberg.”
The other voices — Truman, Churchill, Acheson, Marshall, Byrnes, Dulles, Vishinsky, Bevin, Masaryk, Baruch, Gromyko — would come from recordings. Murrow envisioned a prime-time broadcast, without commercial interruption, with recordings furnished to schools and colleges. To build a large audience, the promotional resources of the network, from Bing Crosby and Arthur Godfrey to Jack Benny, would plug the show.
“Naturally, we will not undertake this project without your assent,” Murrow wrote. “We have turned to you because we believe that the Vandenberg story is so much a part of U.S. foreign policy and because your stature and cooperation have made the bipartisan foreign policy a living, working thing.” Murrow turned up the flattery, always a good tactic in dealing with Vandenberg. It was, he told the Senator, “your words and spirit” that made a non-partisan program possible.
Words and spirit — that combination had been Vandenberg’s way of charming the Congress and saving the West. And now Murrow assured him that the network would make no demands on the ailing man’s time or energy: “To approach the matter on any other basis would be less than patriotic.”
Vandenberg liked the proposal, but he had to be frank. “I am still far from well,” he replied. Although he nursed hopes of going back to Washington after the holidays, he confided, “just between us, I do not know what I can do if I return in January, as is my fondest aspiration.”
His wife, Hazel, had died the previous summer, also ravaged by cancer. She had understood his world, parted the veil of bluster and cigar smoke. Not so his adult daughters, who fell into familiar roles in the presence of their formidable father: two little girls trying to bring a giggle out of papa. “And not one of us can change that now,” wrote the younger one, Betsy.
The Senator’s mind was a dizzy cocktail of agony, hope and despair. “All we can do is sit with him and give him nothing,” Betsy lamented. As his son, Arthur Junior, fed the newspapers false reports of some slight progress, the calls kept coming. The President wrote from Key West, George Marshall from Virginia. From London, Churchill sent word that he wished they might have got to know each other better. He sensed between them, he said, a “community of soul.”
Mitzi Sims called. This Danish-born widow of a Canadian diplomat had been the Senator’s lover in the traumatic years just before Pearl Harbor. At the behest of the British she had seduced the good Senator out of isolation, some of his enemies claimed, although the Japanese surprise attack and the scream of V-2 rockets over St. Paul’s were rather larger factors. A decade later, alone in Florida, the blonde beauty with the husky voice called Morris Avenue to inquire about Arthur. Betsy took the call. Her father, she said, was too ill to talk just then.
His daughter longed for some communion with her dying father. “He’s always been such a lone, unconfiding, self-sufficient person,” she wrote. This big man, shrunken now, always bold with his assertions, sagacious in a keen, practical way, longed, finally, to smoke another cigar.
In April 2006, Hank Meijer, Gleaves Whitney, and Mike Grass began interacting with some of the nation’s great political chroniclers and practitioners to rediscover a forgotten hero of the 20th century — Arthur Vandenberg.
Hank Meijer is co-chairman and co-CEO of Meijer, Inc., which currently operates 176 stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. A graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in English and significant graduate work in history, Meijer is the vice chair of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation board of trustees, vice president of the Grand Rapids Area Council for the Humanities, and a board member for Fifth Third Bank, the Kettering Foundation, and the Food Marketing Institute. He is author of Thrifty Years: The Life of Hendrik Meijer, and a forthcoming book about Arthur Vandenberg.
Gleaves Whitney became director of Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in 2003. He is author or editor of 11 books including American Presidents: Farewell Addresses to the Nation, 1796-2001; John Engler: The Man, the Leader & the Legacy; and 6 volumes of Messages of the Governors of Michigan. With Mark Rozell, he is currently editing two books based on the Hauenstein Center’s “Religion and the Presidency” conference. Another book, a collection of the wartime speeches of American presidents, is forthcoming.
Mike Grass is president of M. W. Grass Strategic Communications, a Grand Rapids-based media, writing, and production company. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado with degrees in journalism and German literature. A former news and documentary writer and producer — and a Columbia-duPont Award recipient for NBC — Grass has produced numerous broadcast and corporate television programs on a variety of subjects. His most recent production is the award-winning PBS film, Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History.
