Who was the greatest U.S. Senator Michigan has ever produced?
Looking at the 19th Century, two names stand out — Lewis Cass and Zachariah Chandler, although Cass deserves recognition more as a territorial governor and as the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 1848 than he did as a Senator. In the 20th and 21st centuries, respect must be paid to three-term Democrat Philip Hart, whose colleagues named a Senate office building after him when he died, and Carl Levin, the longest-serving U.S. Senator from Michigan in history. Levin, also a Democrat, was elected to half a dozen six-year terms before retiring at the end of 2014.
But in terms of what he achieved as a lawmaker as well as his national prominence, there’s little question that the all-time champion was Republican Arthur Vandenberg of Grand Rapids, who, unbelievably, has never been the subject of a full-length biography — until now. In a bizarre twist, it’s taken a grocery store magnate, writing part-time for nearly three decades, to get the job done.
Hendrik Meijer aka “Hank,” has just published “Arthur Vandenberg: Man in the Middle of the American Century” (University of Chicago Press, 432 pages, $35). Meijer, 65, is the executive chairman of Meijer, Inc., which presides over an empire of some 200 supermarkets and department stores strewn throughout the Midwest, mostly in Michigan.
Earlier this month (Nov. 8), Meijer appeared at the State of Michigan Library two blocks west of the capitol before an attentive gathering of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. Other than The Ballenger Report, no media showed up, so what follows is the only record in any form of what Meijer said. This is an edited blend of Meijer’s main remarks and his responses to questions from the audience:
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen … I thought I’d start with a story back in 1946 when Arthur Vandenberg was on the verge of becoming a world figure, and he met a young lawyer just out of the Navy … who stopped by Vandenberg’s Grand Rapids office. The senator had just returned from attending a peace conference in Paris, and Gerald Ford had just hung out his shingle as an attorney. Young Ford was also the fresh face of the “Home Front” movement, which was an effort to challenge the corrupt political machine of Frank McKay (an elected state Treasurer) in Grand Rapids. Vandenberg was still fuming over the refusal of his own hometown Congressman to support his efforts to win approval of the Marshall Plan and other post-war legislation and was eager to see that Congressman, Bart Jonkman, challenged. Jonkman was also a Frank McKay man, and Vandenberg let it be known that he was backing the young lawyer, Gerald Ford, and the rest is … well, history (Ford defeated Jonkman and went on to become U.S. House Minority Leader and, ultimately, President).
But my story tonight really starts at the beginning of the last century. when a teenager just out of Grand Rapids Central High School encountered the most exciting politician of a hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt, who was campaigning in 1900 for vice president, on a ticket headed by William McKinley. Roosevelt had the kind of appeal for people of Vandenberg’s generation that John F. Kennedy did in 1960. Vandenberg was somewhat of a prodigy at Central High. He claimed he’d been reading the Congressional Record ever since he was 14, although we don’t have any direct evidence of that … but Vandenberg got inspired that day in the Roosevelt parade, and he got a job soon after as a reporter for the Grand Rapids Herald. At a time when the city and the state and the country as a whole were Republican, at the age of 22 he became the editor of the Herald, which was a Republican paper owned by a man who later became a U.S. Senator, William Alden Smith.
At that time, newspapers were the main source, for many the only source, of daily information. In Vandenberg’s young adulthood, if you published a newspaper, you had your own constituency … All these papers were partisan, one side or the other, and if you were writing editorials for one of them, you were sending them out in his case to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, to Senator Warren Harding of Ohio, to all the major political figures in the country and you could have major influence that we just can’t conceive of today from a small town newspaperman.
