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Journey Into Our Times

July 2024
11min read

The “conversion” of Arthur Vandenberg, told by a former Secretary of State, his sometime adversary but also his friend

The first time I worked with Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg was fairly early in the course of that change in his outlook on the world which one might call his long day’s journey into our times. He had been, to use his own description of himself, one of those “who had been so-called ‘isolationists’ prior to Pearl Harbor.” But “that day,” he wrote later, “ended isolationism tor any realist.” The change in outlook was far advanced by January 10, 1945, when he took the floor of the Senate to urge an international organization with far-reaching powers to revise war settlements and to enforce peace.

This was a long road. Despite his dramatic words about Pearl Harbor—words ol hindsight—Vandenberg’s change of mind did not come in a sudden Hash like that other change on the road to Damascus. I have heard him ascribe it mainly to his work with Secretary Hull and the “Committee of Eight,” the special Senate committee on postwar plans. This group met for the first time on April 25, 1944. Here he was thrown, without prior experience or knowledge, into the most involved international problems since the Congress of Vienna. He was to spend the seven years of life which remained to him immersed in these problems. The experience brought out all his many and great talents. It led, too, to a unique service not only to his own country but, ironically enough, to peoples whose affairs and interests he had believed only a short time before to be no concern of his or of his country’s.

My first work with the Senator began before the Committee of Eight had been formed. It was in the summer of 1943. Arthur Vandenberg was in a period of deep frustration. He was very much on the outside trying to look in; and he could see nothing. Suspicion consumed him—suspicion, in his own words, of “Executive dictatorship,” “by-passing the Senate,” “flouting of the Constitution”; suspicion, also, that our allies were already using for their own ends the victory to which we were contributing so much, and that in so doing they would sow the seeds of another and more terrible war. Nothing is more frustrating than not to know what is going on; and the Republican minority in the Senate had not yet found a channel to the State Department.

His frustration led to a minor and now forgotten tempest in the summer of 1943. It is worth recalling because it precipitated the “conversion,” as he sometimes called it, of Arthur Vandenberg. The State Department was working on an international agreement, adopted that autumn at Atlantic City, to deal with the first and most pressing of postwar problems, the relief and rehabilitation of war-torn countries. Within the department the task had fallen to me. At length a draft agreement had been prepared with some foreign consultation. Its form on our side was not that of a treaty requiring approval by the Senate, but of an agreement by authority of the President to contribute such funds for relief as the Congress should from time to time authorize and appropriate.

After the draft had been shown to the official leaders of the majority and minority in the Senate and the House, it was published to permit full consideration and discussion. Then the row started. The draft had not been discussed privately with the Senate or House foreign committees or their leaders. This was a mistake—though not so far as the House was concerned, since its rights over appropriations were preserved, and its members had no sympathy with the Senate’s prerogatives in treaty making, from which the House was excluded. But in the Senate the publication of the draft set the cat among the pigeons. And it was Vandenberg who indefatigably kept them aflutter. He took the most horrendous view of what he thought was the shape of things to come. The draft he thought “pledged our total resources to whatever illimitable scheme for relief and rehabilitation all around the world our New Deal crystal gazers might desire to pursue.” Congress was to be “confronted with a 'fait accompli'” and there was to be “no interference with this world-wide prospectus as it might be conceived by Roosevelt, Lehman, Hopkins and Co.”

Vandenberg would often be carried away by the hyperbole of his own rotund phrases. My father used to illustrate this very human characteristic by the example of a horse we owned years ago crossing the bridge over the Connecticut River at Middletown. She was gentle and well disposed. But as the buggy began to rumble across the bridge’s planking, she would prick up her ears and begin to move faster. More rumble brought more speed, until by the time the Portland shore was reached she was in a lull gallop and quite a lather. In the same way Vandenberg worked himself up to “a first showdown as to where President Roosevelt’s treaty-making power leaves off and that of the Senate begins.”

Secretary Hull and I found ourselves in the middle of this “showdown”; that is to say, we found ourselves before a Senate subcommittee appointed to investigate the suspected coup d’état. Hull, quite innocent of evil-doing, took umbrage at the vigor of Senator Thomas Connally’s examination of him and, after the first hearing, withdrew from the proceedings. It was left to Vandenberg and me to restore peace. This was not hard to do. As Vandenberg became informed about the extent of the relief problem and the way it was proposed to bring all friendly nations into the task of meeting it, he became convinced that the plan was a good one. A few changes in the text made plain what we had thought obvious, that the Executive could not bind the Congress to make future appropriations and would seek congressional authorization. To a critic who thought that the result of all the fuss was a long way from the projected “showdown,” Vandenberg replied, “I do not consider this to be the ‘surrender’—I consider it to be the ‘triumph’ of constitutional procedure.”

Well, it was not that, because the issue was never involved. But nonetheless, the exercise was a valuable one. It resulted in Vandenberg’s becoming the proponent and eloquent advocate of UNRRA, after having first and publicly exorcised from it all evil spirits. Without both, it might well never have been possible. And without this episode, much in our postwar history might not have been possible. For not only did this minor experience hasten the education of Arthur Vandenberg, but it was the forerunner of a ritual of statesmanship that I was to experience many times, and always with fascination.


