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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Hank Meijer’s New Biography: Arthur Vandenberg

November 24, 2017

GRAND RAPIDS – Earlier this year, before he became embroiled in a scandal stemming back to his days as a comedian, a certain U.S. Senator published a memoir with the tongue-in-cheek title: Al Franken: Giant of the Senate.

However, Michigan once did produce a man who was truly a giant of the senate, a man crucial to the history of the Cold War but who has been, sadly, largely forgotten.

U.S. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, Time magazine, April, 1945

Arthur Vandenberg did more than anyone to convert the modern Republican Party from isolationism to internationalism during World War II. It was he who led a solidly GOP congress to approve the Marshall Plan and the resolution to create NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and shape the bipartisan, “politics stops at the water’s edge” consensus on foreign policy that kept us united throughout the Cold War.

Yet for a variety of reasons, he has been the subject of no major biography assessing his influence. That is, until now.  Hendrik “Hank” Meijer worked for nearly 30 years on his epic: Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century (University of Chicago Press, $35) and it is a book and a subject very much worth waiting for.  “I was always curious about Vandenberg,” said Meijer, the 65-year-old executive chair of Meijer, Inc, the company that has 200 “supercenter” grocery and department stores throughout six states, most of them in Michigan.

The more he learned, the more fascinated he became with a man who besides his importance, was a complex and intensely fascinating figure – personally as well as intellectually.  “He was always trying to find the middle ground. He was a master of the art of compromise – that’s what he wanted and was born to do.” Those are qualities that seem sadly lacking in politics today. Though Vandenberg was one of the world’s most respected statesmen when he died in 1951, a man who might easily have been nominated for president, Meijer found that by the 1980s, few in his hometown even knew who he was. 

Nationally, Vandenberg was also beginning to be forgotten by historians, despite the fact that President Harry Truman, though he didn’t much like it, clearly needed Vandenberg from 1947 to 1949, in the crucial two years the GOP controlled Congress in the aftermath of World War II.  Though they may not have realized it at the time, Republicans needed him too. They had been discredited with much of the public since the Great Depression – and forging a bipartisan consensus may have helped them return to power.

That his book was so long in the making was due in part to Meijer’s other responsibilities – and also to his natural courtesy.  A professor named David Tompkins had been working on a biography, “and I felt the world didn’t need two Vandenberg biographies,” he told me.  But then Tompkins died with the book unwritten, and his daughter learned of Meijer’s interest and shipped her father’s vast research files to him, which was an immense help.

The book that resulted is brilliantly written – fascinating – and in some respects, shocking. Vandenberg looked like a typical fat cat senator of the period; stout, distinguished and white-haired, usually in a three-piece suit puffing a cigar.  The real Arthur Vandenberg was a boy who grew up poor after his harness-making father was ruined by the Panic of 1893. He could afford barely a year at the University of Michigan before dropping out and returning to Grand Rapids, where he got a job as a reporter at $15 a week.  By the time he was 22, he had risen to editor-in-chief; he learned how to court the powerful, and eventually was appointed to a vacancy in the U.S. Senate.

He never left it. 

But while many saw him as being a figure of pompous rectitude, romantically, the real Vandenberg was anything but a saint; his dalliances included a flamboyant and fairly public affair with Mitzi Sims, the wife of a British diplomat and possible spy not long before World War II.  There has even been speculation that Mitzi may have been assigned to seduce the powerful Vandenberg, then married to his second wife and a leader of the isolationists in the Senate, as a way to change his mind about lend-lease aid to Great Britain.  There’s no clear evidence of that, but once war started, Vandenberg did become convinced the United States could no longer go it alone – and helped organize the United Nations.

The cigars that were his trademark may also have been his death sentence; lung cancer set in, and spread to his spine. Arthur Vandenberg was only 67 when he died in April 1951.  Had he lived, he would have probably been a major shaping influence in foreign policy in the 1950s.  Meijer also thinks Vandenberg might have spurred the senate to deal faster with the demagogue Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.)  “He really had a visceral distaste for populism,” he said. “Any notion of demagoguery was utterly alien to him.  He believed in the notion of the republic,” and in making things work. 

Hendrik “Hank” Meijer, U of M Bentley
Historical Library, June, 2017

If anyone is looking for a fascinating holiday history read, it would be hard to top this book this year.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

November 22, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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