On March 28, 1928, 75-year-old Senator Woodbridge Ferris of Michigan lost his battle with pneumonia. Although Ferris had been a Democrat, Michigan’s governor was Republican Fred Green, and thus he appointed Republican journalist Arthur Vandenberg (1884-1951) to succeed him.
Vandenberg was a hard worker, having worked since he was a child. He stated on his past, “I had no youth. I went to work when I was nine, and I never got a chance to enjoy myself” (Simkin). He became a journalist and had a reformist mindset as editor and publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald, being a strong supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and his form of progressive Republicanism during his presidency. However, when push came to shove and Roosevelt was running against Taft in 1912, Vandenberg chose party loyalty with Taft. His historical hero was Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, and in 1921 published The Greatest American: Alexander Hamilton as well as 1923’s If Hamilton Were Here Today: American Fundamentals Applied to Modern Problems. Vandenberg may have been the originator of “return to normalcy” which was picked up by Warren G. Harding’s campaign, but Vandenberg himself wasn’t sure he had written that.
Vandenberg proved conservative albeit independent-minded. This was most notable in his 1930 vote against the confirmation of John J. Parker to the Supreme Court over his negative comments on black voting participation, stating that the Republican Party “has no right to shut its eyes to the outraged sensibilities of 18 million colored persons. Our party was practically born with the 14th and 15th amendments” (Lauck). This vote would be a portend of the Republican-Southern Democrat alliance on many issues in the future and would put a dent in reelection efforts of Republican senators in states with high levels of black voting.
Vandenberg and the New Deal
Republicans differed a bit on how they reacted to the first New Deal. Some were die-hard opposed to it, others were quite supportive. Vandenberg leaned to the former position but was not uncompromising. He supported the Securities and Exchange Act in 1934 and supported increased taxation in 1934 to fund New Deal programs as well as Social Security in 1935. However, Vandenberg also voted against the meat of the First New Deal in the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. In 1936, Vandenberg proposed to turn the administration of work relief over to the states, which on the surface looks like a contradiction to his staunch support of Alexander Hamilton, known for his support of centralized authority. However, Vandenberg saw the New Deal overall as standing opposed to business, and Hamilton was a supporter of business interests. Interestingly, Vandenberg’s proposal was universally opposed by Southern legislators as federal control saved the Southern states money while it imposed higher costs on other sectors of the nation, including New England (The New York Times). He also voted against the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and sided with Roosevelt in his veto of the Patman Bonus Bill.
Vandenberg’s journalistic experience was useful in the employing of rhetoric against the New Deal, calling it the “New Ordeal” and FDR became “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Park” (FDR’s New York home was in Hyde Park) (Nordlinger). Although he was thrice speculated as a possibility for running for president, in 1936, 1940, and 1948, he was never even a top contender for the Republican nomination.
Building the Conservative Coalition
In 1937, a bipartisan group of senators drafted a ten-point document to try to push FDR to pull back on the New Deal. This was called the Conservative Manifesto, and ultimately it was seen as, and not unfairly, a critique of the New Deal. Many senators were hesitant to speak up about their contributions to it, so Democrat Josiah Bailey of North Carolina, who had been a principal author with Vandenberg, admitted to it. Bailey had been sure to win reelection in 1936 before making his increasing opposition to Roosevelt’s domestic policies clear. Vandenberg was a key figure on the Republican side of the aisle to New Deal opposition, and the Conservative Coalition would become an effective force with the 1938 midterms.
Senator Vandenberg had an interesting personal life to say the least. His first wife had died young, and he cheated on his second wife with Mitzi Sims, the wife of a British diplomat, who may or may not have been a British agent influencing his views on foreign policy. Vandenberg’s son, Vandenberg Jr., who worked on his campaigns as an administrative assistant and would play significant roles in the Eisenhower campaign in 1952, was a homosexual and this would preclude him from a position in the Eisenhower Administration as he couldn’t pass a security clearance.
Vandenberg and Foreign Policy
Although Vandenberg had at one time been a Theodore Roosevelt war hawk, his view on the conflict had changed by the 1930s to the belief that the United States had been misled into war by the greed of big banks and arms merchants, condemning “a war system that has crucified this world for a thousand years” (Kirchick). Such was also the view of North Dakota’s Republican Senator Gerald Nye, who chaired the Nye Committee from 1934 to 1936, investigating the causes of World War I. Vandenberg sat on this committee and would become one of the leading opponents of FDR’s foreign policy, voting against repealing the arms embargo in 1939, against the peacetime draft, and against Lend-Lease. He would speak before the America First Committee. Vandenberg did, however, support aid to Finland to repel the USSR’s invasion. His goals were to stop “international emotionalism” and “appetites which love commerce in spite of casualties” from holding sway over U.S. foreign policy (Kirchick).
