In 1995, as a graduate student at The Pennsylvania State University, I wrote a paper entitled “The Merchants of Death and the Origins of War,” for an International Relations seminar, which I also presented at the annual Pennsylvania Political Science Association meeting. Although it is 25 years ago, I still vividly remember this paper, because my audience when I presented it was very receptive but especially because I enjoyed the research — I relished tackling the investigation into the accusations that private arms manufacturers in the early 1930s fomented WWI. Thus, it was in 1995 when I first read about Senator Arthur Vandenberg through his work on the Nye Commission, which had been tasked by Congress in 1934 to investigate the U.S. munitions industry.
Of course, reading Hank Meijer’s thoroughly researched book on Senator Vandenberg brought my prior encounter with the Senator back to life for me. It reminded me of the scrupulously decent nature that Vandenberg revealed to the American public. Moreover, while Mr. Meijer relates in his acknowledgements why he decided to embark on writing a book length study on the Senator from Grand Rapids, Michigan, I imagine that part of it was an urge to tell a story about a man devoted to public service, who overcame partisan allegiance to forge a path forward for the good of America. Mr. Meijer surely did not know over the 25 years of writing the manuscript how much American and European publics would need this example in 2019—a time when world politics is consumed by strident voices, populist voices, polemic voices.
Even though Vandenberg articulated a center-right voice of moderation (dare I say progressiveness when it came to women’s suffrage and ideas on poverty), he was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. He was one of only 17 Republican Senators returning to Washington in 1936, after Franklin Roosevelt won the highest share of both the popular and electoral vote since 1820. This defeat did not bend Vandenberg to FDR’s designs on expanding executive power. The sections of the book that cover the political battles between Roosevelt and Vandenberg feel like reading about the clash of two American political titans.
Despite these confrontations, Vandenberg shifted his views about America’s role in the world and played a central part in reversing the Republican Party’s policy of isolationism during and after World War II. Indeed, I am sure this audience is eager to hear about Vandenberg’s support of the establishment of United Nations, his work with George Marshall on European redevelopment and his role in committing the U.S. to protect Western Europe via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
As an academic and a poet, who lives by my ability to express ideas in words, I am impressed by Vandenberg’s clear literary talents, which were honed and developed by chance in 1900. If Vandenberg had not been lured away from his first job to see a parade that included Teddy Roosevelt, he would not have been fired and would not have sought employment as a reporter at the Grand Rapids Herald. In a very short time, Vandenberg excelled in his new job, writing influential opinion editorials over the years, which eventually led him to write soaring speeches delivered on the senate floor.
Coming from a small town in the heartland of America, where in the past my hometown paper included editorials of prominent locals and state officials, I found this path to success both satisfying and sad. Satisfying because it appeals to my meritocratic vision of America. Sad, because my own hometown newspaper and many others no long provide such a pathway, where hometown editorials might become part of the national debate.
Finally, I want to say something about Mr. Meijer’s sources, as it is clear that he had access to a treasure trove of personal diaries, letters and interviews with people who knew the senator personally. It attests to a passion to getting the narrative right. It makes for a rich portrait that includes personal details about Vandenberg’s humanity and his shortcomings. Such personal elements add to the feeling that Vandenberg’s death in 1951, at the age of 67, left an untimely hole in America’s leadership—at a time when moderate voices, that spoke about justice, rights and fundamental freedoms, were sorely needed to offset the gathering storm of fear fostered by Senator Joe McCarthy.