Alter is author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.Alter spoke on FDR’s leadership during the Great Depression: “It was terrifying in ways that people who lived through it, particularly the early part, the worst part of the Depression, feeling right after 9-11 – like ‘what will become of us?’ Where 9-11 was most fearful if you lived in New York or another big city, in the Depression everybody was terrified, and they literally didn’t know whether Capitalism and Democracy were coming to an end! Unemployment was at unimaginable levels – officially 25%. Toledo, Ohio for instance, it was 80%! During the Depression there were a lot of people who slid all the way down – Harvard to homeless. It was a pervasive sense that things were bad and going to get worse!”Chicago was bankrupt, couldn’t pay any of the employees of the City of Chicago or the teachers for the entire 1932-33 school year, so they had to get by with loans from loan-sharks or the help of family and friends. It didn’t really reach crisis until Michigan . . . suddenly when Michigan people, businesses couldn’t reach payroll, they had to get money from Chicago banks and then that pulled down the Chicago banks, and it spread like a fever and the Governor of Michigan, Governor Comstock, finally, you know, declared a bank holiday, which a couple months later Roosevelt did for the whole country to just stop the bleeding.”What Franklin Roosevelt did was he snapped people out of that terror and that fear and that sense of despair. He lifted that mental depression and gave people a sense of hope. And he did it by acting very very quickly after he took office and very decisively. The big applause came [FDR Inaugural address] when he said that he would assume wartime powers if necessary to confront the crisis. People wanted something done.”Alter also discussed FDR’s fireside chats.
“What was so astonishing about Roosevelt’s leadership is that when he gave the first fire-side chat on March 12, eight days after he took office and the banks were all closed, and he explained to the country what his bank rescue plan would be and said ‘hoarding has become a terribly unfashionable pastime. Take your money out from under the mattress and redeposit it in the healthy banks when they reopen.’ A lot of the same people who had been terrified and had been lining up to take their money out of the banks, they now patriotically lined up to redeposit the money that they had had under their mattress.
“He [Roosevelt] was so brilliant on the radio. I read hundreds of letters at the Roosevelt Library that all said basically the same thing: ‘I felt as if you were talking just to me, I felt like you were in my living room, Mister President.’ This was a new experience in human history. Until then leaders, including European leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, they shouted into the radio. There was no intimacy, no feeling like ‘this leader is talking to me.’ And it was much more powerful when Roosevelt created that bond.
“That’s leadership – if you can get Americans to change their behavior to that extent, and that really, I think, summarizes what Roosevelt did in those early days.
Dr. Greg Behrman, the Henry Kissinger Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Aspen Institute, was interviewed on February 27, 2008. He discussed the Marshall Plan, which was the subject of his 2008 book Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and How America Helped Rebuild Europe.
“[George] Marshall realized,” said Behrman, “that Western Europe was deteriorating economically and that national Communist parties were ascendant, were on the rise in Western Europe, and Stalin, with expansionist designs on the continent, was reaping the strategic gain. Marshall determined … that America had to move forward and do something bold and decisive and … had to stand with Europe as economic partners — partners in their recovery.
“The reasons why we pursued the Marshall Plan were myriad. Humanitarian concerns were part of it — the Europeans were struggling so much. The main driver was our national security interests and meeting the Soviet threat…. Economic interests played a part too. Production was booming and we needed Europe to be a viable economic partner.”
[Vandenberg], as a Republican standard-bearer and leader on the foreign policy front, probably wanted to push back at the Truman administration and this idea of going forward and spending billions of tax payer dollars to help Socialist governments in Western Europe. [Vandenberg’s] was probably in many ways a healthy skepticism as a leading voice in the opposition in Congress to stand up to the administration, to ask some very hard questions and to leverage his influence — and to engage and try to shape the plan as he began to see that this really was necessary.
“The debate which we had, which Arthur Vandenberg helped to lead in the Congress — the profound and consequential and underlying question of that debate and the debate behind the Marshall Plan — was what sort of country would America be in the post-war world. What sort of power would we be [and] how would we exercise our new-found post-war power?”
“Vandenberg wanted to make sure that we spent the right amount of funds and that the plan was structured as effectively as possible … to make sure that the agency executing the Marshall Plan would be run like a business enterprise. That was a great contribution, and Van engaged in that debate and the policy formulation process.
