Magazine | November 27, 2017, Issue

Michigan Men

Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century, by Hendrik Meijer (Chicago, 448 pp., $35)

When you grow up in Michigan, as I did, you know the name Meijer — as in the superstore chain. (The stores were once called “Meijer’s Thrifty Acres.” Now they’re just “Meijer.”) The Meijer family is from Grand Rapids, which is in West Michigan, which is Dutch country. They have a slogan there: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

True, Gerald R. Ford sprang from Grand Rapids. He was of English stock. But they tolerate the Other in West Michigan.

Hendrik Meijer is the executive chairman of Meijer, Inc. After college, he spent about six years in journalism, then joined the company. In 1984, he wrote a biography of his grandfather, the founder, also named Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years. Now he has written another biography of another Dutchman from Grand Rapids, Arthur Vandenberg.

Vandenberg was one of the most important U.S. senators in the first half of the 20th century. He served from 1928 until his death in 1951. A Republican, he was the leader of the isolationists — until the war, when he saw the world differently and helped forge a bipartisan foreign policy in the United States.

By the way, Arthur Vandenberg was the uncle of Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force general who became the director of the CIA.

At the risk of offending Hank Meijer (as the author is called), I will make a confession: I thought this book might be a fond look by a multibillionaire with a taste for history at a half-forgotten figure from his hometown. No. It is a first-class political biography, enthralling, a page-turner. It ought to win prizes. Meijer ought to quit business and do this full-time.

His book is about Vandenberg, sure. It is also about the New Deal, World War II, and the immediate aftermath. Furthermore, it’s about an era, or eras. There was a time when people in Michigan towns heard Caruso sing and saw Pavlova dance. (My grandparents were such people.) On a humid summer day, you dipped into Lake Michigan, below the dunes. (We still do that.)

In 1922, a book went off like a stink bomb in the Midwest: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. It mocked the values that Arthur Vandenberg embodied and championed. In a strange turn of events, he and Lewis became friends, or at least friendly acquaintances.

On top of everything else, this biography is “relevant,” as people like to say. Indeed, it is “ripped from the headlines.” It discusses, among other issues, nationalism, populism, immigration, “America First,” the United Nations, NATO — even the Civil War and the nature of the Confederacy.

Senator Vandenberg is obviously at the center of the book, and a biographer is tempted to treat his subject as the center of the world. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a biographer, everything looks like his subject. But Vandenberg was at the center of a lot, and Meijer exploits this, while recognizing that Vandenberg was just a senator, however important.

Arthur Hendrick Vandenberg was born in 1884. (How did that “c” sneak into “Hendrick”?) His parents had come to Grand Rapids from upstate New York. One of his grandfathers was a delegate for Lincoln at the 1860 convention. This man also provided a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Vandenberg’s father was in the harness business: “Vandenberg the Harness Man” was his moniker. The Panic of 1893 ruined him, something that left a deep mark on his son.

He was a little political junkie, Arthur was. As a high-schooler, he ate, slept, and breathed politics. He gave an address on the Hague Peace Convention of 1899. In a mock election, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. His idol was Alexander Hamilton, about whom he would go on to write two books (one of which is called “The Greatest American”). He also admired the governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt.

TR was the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1900. One of his campaign stops was Grand Rapids. Arthur Vandenberg, 16, had graduated from high school and was working as a billing clerk in a biscuit factory. He was warned not to leave his desk — but he couldn’t resist. He dashed out to see his hero, the Rough Rider. When he got back to his desk, he was fired.

Arthur saw him again in 1911. TR was again in Grand Rapids, this time as the ex-president (looking to run again). He gripped young Vandenberg’s hand and said, “By George, it does me good to meet a good Dutchman.” (That was Dutchman to Dutchman.)

Vandenberg went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, leaving after his second semester because he had run out of money. Not to worry: With his talents and drive, he became a journalist, and a successful one. More than that, an excellent one. He worked at the Grand Rapids Herald. When he was 21, he became editor.

