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.