Reflecting on Senator Vandenberg’s Isolationism Transformation

August 23, 2015 By Zach Silberman

Earlier this month we saw the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. This year also has special significance with the creation of the United Nations seven decades ago, and the beginning of America’s role as a global leader. That same year, Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), soon-to-be-named-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and famous for his staunch isolationist views, took to the Senate floor and argued for American leadership in the post-war world. In the run-up to the 2016 election, it is important to reflect on Senator Vandenberg’s shift in thinking that led to his “Speech Heard Round the World.”

As World War II reached its conclusion, there was ongoing debate in Congress over the place of the United States in the post-war world. Once an isolationist, Senator Vandenberg became more receptive to the idea of internationalism throughout the war, especially after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He reasoned that, “My convictions regarding international cooperation and collective security for peace took firm form on the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack. That day ended isolationism for any realist.” This turned out to be a profound shift for someone who originally pushed for neutrality and an arms embargo to the allies during the early stages of the conflict.

As Congress debated whether the United States should be actively involved in the creation of the new United Nations, Senator Vandenberg emphasized the growing need for engagement in a world devastated by war. “There are critical moments in the life of every nation which call for the straightest, the plainest and the most courageous thinking of which we are capable. We confront such a moment now,” Vandenberg said. He went on to state that, “I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action… Our oceans have ceased to be moats which automatically protect our ramparts.”

His speech seventy years ago served as the pinnacle moment for Senator Vandenberg to become the statesman revered by many today. He led the fight for the passage of the Marshall Plan in Congress and served as a staunch advocate in favor of the North Atlantic Treaty, which led to the creation of NATO. Senator Vandenberg is most closely associated with the idea that “partisan politics must stop at the water’s edge.”

It is interesting to see how history is reminiscent with our current time. Once again, the United States is faced with many complex crises simultaneously. A sizable number of Americans and political leaders continue to express concern over an active U.S. role in the world. Recent polls, though, show a growing number of Americans believe that we need to be a strong leader in the world. The debate over our nation’s role in the world is sure to remain an important one for voters and candidates between now and Election Day.