The Speech Heard Around the World and Building Post-War Foreign Policy Consensus
Although Senator Vandenberg had in truth changed his mind about the direction of foreign policy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and had demonstrated this as he had voted against Chapman Revercomb’s (R-W.V.) 1943 proposal to require treaties for membership in international organizations and had voted for American participation in the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, Vandenberg made history with his speech on January 10, 1945 in which he made his switch from non-interventionist to internationalist official. He held that “I have always been frankly one of those who has believed in our own self-reliance” but went on to say, “I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action…Our oceans have ceased to be moats which automatically protect our ramparts” (Kirchick). He expressed strong support for the creation of the United Nations as a means to prevent World War III. Vandenberg stated, “If World War III ever unhappily arrives; it will open new laboratories of death too horrible to contemplate. I propose to do everything within my power to keep those laboratories closed for keeps. I want maximum American cooperation, consistent with legitimate American self-interest, with constitutional process and with collateral events which warrant it, to make the basic idea of Dumbarton Oaks succeed. I want a new dignity and a new authority for international law” (Vandenberg, 603). U.S. membership in the United Nations would later pass on a vote of 89-2.
Vandenberg’s foreign policy was now dedicated to upholding collective security internationally through the United Nations. He famously declared that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” (Kirchick). As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee during the 80th Congress, Vandenberg succeeded in winning a majority of Republicans to support the Greek-Turkish Act, the Marshall Plan, and the Vandenberg Resolution (which led to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter the USSR). In that Republican Congress, he led the way on foreign policy while Robert Taft of Ohio led on domestic policy, with Majority Leader Wallace White of Maine being a figurehead. In the following Congress, he led the way to ratifying the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, Vandenberg’s declaration was, if not in the short-term, in the long-term an unrealistic prescription. This would be demonstrated as early as 1950 when only eight of Vandenberg’s fellow internationalist Senate Republicans voted for Point IV foreign aid to developing nations, a proposal supported by him and only passed by one vote. He had also been critical in convincing a significant minority of Republicans to overcome opposition to former Tennessee Valley Authority director David Lilienthal led by the powerful Kenneth McKellar (D-Tenn.), who had repeatedly clashed with him on patronage.
Vandenberg and Civil Rights
Senator Vandenberg was a supporter of civil rights legislation, supporting banning the poll tax and a voluntary Fair Employment Practices Committee. He saw himself as someone to uphold the tradition of Lincoln. His concern for the matter he expressed in his belief against factionalism, writing, “Faction takes the law into its own hands and lynches negroes” (Nordlinger).
Although Vandenberg was riding high from his crafting of a bipartisan foreign policy, not all was well with his health. He was a frequent smoker of cigars to the point that a cigar hanging out of his mouth became a trademark look and this caught up with him when in 1949, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Vandenberg had an operation for it in October, but the cancer ultimately spread to his spine. His presence in the Senate was increasingly limited and he died on April 18, 1951. The liberal lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action, which evaluated his record from 1947 to 1950, scored him an adjusted (meaning unopinionated absences don’t count for or against the legislator) 40, 40, 8, and 50 respectively. Although Vandenberg was gone, a protege had already been elected to Congress who would make it to the presidency: Gerald Ford in 1948 had defeated incumbent Congressman Bartel Jonkman in the Republican primary on an internationalist platform. In 2000, Vandenberg was granted an honor that only six other senators have: his portrait was hung up in the Senate Reception Room as among the greatest senators.
A Report Card for 80th Congress. (1947). Americans for Democratic Action.
ADA World Congressional Supplement (1949, October). Americans for Democratic Action.
ADA World Congressional Supplement (1950, September). Americans for Democratic Action.
Congressional Supplement. (1948, July). Americans for Democratic Action.
Kirchick, J. (2018, February 18). How America First Senator Arthur Vandenberg Became a Globalist Hero. The Daily Beast.
Lauck, J.K. (2018, April 22). Vandenberg in Full: Babbitt No More. The University Bookman.
Least Relief Costs Paid By the South; Federal Contributions Were 98.1 of Total in South Carolina, Large in Other Cities. Ratio in New York 54.2%, New England Paid About Half, Delaware More Than Half – Vandenberg Asks for Formula. (1936, January 31). The New York Times.
Nordlinger, J. (2017, December 7). A Senator’s Journey – Notes on Arthur Vandenberg, Part II. National Review.
Simkin, J. Arthur Vandenberg. Spartacus Educational.
Vandenberg, A.H. (1945, January 10). American Foreign Policy. U.S. Senate.