In a small Brazilian city 70 years ago this month, two big things happened. One was political, the other personal, but both did much to lay the groundwork for the last seven decades of world order and America’s role in it.
In September 1947, diplomats from all but two countries in the western hemisphere convened in a resort designed to resemble a Bavarian castle, newly built in the mountains above Rio de Janeiro. The Pan-American Conference came two years after the end of World War II, at a time when the world looked far more dangerous than most people could have imagined once the atomic bomb had forced the surrender of Japan.
General George C. Marshall, appointed secretary of state earlier in the year, led the American delegation, which included Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Like most of the other delegates, they flew into Rio. Their hour and a half drive wound higher and higher through lush hills, to Brazil’s “Imperial City,” Petropolis. Settled by Bavarian immigrants in the mid-19th century, it could have been transplanted from southern Germany, though unlike its European counterparts, it had come through the war unscathed. Petropolis was accustomed to notable visitors. It was home to the summer palace of Brazilian Emperor Pedro II. Here the royal family had escaped the summer heat of Rio. Here too more recently the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig had found refuge from Nazi Germany.
The Pan-American conferees converged on a startling new resort hotel just outside the town. (Theirs was to be a happier fate than Zweig’s. In 1942 the writer fell into depression in his exile from Europe. With his wife he swallowed a fatal dose of poison in rented quarters a few blocks from the palace.) The resort, Quitandinha Farm, had been opened just three years before as a showplace of Brazilian sophistication. It was a wondrous confection of Bavarian kitsch set against South American hills dotted with vacation villas. Its lush lawn sloped down to a small lake.
The Pan-American Conference was designed to complete work that had been interrupted two years earlier by the writing of the United Nations charter. Its goal was a security treaty providing for the mutual defense of all nations within the hemispheric region. The pact, the first alliance created since the founding of the UN, was designed to avoid UN vetoes—a tool favored by the increasingly intransigent Soviet Union, but within and respecting the charter of the United Nations. (In helping write the charter, Vandenberg had seen to that contingency to protect the legitimacy of the Monroe Doctrine.)
The Latin diplomats were grateful that Vandenberg had overcome opposition from other American delegates when the UN was organized to allow for regional security arrangements. The new treaty put all the Latin states on an equal footing with the U.S., rather than simply under the American umbrella, while pledging the United States to come to the aid of any of its neighbors who might come under attack. And the mutual aid was limited to action in the hemisphere, thus protecting the other American states from being drawn in automatically should the U.S. engage in war elsewhere in the world.
While the façade of the Quitandinha was a stately curiosity, the interior was something else altogether. A 12-foot-high birdcage dominated the central corridor between hotel and conference center. Delegates in their three-piece suits and homburgs would stride past bathers in the enormous indoor pool. The casino was covered by the largest dome on the continent. The interior reflected the colorful work of legendary American decorator Dorothy Draper.
Under a massive bronze chandelier in the conference center, Marshall, Vandenberg, and the other American delegates listened through bulky black headphones as their Latin American counterparts conversed in Spanish. The big, balding senator, lately in the limelight as the Senate’s voice on foreign affairs, listened attentively at one committee meeting where he was the only delegate in need of translation. One after another, diplomats were recognized by the chair with “tiene la palabra.”
Finally the senator turned to his advisers with a flash of recognition, his own booming voice muffled by his headphones. “Palabra,” he shouted, “He’s always saying ‘palabra,’ and then someone starts to talk. Now I know where the word ‘palaver’ comes from.” As his son and chief aide recalled, Van was unaware that everyone in the hall had heard his loud exclamation. He was “naturally puzzled when in the complete silence which followed his advisers, with red faces, made no reply to his trenchant comment.”
The palaver paid off. In December 1947, the United States Senate approved the “Rio Pact,” after only four days of hearings, by a vote of 72-1. Bipartisanship around a fundamental and far-reaching policy could hardly be more strongly expressed.
But back to those two big things. First, the real geopolitical significance of the Rio Pact was where it led over the next tense months of post-war recovery and the onset of the Cold War. It was the template for a far more potent alliance which soon began to take shape between the United States and the beleaguered European democracies: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO had found its model in Rio. The Soviet Union could not use its UN veto to stymie such an alliance. The seeds of containment were sown.
The second big thing was less tangible but in its own way no less influential. This was the relationship that developed between the somewhat austere new secretary of state, General Marshall, with his military bearing and careful authority, and the ambitious Michigan Republican, the very model of senatorial pomp, whose swagger sometimes masked a doggedness and a mastery of compromise that could achieve great things.
That George and Arthur—few people called either one by his first name—had a chance, along with their wives, to deepen their acquaintance into genuine friendship was of no small consequence in the months that followed. Marshall, in his famously low-key address at Harvard the previous June, had outlined a Truman administration proposal to extend massive aid to rebuild war-ravaged Europe.
Vandenberg huffed and puffed over the cost of such a commitment when it was first broached. In the months that followed Rio, however, through 1947 and into 1948, he worked with Marshall. Meeting at Blair House, down the street from the White House, they refined their legislation to make the program, soon dubbed the Marshall Plan, less expensive without being less effective—a big gamble Vandenberg could sell to a skeptical Republican majority in Congress. Their friendship brought results. “We could not have gotten much closer,” Marshall said later, “unless I sat in Vandenberg’s lap or he sat in mine.”
The relationship had evolved in Petropolis, as time away from the conference allowed the two couples to socialize. Though the general had few intimates, Hazel Vandenberg found that there was “nothing stuffy at all about him.” She came upon the Marshalls one day playing Chinese checkers on the porch of their villa.
A winning strategy for Chinese checkers usually meant keeping your pieces in the center and together. Seven decades ago, after the Rio Treaty, Vandenberg and Marshall recognized the need for a similar strategy in the work they undertook. It was a friendship of no small consequence for America’s future.