Probably the name Grand Rapids carries little resonance for readers outside the state of Michigan. Within Michigan, the city is well known for its predominantly Dutch population. As a local adage has it, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.” Both Arthur Vandenberg and his biographer, Hendrik “Hank” Meijer, the author of the superb new Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century, are products of that Michigan community. Meijer, besides being a biographer, is the ceo of Meijer Stores, a popular retail chain. The Grand Rapids Dutch are known for their industriousness, civic-mindedness, common sense, and thriftiness; until 1986 Meijer’s stores were called Meijer’s Thrifty Acres. Arthur Vandenberg’s down-to-earth Dutch hard-headedness helped him influence American foreign policy both in the lead-up to World War II and afterwards, when the country was in danger of getting carried away by the wave of idealism and war-weariness that blinded many to the nature of Stalin and Soviet Communism.
One of the key figures in American political life in those crucial years.
The subtitle of Meijer’s book is well worded. Vandenberg, a U.S. Senator from 1928 to 1951, was a Midwesterner who occupied the middle of the political spectrum and was perennially mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. Starting off as isolationist, his views evolved into an enthusiastic embrace of international engagement. At key moments from World War II to the Cold War, he acted as an arbitrator between Republicans and Democrats. Before the war, Vandenberg helped convince isolationists of the necessity of striking back against Germany and Japan. When the war was won, he helped craft the Marshall Plan, which buttressed Europe against Soviet expansion, and pushed Congress to back the United Nations and nato, both intended as bulwarks against Stalinist aggression. Meijer’s book makes a strong argument for Vandenberg as one of the key figures in American political life in those crucial years.
Meijer is candid about the foibles as well as the virtues of his subject. Vandenberg was a world-class egotist who loved the sound of his own voice and cherished his position, cigar in hand, at center stage in Washington. Volubility came naturally to a man who began his career as a newspaper editor. His editorials for the Grand Rapids Herald helped shape conservative political opinion and gave their author a platform on which to run for office. His flights of oratory on the Senate Floor led one commentator to write that he could “go into the south and talk the boll weevils out of the cotton.”
Any book touching on American political life from the Depression through World War II is by necessity also a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt—another American, incidentally, of Dutch ancestry. In Congress, Vandenberg was fdr’s most voluble and visible antagonist. He called the New Deal “The New Ordeal,” and his characterization of Roosevelt as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Park” was music to Republican ears. Meijer’s biography is profitably read in connection with Jon Meacham’s 2003 book Franklin and Winston: A Portrait of a Friendship, a largely sympathetic work that at the same time portrays the president as a sometimes chillingly ruthless man capable of using his immense personal charm in pursuit of his goals—while Churchill, wedged between the Soviet and American powerhouses, tried to play his own weaker hand through charm and eloquence, as well as a reliance, almost pitiable at times, on his personal friendship with fdr.
Roosevelt may well have saved American democracy in an age of fascist strongmen, but when one sees the great man through Vandenberg’s eyes, it is hard not to conclude that fdr was himself an autocrat by nature—strong-minded, utterly convinced that he and only he was right. An American diplomat of the day wrote in his diary that Senator Vandenberg in fact hated fdr: “The word ‘hate’ is used advisedly. He thinks Roosevelt stands for everything bad and for nothing good.”
As part of the Big Three power alliance with the Soviet Union, Churchill and Roosevelt were forced to play their cards close to their chests—certainly no “transparency” was to be expected from Stalin. Vandenberg worried about secret deals the president may have struck, and fdr admitted to Vandenberg that he had made unwanted concessions: “At conference after conference I have been forced to agree to things which I do not agree with in fear lest Russia should make a separate peace.”
Here is Meijer on the post-war conflict between the United States and Russia: Our republic, he writes, “functioned through a maddening cacophony of voices. The other, a dictatorship, compensated for its lack of economic might and technological prowess with a single-minded mission and an enormous army.” Some of these factors have changed, particularly as regards Russia’s technological prowess in both armaments and cyber-espionage, but otherwise the position today sounds strikingly familiar.
As early as 1946 Vandenberg was asking a question that is on many people’s minds today—“What is Russia up to now?”: “We ask it in Eastern Europe . . . . We ask it in Iran. . . . We ask it sometimes even in connection with events in our own United States.” When he expressed these views at the 1946 meeting of Big Four foreign ministers, he was undercut by Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, Henry Wallace, who found, in Meijer’s words, “American policy toward the Soviet Union insufficiently conciliatory.” To Truman’s credit, he immediately fired Wallace.
No one served his country more essentially.
Facing opposition from America-firsters on the right and appeasers of Communism on the left who refused to own up to the cynical, mendacious, and aggressive Soviet threat, Vandenberg argued for a vigorous engagement in world affairs and a tough response to Russia. “We do not escape war by running away from it. . . . We avoid war by facing facts,” he wrote. Nor was he merely idealistic about the reasons for America to play a center-stage role. “America herself cannot prosper in a broken world,” he wrote in a letter to a constituent. If European economies prospered, “they would be customers again. This was pure self-interest,” as Meijer puts it.
When the Democrats won control of Congress in 1948, lessening Truman’s reliance on Republican cooperation, Vandenberg’s importance as a foreign-policy adviser declined, and he died three years later. But in those crucial years when he was needed, no one served his country more essentially. Never have we been more in need of his brand of hard-headed, plain-spoken good sense than today. Hank Meijer’s eye-opening biography will have many readers asking what has become, in the half-century since Vandenberg’s demise, of bipartisanship and a sense of civic duty in our elected officials.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 82
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