So Vandenberg began making a name for himself on the national stage even before he went to the Senate, and that wasn’t until 1928 when he was appointed to fill the vacancy created by the death of Woodbridge Ferris, and then elected in his own right a few months later. He’d already written three books tied to his hero, Alexander Hamilton … and he wrote speeches for Harding when he was a presidential candidate. Vandenberg fought against approval of U.S. membership in the League of Nations after World War I. Senator Lodge cited a line of Vandenberg’s in a speech that Lodge, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made in his fight against the U.S. joining the League … So here was Vandenberg, the editor of a medium-sized newspaper in the Midwest, weighing in on the great issue of the age …
So, several years later, Vandenberg gets to the Senate and of course must work with the new president, Herbert Hoover, who had never held elective office. Hoover was a brilliant guy but lacked finesse, to say the least, in working with Congress, and then the stock market crash of 1929 doomed his presidency … Vandenberg as a member of the minority party then tried to work with the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after he was elected in 1932. Vandenberg did in fact support some New Deal domestic programs, especially savings deposit insurance to save the banks. Indeed, it was really Vandenberg’s idea, but Hoover had fought him on it, and FDR did, too, initially …but Vandenberg got the votes in the Senate and a new law created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC). FDR then took the credit for it, which some believe was the most successful of all New Deal domestic reforms, and that rankled Vandenberg because it was the brainchild of … well, Arthur Vandenberg.
But as the federal government grew, Vandenberg’s Republican proclivities kicked in, and he tried to draw a line between being social-minded and being socialistic …and he broke with Roosevelt on all the federal rule-making which he regarded as intrusive, and the building of a trans-Florida ship canal …
Then, with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and the Japanese War Cabinet and the growing threat of war, Vandenberg fell back on what was his first principle — that Hamiltonian tradition of American neutrality. No entangling alliances. In September of 1939, when German bombers appeared over Warsaw, Vandenberg declared in a speech on a baseball diamond in Grand Rapids, “This is not our war.” Those remarks were nationally broadcast because Vandenberg was emerging as a national spokesman for American neutrality. Before World War II actually began with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor he led the band of isolationists, mostly Republican but some Democrats, too, who fought Roosevelt every step of the way. They fought and lost on the arms embargo of the 1937 Neutrality Act, they fought and lost the Lend Lease deal giving destroyers to the British Navy. Roosevelt was their nemesis. They were afraid where he was taking the country and how quickly he had become engulfed in the war. Vandenberg was the organizing spirit of the isolationists.
In 1936, Vandenberg had avoided Kansas Gov. Alf Landon’s attempt to draft him as his running mate. It was a smart move because Landon got crushed by FDR. In 1940, Vandenberg was viewed as a dark horse candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Here’s a piece of political trivia — the FBI opened an office in Grand Rapids in 1938. The agent assigned to open that office later told (a newspaperman) that he was sent there by Roosevelt to keep an eye on Arthur Vandenberg. Why else would you open an FBI office in Grand Rapids? But Vandenberg’s chances for the GOP nomination, and those of Robert Taft and the other isolationists, were swept aside by the charismatic lawyer Wendell Willkie, whose willingness to intervene in Europe nearly matched Roosevelt’s. The attack on Pearl Harbor made Vandenberg’s point of view look instantly obsolete …
But as the war evolved and turned in favor of the Allies, and the Allies were dubbed the “United Nations” by Roosevelt, the Republicans faced two big questions. One was partisan — Willkie was what would be called today a RINO (Republican In Name Only). He had no party base and was viewed by the party establishment as an opportunistic interloper … That reflected a deep schism within the party between isolationists or unilateralists, on the one hand, and internationalists and those who believe in broader global involvement. If the Republicans were to have a chance in 1944 those factions needed to come together. The question was how. The other issue was what was on the minds of Americans of all stripes: “What would the world look like after the war?”And what role should the U.S. play in it? Would we retreat into our hemisphere as we did after World War I, when Vandenberg’s editorials found fault with Wilson and