“[Vandenberg] realized that because of the magnitude of the plan and all of the political and contextual obstacles that the administration really had to be prepared and had to be as credible as possible. He recommended to President Truman that they put together … a bi-partisan commission of experts from a cross-section of American society and business and commerce — leaders that were credible and known national figures. Averill Harriman, who was one of the world’s most respected financiers and diplomats, was appointed the head of the commission. After a few months, Harriman came out with his report … and it was exactly what Vandenberg was looking for: rigorous, exhaustive analysis which would help support the viability and the credibility of the plan.”
H. W. Brands
Historian H. W. Brands (right), interviewed on Grand Valley’s downtown Grand Rapids campus on April 19, 2007, highlighted Arthur Vandenberg’s friendship with Harry Truman.
“These two men [Vandenberg and Truman]… had risen from rather modest backgrounds to positions of great influence. I think they took very seriously the fact that this is a country where that could happen….”
“I think there was a certain comradeship that transcended the personal relationship they had. These were both men who felt very seriously about the stature of the Senate and the role of the Senate in advising the president. And Truman, for that reason alone, would have listened very carefully to Vandenberg and would have considered it exceedingly important to bring Vandenberg along.”
“The people who really became great as legislators understood that legislation is the art of the compromise,” said Brands. “Any successful legislator — whether it was Henry Clay, whether it was Arthur Vandenberg, whether it was Jerry Ford or Lyndon Johnson — has figured that out, and is able to sleep soundly at night knowing that this is what the national interest requires.”
“Vandenberg certainly had a claim on being one of the standouts for his ability to put the national interest above the interest of his party.”
“This happens to people if they’re in the Senate long enough. They put on the figurative toga of the senator and all of a sudden they’re a bigger person than they were before. They know they have greater responsibilities — there are only a hundred of them — and they’re able to think in terms of what is in the interest of the country. A democracy needs to honor people like that, and to include Vandenberg in that group is perfectly appropriate.”
Liz Carpenter, interviewed on October 5, 2006, recalled a conference on Mackinac Island, where Republican leaders “were going to try to bury the isolationism that had been the Republican Party.” Carpenter and her colleague, Esther Van Wagoner Tufty, witnessed Vandenberg’s work, converting fellow senators from isolationism to internationalism: “[He] would take them one at a time — the Republican senators — and walk them back and forth up and down [the Grand Hotel] porch.”
Pictured, left to right: Hank Meijer, Mike Grass, Liz Carpenter, and Gleaves Whitney
Jannet Conant was interviewed in New York City on December 3, 2008. Conant is a journalist and author of three books, including The Irregulars, which chronicles British espionage in Washington, D.C., during and after World War II.
“As war raged in Europe,” said Conant, “Americans saw this as another example of Europe getting into trouble again. America felt that it had come to Europe’s aid, helped England pull its chess nuts out of the fire, and, you know, ‘give them 15 years and they’re in trouble again.’ The mood in our country was overwhelmingly anti-war, anti-imperial, and it was distinctly anti-British.”
“Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that Roosevelt would give his tacit permission for a few British spies to come into the U.S. He would ask [J. Edgar] Hoover to look the other way, and the British would come in and try to create a ‘close cooperation’ between their countries’ . . . intelligence communities. It was essentially a massive covert campaign to push America into the war and convert the country in to interventionism. And that covert campaign had to be done through propaganda, through political subversion, through sabotage, through any means at their disposal. It was a dirty ‘tricks squad’ in America, essentially. Their early targets would have been the isolationists – the people responsible for convincing the American public that these entangling alliances would inevitably lead to war, that another war would be costly and possibly another mistake, which was Vandenberg’s view of World War One, and it was a view that was held by a majority of Americans by 1940.”
“The BSC [British Security Cooperation] was the covert public relations campaign….. They planted propaganda in American radio stations, the newspapers, wire services. They co-opted the services of top columnists – everyone from Drew Pearson to Walter Winchell and Walter Lippman. They harassed isolationist senators, they were not above blackmailing them, and they would expose anybody who could be labeled a Nazi sympathizer and blacken their name, embarrass them, silence them. That was their goal and they were very effective at doing this.
