Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century
by Hendrik Meijer.
University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 448 pages, $35.


From the Civil War until the World War II era the American Midwest region was central to American life, as the recent collection The Midwestern Moment makes clear. From the center of the Midwest came Michigan’s U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Hendrik Meijer’s “man in the middle” of American civic life, who occupied the center-right of the American political spectrum from the 1910s to the middle of the twentieth century. Meijer’s Arthur Vandenberg expertly conveys Senator Vandenberg’s crucial role in building a global order out of the ashes of World War II, a not unknown story, but even more skillfully captures the rhythms of the now-neglected region he came to symbolize. The result is a blended masterpiece of regionalist cultural analysis, old-fashioned political narration, deep biography, and geopolitical history.

Vandenberg’s father, part of the “Mohawk River Dutch,” moved from New York to Michigan in the late nineteenth century to open a harness shop in Grand Rapids, the famed “furniture city” supplied with wood by the northern Midwest’s ample forests. The Vandenbergs made their way in a middle-class milieu of main street businesses and navigated through a constellation of prominent Midwestern civic institutions that included the Masons, the Shriners, and the Grand Army of the Republic. Arthur was born in 1884 and as a young man peddled newspapers, delivered crates of shoes, ushered in a theater, and, at Central High School, started giving speeches. After a year at the University of Michigan, he dropped out because of depleted funds and returned to the Grand Rapids Herald, where he had worked previously, and impressed its owner, GOP Congressman William Alden Smith. Vandenberg was a go-getter and when the Herald editor died, Smith put Vandenberg in charge at age twenty-one. Vandenberg, already the secretary of the Young Men’s Republican Club of Kent County (Grand Rapids), was further drawn into GOP politics when Smith was elected to the U.S. Senate the next year.

Using his newspaper contacts and the civic speaking circuit, Vandenberg began his climb through Michigan politics and his quest to become a U.S. Senator. Along the way, he came to know the key figures of the GOP, but especially those in the heavily Republican Midwest. In June 1920, as the Wilsonian interregnum of global adventurism and domestic frictions was coming to an end, Vandenberg promoted his fellow Midwesterner Warren Harding as “the glory of ‘normal’” in the Grand Rapids Herald. This was the time of Harding’s famed “return to normalcy” speech, which Meijer implies Vandenberg drafted. In the 1940s, Vandenberg admitted that the phrase “sounds like something I might have said,” but the provenance of the term is not precisely clear. Whatever the origin—Harding of Ohio or Vandenberg of Michigan—it captured the mood of the postwar Midwest. Will Hays of Indiana, Harding’s campaign manager, also called Vandenberg to Chicago to write an anti-League of Nations foreign policy speech, which Harding delivered verbatim, setting the tone for the surge of Midwestern isolationism during the interwar years.

As with his treatment of interwar isolationism, Meijer’s book brightly illumines some once-central dynamics of American life which have now faded into the recesses of our collective memory or taken new forms. Most importantly, perhaps, is the old world of Midwestern civic and social life that never recovered from the sneering of H. L. Mencken and his circle or the purported jabs of Sinclair Lewis. This is the culture of Midwestern middle class life defined by the bourgeois virtues, which have been examined at length in another series of books by Deirdre McCloskeypublished, like this one, by the University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, of course, packed his mockery of the middling sorts into the character George Babbitt of the Midwestern city of Zenith in the novel Babbitt, and the image lived on for decades. On the surface, Vandenberg was a virtual replica of Babbitt, racing from booster club meetings to after-dinner speeches to self-improvement societies to rallies for the GOP. Vandenberg was a joiner, a toastmaster, and an orator, and he promoted hard work and wrote essays entitled “Industry” and embraced “an optimistic view of life.” Vandenberg represented the Midwestern ethos of uplift and self-improvement and striving. Meijer details how George Babbitt of Babbitt was “trumpeted as the epitome of middlebrow mediocrity by the sort of gleeful East Coast know-it-alls who had rejected a younger Vandenberg’s stories of junior achievers.”

The Midwestern culture of uplift was dismissed by the writers of the American Mercury (quoted by Meijer) as a “concerted and continuous gas attack from press, pulpit, rostrum and blackboard,” which is to say that it was supported by all the major institutions of social and cultural life in the Midwest during Vandenberg’s era. For the “intellectual snobs” (Vandenberg’s words) to assault Babbittry was to assault Vandenberg’s Midwestern civilization of decent, civically inclined people trying to make their communities better. Vandenberg’s editorial “Let Us Save the Best of Babbitt” responded to the Menckenish ridicule and explained that Babbitt “is happy and satisfied to be a part of his own ‘home town’—and to strive, with his neighbors, to make the old ‘home town’ a little better and a little cleaner and a little healthier.” Vandenberg, Meijer sympathetically notes, was “fighting a rearguard action in defense of his home and readers and presumptive constituents—in defense of his life so far.” Meijer, by tapping into the clashing visions and values of Mencken and Vandenberg during the 1920s, spotlights a crucial turn in American cultural history and the beginning of a century of one particular and enduring sort of interior/coastal friction.

