Arthur Vandenberg represented the state of Michigan in the United States Senate for 23 years. Generally regarded as the Republican spokesman on foreign affairs, he began as an isolationist but changed his stance to support internationalism as a result of World War II.
Arthur Hendrick Vandenberg was born on March 22, 1884, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he attended public schools, later studying law at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He began as a reporter with the Grand Rapids Herald, rising to become its editor and eventually publisher.
As editor of the newspaper, Vandenberg made many influential contacts within the Michigan Republican Party. In early 1928, he was preparing to campaign for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Woodbridge Nathan Ferris. But when Ferris died in office on March 23, Vandenberg was appointed to fill the remainder of his term. He was elected in his own right in November, earning reelection three more times and remaining in the Senate until his death in 1953.
Vandenberg was a vociferous opponent of many of Franklin D. Roosevelt`s New Deal programs, which he opposed on both economic and philosophical grounds. He opposed the great increase in presidential power and the "congressional surrender to alphabetical commissars who deeply believe the American people need to be regimented by powerful overlords in order to be saved." He viewed the Works Progress Administration as an expensive make-work scheme.
Although an early supporter of the League of Nations, Vandenberg gravitated into an isolationist position during the 1930s. He advocated strict neutrality to prevent American involvement in what appeared to be an inevitable conflict. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, he began to moderate his views. By January 1945, he had become convinced that, although he personally detested communism, stable international relations required a system that included the Soviet Union.
On January 10, 1945, Vandenberg addressed the Senate in the famous “speech heard round the world.” In his speech, he publicly shifted his position from isolationist to internationalist and supported the creation of NATO. He described modern warfare as an "all-consuming juggernaut" and proposed collective security rather than the reliance on the military forces of any individual country. He even suggested that the president, as commander-in-chief, should be allowed a certain degree of independence from Congress in foreign affairs. Presented by an inveterate critic of presidential prerogatives, that concession was met with considerable surprise.
President Roosevelt was pleased with Vandenberg`s change of heart, and a period of bi-partisanship in foreign affairs followed. Vandenberg became a delegate to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco. Later, on July 23, he spoke in the U.S. Senate to urge the ratification of the United Nations Charter. A recent editorial had appeared in some prominent newspapers had referred to the dangers inherent in the Charter and commented that the dissipation of American sovereignty was "O.K. with Vandenberg and his cohorts." With some sarcasm, Vandenberg stated: "With the great respect for the opinions of those who differ with me, I deny every factual word of it." He went on to cite specific reasons why the powers vested by the Constitution in Congress and the President had not been diluted. The Senate ratified the Charter five days later by a vote of 89 to 2.
He also served as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 and to the Rio de Janeiro Pan American Conference in 1947. Also in 1947, Vandenberg became the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the Senate debate on the Marshall Plan, Vandenberg helped garner bi-partisan support for President Harry S. Truman`s plan. When Senator Robert Taft proposed reducing the first year`s commitment from $4 billion to $3 billion, Vandenberg replied, "When a man is drowning 20 feet away, it is a mistake to throw him a 15-foot rope." Taft`s motion was defeated and the Marshall Plan was approved by the Senate on a vote of 69 to 17.
In 1948, Vandenberg, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a resolution calling for the United States to enter into collective security agreements. It was adopted by the Senate on June 11. The negotiations that resulted from that resolution led to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the first mutual defense treaty that the United States had entered since its alliance with France during the American Revolution.
Vandenberg was married twice and had three children. He died on April 18, 1951, of lung cancer and was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Grand Rapids. According to his son, Vandenberg had been aware of the need for surgery a year before undergoing it and had delayed the treatment because of his busy Senate activities.
In honor of his achievements and accomplishments in bi-partisan foreign relations in the Senate, Vandenberg’s portrait, along with that of Senator Robert F. Wagner, was hung in the permanent gallery of outstanding former senators in the Senate Reception Room. Those two distinguished senators’ portraits joined those of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Robert M. La Follette Sr., and Robert A. Taft. Portraits of that group of Senators, known as the "Famous Five", were unveiled on March 12, 1959.
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