The Conversion of Senator Arthur Vandenberg: From Isolation to International Engagement by Lawrence S. Kaplan (review)
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Reviewed by
Lawrence S. Kaplan, The Conversion of Senator Arthur Vandenberg: From Isolation to International Engagement. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 294pp. $45.00.

Any student of the origins of the Cold War has probably heard about or read a story about a meeting between Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, consummately described as an old Right isolationist, with President Harry Truman. The date was January 1947 and the subject was Soviet pressure on Greece and Turkey. The new Republican majority, skeptical of the containment idea and of an expanded foreign presence in Europe, had to be scared about the threat of communism and the necessity of aiding Greece and Turkey with military and economic aid to resist Soviet pressure. Vandenberg was said to be so scared and wound up eschewing his isolationism and embracing the Truman Doctrine.

Nothing in history is ever so neat. Vandenberg, a former Teddy Roosevelt progressive in his youth, had not been so scared. Rather, as this superb biography of the Senator and his transition to internationalism reveals, the transition from isolationism to internationalism was more gradual and evolutionary. It was not Soviet pressure on Greece and Turkey which played the major role in this transition; rather, it was Pearl Harbor six years before which played the crucial role in turning a skeptic about internationalism into an internationalist.

Lawrence Kaplan is well positioned to tell this story as the master historian of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and as a student of American–European relations. Vandenberg was a Grand Rapids newspaperman, who spent one year at the University of Michigan before becoming editor of the Grand Rapids Herald. The editorial line was progressive Republican and so were Vandenberg’s politics. In 1928 he was appointed to an open Senate seat to fill a vacancy and during his time in Congress pursued a working relationship with both Herbert Hoover and with Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. While no New Dealer, he was also not a laissez-faire conservative and not a practitioner of the conservative anti-New Deal politics embodied on the political Right in those years.

Vandenberg’s true interest remained foreign affairs and he was a committed isolationist. He had been a member of the Nye Committee hearings and had fought against the power of the munitions makers and war profiteers, giving many speeches in Michigan about the desire to keep out of foreign wars. Amazingly, given the drift toward New Deal liberalism in Michigan [End Page 139] and the sight of sit-down strikes in early 1937, Vandenberg easily won reelection as a Republican, showing his fungible manner in representing himself as an isolationist on foreign affairs and as a progressive on domestic matters.

World War II changed Vandenberg’s views and moderated his prewar isolationism. He gained significant national attention for a speech reiterating a desire for a strong internationalism given on the floor of the Senate on January 10, 1945, a few weeks before FDR departed for the Yalta conference. The speech showed his growing internationalism and pursuit of clarification of the necessity for a new approach in American foreign policy. (Kaplan considered it such an important turning point that it is republished in the index to the book.) The speech drew notice from the administration and Vandenberg was named a delegate to the San Francisco conference to establish the United Nations. He worked diligently and sought the advice of both John Foster Dulles, the senior delegate to the conference and columnist Walter Lippmann. He took the work seriously and supported the San Francisco Treaty and the establishment of the UN.

At the same time he developed a realistic assessment of the Soviet Union and was not prepared to accept the administration’s approach that Josef Stalin could be worked with to shape the peace. In this question regarding the onset of the Cold War it would have been nice to see more engagement with recent assessments of Truman by scholars like Wilson Miscamble’s From Roosevelt to Truman, which shows that the president was not the hard liner on the Soviets until late 1946, a position attributed, as Kaplan dispels, to individuals like Vandenberg. In Kaplan’s reading...


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