What has been lost to subsequent generations in the contretemps surrounding Babbitt is how complex Lewis’s writings really were. Lewis, if one examines the fullness of his work, was quite generous to the Midwest and looked fondly on his youth in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. John Updike, in a smart but forgotten commentary long after Lewis’s star had faded, came to see Lewis’s affection for the towns of the Midwest. The “revolt from the village” that Lewis supposedly symbolized is, upon deeper review, largely fictional. Meijer reveals here how Vandenberg and Lewis actually struck up a friendship and “found much in common.” Lewis constructed a heroic character based on Vandenberg for his novel about runaway populism/impending fascism entitled It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which mentioned Vandenberg on page one. “Hope comes from the heartland,” in Meijer’s summary of the novel, where an anti-authoritarian Midwestern senator “leads a rebellion that breaks out in Michigan.” Vandenberg and Lewis were both concerned about the growing concentration of power in Washington—especially after the announcement of FDR’s court-packing plan—and worried about the erosion of the Midwestern social order that had shaped them both. Lewis pushed Vandenberg-for-President hard in the 1940s at the same time that his feelings for the Midwest were more kindly and less sensational—and thus largely ignored. By 1940, Lionel Trilling of the New York Intellectuals sneered, Lewis had embraced the “belief that to be an American is a gay adventure.”

Lewis understood the centrality of the Midwest to American life during the Midwestern Moment of the early twentieth century—which explains his choice of setting for his famous books Main Street and Babbitt—and the region comes back to life in Meijer’s book. From Western Michigan, Vandenberg becomes enmeshed in a network of power players in the region who ran the country. He witnesses Ohio’s William Howard Taft announce his run for president at the Kent County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner in 1908. Vandenberg goes to the Midwest-based national GOP conventions in Chicago in 1908, 1912, 1916, 1920, 1932, and 1944, Kansas City in 1928, and Cleveland in 1924 and 1936.

Harding of Ohio, the LaFollettes of Wisconsin, General Leonard Wood and Colonel McCormick and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis of Chicago, Charles Lindbergh of Minnesota, George Norris of Nebraska, and Senators Charles Curtis and Arthur Capper of Kansas were national figures. Vandenberg’s friend William Borah was born on an Illinois farm and became a lawyer in Kansas before seeking his place in the Senate from frontier Boise. The wunderkind engineer from Iowa, Herbert Hoover, became president and a Vandenberg confidant. So did the voice of Middle America, the fellow newspaper editor from Emporia, Kansas, William Allen White, the subject of a major new biography. Alf Landon of Kansas took the GOP nomination in 1936 and Wendell Willkie of Indiana took it in 1940. MacArthur of Wisconsin and Taft Jr. of Ohio almost did after that. Vandenberg’s work with George Kennan brings the reminder that he was from Wisconsin. In the postwar era, Vandenberg works with Senate minority leader Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, fights against Henry Wallace of Iowa, pushes Eisenhower of Kansas to run for president, and, during his declining years, receives assistance from a young Grand Rapidian named Gerald Ford.

Via Vandenberg’s personal life, his newspapering and politicking, and Meijer’s deft touch one also gets a deep feel for Michigan and the political and economic geography of the Midwest. The forty trains that pass through Grand Rapids every day head to Chicago, Detroit, or the Straits of Mackinac. In his editorial “A Cure for Egotism,” Vandenberg urged his readers to “go out on a lake” and enjoy Michigan’s natural wonders. The governor of Michigan, to avoid calls, hides out in his hunting cabin in northern Michigan. To sell war bonds in 1918 Vandenberg embarked on a speaking tour “up one side of the Wolverine state and down the other,” giving eighty-two speeches in seventeen days (in 1934, in a further testament to Vandenberg’s speechifying prowess, he addressed seventeen audiences in one day in Detroit). The audiences were not small—Vandenberg gave speeches to seven thousand people at the Michigan Free Fair in Ionia. As a Senator, Vandenberg pushed for the bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, tried to prevent Chicago from diverting more Lake Michigan water into the Chicago River, promoted the St. Lawrence Seaway to better connect the lake states to the broader world (the railroads and the shipping industry of the Mississippi River opposed such efforts), pushed plans for a bridge across the Straits of Mackinac, pushed for Isle Royale National Park, and tried to have a submarine named the Grand Rapids. During World War II Vandenberg welcomed all the powers-that-be in the GOP to Mackinac Island to sort out the party’s position on foreign policy.