“The BSC very much targeted Vandenberg. He was one of the most popular Republican figures, and he was spoken of, often, by prominent people as a potential Republican candidate for high office. The British were obsessed with anybody that had presidential aspirations. They knew that Roosevelt’s health was much worse than the public was made aware of. They monitored his failing health obsessively, and they kept a very thick file on anyone who could possibly be a contender for that office. So Vandenberg was someone they were very interested in targeting and keeping an eye on, and they recruited any number of people to keep tabs on him during the whole run of the war.”
“Vandenberg made their life easier by being somewhat susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex. The British knew this and recruited a lovely British woman, who was married to a wealthy Canadian, and both she and her husband — Harold and Mitzi Sims — were recruited … to keep an eye on Vandenberg.
“Mitzi Sims, who was very engaging, very bright, lovely woman, caught Vandenberg’s eye, and it was fairly well-known in Washington that they had a ‘close’ relationship…. In fact, so close that at one point that Vandenberg installed her in an apartment next to his in the Wardman Park — that had tongues wagging all over Washington. Mitzi Sims was very intelligent, very charming … very persuasive, shall we say, and she went a long way in trying to soften his hard-line isolationist views and move him toward a more international position. Now, this was probably the direction he was going in anyway after Pearl Harbor, but it’s very possible that she used her feminine wiles to try and move him along this road a little faster perhaps than he may have moved on his own.
“Betty [Thorpe] was one of the spies BSC would have flirt [with Vandenberg] … try and soften his views. Another British spy, Eveline Paterson, again a socialite, already well-planted in society, already someone who moved in his [Vandenberg’s] circles he would have known, was someone who would flirt with him, try to charm him, try to plead Britain’s plight and try to move him away from his isolationist views to a more internationalist position. Because this is essentially what happened to Vandenberg over the course of the year , because he traveled that road from a hard line isolationist to an internationalist, great credit is given to the charms of these ladies and the success they had. But we’ll never know how much of that was the feminine influence and how much of that was a natural progression in war-time. Vandenberg was not alone among the isolationists in softening his views.”
Congressman John Dingell of Michigan was also interviewed in the Senate Reception Room on April 26th.
“If you look at guys like Vandenberg,” said Congressman Dingell, “or Truman or Roosevelt or Churchill, you’ll find that they all read and knew history — and this enabled them to understand the events that surrounded them and to come to better judgments as to what it was they should do in these matters and in these times.”
Steele Gordon was interviewed in New York City on August 20, 2008. Gordon is a business and economic historian, and a contributing writer and commentator for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes Magazine, CNBC, Marketplace (NPR), and the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.Gordon discussed the influence that Alexander Hamilton had on Senator Vandenberg: “I suspect that Vandenberg found Hamilton so congenial because he recognized himself in Hamilton, or at least with a similar personality, similar ambitions, a similar way of looking at the world. That’s how we choose our heroes — in the people we wish we were more like.”What interested Hamilton was what works in the real world. He didn’t take an ideology and force it upon the real world; he tried to fit his ideology into the real world. And I think Vandenberg was somebody very much like that.”
Gordon also spoke on the Great Depression.”Even for those Americans who were not personally impacted in terms of being out of work and out of money,” Gordon said, “it was very real. Banks were entirely closed in 38 of the 48 states. So in most places, there was no banking system anymore, and people had no choice but to keep it under the mattress. And there had been bank runs — 5000 banks had collapsed in the previous four years. Central Park in New York City was full of Hoovervilles. There were thousands of people living in tar-paper shacks that they had thrown up because they’d lost their houses or apartments. There were people picking over garbage dumps.”And then he [Franklin Roosevelt] went on, had his first ‘fire-side chat’ talk, and said, you know, when a bank reopens, it’s a safer place to keep your money than under the mattress. And people believed him, and the money began to flow back into the banking system, a banking system that very nearly died, came back to life, and that was accomplished by Franklin Roosevelt’s force of personality.”
Finally, Gordon addressed the American isolationism that so influenced Vandenberg’s early career in the Senate.
“After World War One, we said ‘thank you very much,’ packed up our kit, and went home. A ‘return to normalcy,’ Warren Harding called it — which was, in retrospect, a disastrous mistake, because the United States was the only great power capable of leading at that point. After World War II, we realized that it had been a mistake, that we had to lead the world, that all the other great powers were either extremely hostile — like the Soviet Union — or were exhausted like Britain and France, or wasted, like Germany and Japan. We had to lead or nobody would. For the first time in peace time, we realized that we had to get involved in international affairs.