Senator Vandenberg, faced with a proposal to take a step into the strange and frightening postwar world, invariably began by resisting the proposal. He declared the end unattainable, the means hairbrained, and the cost staggering, particularly some mysterious costs which he thought were bound to occur but which the proposer had not foreseen because of faulty preparation. This first phase, the phase of opposition, usually lasted through one meeting and sometimes longer. AH the while, Vandenberg was testing the proposal by attacking it; and he was learning a great deal in the process.

Then followed the period of gestation. The pro posai grew and developed within him. This period had various manifestations, depending on the time available and the importance of the proposal. It could be, as we have seen with UNRRA, a fairly short time, a time of “assuming for the sake of argument that we go ahead with this, where will it lead and what will it accomplish?” This gave Vandenberg an opportunity to try out statements of the merits of the proposal and possible answers to arguments against it. He thought out loud; and his talk would proceed with mounting enthusiasm as conviction and confidence grew. But this period could take another and longer form, as it did in the case of the Marshall Plan. There, upon Senator Vandenberg’s suggestion, committees were set up under Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman and Julius A. Krug, Secretary of the Interior, to determine the capability of the country to carry out the plan and the economic consequences to it of doing so. This gave time for the country, the Republicans, and the Senator to get used to the idea and for the weight of supporting fact to have its effect.

At this stage Senator Vandenberg was convinced but not committed. Before that occurred, one further step remained to be taken. We called it, variously, “applying the trade-mark,” or “determining the price.” This meant either stamping the proposal with a Vandenberg brand, or exacting from the Administration a concession which he thought politically important. AVe have had one illustration in his insistence upon formal changes in the UNRRA draft. Let me give others.

When, in 1947, President Truman was discussing with congressional leaders his proposal for American aid to Greece and Turkey, he stressed that the attacks and pressures upon these countries were not, as surface appearances might suggest, merely due to border rows originating with their neighbors, but were part of a scries of Soviet moves, which included stepped up Communist party activity in Italy, France, and Germany. I can see Senator Vandenberg now, suddenly leaning forward on the sola in the President’s office and saying, “It you will say that to the whole country, I will support you.” The presentation was put in this way, to the surprise and disapproval of some commentators.

Again, when the Administration bill was introduced into Congress, no mention was made in it of the United Nations. Senator Vandenberg pounced on this and insisted that the bill should provide for cessation of United States aid if and when the United Nations should take charge of the situation. Both he and I knew that this event would never occur, since the Soviet Union would prevent it, but he was quite right in his point. The change was important, and provisions like this have been standard practice ever since. I agreed at once and offered to propose the change at the hearings on the bill. But he would have none of that. The change was proposed as the “Vandenberg Amendment.” The brand had been applied; and fair enough it was.

Still later, in 1947-48, Senator Vandenberg was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when the Marshall Plan was in the discussion stage. Remembering the early New Deal, he became obsessed with worry that the control of spending the billions of Marshall Plan dollars could give the Administration such power as to decide the approaching election of 1948. While he himself had a healthy interest in preventing this, his concern was not due to mere political partisanship. For other Republicans could worry about the same thing and, since they controlled the Eightieth Congress, could doom the Marshall Plan, which Senator Vandenberg had now come to believe essential. To solve the problem the Senator turned to a plan of organization for administration of the Marshall Plan. The Brookings Institution of Washington was called in to give a detached and expert atmosphere to the deliberations; and finally, an “independent agency” form of organization was worked out, under, but not responding to, the President.

It is no matter that Senator Vandenberg’s fears were unfounded. Under both the last and the present administrations, foreign aid has been administered within the regular hierarchy of government without being used for political patronage. The point I am making is that Vandenberg exacted as the price of his support a concession to the opposition which contributed to the acceptance of the proposal—whatever it did to its administration.

This attitude of Vandenberg’s, and my belief in its importance, were to have a curious personal result before the Marshall Plan was fully launched. Alter the legislation was passed in 1948, the President spoke with me (I was then in private life) about his desire to send my name to the Senate as the Administrator created by the act of Congress. I urged upon him, and he reluctantly agreed, that this would be unwise—not because Vandenberg had anything against me, but because, in view of my close relations with the President, the nomination would go a long way, in Vandenberg’s mind, toward nullifying his efforts to establish an “independent” agency. This could well be disastrous. The act of Congress was still only an “authorization” for appropriations, a hunting license to go in search of them. The execution of the Marshall Plan still required the appropriation of billions of dollars by a Republican Congress.

The President wisely concluded that here, pre-eminently, was an occasion to seek the “advice and consent of the Senate,” which, as a practical matter, meant to consult with Vandenberg. We speculated as to whom be would recommend, and concluded that it would be Mr. Paul Hoffman, a gentleman of the highest character and ability, wholly acceptable to the President. And so it turned out. Senator Vandenberg never knew what he escaped, but was greatly pleased that bis advice had been sought and followed. He became more than ever committed to the support of the European Recovery Plan.