Meijer brings the Midwest as a region to life, in part, by highlighting Vandenberg’s first major victory as a Senator. Given the growth of Michigan’s and the Midwest’s industrial base during the early twentieth century, its population expanded and thus did the region’s relative political power. Against the conventions of the Senate, which required younger members to remain silent, Vandenberg aggressively sought Congressional reapportionment, which ultimately boosted Michigan’s congressional delegation from thirteen to seventeen seats. In the process, Vandenberg crossed swords with Democratic Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, who refused to recognize the “alien immigrants” of Michigan’s many factories when counting people for the apportionment of Congressional seats. Vandenberg responded that the South could then not count the African Americans it had disenfranchised. Hugo Black, despite his Klan membership, would ultimately be placed on the Supreme Court by FDR.

The clash with Hugo Black helps to highlight the deep regional differences on race that shaped Vandenberg’s era and caused thousands of African Americans to flee the South for places such as Detroit. Vandenberg was one of the many Midwestern Republicans who adhered to the Lincoln tradition of racial tolerance, as symbolized by William Allen White’s war on the Klan or President Harding’s trip to Alabama in the 1920s to scold the South for segregation. Vandenberg preached tolerance and condemned excessive factionalism because, as he argued in his books about Alexander Hamilton, “[f]action takes the law into its own hands and lynches negroes.” Vandenberg opposed the appointment of the segregationist judge John J. Parker of North Carolina to the Supreme Court, saying the GOP “has no right to shut its eyes to the outraged sensibilities of 18 million colored persons. Our party was practically born with the 14th and 15th amendments.” Vandenberg prevailed and Parker was rejected by the Senate 41–39 in one of the first modern political clashes over civil rights.

Vandenberg’s broader views on domestic policy are not shocking for a Midwestern Republican of the early twentieth century. He supported a few New Deal initiatives, but mostly opposed the alphabet soup of agencies created by FDR, preferring a “middle way” he called “Lincoln Liberalism.” Vandenberg was not an extremist in any sense. He was a practical Midwesterner who sought stability and only incremental change. “He represented a middle state, industrial and agricultural, poised between east and west, right and left … fertile soil for a man of the middle,” Meijer says. “Vandenberg was as conventional as he was conservative.” This perhaps explains Vandenberg’s unwillingness to fully commit himself to a risky presidential run, despite consistently being mentioned as a top contender every four years during his Senate career. The bourgeois virtue of prudence instead prevailed.

While Vandenberg’s views on race and the New Deal are interesting and his identity as a Midwesterner is surely compelling for the scholars of the burgeoning Midwestern history movement, Vandenberg is mostly remembered for his role in foreign affairs. He cut his teeth attacking Wilson’s League of Nations as a young man and famously worked with Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota during the 1930s to criticize munitions makers for supporting World War I. Vandenberg, like many other Midwestern Republicans, changed his views on the wisdom of foreign intervention after the coming of World War II and the atomic bomb. Vandenberg forged a unified GOP position on foreign affairs during the Mackinac conference in Michigan and helped draft the United Nations charter. In response to the growing threat of the Soviet Union—Vandenberg was using the term “Iron Curtain” before Churchill made it famous—he pushed aid to Greece and Turkey through the Senate along with the approval of NATO and the Marshall Plan. These historic legislative deals were often sealed over martinis in Vandenberg’s DC apartment. All of these major transitions in American foreign policy are nimbly handled by Meijer, as they are in two other recent books, the publication of which amounts to a veritable boom in Vandenberg studies.

Deeply researched and beautifully crafted books on political figures used to be a mainstay of American history. They are why so many young people used to become history majors and then historians. Meijer’s book belongs in this company, which includes William Manchester on MacArthurJames MacGregor Burns on FDRDavid McCullough on Truman, and Robert Caro on LBJ. This genre of books, to our great detriment, does not receive the attention it used to. When observers rightly complain that little political history is being done anymore they mean to say that there are not nearly enough books such as Meijer’s published. When I once planned a biography of Vandenberg’s contemporary Senator Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota I was quickly and rather urgently counseled to drop the idea by academic advisors. Nobody would care, they said, and the profession had long since moved on from such an antiquated means of writing history.

The fact that fewer tome-ish books of political history and biography occupy American nightstands is another reminder of the dimming power of the civic world that Vandenberg once inhabited. It was a world of social capital, in modern parlance, in which Midwesterners actively joined clubs and churches, attended public speeches, and marched out to vote. “These were the last days of the American Pericles,” Meijer notes, “when what a senator said made news.” It was also an era of commissions, tribunals, conferences of experts, legislative hearings, study groups, white papers, and long telegrams, and when the Detroit newspapers had several Washington correspondents covering the positions and statements of Michigan’s Senators, who spent weeks crafting their speeches bent over their typewriters smoking cigars. It was, Meijer solemnly wonders, “maybe the last generation in which members of the world’s greatest deliberative body were often household names.” Remembering this world of sturdier civic life is reason enough to remember Vandenberg’s old Midwest, from which we could all learn.  

Jon K. Lauck, the founding president of the Midwestern History Association, teaches at the University of South Dakota and is the author, among other books, of The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History and From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920–1965.