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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
Still later, in 1947-48, Senator Vandenberg was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when the Marshall Plan was in the discussion stage. Remembering the early New Deal, he became obsessed with worry that the control of spending the billions of Marshall Plan dollars could give the Administration such power as to decide the approaching election of 1948. While he himself had a healthy interest in preventing this, his concern was not due to mere political partisanship. For other Republicans could worry about the same thing and, since they controlled the Eightieth Congress, could doom the Marshall Plan, which Senator Vandenberg had now come to believe essential. To solve the problem the Senator turned to a plan of organization for administration of the Marshall Plan. The Brookings Institution of Washington was called in to give a detached and expert atmosphere to the deliberations; and finally, an “independent agency” form of organization was worked out, under, but not responding to, the President.
It is no matter that Senator Vandenberg’s fears were unfounded. Under both the last and the present administrations, foreign aid has been administered within the regular hierarchy of government without being used for political patronage. The point I am making is that Vandenberg exacted as the price of his support a concession to the opposition which contributed to the acceptance of the proposal—whatever it did to its administration.
This attitude of Vandenberg’s, and my belief in its importance, were to have a curious personal result before the Marshall Plan was fully launched. Alter the legislation was passed in 1948, the President spoke with me (I was then in private life) about his desire to send my name to the Senate as the Administrator created by the act of Congress. I urged upon him, and he reluctantly agreed, that this would be unwise—not because Vandenberg had anything against me, but because, in view of my close relations with the President, the nomination would go a long way, in Vandenberg’s mind, toward nullifying his efforts to establish an “independent” agency. This could well be disastrous. The act of Congress was still only an “authorization” for appropriations, a hunting license to go in search of them. The execution of the Marshall Plan still required the appropriation of billions of dollars by a Republican Congress.
The President wisely concluded that here, pre-eminently, was an occasion to seek the “advice and consent of the Senate,” which, as a practical matter, meant to consult with Vandenberg. We speculated as to whom be would recommend, and concluded that it would be Mr. Paul Hoffman, a gentleman of the highest character and ability, wholly acceptable to the President. And so it turned out. Senator Vandenberg never knew what he escaped, but was greatly pleased that bis advice had been sought and followed. He became more than ever committed to the support of the European Recovery Plan.
What I have said suggests a strong and practical mind rather than a subtle and original one. Arthur Vandenberg’s mind was not original; but it was open. He was not a creator of the ideas which lie was eminently capable of receiving and using. A powerful advocate, he was not a great orator. His florid oratorical style, finding its emphasis in hyperbole and often in sheer lung power, had nothing like the range of Churchill’s speeches. His importance lies not in brilliance of mind or speech, but—in equal parts—in himself, and in the time and place in which be lived and served. Without Vandenberg in the Senate from 1943 to 1951 the history of the postwar period might have been very different.
When in 1957 a committee of the Senate picked the five most “outstanding” senators whose portraits should hang in the Senate reception room, it did not include Vandenberg. The choice fell on Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Robert M. La Follette, and Robert A. Taft. Yet, in actual accomplishment, a good case can be made that Vandenberg’s achievement exceeded those of any ol the five, except Henry Clay; and that, as a symbol of his times in the Senate, Vandenberg stands for emergence of the United States into world power and leadership, as Clay typified the growth of the country; Webster and Calhoun, the great debate of the ante-bellum days; and Robert M. La Follette, the turbulence of the Progressive Era.
Vandenberg, as I have said, did not furnish the ideas, the leadership, or the drive to chart the new course or to move the nation into it. But he made the result possible. What was needed was a national consensus, at a time when the hot war which had united the nation was over, and the full consequences of the disruption caused by the war were beginning to appear. How critical was the need can be judged by what happened after Vandenberg’s death—I do not say because of it—when the consensus fell apart.
At the end of the war, the opposition of the business community and its social adjuncts to the Democratic Administration—then in its fourth consecutive term—was ready to break into open revolt, as it did in November, 1946, but without the strength to win in 1948. Meanwhile the times called for action, drastic, unprecedented, and immediate. To those conversant with the situation there was not much doubt about what had to be done. How, by whom, and how soon were the questions. Without Arthur Vandenberg, solutions of these questions could not have been brought into action.