Editor’s Note: In the November 27 issue of National Review, we had a review by Jay Nordlinger of Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century, by Hendrik Meijer. This week, Mr. Nordlinger has expanded that review in his Impromptus. For Part I, go here. The series concludes today.
Like his hero, Alexander Hamilton, Arthur Vandenberg wrote interestingly about (a) tolerance and (b) faction. Here he is: “Faction takes the law into its own hands and lynches negroes.” And “Americans are entitled to be intolerant only of un-Americanism.”
In 1922, Vandenberg addressed himself to a perennial American question, immigration. The melting pot was “running over,” he thought. The country was becoming “a polyglot boarding house.” Americans had “an obligation to defend our immigration gates against an influx of alien races,” which “could overwhelm our white complexion.”
This was Vandenberg in an illiberal moment. It was not a typical moment, however. Indeed, Vandenberg was known by a now-defunct phrase: “Lincoln liberal.”
Earlier in this series, I wrote, “In 1922, a book went off like a stink bomb in the Midwest: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. It mocked the values that Arthur Vandenberg embodied and championed.” I will now quote Vandenberg (as quoted by Hendrik Meijer):
Babbitt has a right to strike back. Without him this would be a sodden land. … He is happy and satisfied to be a part of his own ‘home town’ — and to strive, with his neighbors, to make the old ‘home town’ a little better and a little cleaner and a little healthier. … Save us from a society that is all ‘Mencken’ and ‘Sinclair Lewis.’ Give us ‘Babbitt’ at his best — interested in his home — living with his own wife — striving to educate his children — helping his church — still believing in a just God — loving his country and his flag.
One could weep …
Vandenberg had a concept of the model American statesman: “progressive enough to meet our new emergencies with new methods, yet conservative enough to remember and profit by American political and constitutional history.”
You will recall that, back in high school, Vandenberg was elected to the U.S. Senate, in an exercise. In 1928, he went to the real one. As he went, he said that he would be an editor “until I die.” He was “incurably daubed,” he said, “with printer’s ink.”
In 1932, when President Hoover was running for reelection, the GOP had a slogan: “Prosperity is returning — don’t throw it in reverse.” Meijer tells us that Vandenberg had a hand in this slogan. It didn’t work, as you know.
Vandenberg had a healthy fear of inflation. He carried in his wallet a million-mark note from Weimar Germany. (In recent years, Zimbabweans have had a few such notes.)
He was becoming pretty well-known at home. A Michigan schoolboy was asked to name the state’s bird. He guessed, “The Vandenbird?”
The senator was a principal antagonist of the Dutchman in the White House — TR’s distant cousin, FDR. He went along with some of the New Deal, a “constructive critic” of it, as he termed himself. But he also had a quip about it: “the New Ordeal.”
Vandenberg was a gifted phrasemaker, as Meijer says. Here’s another one (in reference to Roosevelt): “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Park.” (Hyde Park was FDR’s estate in New York.)
Republicans such as Vandenberg felt the need to deal with the yawning agonies of the Depression — to deal with them governmentally. Vandenberg said that they needed to find a way to “demonstrate our social-mindedness as distinguished from Socialism.”
Those were common words of the time: “social-minded, “social-mindedness.”
Meijer quotes a passage that Vandenberg himself quoted, from Walter Lippmann’s book The Good Society (1937). Fascinating, and ever applicable:
We are trying to operate a capitalistic system under a government that dislikes the system, and would, if it had the courage and power, replace it with a collectivist system. This inner conflict between the nature of free capitalism and the real purposes of the government has created a deadlock. Business cannot proceed because it is terrorized by New Dealers. The New Dealers cannot proceed because, being only half-hearted collectivists, they dare not follow out the logic of their own ideas.
On Capitol Hill, Arthur Vandenberg was Isolationist No. 1. He said that it was “impossible for the United States to police the world.” (This is time-honored language.) He also quoted Scripture, as he was wont to do. The scripture is from I Timothy, Chapter 5: “… if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” Vandenberg then pronounced, “If that makes Timothy an isolationist, so am I.” (It was Paul, writing to Timothy, but never mind.)
American neutrality had to be protected against two terrible forces, said Vandenberg: “international emotionalism” and “the appetites which love commerce in spite of casualties.”
The Lend-Lease program was enacted in March 1941. Vandenberg wrote, “If America ‘cracks up’ you can put your finger on this precise moment as the time the crime was committed.”
FDR was often exasperated by the isolationists, and embittered by them. He vented in a late-night phone call to Henry Morgenthau, his Treasury secretary, saying something like this: “I think we ought to introduce a bill for statues of Austin, Vandenberg, Lodge, and Taft to be erected in Berlin, with the swastika on them.”
