Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World

On September 8, 2016, the FPI Center for Military and Diplomatic History hosted an event on Capitol Hill for Larry Haas’s new book “Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.” Below is a summation of the key points presented during the event.

During the 1930s, Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan was a leading Republican proponent of isolationism, criticizing the United States for taking part in World War I and championing American neutrality in future overseas conflicts. The traumas of World War II disabused him of isolationist tendencies and transformed him into an internationalist, and in the postwar years, he was to become the foremost figure in the shift of the Republican Party from isolationism to internationalism. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he and President Harry S. Truman forged a bipartisan consensus on internationalist foreign policy, producing international institutions that are still in existence today and offering a model of bipartisan cooperation that remains worthy of emulation.

In the aftermath of World War II, both Vandenberg and Truman had to combat strong isolationist tendencies within their parties. Much of the country subscribed to the view that the United States could demobilize its military, retreat from international affairs, and focus on domestic problems. Through tireless speeches and meetings, the two political leaders built support for internationalism within their own parties, such that internationalism enjoyed majority support in both parties by the end of the decade. These outcomes were far from inevitable; had one or both of them been absent from the scene—had, for instance, Roosevelt retained Henry Wallace as his Vice President in 1944—the United States could have headed in a very different direction, with profound consequences for the entire world.

In practical terms, the foremost achievements of the Vandenberg-Truman partnership were the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. When the United Nations failed to resolve international problems as both men had initially hoped, they gravitated towards the Truman Doctrine, which pledged to use American power, in all its forms, to protect free nations. The Marshall Plan soon became the Truman Doctrine’s chief economic incarnation, rehabilitating Western Europe such that it could resist Soviet blandishments and intimidation. Through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Truman and Vandenberg broke with historical American aversion to alliances to create what has remained the nation’s strongest and most enduring alliance.

Many Americans believe that Washington is much more partisan now than in the 1940s, and hence bipartisanship is no longer possible. In reality, party politics were no less partisan or vicious in the late 1940s than they are in 2016. Truman and Vandenberg themselves clashed on domestic issues, even while coming together on foreign policy. One of the key lessons of the Vandenberg-Truman partnership is that bitter partisanship is not an insurmountable barrier to cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, or between the legislative and executive branches.

Mounting fears of the Soviet Union facilitated the emergence of a bipartisan consensus in the late 1940s. The twenty-first century does not have a single threat comparable in menace to the Soviet Union. Rather, a multiplicity of threats confront the United States today—China, Russia, Iran, and Islamic extremism, among others. Although these threats might seem less dangerous in the short term, they could in the end cause greater harm to the United States. To promote preparedness in confronting current and emerging threats, today’s leaders must educate the public on those threats, as Vandenberg and Truman did in the 1940s.

In recent years, isolationism has been on the rise within the United States. The U.S. government has reduced its overseas military presence and its promotion of freedom and democracy in other countries, which have made the world more dangerous and less free. For the benefit of the United States and its allies, the next President and Congress should revive America’s overseas involvement—diplomatically, economically, and militarily.

Vandenberg and Truman were willing to work together on foreign policy because both held the view that the nation’s security should not be a partisan matter. They resisted the temptation, all too common in Washington, to subordinate national security to partisan interests. They thus serve as role models for America’s next leaders, who will face the same temptations.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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