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Oral History Project

Francis O. Wilcox, Chief of Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
February 10, 1984
Interviewed by Senate historian Donald Ritchie

The following is an excerpt from the oral history interview with Francis O. Wilcox, the chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Wilcox reflects on Senator Arthur Vandenberg.

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Donald Ritchie: I wondered if you could start today by telling me a little about Arthur Vandenberg, and what type of a person he was to work for.

Francis Wilcox: Well, I am prejudiced when it comes to discussing Arthur Vandenberg. I must say he was a remarkable person in many ways. He was one of the few senators who really did his homework. When he became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee he told his wife that she could have two nights a week out. The rest of the time they were in their apartment at the Wardman Park with Arthur Vandenberg doing his homework. He was very considerate of his staff. I don't know whether I mentioned this before, but when he appointed me as chief of staff he said, "Go out and get the best people you can find. Only remember, I will hold you responsible." He said that with a little twinkle in his eye, but I knew that he meant it even so.

He would come over to the Foreign Relations Committee rooms where we had our offices – I think he liked to get away from the routine of his senatorial office – he would come over there every morning and put his feet up on my desk and talk about foreign policy, and about the committee, and about the Senate, and about the State Department. He liked to exchange views and to test ideas.

His wife was equally solicitous of the staff. I remember she said that she was going to have a Christmas party – she was not at all well, she had terminal cancer. I think the senator urged her not to have the annual Christmas party, but she said, "Arthur, I'm going to have that Christmas party if it's the last thing I ever do." And she had the party and she died sometime after that.

Arthur Vandenberg achieved a position of distinction in the Republican Senate, in the 80th Congress, so that he was looked upon as the leader in the field of foreign policy, while Bob Taft was looked upon as the leader in the Senate on the Republican side in domestic affairs. They got along really quite well, but Senator Vandenberg's attitude toward the Senate generally was that they were entitled to know everything that he knew, that they could not make up their minds unless they were fully informed, so he did his best to keep them fully informed. And it was a remarkable thing that usually when he spoke there were sixty or so senators on the floor to hear him. This is, of course, quite unusual in the Senate because normally people aren't interested in hearing what other senators have to say – unless they themselves of course are making the speech.

But he treated members of the committee in a similarly solicitous way, making sure that they had every opportunity to get the information they needed to make up their minds in an objective way. Very often he would say, "Francis, Senator George isn't quite convinced that we should go down this path. I think we'd better have another meeting to see if we can't convince him." Even though he may have had a majority of the votes in the committee, he nevertheless wanted to make sure that all the members were with him, and he took great pride in developing a feeling of unity and a spirit of unanimity on the committee.

Indeed, as I recall, during his two years as chairman there was only one important vote that did not bring about a unanimous reaction from the committee, and that was I think of secondary importance. There was a personal reason why one of the senators didn't want to support a particular project. But he took great pride in that, and in those two years there was not one important vote that did not bring forth a unanimous reaction from the committee.

Ritchie: Do you think that some of that was just the nature of who was on the committee, that they tended to think the way Vandenberg did, or was he really sort of working behind the stages to bring them all together into a consensus?

Wilcox: Well, I think perhaps some of both. Certainly the latter was true. He did everything he could behind the scenes to convince them that they were going in the right direction. I think also, of course, there was a consensus in the country about our foreign policy at that time, which there isn't today. We had just emerged from a terrible world war, and I think everybody wanted to do what was possible to create the kind of conditions that would make a more permanent peace possible. We knew we had to do something, we had to move in the direction of a United Nations; and later when the time came I think the country realized that the Russians were misbehaving and that we needed to do something to counter the threat of Russian aggression, so it was desirable to have something like the NATO treaty and the Greek-Turkish program. These things....

It is true that if Senator Vandenberg had not been in the Senate at that time (or someone like him), to encourage the Republicans to move in that direction, I think it is true that – it is probable, I should say – that some of these things might not have been done. He carried the Republicans with him in all these crucial votes. But it's interesting to note that from the United Nations on down through the satellite peace treaties, the treaty with Japan, the NATO treaty, the Greek-Turkish program, the specialized agencies of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan; all of these things brought forth a strong show of support in the Senate, and I think that it was largely due to Arthur Vandenberg's leadership.

Disclaimer: The Senate Historical Office has a strong commitment to oral history as an important part of its efforts to document institutional change over time. Oral histories are a natural component to historical research and enhance the archival holdings of the Senate and its members. Oral histories represent the personal recollections and opinions of the interviewees, however, and should not be considered as the official views or opinions of the U.S. Senate, of the Senate Historical Office, or of other senators and/or staff members. The transcripts of these oral histories are made available by the Senate Historical Office as a public service.