“The isolationists still thought we were on this island in the middle of the sea, that nobody would bother us. And then all of a sudden, the major units of our Pacific fleet were at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and, yes, they could bother us. Lord Cains once famously said ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what would you do, sir? He [Vandenberg] had been an isolationist, a small government man, and he realized that the world had changed and that he had to change and his philosophy had to change. His philosophy was not sacred — it was out-of-date.”
Ralph Hauenstein, founding benefactor of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, was interviewed on September 20, 2006. “Before the war,” Hauenstein recalled, “there was a sentiment of isolationism throughout the country. That was the feeling of the majority of people…. I think the war changed [Arthur Vandenberg]. It changed everyone really — as it should have. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed everyone’s opinion and [Vandenberg] changed with it.”
David M. Kennedy
David M. Kennedy was interviewed on October 21, 2008. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University, won the Pulitzer Prize for Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”In some perspectives,” said Kennedy, “isolationism was a touchstone of American foreign policy from George Washington right down to Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, there are elements that we still see in our society today. In that era, particularly the 1920s and 30s and going back well into the 19th century, isolationism was a kind of cardinal principle of American diplomacy. Now it’s a minority position, much on the defensive.””Isolationism got a huge booster shot after World War One. World War One was to the generation that lived through it what Vietnam was to a later generation. It was a mistaken war, it never should have been fought, its results weren’t what people expected, and it vastly, the consequences of World War One vastly re-enforced this traditional idea that the United States had no business involving itself in great power diplomacy in international affairs.”This was a decidedly Isolationist country. The Congress five separate times in the 1930s passed formal Neutrality statutes which were designed to keep the United States out of this catastrophe that was brewing that eventually became the event we know as World War Two.”
“FDR was a student of what had gone wrong in Wilson’s time, and among the things that Roosevelt understood had gone wrong was Wilson had not acted in a sufficiently bi-partisan manner. With one exception, he had not taken Republicans to the Paris Peace talks; he appointed no Republicans to his cabinet; and he paid the political price for that.”Roosevelt took many copies of Vandenberg’s famous January 1945 speech to Yalta to distribute, especially to the Soviet delegation, but to the British as well for two reasons. One was as part of his general political grand strategy to keep the Republicans on-board and to give a stroke to Senator Vandenberg, make him feel like he was an important player at this high-level meeting. But secondly, and I think at least as important, if not more important, was his desire to demonstrate to Stalin and to the Russians that the Americans were not going to revert to their Isolationist posture.“Stalin had said things to Roosevelt over the course of the war … that he expected the Americans to demobilize and leave Europe as quickly as possible and … once more not play a very active and ongoing continuous role in the world order. And Roosevelt was at pains to disabuse Stalin of that and one of the ways he could to it was to demonstrate that the expected opposition from the Republican Party had come around to an Internationalist point of view and Stalin couldn’t count, therefore, on a rejuvenation of American Isolationism.”
“I think Arthur Vandenberg’s principle claim on the attention of subsequent generations, the reason he’s earned a place in the history books comes back again and again and again to the famous speech he gave in January of 1945, and all that flowed from that, that as the potential leader of the opposition party’s criticism of this new initiative, an Internationalist foreign policy that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were undertaking, he essentially threw in his lot with the Internationalist advocates.”That was an event of some rather tremendous historical significance, and it prevented a replay of the kind of stalemate that had beset American diplomacy in Woodrow Wilson’s era, which set the stage, in turn, for the Isolationist 1920s and 1930s. It guaranteed that there would be strong and consistent bi-partisan support for these long-term strategic multilateral internationalist initiatives that were put in place at the end of the war and the early Cold War.”I think history would have played out very very differently if those matters had been more contested in the United States for partisan reasons or whatever than they in fact were.”
“I think the Truman Doctrine really imposed a kind of ideological overlay of a strong anti-Communism, this feeling that the world was in danger, the Dominoes were going to fall, although Truman never used the term “Dominoes,’ but you could see that … he’s talking about Dominoes — if Greece falls Turkey falls, then Egypt falls and all of Europe falls. It was that kind of rhetoric. The doctrine was really designed to ask the Republicans, or to push the Republicans, who were controlling Congress into spending money to … bolster the European economy.
