Writing Arthur Vandenberg

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By Hendrik G. Meijer

In 1979, after five years as a reporter and editor in Plymouth, I rejoined the family retail business in Grand Rapids.  I also began graduate work in history at Western Michigan University, attending in the evening, but did not complete my thesis.

At that time, Meijer had evolved over half a century from a grocery store opened by my grandfather to a regional mass retailer.  My father and I talked about doing a company history.  But my interest lay less in the blow-by-blow development of the business than in the story of my grandfather, who was fifty years old when he opened that little store in Greenville.

The book that resulted was Thrifty Years, a biography of Hendrik Meijer.  I fell in love with biography as a form. The research, including the interviewing I loved from my reporting days, as well as the writing, and, ultimately, the discovery of a life taking shape, was exhilarating.  I wanted to write another.

I had done some research in the Grand Rapids Public Library.  Its archive was presided over by city historian Gordon Olson.  In the course of my research, I became curious about other archival material. Here were microfilm copies of the Grand Rapids Herald, Arthur Vandenberg's newspaper.  I also recalled a book I'd read in the 1970s by Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. One of the featured characters was the colorful senator from Grand Rapids.  I kept coming across Vandenberg's name.  Yet he seemed largely forgotten, even in his hometown.

A professor in Chicago had already turned his University of Michigan dissertation on Vandenberg into the first book of a projected two-volume life.  It ended in 1945, just as Vandenberg was revving up for his pivotal years.  I assumed a second volume would be forthcoming, and that the world did not need two Vandenberg biographies.

But Olson was putting together the program for the 1989 conference of the Historical Society of Michigan.  Eager—or perhaps desperate—to fill the schedule, he suggested I do something on Vandenberg.  "Just take an episode from his career," he suggested.  So I talked (for an audience of about six) on the 1939 debate over the repeal of the arms embargo provision of the Neutrality Act.  This was the embargo that tied Franklin Roosevelt's hands on the eve of World War II, hindering him from aiding the British.  Vandenberg, legendary for his later conversion to an internationalist perspective, led the isolationists fighting repeal.

In January 1990, the professor in Chicago died.  His adult daughter, selling his house in Wilmette, wondered what to do with the files on Vandenberg that filled his basement.  Boxes of Xerox copies from the Truman Library, the Roosevelt Library, the British Foreign Office, and other sources had no monetary value, but she hated to throw out a lifetime of research.  Local libraries had no interest, so she called the Historical Society of Michigan.  Did they know of anyone with an interest in Arthur Vandenberg?  They only knew me because I had been on their program a few weeks earlier.  They gave her my number, and I came back from Wilmette with a van-load of papers—and a sense of mission.

In an essay in Brave Companions, David McCullough noted, among other topics, the need for a study of Arthur Vandenberg after 1945.  My sense of mission grew.  I felt fortunate to have as a subject someone so pivotal in the creation of an American foreign policy consensus destined to prevail to the present day—when the nature of American leadership once again appears to be in question.  And Vandenberg also became iconic for his efforts to find bipartisan solutions.   

I felt like I had stumbled upon a missing link in American history, as well as a model of the sort of politics we long for today.  And with files in hand, some of the research travel required in those pre-internet days could be shortened or avoided.  I could concentrate on the Vandenberg Papers at the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, and pursue my favorite part of researching a not-quite-contemporary figure: interviewing people who knew him.

Vandenberg's papers occupy only eight linear feet.  For someone with decades of prominent public service who was himself a prolific journalist, these were slim pickings.  After he died in 1951, his son, who had been his chief of staff, published an elegant account called The Private Papers of Senator Vandenberg.  And apparently disposed of many of his father's papers when he was through.  After the Grand Rapids Herald was acquired by its rival, the Grand Rapids Press, later in the 1950s, its long-time librarian was so upset that she reportedly threw out the morgue.

Ah, but the interviews!  Vandenberg's surviving child, his younger daughter, lived in Connecticut.  As I spent more time with her, she became increasingly candid, even producing telling pages from her step-mother’s scrapbook that the family withheld when the papers were given to the library.  Others who had known the senator were also in their dotage, which brought mixed results.  For President Gerald Ford, Vandenberg was a hero and model.  Clark Clifford wished he’d known Vandenberg's mistress. Margaret Truman said how much her father admired Vandenberg, but told me not to believe Clifford, who was among her father's closest advisors. Gore Vidal offered a different slant. Harold Stassen recalled the United Nations Organizing Conference.  William Fulbright struggled to remember a story as we spoke.  In words that send a shiver down a biographer's spine, he lamented at one point in our interview, "You waited too long to talk to me."  He was 88. 

As research deepened, the manuscript ballooned past 1,000 pages.  This was a "life and times" when I should have known I would be lucky just to get a "life" published.  (Classic later-draft realization: all that hard-won local color would have to be jettisoned to get the hero to Washington.)  My breakthrough came when biographer James Tobin agreed to consult on the manuscript.  He suggested bold cuts that pulled it below 500 pages and gave me something marketable.  (Later, at the Bentley, researcher Rob Havey rescued my footnotes and had the Vandenberg Papers handy when decades-old index cards were misplaced.)  The University of Chicago Press, with experience in reaching general readers, agreed to take a chance on someone who lacked formal academic credentials and published the book in 2017

Finding freedom to research and write is always the challenge.  I am fortunate that my day job offers a degree of flexibility, as well as colleagues who tolerate my big avocation.  When someone asks where I find the time, however, the answer seems too easy: it only took me twenty-five years.


 

Hendrik G. Meijer, author of Arthur Vandenburg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) and co-chairman and CEO of Meijer, Inc., will give a talk on his book on March 19 at 7:00pm in the Park Library Auditorium at Central Michigan University.