What I have said suggests a strong and practical mind rather than a subtle and original one. Arthur Vandenberg’s mind was not original; but it was open. He was not a creator of the ideas which lie was eminently capable of receiving and using. A powerful advocate, he was not a great orator. His florid oratorical style, finding its emphasis in hyperbole and often in sheer lung power, had nothing like the range of Churchill’s speeches. His importance lies not in brilliance of mind or speech, but—in equal parts—in himself, and in the time and place in which be lived and served. Without Vandenberg in the Senate from 1943 to 1951 the history of the postwar period might have been very different.

When in 1957 a committee of the Senate picked the five most “outstanding” senators whose portraits should hang in the Senate reception room, it did not include Vandenberg. The choice fell on Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Robert M. La Follette, and Robert A. Taft. Yet, in actual accomplishment, a good case can be made that Vandenberg’s achievement exceeded those of any ol the five, except Henry Clay; and that, as a symbol of his times in the Senate, Vandenberg stands for emergence of the United States into world power and leadership, as Clay typified the growth of the country; Webster and Calhoun, the great debate of the ante-bellum days; and Robert M. La Follette, the turbulence of the Progressive Era.

Vandenberg, as I have said, did not furnish the ideas, the leadership, or the drive to chart the new course or to move the nation into it. But he made the result possible. What was needed was a national consensus, at a time when the hot war which had united the nation was over, and the full consequences of the disruption caused by the war were beginning to appear. How critical was the need can be judged by what happened after Vandenberg’s death—I do not say because of it—when the consensus fell apart.

At the end of the war, the opposition of the business community and its social adjuncts to the Democratic Administration—then in its fourth consecutive term—was ready to break into open revolt, as it did in November, 1946, but without the strength to win in 1948. Meanwhile the times called for action, drastic, unprecedented, and immediate. To those conversant with the situation there was not much doubt about what had to be done. How, by whom, and how soon were the questions. Without Arthur Vandenberg, solutions of these questions could not have been brought into action.

He had, as I have suggested, the capacity to learn and the capacity for action—rare gifts in themselves. As important as either, and giving both scope, he carefully maintained the preconditions for successful action. His prior history of isolationism was an asset which he never allowed to die. His relations with Senator Robert Taft were carefully maintained. Vandenberg’s respect for Taft’s proprietorship of Republican domestic policy led Taft to respect Vandenberg’s position as Republican spokesman on foreign policy, so long as the latter’s health and vigor remained. Vandenberg kept the friendship and respect of Senators Millikin of Colorado, Wherry of Nebraska, and Bridges of New Hampshire on the Republican Policy Committee. But, perhaps most important of all, he was in the very heart of the inner circle that ran the Senate.

This is not the place to describe that remarkable group of men as it existed in the forties and the early fifties. Its membership did not coincide with the popular idea of importance in the Senate: some were much in the public eye; some were not. They were men of the type and character who, in a quiet way, are apt to dominate any male organization. The main ingredients of such men are force, likableness, and trustworthiness. Alben Barkley, Walter George, and Arthur Vandenberg were, perhaps, the beaux idéals. But Warren Austin, Joe Ball, Carl Hatch, Carl Hayden, Lister Hill, Richard Russell, Bob La Follette, Scott Lucas, Burnet Maybank, Bob Wagner, and Wallace White do not exhaust the list of the others. Many of them lunched together, more often than not in the office of Leslie Biffle, whether he was Secretary of the Senate or Secretary of the Minority. Party membership was a comparatively minor consideration. One had to be an adopted member of the group for quite a while to realize that anything was going on under the easy gossip and badinage. Then one discovered that almost everything was going on. The whole business of the Senate was being ordered and, in considerable part, decided.

The characteristics of this group, I have said, were force, likableness, and trustworthiness—in varying proportions, as the list suggests. Was Arthur Vandenberg a likable man? Yes, he was. He had humor and warmth and occasional bursts of self-revealing candor. He was not among the “popular” senators. His ego was too strong for that. Some regarded him, as Mr. James B. Reston of The New York Times concedes that he did for a time, as the “most pompous and prejudiced man in the United States Senate.” But this was wrong. He was not that; but he took a bit of knowing. When I retired as Under Secretary of State, I wrote to thank him for a warm note which I described as “another of the long list of kindnesses which you have shown me,” and for “your outstanding fairness and your warm generosity.” This was from the heart; he was a good friend.

All these gifts and qualities were what fitted Senator Vandenberg so pre-eminently to perform a service for which the country should be forever grateful: the service of bringing together in support of a foreign policy, dictated by the necessity of events, an Administration which could carry it out and an opposition which could have prevented it from doing so. All the brilliance of Calhoun or the eloquence of Webster could not have performed this service. It called for what Arthur Vandenberg had, and was, and had spent a lifetime in acquiring and in being. I salute his memory with affection and with honor.

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