Arthur H. Vandenberg
American Foreign Policy
January 10, 1945
In January 1945, near the end of World War II and 17 years into his Senate career, Republican Arthur H. Vandenberg surprised the Senate with a speech that marked a dramatic change from his previously isolationist approach to foreign policy.
A former editor and publisher of the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Herald, and an ardent nationalist, Vandenberg had supported President Woodrow Wilson's proposal to establish a League of Nations in 1919, but he drifted toward isolationism after a visit to Europe in 1935 convinced him that war was inevitable. The acknowledged but unofficial spokesman of Senate Republicans on foreign policy matters, he advocated strict neutrality and a rigid arms embargo to prevent American involvement in the war. He was a resolute "constitutionalist" and an ardent opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt's second New Deal, consistently voting against any measure that would enhance the president's discretion in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Vandenberg began to moderate his isolationist stance after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but remained bitterly partisan, placing much of the blame for "Roosevelt's private war" on the president's "secret diplomacy which pointed straight toward war for many months preceding" the attack. Roosevelt, in turn, rebuffed Vandenberg's efforts to promote a bipartisan foreign policy.
In the fall of 1943, both the Senate and the House of Representatives approved resolutions calling for United States involvement in an international peacekeeping organization to be established after the war. But Roosevelt, whose failure to consult the Senate on foreign policy matters alienated even his most loyal supporters, refused to reveal his postwar agenda. Senators on both sides of the aisle became increasingly frustrated as the February 1945 Yalta Conference approached and the president maintained his silence. Advocates of an international organization to prevent future conflicts feared that Vandenberg would scuttle any settlement that demanded of the United States an active role in the postwar peacekeeping effort.
Vandenberg broke the stalemate on January 10, 1945, with an address that paved the way for a bipartisan postwar foreign policy. He had initially planned to deliver "a sharp criticism of Stalin," recalled New York Times correspondent James B. Reston, who reviewed Vandenberg's draft at the senator's request, but he was apparently persuaded by Reston's argument that "the only possible remedy" for Stalin's determination "to protect his country from the revival of German power" was "a postwar treaty of alliance" among the Allied powers "to oppose any future German aggression that would threaten the peace of the world." Vandenberg also requested comment from Blair Moody and Jay G. Hayden of the Detroit News before he rose "in [the] spirit of anxious humility" to inform the Senate that "there are critical moments in the life of every nation which call for the straightest, the plainest and the most courageous thinking of which we are capable. We confront such a moment now."
Senators and spectators in the galleries listened for 30 minutes as Vandenberg—in Reston's words, "a big, loud, vain, and self-important man, who could strut sitting down," whose "written statements were masterpieces of confusion"—declared that, although he had once "believed in our own self-reliance," the "gory science of mass murder" had transformed modern warfare into "an all-consuming juggernaut." "I do not believe," he reasoned, "that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action." Restraining himself from condemning Stalin's plan to erect "a surrounding circle of buffer states" around the Soviet Union to prevent a resurgence of German aggression, he suggested "collective security" as an alternative approach. To Roosevelt's surprise, the Michigan Republican offered an "olive branch" to promote a closer working relationship between president and Congress: "we can agree," he conceded, "that we do not ever want an instant's hesitation or doubt about our military cooperation in the peremptory use of force…to keep Germany and Japan demilitarized." But "there should be no more need to refer any such action back to Congress than that Congress should expect to pass upon battle plans today. The commander in chief should have instant power to act, and he should act."
The resoundingly favorable response from the press, and from senators of both parties, somewhat overwhelmed Vandenberg, who later explained his remarks with the self-effacing comment that "I felt that things were drifting.…Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition." His speech did not, as Reston later observed, "change the views of the American people…It was the warm and, in his experience, unprecedented reception of that speech by the American people that changed him. Nothing that he had ever said on the Senate floor before that time produced such a response, and it wasn't that his proposals were particularly new.…Only when Vandenberg, the symbol of isolation, came forward with the idea did it become a major factor in American and world politics."
Vandenberg was, in the words of historian Wayne S. Cole, "on the way to the pinnacle of his career." Roosevelt looked upon his former adversary with newfound respect, appointing him a delegate to the United Nations Conference on International Organization that convened in San Francisco on April 25, 1945. Vandenberg served as a delegate to the 1946 United Nations Assembly and represented the United States at the Rio de Janeiro Pan American Conference the following year. He was reelected to the Senate in 1946, serving until his death in 1951. The Senate approved the United Nations Charter on July 28, 1945, by a vote of 89 to 2.