Many of the clowns crowding our current political scene revile compromise, viewing civics as a zero-sum death match. They spend most of their time on the public dime posturing for the next election, toadying to special interests, and raising funds to savage the character and programs of their opponents.
This makes it hard to remember that for much of the 20th Century, most federal elected officials felt their job was to respect the people’s verdict in the last election by working together to craft optimal policies until the next election.They even had the odd notion that, while disagreements over domestic issues were permissible, the two parties could best ensure national security by presenting a strong and unified front in foreign relations.
A Republican Senator, Arthur Vandenberg (1884–1951), coined a once-famous phrase as shorthand for that quaint but constructive concept: “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
In the last decade of his life, the eminent Michigander helped wean his party from its isolationist traditions and join with Democrats to form an enduring foreign policy consensus. That bipartisan unity achieved victory in World War II, created the United Nations, and effectively contained Communism during the Cold War.
Vandenberg first worked in journalism. As editor and publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald, he promoted the Progressive policies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, but later followed the GOP into increasing conservatism and isolationism.
The Michigander kept an open mind on domestic policy during the Great Depression; the economic crisis struck shortly after Vandenberg entered the Senate in 1928. He loyally supported Herbert Hoover publicly, but privately expressed frustration at the Republican president’s ineffectiveness. After Franklin Roosevelt took office, the Senator opposed some New Deal policies, but supported others he regarded as sensible and conducive to economic recovery, like Social Security. Vandenberg’s amendment to the Glass-Steagal Act created the FDIC, which still insures our savings against bank failures.
It took the Michigander much longer to grow beyond isolationism. As a member of the Nye Committee, Vandenberg concluded that US involvement in the Great War had been a grave mistake. He supported the Neutrality Acts, a series of restrictions designed to prevent future entanglement in overseas conflicts. The Senator harshly criticized FDR’s efforts to revise and circumvent the Neutrality Acts to help Britain fight Hitler.
Finally, the shock of Pearl Harbor shook Vandenberg out of isolationism. He came to recognize that only strong and enduring alliances could provide reliable security in an increasingly dangerous world. However, most Republicans remained reflexively opposed to anything more than temporary international engagement.
Vandenberg therefore moved deliberately to wean his party away from isolationism. The turning point came in a major speech he delivered in the Senate on January 10, 1945. By then, it was clear that the Allies were winning World War II, but while Britain and the US were liberating Western Europe, Stalin cynically replaced Nazi oppression with Communist domination in the East.
In his speech, the Republican reminded Americans what they were fighting for by affirming the internationalist vision of Woodrow Wilson and FDR:
“We still propose to help create the postwar world on a basis which shall stop aggressors for keeps and, so far as humanly possible, substitute justice for force among freemen. We propose to do it primarily for our own sake. We still propose also, to substitute justice for force — if we can — in writing the peace which terminates this war when we deal with the victims of Axis tyranny. That is the road to permanent peace. We still propose that none of the [Allies] shall seek aggrandizement, territorial, or otherwise…. We still propose, outside the Axis, that there shall be no territorial changes which do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned. Similarly we still propose to respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live. We still propose to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them, if it lies within our power….
“These basic pledges… march with our armies. They sail with our fleets. They fly with our eagles. They sleep with our martyred dead.
“The next thing we need to do… is to appeal to our allies, in the name of reason, to frankly face the postwar alternatives which are available to them and to us as a means to preserve tomorrow’s peace for them and for us. There are two ways to do it. One way is by exclusive individual action in which each of us tries to look out for himself. The other way is by joint action in which we undertake to look out for each other. The first way is the old way which has twice taken us to Europe’s interminable battlefields within a quarter century. The second way is the new way in which our present fraternity of war becomes a new fraternity of peace. I do not believe that either we or our allies can have it both ways…. We cannot tolerate unilateral privilege in a multilateral peace….”
Having uttered these internationalist heresies, Vandenberg directly addressed his former isolationism:
“I hasten to make my own personal viewpoint clear. I have always been frankly one of those who has believed in our own self-reliance. I still believe that we can never again — regardless of collaborations — allow our national defense to deteriorate to anything like a point of impotence. But I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action. Since Pearl Harbor, World War II has put the gory science of mass murder into new and sinister perspective. Our oceans have ceased to be moats which automatically protect our ramparts. Flesh and blood now compete unequally with winged steel. War has become an all-consuming juggernaut. If World War III ever unhappily arrives, it will open new laboratories of death too horrible to contemplate. I propose to do everything within my power to keep those laboratories closed for keeps. I want maximum American cooperation, consistent with legitimate American self-interest, with constitutional process… to make the basic idea of [the United Nations] succeed. I want a new dignity and a new authority for international law.”
Having set out general principles, Vandenberg addressed the “immediate problem”: “Russia’s unilateral plan” to “engulf… a surrounding circle of buffer states” — violating “the rights of small nations” and the principles of “a just peace” in a desperate bid to insulate itself against future German aggression. The Senator argued that the USSR could obtain greater security by working with the Allies and the United Nations to disarm the Axis permanently.
Still, Vandenberg knew that as long as his party remained isolationist, the rest of the world could not rely on the US. Thus, he proposed that Congress make a permanent commitment to use military force to keep Japan and Germany disarmed. “I know of no reason why a hard-and-fast treaty between the major allies should not be signed today to achieve this dependable end.”
In concluding his speech, the Senator assumed a tone of humility entirely absent from political discourse today:
“I realize, Mr. President, in such momentous problems how much easier it is to be critical than to be correct. I do not wish to meddle. I want only to help. I want to do my duty. It is in this spirit that I ask for honest candor in respect to our ideals, our dedications, and our commitments, as the greatest contribution which government can now make to the only kind of realistic unity which will most swiftly bring our victorious sons back home, and which will best validate our aspirations, our sacrifices, and our dreams.”
Keeping his word, the Michigander recruited fellow Republicans to support the United Nations and — when Stalin refused to free Eastern Europe — help Harry Truman develop and execute policies to contain Communist expansion — a strategy that ultimately won the Cold War.
Vandenberg’s constructive bipartisan spirit helped our country overcome three profound existential threats in swift succession: the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Today’s leaders would do well to emulate his example.