the League of Nations. Now the question was how the nationalists might organize themselves to avoid future catastrophes … So the leaders of the Republican Party called a national conference on Mackinac Island over Labor Day week-end, 1943. Vandenberg was chosen to be chairman of the GOP Policy Group. Not for the first time, he looked for a middle way, in this case between isolationists who wanted nothing more than to wash their hands and bring the troops home after the war, and the globalists who had various ideas about an international police force and something to replace the League of Nations … So Vandenberg and Taft and California Gov. Earl Warren emerged from the foreign policy meeting with something wonderfully ambiguous called the “Mackinac Charter,” beyond anything Roosevelt or the Democrats had come up with. It set the stage for things to come. Vandenberg told (Time magazine publisher) Henry Luce: “When I succeeded in bringing 49 prima donnas together — and it takes one to know one — to produce this compromise I thought I’d really done something.” For Vandenberg, compromise was almost an art form. …
But he was still working behind the scenes; most of the country still thought of him as a voice of isolationism. All that changed on Jan. 10, 1945. The allies were winning the war, pushing across the Rhine into Germany, and Roosevelt, who was in worse health than anybody knew, was about to leave for Yalta to meet with Stalin and Churchill … as the collapse of the Third Reich drew near … Nobody could be sure what FDR might commit to. Vandenberg rose on the Senate floor to propose … A post-war security treaty among the victorious allies to ensure that Germany would never again wage war on its neighbors. Here was the leading isolationist calling for America commitment to an entangling alliance with countries who had fought two world wars in the last three decades. It was, as one correspondent said, “The speech heard ’round the world.” FDR spoke dismissively of it — he didn’t like Vandenberg, either — but the White House asked for 50 copies of the speech before the president departed for Russia. And, in a mater of months, the world, and Vandenberg’s place in it, changed very quickly. Roosevelt returned, and he realized he had no choice if he was to avoid what happened to Woodrow Wilson after Versailles. He appointed Vandenberg — the leading Republican — to be a delegate to the organizing conference for the United Nations in May of 1945 in San Francisco, along with Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., the Secretary of State, and Eleanor Roosevelt and Texas Senator Tom Connally … Eleanor had never gotten along with Vandenberg. She bitterly resented his attacks on her husband (during the 1930s), and Vandenberg resented a lot of her positions on a lot of issues, including her idea of building a utopian community in West Virginia called Arthurdale whose cottage industry would be making furniture. So here you had the senator whose home town’s major industry was making furniture who had to deal with a federal program to compete with it! Later, though, Vandenberg met with Eleanor at Southhampton (in England) and they buried the hatchet. Vandenberg said, “I take back everything bad I said about her, and believe me it’s been plenty.”
Then Roosevelt died. Truman was a neophyte in foreign policy, but he was decisive. Just weeks after Roosevelt died, Truman confirmed that the UN organizing conference should proceed. Texas Senator Tom Connally, who was Vandenberg’s counterpart for the Democrats, was a shrewd politician but when it came to foreign policy he was limited. He could be counted on to voice the Administration view, but that plainly wouldn’t be enough, so that meant Vandenberg became the most influential American delegate. Vandenberg considered the conclave in San Francisco, in the Fairmont Hotel, to be “the town meeting of the world.” He and Molotov, the Soviets’ foreign minister, were probably the most influential delegates there … Clearly, Truman needed Vandenberg. Truman asked him to play an unprecedented role in formulating American foreign policy. Truman was a creature of the Senate, and he and Vandenberg had been friendly as senators … A vice president who succeeds to the presidency always has some feelings concerning his legitimacy, especially following as dominant a figure as Roosevelt. It was reflexive of Truman to reach back to his fellow senators .. As for the senators, they felt they finally had someone in the presidency they could work with …With Truman in the presidency, it was restoring some stature to the Senate that had eroded under FDR … The best-selling book in the late ’50s by Allen Drury, “Advise and Consent,” probably summed it up — that may have been the high-water mark of when senators were still a big deal and could actually control the flow of legislation. Today we have some celebrity senators, but how influential they really are is a matter of dispute …