“Roosevelt didn’t really prepare the American people in any way during the war for maintaining a presence, whether its economic or military or political, in the rest of the world. So Truman, in a sense, was starting from scratch.”
Arthur Vandenberg is often credited with giving Truman the rhetorical strategy to get through to the rest of the Republicans and the American people at large.”The American people, and certainly a lot of American politicians, were tired of foreign policy. They had come out of a war, it had been a massive effort, they wanted nothing more than to go home and buy new houses in Leavitt Town and buy refrigerators and forget about the world.”Whether Vandenberg actually said, ‘scare the hell out of the American people,’ or not, what you have is a sense that we need something that will mobilize people, something that will overcome this hesitation to spend money, to make an effort to get involved overseas when the country just wanted to sort of go back to nest-building.”In a sense, what Vandenberg is really saying is not so much, ‘scare the hell out of the American people,’ but ‘please, can you mobilize these Republican congressmen and senators to be willing to spend money to rebuild Europe?”
Dr. Schrecker also discussed Truman’s role in the red scare.
“Harry Truman issued an executive order that set up a very unfair, very negative, very limited and really hostile program of loyalty security checks that had actually been designed by the FBI.”
The attitude was, “if somebody looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, that person is clearly a communist water fowl.
“What we had was simply a shoving of all these people out beyond the confines of the Bill of Rights. They did not have regular protection.”
Amity Shlaes is author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. She was formerly a columnist for the Financial Times and was a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, specializing in economics. Currently a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg, Miss Shlaes is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the German Marshall Fund. She was interviewed in Grand Rapids Nov. 19, 2007.
The Marshall Plan was very significant because it stood in counter-distinction to the Versailles Treaty…. The Marshall Plan said this time we will help you figure out a way back to recovery including financial help. That was as important a symbol as the actual spending itself. This time Europe knew we were on their side. Even the Germans… knew we were on their side. Part of that was the Marshall Plan, part of that was market economics common sense; Vandenberg has to do with that, too, because the Marshall Plan was intended to go along with common sense econ, and it did, and some of that common sense econ has to do with basic American conception.”
“The centerpiece of the New Deal was something called the National Recovery Administration,” Shlaes recalled. “The resistance to projects like that was natural…. It made sense to many Americans, especially those who had worked in business, for example, who had had some experience with how day-to-day markets work. What they believed was that the New Dealers were trying to legislate recovery. And along with Vandenberg, who was questioning, there were many others.”
Vandenberg is one of the “forgotten men.” He’s remembered for the 1940s, but his work in the 1930s is important. He understood that the New Deal was also problematic, that perhaps at certain points, it was getting in the way of recovery — that it was re-ordering our Federalist System…. He [Vandenberg] gave a wonderful speech where he noted just that one program — the WPA — was the greatest single appropriation in the history of the U.S. and maybe the world. Well, today when we worry about earmarks, we should know, we can know, that we had someone who understood their providence, who knew where they might lead — and that person was Vandenberg.” He personally “devoted hours and hours in the Senate to combating government excess, to combating Washington’s excess, so he would be an anti-earmark leader today. I think we can say that with confidence, and we need that kind of wisdom.”
“He [Vandenberg] had what’s important for a politician… the capacity to change honestly and to be respected as he changed. Maybe it was he, maybe it was the press observing him, but he did change. He was an isolationist, then he was for NATO and the Marshall Plan…. He was a true leader in that sense. The people said, ‘well, he changed maybe he’s right, and the times have changed as well.’ People change when the times change. Vandenberg was an example of that. He would be now, too.”
Kiron K. Skinner
Kiron K. Skinner, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and associate professor of international relations at Carnegie Mellon University. Interviewed at Stanford University on May 30, 2008, Dr. Skinner said,
“Senator Vandenberg, and others, worked hard to forge an international organization — the UN — that would be democratic in its processes, that would help protect the democratic way of life, and so in that way, they were seeing beyond the immediate challenges of dealing with the Soviet Union.
“Senator Vandenberg understood the UN, I think, in a way that many conservative and Republican statesmen at that time, and since, have not. He understood that the international organization could help foster democracy in the world by having democratic processes. But also the United States, as a principle player in the institution, could help protect its own interests and make common cause with states who believed the same way, or who were on the fence in terms of what direction the country might go. So it was a way to increase the zone of democratic states: those committed to freedom, those who wanted free enterprise but needed a template.”
