It may be counterintuitive to imagine cheers for a conservative midwestern Republican senator from Democratic partisans, but during the early years of the Cold War, Arthur H. Vandenberg routinely received such accolades. Breaking with the isolationist right of his own party, the Michigan senator functioned for six years as the Republican enabler of Harry Truman’s efforts to contain Soviet expansionism. Lawrence S. Kaplan scrupulously retraces the way in which Vandenberg remade himself from a standard-issue Republican right-winger to an icon of the anti-Communist liberals.
Born in 1884 to a middle-class family that was financially wiped out in the depression of the 1890s, Vandenberg hustled for a living before he reached his teens. He managed a year at the University of Michigan, became editor of the Grand Rapids Herald at the age of 22, and developed it into a major presence in the state. An amateur historian, he wrote two books idolizing Alexander Hamilton. (Perhaps his eventual tolerance of presidential initiative in foreign policy had some basis in Hamilton’s advocacy of “energy in the executive.”) Identifying himself as a Republican, he leaned toward the party’s progressive wing, admired Theodore Roosevelt, and became an important figure in GOP politics. In 1928, Governor Fred Green appointed him to a vacant Senate seat; he would hold the post for the rest of his life.
During his first dozen years or so in the Senate, Vandenberg was a rather typical midwestern Republican: a staunch opponent of the New Deal and a determined isolationist in foreign policy. After the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, he began grudgingly to back away from his categorical rejection of international involvement, but he moved slowly—perhaps because he was up for reelection in 1940. He sharply criticized Franklin Roosevelt’s destroyers-for-bases deal with Britain in September 1940, but after considerable waffling, he voted for Lend-Lease aid to the British in early 1941.
Thereafter, he glided increasingly toward support for the administration’s “internationalism.” Kaplan rejects accusations that this movement was encouraged by his affair with Mitzi Sims, a former attaché at the British embassy and wife of a Canadian businessman. Still, the British do seem to have had a way of putting pleasant and attractive women into the company of influential Americans. At about the time Senator Vandenberg became acquainted with Mrs. Sims, General Eisenhower in England was getting to know his new driver, Kay Summersby.
By 1944, Vandenberg, tutored by Walter Lippmann and the emerging Republican foreign policy sage John Foster Dulles, had effectively abandoned his prewar isolationism. He was a key participant in the planning for a new United Nations organization to replace the League of Nations, much involved in the preliminary discussions at Dumbarton Oaks in mid-1944 and a member of the American delegation to the 1945 San Francisco Conference, which would formally establish the new world body.
On January 10, 1945, Vandenberg took to the Senate floor to deliver a major address categorically rejecting isolationism as a principle of American foreign policy and calling for the United States to take the leading role in establishing a just peace based on postwar organization.
“The speech,” which merits a more thorough walk-through than Kaplan gives us, was widely acclaimed, establishing Vandenberg as a bipartisan advocate of a just internationalism and cementing his position as something of a foreign policy prophet. The developing Cold War with the Soviet Union linked internationalism to anti-communism. Vandenberg emerged as a strong backer of Truman’s containment policies—Truman Doctrine aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty, and the Korean War—making him the leader of a bloc of internationalist-minded Republican legislators at odds with a more isolationist-minded group that looked to Senator Robert A. Taft.
The task of maintaining one’s identity as a Republican while supporting a Democratic foreign policy was tricky. Many GOP loyalists agreed with Taft that the duty of the opposition was to oppose. Truman’s prickly secretary of state, Dean Acheson, grumbled about Vandenberg’s demands for recognition and deference. Truman, a former senator, was more understanding. Vandenberg’s ethnic constituencies in Michigan generally backed resistance to the Iron Curtain that had been brought down around their ancestral homelands.