Members of Congress — donkeys and elephants alike — take note: Bipartisan cooperation is possible. That is the central message of this well-conceived and well-written book, which tells the story of how Democratic President Harry Truman and Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg worked together to save a war-torn Europe and preserve freedom by deterring Soviet aggression.
These men were the personification of the idea that American national interests trumped partisanship, that, according to the old adage, “politics stopped at the water’s edge.”
Speaking in support of Truman’s request for $400 million to save Greece and Turkey from Soviet-inspired threats, Vandenberg told his fellow GOP lawmakers: “This is a matter that transcends politics. There is nothing partisan about it. It is national policy at the highest degree.”
That sentiment underlaid all the cooperation between the senator and the president — a mutual effort demanded by reality.
In some ways, the world that newly minted President Truman inherited from a deceased Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945 was “the best of times.” World War II was rapidly coming to an end, as the Nazi regime in Europe was collapsing under blows from American and British forces in the West and from the Soviet juggernaut in the East. In the Pacific, it was apparent that Imperial Japan’s days were numbered as American forces captured island after island.
But, to continue to quote Charles Dickens, “it was the worst of times” as well. “What would prevent the Soviets from conquering not just Eastern Europe but Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East?” asks author Lawrence J. Haas.
The only answer to that question was the United States, but would that historically isolationist, war-weary, “stubbornly reluctant giant” step into the breach?
It would take the combined effort of the Democratic president from Missouri and Republican senator and chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from Michigan, to thwart the imperialist ambitions of the Soviet Union.
The two Midwesterners had several obstacle to mount. First, they had to overcome extreme political rancor, as the GOP tried to regain control of the White House it had lost more than 15 years earlier.
Both were “tough partisans,” but were able to work together for the good of the country.
They were also very different people — Truman, a modest, simple person who disliked puffery in others.
The president “was direct, straightforward, and down to earth,” preferring “declarative sentences and simple words whether filling his diary, writing his memoirs, or delivering a speech.”
Vandenberg, on the other hand, was at times pompous, the kind of “self-important bigwig” whom the president despised.
Truman was clever enough to shower the senator with attention and information, the author explains. When the president was lax in this duty, Vandenberg more than once told him that “I’m not going to help you with crash landings unless I’m in on the takeoff.”
Yet, despite their differences, they created the edifice supporting American foreign policy for the next 40 years— the Truman Doctrine, in which America pledged to help free nations under attack; an aid package to save Greece and Turkey, which was later expanded into the Marshall Plan; and finally, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which helped prevent Soviet aggression in Europe for the next 40 years.
Vandenberg was able to convince skeptical Republicans to support those policies because he “enjoyed a national stature and following as his party’s undisputed leader on foreign policy that any modern-day senator would envy.”
As Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, shows in the book, the senator was more than Truman’s helper in pushing these measures to gain public and later congressional acceptance, he was his partner.
In Senate hearings, Vandenberg adopted the role of “cajoler in chief” — framing questions that helped administration officials make their cases and trying to counter the concerns of other senators. He was not acting as opposition leader, trying to score points at the expense of the administration, but rather viewing the proposals as his own, helping to shepherd them through the legislative minefield to being accepted and ultimately to becoming law.
In sum, the two men “built the architecture of a revolutionary new U.S. foreign policy, transforming their nation from a reluctant world presence to a proud global leader,” according to the author.
For encouraging the British to stand up to Hitler, Winston Churchill has been called the savior of the West. Harry & Arthur suggests that historians might consider Truman and Vandenberg as also worthy of that honor.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.