I love what the proprietor said. After giving Vandenberg the news, he nodded toward the editor’s office and said, “Go over and kick your feet under the mahogany.”

When the world war started in Europe, Vandenberg was like his man Teddy Roosevelt: mad at President Wilson for staying out. Vandenberg likened Wilson to an ostrich, “thinking he is safe because his head is buried in the sand.” Eventually, Wilson went in. And later, Vandenberg took the view that greedy, blood-stained Big Business had connived America into war.

This was a common view among Midwest conservatives. I know this, in part, from talking to the grandparents of my friends, long ago.

In 1922, Vandenberg addressed himself to a perennial American question, immigration. The melting pot was “running over,” he thought. The country was becoming “a polyglot boarding house.” Americans had “an obligation to defend our immigration gates against an influx of alien races,” which “could overwhelm our white complexion.” This was Vandenberg in an illiberal moment. It was not a typical moment, however. Indeed, Vandenberg was known by a now-defunct phrase: “Lincoln liberal.”

Back in high school, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, in an exercise. In 1928, he went to the real one. As he went, he said that he would be an editor “until I die.” He was “incurably daubed,” he said, “with printer’s ink.”

In the 1930s, he would be a principal antagonist of that Dutchman in the White House, TR’s distant cousin. He went along with some of the New Deal. Otherwise, he was a fierce opponent, dubbing the program “the New Ordeal.” He was also Isolationist No. 1. It was “impossible for the United States to police the world,” he said, in time-honored language. Speaking of time-honored language, he also quoted Scripture, as he was wont to do: I Timothy 5:8: “. . . if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” Vandenberg then pronounced, “If that makes Timothy an isolationist, so am I.” (It was Paul, writing to Timothy, but never mind.)

Mr. Meijer takes care to weave in the personal, by which I mean the familial. Vandenberg’s first wife, Elizabeth, died young. He then married Hazel. Both women were apparently splendid — and Hazel was longsuffering. In Washington, Vandenberg had an affair with the wife of a man in the British embassy. Her name was Mitzi Sims. Was she a British spy, charged with trapping the Great Isolationist? In any case, someone dubbed Vandenberg “the senator from Mitzigan.” Also, Vandenberg’s son, Arthur Jr., his longtime aide, was homosexual. Meijer handles this matter with brevity, tact, and poignancy.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the interventionists felt vindicated. So did the isolationists. FDR and that crowd had egged the Japs, and then the Germans, into war, said the isolationists. Be that as it may, Vandenberg had this pithy observation about December 7: “That day ended isolation for any realist.”

After the war, he said, “I am entirely willing to admit that America herself cannot prosper in a broken world.” He also said, “Ours must be the world’s moral leadership — or the world won’t have any.” Vandenberg espoused what he called “intelligent American self-interest,” or “enlightened self-interest.” (I think of today’s “principled realism” — a phrase whose meaning is conveniently opaque.) He was a man in the middle, with one-worlders to the left of him and die-hard isolationists to the right of him. (These were now led by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, along with Colonel McCormick and his Chicago Tribune.)

Meijer’s subtitle — “The Man in the Middle of the American Century” — has more than one meaning.

Vandenberg helped birth the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. He never made it to the presidency, or to the Republican nomination, but he was in the running, to varying degrees, quadrennially. He once joked, “When I die, I want the minister to be able to look down on me and say, ‘There would have been a great president.’”

Vandenberg died in his hometown in April 1951. Meijer writes, “The funeral at Park Congregational Church was Grand Rapids’ largest between those of middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel in 1910 and Vandenberg protégé Gerald Ford in 2007.”

I suppose I’m the ideal reader for this book: a political junkie from Michigan, consumed by some of the same issues that consumed Arthur Vandenberg. Yet anyone interested in American politics and world affairs would be absorbed by this book. In our crowded lives, we scarcely have time to look at a book. Frankly, I may read this one twice.

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