There was a great dilemma in America, summarized neatly by the Grand Rapids Herald, Vandenberg’s old paper: “The people are almost unanimous to keep out, yet most want to thrash Germany.”
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the interventionists felt vindicated. So did the isolationists. FDR and that crowd had egged the Japs, and then the Germans, into war, said the isolationists. Be that as it may, Vandenberg had this pithy observation about December 7: “That day ended isolation for any realist.”
In his book, Hendrik Meijer takes care to weave in the personal, by which I mean the familial. Vandenberg’s first wife, Elizabeth, died young. He then married Hazel. Both women were apparently splendid — and Hazel was longsuffering.
In Washington, Vandenberg had an affair with the wife of a man in the British embassy. Her name was Mitzi Sims. Was she a British spy, charged with trapping the Great Isolationist? In any case, someone dubbed Vandenberg “the senator from Mitzigan.”
Vandenberg’s son, Arthur Jr., was his longtime aide, and homosexual. Meijer handles this matter with brevity, tact, and poignancy.
Hazel Vandenberg witnessed the growth of Washington firsthand. “None of the easy-going Southern atmosphere of the past,” she noted.
Crowds in the buses and street-cars that are being used by everybody, even justices of the Supreme Court. Crowds in the restaurants where you wait interminably to be served. Crowds in the stores where the service has been equally disrupted. … Young girls by the hundreds who have poured into town to do war work.
There once was a time, as Meijer says, when you could “saunter onto the White House grounds without showing a pass.” Absolutely. This is just what my family did. (They were Washingtonians.)
Do you remember Women’s City Clubs? I do — I was around for the tail-end of them, I think. They attracted all sorts of speakers, and they did a number of good works.
After the war, Vandenberg said, “I am entirely willing to admit that America herself cannot prosper in a broken world.” He also said, “Ours must be the world’s moral leadership — or the world won’t have any.”
He espoused what he called “intelligent American self-interest,” or “enlightened self-interest.” (I think of today’s “principled realism” — a phrase whose meaning is conveniently opaque.) He was a man in the middle, with one-worlders to the left of him and die-hard isolationists to the right of him. (These were now led by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, along with Colonel McCormick and his Chicago Tribune.)
The subtitle of Meijer’s book — “The Man in the Middle of the American Century” — has more than one meaning.
When British voters rejected Churchill in 1945 (July), Vandenberg was put out: “Here is one of the few men in 2,000 years of history upon whom you could put your finger and say — ‘he saved a nation!’ And then the nation slits his throat!”
Vandenberg helped birth the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. When it came to the Marshall Plan and its passage, Marshall himself said of Vandenberg, “He was just the whole show.”
In 1948, President Truman won election, in an upset. The next morning, Vandenberg told his assembled staff, “You’ve got to give the little man credit. There he was, flat on his back. Everyone had counted him out, but he came up fighting and won the battle. He did it all by himself. That’s the kind of courage the American people admire.”
I don’t mean to give in to nostalgia, because I don’t like nostalgia, and there’s a lot about the present that’s much, much better than the past. But listen: Secretary of State James F. Byrnes gave a speech that many thought responded to a speech of Vandenberg’s. They dubbed it the “Second Vandenberg Concerto.”
Would people get that now? Would people think to say it?
The secretary of defense, James Forrestal, killed himself. At Arlington, Vandenberg wept when the navy band played Handel’s Largo. The army band then played “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Vandenberg wrote to his wife, “I thought I would expire.”
That was a different time, y’all — a different time.
Speaking of different times, Vandenberg made a statement about national security. “This is now a different world. Some of the boys who voted to gut the arms program are pretty sick about what they did.”
Vandenberg never made it to the presidency, or to the Republican nomination, but he was in the running, to varying degrees, quadrennially. At least once, he was satisfied not to run. He joked, “When I die, I want the minister to be able to look down on me and say, ‘There would have been a great president.’”
Vandenberg died in his hometown in April 1951. Meijer writes, “The funeral at Park Congregational Church was Grand Rapids’ largest between those of middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel in 1910 and Vandenberg protégé Gerald Ford in 2007.”
I suppose I’m the ideal reader for this book: a political junkie from Michigan, consumed by some of the same issues that consumed Arthur Vandenberg. Yet anyone interested in American politics and world affairs would be absorbed by this book. In our crowded lives, we scarcely have time to look at a book. Frankly, I may read this one twice.
A word to the wise: National Review has started a new podcast, Jaywalking, in which Jay Nordlinger presents what is essentially an audio version of Impromptus. Go here. Also, to get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.