There are very few legislators today serving in the U.S. Congress like Senator Vandenberg. I would go so far as to say that there’s no one like him in the U.S. Senate today — someone who could work with the executive branch of government and then be a conduit for the executive to the legislative branch of government.
“He was unique, and we need more legislators like him. But he set an example of what can be done if someone is willing to work beyond narrow partisan interests and beyond the interests of his or her state as well. Vandenberg thought in more national terms. He was committed to the national interest, not to special interest, and that’s what made him so effective in the early post-war years.”
Vandenberg’s position was always American security first. And that was for him the core preference — making the United States safe in a dangerous world.
“What changed was his strategy for realizing that preference. He came to understand that the United States would have to be much more involved in global politics, in European politics, something that it had tried to avoid since its founding. So he didn’t change his preference; he just came to realize that the international system itself was changing, and that the strategy would have to be updated to reflect the fact that the United States was becoming the most powerful nation on earth.”
Richard Norton Smith
“If Arthur Vandenberg had not done what he did in San Francisco, we never could have formed NATO, we never could have formed SETO, the building-blocks of Communist containment, even Harry Truman’s decision to oppose the North Korean invasion of the South — all of that grew out of, not the original vision of the United Nations, as significant as it was, but the amended vision that was really Arthur Vandenberg’s handiwork.”
I think [Vandenberg] would have liked to be president,” Smith said. “I don’t think he was willing to rearrange his life in order to achieve that goal. Remember, in 1940 when he was being talked about as a compromise candidate, he said ‘Why should I kill myself to carry Vermont?’ referring back to Alf Landen’s rather dismal showing in 1936. I think that attitude probably stayed with him throughout the 40s when every four years he was talked about seriously as a credible candidate.””By 1948 he was no longer a compromise candidate, because he was no longer a compromiser.”
Gillian Martin Sorensen (pictured), former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, and Stephen Schlesinger, an author and historian, were interviewed in New York City on February 13.
“Isolationism,” said Sorensen, a senior advisor at the United Nations Foundation,”was a sense that we are self-sufficient, we’re buffered on both sides by two great oceans, it’s better not to get entangled in foreign disputes, in foreign issues…. December 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor — really blew that apart. It galvanized people as nothing else could. It reminded them that we were not a nation apart, that this had come home, that we could not pretend that it didn’t affect us.”
“The bombing of Pearl Harbor really changed everything, and I think it was a profound moment for Senator Vandenberg to realize that he needed to step forward.”
Vandenberg considered how [the UN Charter] would be received by the world at large, by other nations, and that was very important because, of course, it was not just an American audience this was intended for….. Vandenberg was visionary in that way, and I wish we had more senators like him today.”
“Clearly we have our national interest — that does come first. But that does not preclude or exclude the global interest. There are ways those can meet, can join, can in effect achieve a global good.”
“[Vandenberg] was a man of Michigan…. He was a heartlander…. I think there was respect in Grand Rapids for political action. There was a strong sense of patriotism, of this as a great and good and compassionate country.”
“Vandenberg’s great moment,” said Vidal, “was when the Cold War was, in effect, declared — the National Security Council Number 68 became law, turning the War Department into the Department of Defense.
“That was the great moment for Vandenberg. He was called in by Truman as the ranking Republican….”
“… Vandenberg [was] entrusted with the task of bringing the Republican minority in the Senate around to rearmament on a large scale. And [the most]… memorable remark of Vandenberg’s I ever heard is, ‘Mr. President, if you’re going to ask for this amount of money from Congress after such a great war to rearm, you’re going to have to scare the American people to death.’ “
On November 5, 2010, nationally renowned broadcast journalist and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg recorded the narration for “America’s Senator.” Stamberg remains one of the most popular broadcasters in public radio and is well-known for her conversational style.
Stamberg took a special interest in Arthur Vandenberg. “We are fortunate and honored to have Susan Stamberg as the documentary’s narrator,” said Mike Grass, the film’s writer and producer. “She is the ideal voice for our project.”Stamberg has been inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame in addition to other recognitions, including the Armstrong and DuPont Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Ohio State University’s Golden Anniversary Director’s Award, and the Distinguished Broadcaster Award from the American Women in Radio and Television.
