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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
He had, as I have suggested, the capacity to learn and the capacity for action—rare gifts in themselves. As important as either, and giving both scope, he carefully maintained the preconditions for successful action. His prior history of isolationism was an asset which he never allowed to die. His relations with Senator Robert Taft were carefully maintained. Vandenberg’s respect for Taft’s proprietorship of Republican domestic policy led Taft to respect Vandenberg’s position as Republican spokesman on foreign policy, so long as the latter’s health and vigor remained. Vandenberg kept the friendship and respect of Senators Millikin of Colorado, Wherry of Nebraska, and Bridges of New Hampshire on the Republican Policy Committee. But, perhaps most important of all, he was in the very heart of the inner circle that ran the Senate.
This is not the place to describe that remarkable group of men as it existed in the forties and the early fifties. Its membership did not coincide with the popular idea of importance in the Senate: some were much in the public eye; some were not. They were men of the type and character who, in a quiet way, are apt to dominate any male organization. The main ingredients of such men are force, likableness, and trustworthiness. Alben Barkley, Walter George, and Arthur Vandenberg were, perhaps, the beaux idéals. But Warren Austin, Joe Ball, Carl Hatch, Carl Hayden, Lister Hill, Richard Russell, Bob La Follette, Scott Lucas, Burnet Maybank, Bob Wagner, and Wallace White do not exhaust the list of the others. Many of them lunched together, more often than not in the office of Leslie Biffle, whether he was Secretary of the Senate or Secretary of the Minority. Party membership was a comparatively minor consideration. One had to be an adopted member of the group for quite a while to realize that anything was going on under the easy gossip and badinage. Then one discovered that almost everything was going on. The whole business of the Senate was being ordered and, in considerable part, decided.
The characteristics of this group, I have said, were force, likableness, and trustworthiness—in varying proportions, as the list suggests. Was Arthur Vandenberg a likable man? Yes, he was. He had humor and warmth and occasional bursts of self-revealing candor. He was not among the “popular” senators. His ego was too strong for that. Some regarded him, as Mr. James B. Reston of The New York Times concedes that he did for a time, as the “most pompous and prejudiced man in the United States Senate.” But this was wrong. He was not that; but he took a bit of knowing. When I retired as Under Secretary of State, I wrote to thank him for a warm note which I described as “another of the long list of kindnesses which you have shown me,” and for “your outstanding fairness and your warm generosity.” This was from the heart; he was a good friend.
All these gifts and qualities were what fitted Senator Vandenberg so pre-eminently to perform a service for which the country should be forever grateful: the service of bringing together in support of a foreign policy, dictated by the necessity of events, an Administration which could carry it out and an opposition which could have prevented it from doing so. All the brilliance of Calhoun or the eloquence of Webster could not have performed this service. It called for what Arthur Vandenberg had, and was, and had spent a lifetime in acquiring and in being. I salute his memory with affection and with honor.