- - Monday, November 13, 2017


By Hendrik Meijer

University of Chicago Press, $35, 432 pages

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History is unkind to compromisers. If they succeed, disaster is averted and the compromiser is soon forgotten. If they fail, they’re often scapegoated for subsequent events. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose negotiations averted war with Hitler over Czechoslovakia comes to mind. Chamberlain thought his concessions had brought “peace in our time.”

Instead, they brought peace for only a few months and emboldened Hitler to invade Poland, thereby launching World War II with all its attendant horrors. Chamberlain’s name remains a byword for foreign policy failure to this day. Ironically, one of the greatest successful compromisers of the World War II-Cold War era that followed has been relegated to obscurity.

Harry Truman once defined a statesman as “a dead politician.” With Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan (1884-1951) it worked the other way around. Recognized as a statesman in his lifetime, the architect of the bipartisan American foreign policy that defeated German fascism and stalemated Soviet communism is largely forgotten today.

In a way, the process began only 24 hours after his death. As a seven-year-old, I remember listening on the radio to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s address to a joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951, his famous “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” speech.

But it was Mr. Vandenberg, not Gen. MacArthur, who faded away. The veteran senator had died the previous evening and the tributes paid him by his colleagues on the Senate side in the aftermath of Gen. MacArthur’s speech were hopelessly upstaged.

Nancy Dickerson, a young staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time (she would later become a distinguished television correspondent), remembered listening to the underreported eulogies, recalling that Mr. Vandenberg’s “integrity and personal charm gave him a unique power and standing in the Senate. He imbued committee members with the thought that partisanship had no place in foreign affairs — that while dissent was permissible and welcomed at home, when we presented ourselves to other nations we should appear as a united whole.”

Thanks to Arthur Vandenberg’s vision and ability to work across the aisles, a foreign policy consensus was forged that would endure for a generation after his death, finally sinking in the morass of Vietnam. Dwight Eisenhower, who had worked with him during World War II and the rebuilding of a devastated western Europe, listed Mr. Vandenberg as one of five great men he had known, also including Winston Churchill and Secretary of State George Marshall, whom history has treated much more generously than Mr. Vandenberg.

The publication of Hendrik Meijer’s soundly researched and thoroughly readable new biography may mark the beginning of a long-overdue reappraisal of a man who was perhaps the last U.S. senator to play a truly decisive, positive role in defining American foreign policy and our place in the world.

Global impact aside, it is also the engaging tale of a largely self-educated, small-town boy’s rise from obscure beginnings to become one of the most respected citizens of his day. His hometown was Grand Rapids, Mich., where he advanced from junior-most staffer to editor of the morning newspaper, soon becoming active in state and national politics. Young Vandenberg’s personal inspiration was Alexander Hamilton (about whom he would write two books), another ambitious, enterprising, self-made man with an appreciation of America’s unique destiny.

Mr. Vandenberg came to Washington as a fairly conventional Midwestern Republican senator in the Coolidge years, a man with a “round face, inquiring eyes, and eager, slightly bumptious manner. Cartoonists had fun with his round black glasses. He combed his sparse hair vainly across a balding scalp, suggesting someone born middle-aged, an effect reinforced by the watch chain smiling from his vest, the spats, the pinkie ring, and the inevitable ash-laden cigar.”

Bit by bit, year by year, Mr. Vandenberg grew in stature, still a trifle vain and pompous, but with a detailed grasp of foreign policy and a sense of mission few if any of his colleagues could match. As the author concludes, “Long after his last cigar, Arthur Vandenberg lingers vaguely in civic memory. His name offers an iconic shorthand for cooperation between political parties. Particularly in foreign affairs, and particularly when there is divided government.”

One of Mr. Vandenberg’s youngest disciples began his own congressional career in his hero’s hometown, Grand Rapids. His name was Gerald Ford and it was my privilege to serve on his White House staff when, as a beleaguered president struggling to preserve an honorable foreign policy in divisive times, he would occasionally recall his old mentor. Unfortunately for Jerry Ford — and our country — there were no Arthur Vandenbergs left in the Senate.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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