Stamberg has been inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame in addition to other recognitions, including the Armstrong and DuPont Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Ohio State University’s Golden Anniversary Director’s Award, and the Distinguished Broadcaster Award from the American Women in Radio and Television.
Stamberg took a special interest in Arthur Vandenberg. “We are fortunate and honored to have Susan Stamberg as the documentary’s narrator,” said Mike Grass, the film’s writer and producer. “She is the ideal voice for our project.”
AMERICA’S SENATOR – THE UNEXPECTED ODYSSEY OF ARTHUR VANDENBERG:
VOICE OF ACTOR JIMMY STEWART: FELLOW AMERICANS: CONSIDER THE SKIES OF MICHIGAN, THESE AIRY HEIGHTS,THESE SWIFT BIRD FLIGHTS,THESE CHILDREN’S KITES. HOW PEACEFUL THE SKIES OF MICHIGAN.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hollywood movie-makers produced “Fellow Americans”,a film designed to rally support for the war.
VOICE OF JIMMY STEWART: AS THE BOMBS FELL THESE KIDS WERE SHOOTING MARBLES FOR KEEPS. THEY DIDN’T SEE IT. AS THE BOMBS STRUCK, THE JUNIOR LEAGUE WAS PLAYING BRIDGE. THEY DIDN’T FEEL IT HIT.
Fellow Americans’director Garson Kanin trained his cameras on select U.S. cities that had lost a son or daughter to the infamous attack. One such city was Grand Rapids, Michigan.
VOICE OF JIMMY STEWART: NOW A FEW WEEKS AGO, ONE ORDINARY GRAND RAPIDS DAY, A BOMB FELL. YES, HERE IN GRAND RAPIDS, A BOMB FELL ON THE FURNITURE CENTER OF THE USA. SOMEONE WAS KILLED, SOMEONE OF GRAND RAPIDS.
But perhaps furniture wasn’t the only reason Kanin chose Grand Rapids. This was also the home of Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, one of the most influential members of the United States Congress, and before Pearl Harbor an out- spoken isolationist. His sentiments reflected the mood of the nation in the years leading up to the surprise attack.
CHARLES LINDBERGH SPEECH EXCERPT: “If you oppose our intervention in the war, now is the time to make your voices heard!”
Disillusioned by the aftermath of World War One and exhausted by the Great Depression, few Americans wanted anything to do with another world war, even as cities burned in Europe and Asia. But the Japanese attack changed everything.
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT SPEAKING: “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph . . . so help us God!”
“That day ended isolationism for any realist,” Vandenberg later wrote. “now we are in it; nothing matters except victory.”
But Vandenberg’s conversion did not happen overnight. It was an unlikely odyssey that gradually transformed his world-view as he reached across the aisle to set a bold new course for American foreign policy.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: “I don’t think it’s a Road to Damascus experience, which is often the analogy that’s been used; it’s a process, not an event.”
Vandenberg’s measured steps from isolationism to internationalismhad far-reaching consequences for the course of world events. It is an epic story of two turbulent decades. At its end, the United States is a self-styled guardian of liberty and the most powerful nation on earth.
As Americans wrestled with this new role, they looked to their leaders to give it shape and to Arthur Vandenberg to give it voice. For Vandenberg, it was not a moment to indulge in partisan squabbles.
SENATOR GEORGE McGOVERN: “He had this conviction that the way to get things done was to find some measure of cooperation among the disparate elements in the Senate and in the country.”
Vandenberg’s genius lay in compromise, in engineering consensus as few leaders have ever done on Capitol Hill. He paved the way for passage of historic legislation that became the building blocks of the modern world:
Ratification of the United Nations Charter;
Support for the Truman Doctrine to aid people desperate to live in freedom;
Passage of the Marshall Plan; and NATO . . .
And he set the United States on a path of Communist containment in Europe and ultimate victory in the Cold War.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: “Forty years after his death, when the Berlin Wall comes down, he is at least one of the architects of the geo-political strategy that won the Cold War.”
WALTER LaFEBER: “I don’t think anybody from the United States Congress has ever been as deeply involved in making U.S. foreign policy across partisan lines as Vandenberg has.”