SHARE
Arthur Van­denberg biog­raphy was pub­lished in October | Amazon

A por­trait of former Repub­lican Sen. Arthur Van­denberg hangs in the U.S. Capitol’s Senate reception room — a rare honor bestowed upon only nine sen­ators — in part due to his role in estab­lishing the Mar­shall Plan, the United Nations, and NATO. Although he was also a writer of news­paper columns, speeches, and books, he never wrote a memoir.

In October, the exec­utive chairman of Meijer Inc., Hendrik Meijer, pub­lished what he described as the first com­pre­hensive biog­raphy of Van­denberg. Meijer, who will come to campus to speak about his book Feb. 27, argues Vandenberg’s bipar­tisan coop­er­ation in his 23 years as a senator has been under­ap­pre­ciated and serves as an important example of col­lab­o­ration in the today’s divisive political climate. 

Meijer cap­tures the impor­tance of Vandenberg’s early jobs and work expe­rience as the editor of the Grand Rapids Herald. From the influence of the harness-making business run by Vandenberg’s father to his high-school speech com­pe­ti­tions, Meijer traces Vandenberg’s dis­tin­guished and opin­ionated elo­quence — a trait later developed in his edi­torial columns and political speeches — back to its roots in his early life.

Van­denberg grad­ually gained political promi­nence through his influence in the news­paper industry and through his stump speeches for Repub­lican can­di­dates. Meijer describes the series of political events leading up to Vandenberg’s initial appointment and later re-election to the Senate, bal­ancing the details of Michigan and national pol­itics as Meijer describes Vandenberg’s ascent to his dream job of senator. 

In part, Meijer’s own knowledge of the state as a Michigan native aug­ments his balance of local and national events. As a fellow res­ident of Grand Rapids, the “Fur­niture City,” Meijers expertly inte­grates Vandenberg’s ambi­tions with the growth of the metropolis.

During his tenure in the Senate, Van­denberg became a prominent figure in foreign policy. Though Van­denberg was an iso­la­tionist at the onset of World War II, heeding George Washington’s advice about foreign policy, he ulti­mately chose to put the best interests of the nation ahead of political affil­i­a­tions.

“I am hunting for the middle ground between those extremists at one end of the line who would cheer­fully give America away and those extremists at the other end of the line who would attempt a total iso­lation which has come to be an impos­si­bility,” he said of his desire for com­promise at a GOP con­ference to decide a position about peace plans.

Van­denberg strongly opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and, according to Meijer, nearly single-handedly defeated Roosevelt’s costliest pet project, a Florida canal meant to reduce shipping time between Gulf Coast ports and the Atlantic Seaboard.

After World War II, Van­denburg, whom Meijer dubs the “man in the middle of the American century,” had the context of two world wars as a lens for looking at the growing ten­sions with Russia and shifts in global power.

“In a sense we are a tragic gen­er­ation, despite our blessings and our place in the sun,” Van­denberg once told col­leagues. “We have been drawn into two world wars. We finally won them both, and yet we still con­front a rest­lessness and pre­carious peace. Some­thing has been wrong. It is our supreme task to face these present real­ities, no matter how much we hate them, and to mend the broken pattern if such be within human power.” 

Ulti­mately, Meijer depicts Van­denberg as a pivotal figure in cre­ating the bipar­tisan con­sensus that paved the way for the Mar­shall Plan, the United nations, and NATO. Even while por­traying Van­denberg as a model for fos­tering bipar­ti­sanship, however, Meijer does not gloss over the pride and ego that were some­times evident in Vandenberg’s words and actions.

By por­traying Vandenberg’s short­comings along with his tri­umphs, and by weaving descrip­tions of his per­sonal life into the whirlwind of Senate pol­itics, Meijer’s biog­raphy serves as a near sub­stitute for the political memoir of bipar­ti­sanship and coop­er­ation that Van­denberg was never able to write himself.