Class of ’78 | “I love the combination of world-shaking challenges and outsized personalities,” Lawrence Haas C’78 was saying. He was talking about his new book, Harry & Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World (published last month by Potomac Books). But he has observed and written about his share of both.
A journalist and currently senior fellow for US foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, Haas has worked as communications director for Vice President Al Gore and as director of public affairs and special assistant to the president of Yale. In addition to Harry & Arthur, he has written four books and scores of columns for newspapers and journals, and has testified before Congress about Iran, radical Islam, and other matters.
Having earned his bachelor’s degree in American history from Penn and a master’s in that field from Princeton before shifting from an academic track to journalism and government, he says he never lost his enthusiasm for American history. “So in that sense, this book brings my career back full circle to my major at Penn.”
Haas recently spoke about his book with Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes.
Why write a book about Truman and Vandenberg’s political relationship?
I wanted to write about the birth of the Free World because I could see that we Americans have been doubting lately whether we should continue to play the same role that we’ve played since World War II, which is to lead the Free World by defending freedom and promoting democracy. I feel strongly, and I think the last few years have borne this out, that a world with less American leadership is a world that’s bad for America and its allies. So then the question becomes: What’s the particular narrative that I should use to tell this story? Should it be just a straight history of the period? Should it be a biography of Truman that focused on that period in particular?”
As I began researching, I discovered that no one had ever devoted a book to Truman and Vandenberg’s partnership. So I had an opportunity to tell an un-told story, and that’s always very appealing to an author. Then, as I explored the partnership through the Truman Library and Vandenberg’s private papers, I came to see how fascinating it was, with two very flawed men, so different in their styles and personalities, each with traits that the other really hated, and united only in their agreement that America must confront the Soviet Union on the world stage.
How unusual was their cooperation in the political context of that era?
Extremely. Remember, this was the late 1940s, at a time of growing McCarthyism even though Joe McCarthy himself hadn’t yet delivered his first speech about communists in government. In the late 1940s, Republicans were basically labeling Democrats as communists. And even aside from the McCarthyism, the politics of the time were quite vicious. For example, in 1948, Truman compared Thomas Dewey, his Republican presidential opponent who was a very middle-of-the-road governor of New York, to Hitler by saying that he was a tool of fascist elements within the Republican Party. So as many of us think that, today, the tone of our politics has never been worse, it really was worse back then.
What effect did the two world wars have on the worldviews of both men?
That’s important but complicated. Truman and Vandenberg reacted the same way to World War I. They totally bought Woodrow Wilson’s idea that the United States should enter the war to make the world “safe for democracy.” That was very consistent with what each man came to believe on his own—Truman from reading massive amounts of history in the public library when he was growing up, and Vandenberg from thinking about great issues from the time he was in high school.
But World War II was different. For Truman, it was just more proof that there was good and evil in the world and America needed to play a strong role in the world to protect itself and confront its enemies and keep freedom alive. But for Vandenberg, World War II was a wake-up call. He had become convinced in the 1930s that America had been suckered into World War I by bankers and weapons-makers who wanted to make money off of it. He became a leading isolationist through the 1930s, and he was very upset when FDR started aiding Great Britain even before America was in World War II because he thought we should be neutral between the Brits and the Germans. So when Pearl Harbor hit in December of 1941, Vandenberg began to wake up from his blind isolationism and return to the belief that America must assume a strong leadership role around the world or the world would continue to fall into chaos.
What did they achieve together, and what was the significance?
By spearheading the birth of the United Nations, America made clear that it would stay on the world stage for good rather than return to isolationism. By enunciating the Truman Doctrine, America announced that it would confront the Soviets and defend freedom. By enacting the Marshall Plan, America committed itself to saving Western Europe’s economy so that its people wouldn’t launch communist revolutions. And by creating NATO, America told the Soviets that it would protect Western Europe in case they tried to conquer the continent. So the four achievements build on one another and, together, they make up America’s new global role.
How did your perceptions of both men change during your research?
I was a fan of both as I began, but I wasn’t an expert on either. As I researched, I came to two realizations.
The first was how flawed they both were. Truman was mean and crass and petty; he had a long memory and carried grudges; and he was a total ingrate in how he ran for re-election in 1948 against what he called the “do nothing” Republican Congress—which was the same Congress that, with Vandenberg’s leadership, helped him implement the Truman Doctrine, enact the Marshall Plan, and lay the groundwork for NATO. Vandenberg was a vain, pompous ass who got very childish when he felt that the White House wasn’t consulting with him enough.
The second realization was that despite their flaws, they were truly heroic figures. They never let their flaws or their impatience with one another or the ugly partisan politics of the time interfere with the very important work they were doing together. So they were ordinary people, with all the good and bad qualities that we all have, but they were also extraordinary people because they found what Lincoln called the “better angels” within themselves.
What were the biggest revelations for you?
I’ve come to realize how incredibly lucky we were in the late 1940s that Truman and Vandenberg got to where they were because, if not for Truman and Vandenberg, the world could have become a much worse place.
For instance, we were lucky in 1944 when FDR dumped Vice President Henry Wallace, who later became an embarrassing Soviet sympathizer, and chose Truman for his running mate that year. We were also lucky in 1928 when, with Vandenberg agonizing over whether to run for the Senate that year, the Democratic incumbent unexpectedly died and the Republican governor appointed Vandenberg to the open seat.
Imagine what might have happened if Henry Wallace had become President and he didn’t have Vandenberg to work with. Would we have taken the Soviet threat as seriously? Would we have rescued Western Europe economically or protected it militarily? Would the Soviets have simply marched across Western Europe, which they easily could have done at the time if they didn’t fear how we would respond?
Any favorite anecdotes?
Truman was incredibly insecure until he got his footing as President. On the night that FDR died, he told his best friend that, “I feel like I have been struck by a bolt of lightning.” The next day, he told another friend, “I’m not big enough for this job.” He often hated being President and he called the White House “the great white jail.”
Vandenberg was vain enough to be the object of mockery. When Senator Robert Taft asked his wife, Martha, to “butter up” Vandenberg at a dinner party, she later said, “I tried manfully, but he buttered himself so thoroughly that I really couldn’t find a single ungreased spot.”
Other key figures in this story had outsized personalities as well. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had a wonderfully colorful way of expressing himself. He described an incident with Vandenberg this way: “Without warning a hurricane struck. Its center was filled with a large mass of cumulonimbus cloud, often called Arthur Vandenberg, producing heavy word fall.” Secretary of State George Marshall was so serious and disciplined that he only let his wife call him George. Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett had a wicked sense of humor, and he described working with Congress as “like getting a shave and having your appendix taken out at the same time.”
Were our political leaders simply more mature back then?
We always seem to look back and pine for the great leaders of some earlier era. But the reality is that our ancestors could have complained the same way in the 1770s as we almost lost the Revolutionary War, or in the 1850s as the country was coming apart over slavery, or in the early 1930s when so many people were suffering during the Great Depression. History shows us that great challenges create the conditions for great leaders to emerge—Washington with the country’s founding, Lincoln with slavery and the Civil War, FDR with the Great Depression and World War II, and, in this case, Truman and Vandenberg with the Soviet threat. You never know who will emerge until a great challenge arises. And even with all of our problems today, we don’t have a challenge that compares to the ones I just mentioned.