When Nasty Men Make Great Statesmen

Arthur Vandenburg was a piece of work in his personal life, but on the public stage, he evolved to became one of the greatest bipartisan forces in the arena of foreign policy.

Alex Brook Lynn

America’s patron saint for bipartisanship, Arthur Vandenberg, was far from saintly in his personal life. This nasty, petty, egotistical, womanizing, isolationist Michigan Senator from 1928 to 1951 did good: His conversion to interventionism helped ennoble American politics and win the Cold War.

Johnny-one-note historians, who reduce history to punchlines, claim Vandenberg’s isolationism ended when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. But Vandenberg delivered his interventionist manifesto, which was so revolutionary it was called the “speech heard round the world,” three years later on Jan. 10, 1945. That day, this foe of Franklin Roosevelt endorsed Roosevelt’s foreign policy; this zealot for Congressional prerogatives supported expanding presidential power; and this isolationist endorsed America’s participation in the United Nations. “World War II has put the gory science of mass murder into new and sinister perspective,” he reasoned. “Our oceans have ceased to be moats which automatically protect our ramparts.” Facing such threats, he said: “The commander in chief should have instant power to act.”

Born poor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1884, Vandenberg became a millionaire publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald. He gained the inside track to incumbency by being appointed to complete a Senate term in 1928, then won three subsequent campaigns. In the 1930s, he was a rare effective Republican opposition voice in Washington. He combatted Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic policy as too expansive, expensive, and centralized. In 1934, he and Senator Joseph Nye condemned America’s participation the Great War as a great betrayal, a scam.

Ignoring America’s tortured debate over joining what became World War I, Vandenberg and Nye offered a simple—and simplistic—explanation: profiteering munitions manufacturers misled America. This conspiratorial analysis dulled the all-American idealism of these supposedly hyper-patriotic “America Firsters.” And it numbed them to Adolf Hitler’s evil and Imperial Japan’s danger.

Still, Vandenberg did not have a foxhole conversion after Pearl Harbor. He continued berating Roosevelt as manipulative and incompetent, condemning Roosevelt’s “private war” and “secret diplomacy.” He claimed America’s “dogmatic diplomatic attitudes” drove Japan “needlessly into hostilities.”

Skeptics believed Vandenberg was more seduced by foreigners than swayed by foreign events. His girlfriend, Mitzi Sims, was a British diplomat spouse, and probably a British spy. The Chicago Tribune reporter Walter Trohan called Vandenberg the “Senator from Mitzi-Gan” (adding that Vandenberg’s second wife refused to live with him in Washington or to be buried by his side in Michigan). The New York Times columnist Arthur Krock said Vandenberg was "converted from isolationism by the pretty wife of a West European diplomat, a lady of whom, as the saying goes, he saw a lot.”

World War II’s carnage also scared Vandenberg into trusting the president and the international community. Roosevelt rewarded his new ally by sending Vandenberg to the UN’s founding conference in San Francisco. Delighted, Vandenberg started championing bipartisanship—not nonpartisanship—and helped the Senate endorse America’s entry into the UN 89 to 2.

Roosevelt’s Democratic successor Harry Truman also wanted foreign policy to be bipartisan. On April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen Congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending the Roosevelt epoch of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg’s pronouncement that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” would build popular consensus around America’s Cold War strategy of containing Communism. Vandenberg occasionally blasted the president, saying frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The Senator saw himself leading the “loyal opposition” putting “national security ahead of partisan advantage.”

In 1946, Republicans won both Houses of Congress for the first time since 1928, forcing the unpopular Truman to become even more bipartisan. Vandenberg became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This new cooperative spirit faced a major test as Communist operatives threatened shaky Western allies like Greece and Turkey. “We are met at Armageddon,” Dean Acheson exclaimed when briefing Vandenberg and other senators, fearing “Soviet penetration” on three continents.

Vandenberg said there was “only one way to get” what Truman needed. “That is to make a personal appearance before Congress and scare the hell out of the American people.” Addressing both houses of Congress in March 1947, Truman proposed granting $250 million to Greece, $150 million to Turkey. The Republican-dominated Congress’s assent to this Truman Doctrine endorsed the successful bipartisan Cold War foreign policy.

That June, Secretary of State George Marshall unveiled the comprehensive Marshall Plan for Europe. The still-isolationist Senator Robert Taft proposed cutting the first year’s budget from $4 billion to $3 billion. Vandenberg snapped: “When a man is drowning 20 feet away, it is a mistake to throw him a 15-foot rope.” In 1948, the legislation supporting America’s entry into NATO, it’s first mutual defense treaty since the American Revolution, became known as the Vandenberg Act.

Thanks to this bipartisanship and statesmanship, Americans built structures for international cooperation they, especially Vandenburg, would have condemned twenty years earlier as intrusive. But institutions like NATO, the International Money Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (what would became the World Bank) rebuilt Europe, undermined Soviet Communism, and remain effective instruments for American influence.

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Unfortunately, American descent into the Korean War swamp, stirred partisanship again. Senator Vandenberg, ailing, died in April 1951. Republicans, Truman soon mourned, “haven’t had a single constructive idea about foreign policy” since Vandenberg died.

Of course, this consensus did not survive the Vietnam War, let alone the Carter administration. In February 1979 the Republican Senate Minority leader Howard Baker Jr. eulogized Republicans’ commitment to bipartisanship, saying Vandenberg “was right in his time, but I think we’re right in our time.”

Championing good policies did not vindicate Vandenberg personally. “Politicians as a class are vain but he was vain beyond most of the tribe,” Walter Trohan wrote. Beyond that lesson in morals, Vandenberg’s life teaches civics too. Note that foreign challenges justified expanding presidential power to the point where both Barack Obama and Donald Trump prefer governing via Executive Order. Second, remember America’s tradition of moderation, compromise, and bipartisanship not just of extremism, demonization, and partisanship. And, finally, see that Americans once understood their patriotic duties to include cooperating on some issues, especially when facing the challenges we all confront, together, Republicans and Democrats, “beyond the water’s edge.”

For Further Reading:

Dean Acheson, President at the Creation: My Years at the State Department (1969). An impressive memoir that puts Vandenberg’s switch in the context of the times.

Lawrence S. Kaplan, The Conversion of Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg: From Isolation to International Engagement. (1970). A good solid overview on Vandenberg’s remarkable switch.

Gil Troy, Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: From George Washington to Barack Obama (2008). The source of my fascination with Vandenberg—I see him as one of a long line of American moderates trying to foster bipartisanship.