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Journey Into Our Times
The “conversion” of Arthur Vandenberg, told by a former Secretary of State, his sometime adversary but also his friend
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
The first time I worked with Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg was fairly early in the course of that change in his outlook on the world which one might call his long day’s journey into our times. He had been, to use his own description of himself, one of those “who had been so-called ‘isolationists’ prior to Pearl Harbor.” But “that day,” he wrote later, “ended isolationism tor any realist.” The change in outlook was far advanced by January 10, 1945, when he took the floor of the Senate to urge an international organization with far-reaching powers to revise war settlements and to enforce peace.
This was a long road. Despite his dramatic words about Pearl Harbor—words ol hindsight—Vandenberg’s change of mind did not come in a sudden Hash like that other change on the road to Damascus. I have heard him ascribe it mainly to his work with Secretary Hull and the “Committee of Eight,” the special Senate committee on postwar plans. This group met for the first time on April 25, 1944. Here he was thrown, without prior experience or knowledge, into the most involved international problems since the Congress of Vienna. He was to spend the seven years of life which remained to him immersed in these problems. The experience brought out all his many and great talents. It led, too, to a unique service not only to his own country but, ironically enough, to peoples whose affairs and interests he had believed only a short time before to be no concern of his or of his country’s.
My first work with the Senator began before the Committee of Eight had been formed. It was in the summer of 1943. Arthur Vandenberg was in a period of deep frustration. He was very much on the outside trying to look in; and he could see nothing. Suspicion consumed him—suspicion, in his own words, of “Executive dictatorship,” “by-passing the Senate,” “flouting of the Constitution”; suspicion, also, that our allies were already using for their own ends the victory to which we were contributing so much, and that in so doing they would sow the seeds of another and more terrible war. Nothing is more frustrating than not to know what is going on; and the Republican minority in the Senate had not yet found a channel to the State Department.
His frustration led to a minor and now forgotten tempest in the summer of 1943. It is worth recalling because it precipitated the “conversion,” as he sometimes called it, of Arthur Vandenberg. The State Department was working on an international agreement, adopted that autumn at Atlantic City, to deal with the first and most pressing of postwar problems, the relief and rehabilitation of war-torn countries. Within the department the task had fallen to me. At length a draft agreement had been prepared with some foreign consultation. Its form on our side was not that of a treaty requiring approval by the Senate, but of an agreement by authority of the President to contribute such funds for relief as the Congress should from time to time authorize and appropriate.
After the draft had been shown to the official leaders of the majority and minority in the Senate and the House, it was published to permit full consideration and discussion. Then the row started. The draft had not been discussed privately with the Senate or House foreign committees or their leaders. This was a mistake—though not so far as the House was concerned, since its rights over appropriations were preserved, and its members had no sympathy with the Senate’s prerogatives in treaty making, from which the House was excluded. But in the Senate the publication of the draft set the cat among the pigeons. And it was Vandenberg who indefatigably kept them aflutter. He took the most horrendous view of what he thought was the shape of things to come. The draft he thought “pledged our total resources to whatever illimitable scheme for relief and rehabilitation all around the world our New Deal crystal gazers might desire to pursue.” Congress was to be “confronted with a 'fait accompli'” and there was to be “no interference with this world-wide prospectus as it might be conceived by Roosevelt, Lehman, Hopkins and Co.”
Vandenberg would often be carried away by the hyperbole of his own rotund phrases. My father used to illustrate this very human characteristic by the example of a horse we owned years ago crossing the bridge over the Connecticut River at Middletown. She was gentle and well disposed. But as the buggy began to rumble across the bridge’s planking, she would prick up her ears and begin to move faster. More rumble brought more speed, until by the time the Portland shore was reached she was in a lull gallop and quite a lather. In the same way Vandenberg worked himself up to “a first showdown as to where President Roosevelt’s treaty-making power leaves off and that of the Senate begins.”