Arthur Vandenberg, the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who worked closely with President Truman to architect the free world in the late 1940s, died 65 years ago on Monday. His legacy offers two important lessons for us during our current time of turmoil at home and abroad.
First, we have benefited greatly from the global role that Truman and Vandenberg brought to fruition. We would be wise not to abandon it. Second, we can nourish more bipartisan support for a robust U.S. foreign policy, even when our two parties are fighting fiercely over domestic policy.
Vandenberg worked with Truman in strong bipartisan fashion at a bitterly partisan time, helping to craft a revolutionary new foreign policy through which the United States seized global leadership for the first time on a sustained basis to protect our friends, confront our enemies and promote freedom. Under their leadership from 1945 to 1949, the United States spearheaded the effort to create the United Nations; pledged through the Truman Doctrine to defend freedom, first in Greece and Turkey and then broadly; lifted an economically prostrate Western Europe to its feet through the Marshall Plan; and committed to defend Western Europe through the NATO alliance.
Seven decades later, however, Vandenberg’s legacies — U.S. leadership abroad and bipartisan cooperation at home — are falling victim to a collective crisis of confidence in America, about both what we should do around the world and what our leaders can accomplish in Washington.
On the global front, President Barack Obama has worked to reduce America’s footprint around the world, share burdens with allies and even adversaries and focus on “nation building here at home.” To reduce U.S. burdens in the Middle East, for instance, he welcomed the rise of a hostile Iran, invited Russia’s return to the region and largely let Syria descend into a humanitarian nightmare.
At the same time, the polls of recent years show, we Americans have become more isolationist, less interested in the world, and more fearful that we can no longer afford our global role. A strident isolationist leading the Republican presidential bid and candidates of both parties focusing more on the drawbacks of free trade than its greater benefits are signs of the times.
America’s recent lower global profile hasn’t made the world safer either. Quite the contrary, it’s helped nourish what could be the most perilous set of challenges for the United States since Truman and Vandenberg were creating the means to confront Soviet aggression, restore Europe’s economy and defend freedom.
In Washington, meanwhile, the partisan pettiness that includes one party’s refusal to even consider the president’s Supreme Court nomination disheartens our people, eroding their view of government. The parties battle for position more than achievement, while deep-seated problems fester — stagnant living standards that breed resentment among middle- and lower-income workers, entrenched poverty that saps hope in both urban and rural America, failing schools that leave students unprepared and so on. Not surprisingly, confidence in government hovers at record lows.
But partisanship need not prove paralyzing. Through our history, our parties have fought and achieved simultaneously. Moreover, the foundation of a future Truman-Vandenberg-style collaboration on foreign affairs could be in place.
The next president could find willing congressional allies for a bipartisan foreign policy. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, Bob Corker, and its top Democrat, Benjamin J. Cardin, are decidedly moderate, as are the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s GOP Chairman, Ed Royce, and its top Democrat, Eliot L. Engel. They are serious and sincere, and they undoubtedly would welcome a chance to work with the next president.
In addition, concerns are growing in both parties that Obama’s reduced U.S. footprint in the Middle East, his nuclear deal with Iran for which he continues to make post-deal concessions, his efforts to seek the help of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin on global challenges and his generalized cooling toward longstanding allies in Europe and the Middle East are raising new dangers to U.S. national security.
As we mark the anniversary of Vandenberg’s death, we’d do well to recall what he and Truman understood — that a standoffish America will make the world a more dangerous place for itself and others, and that only bipartisanship can nourish the vital national consensus to carry out our foreign policy.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director to Vice President Al Gore, is the author of Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World (Potomac Books).