Because 1948 was a presidential election year, everyone and his dog knew it would be a bad year for bipartisan efforts in Washington. World War II was over, the Cold War loomed as relations with our former ally, the Soviet Union, deteriorated rapidly, and all of America expected a major shift in the country’s political climate. The Democrats would most likely lose in the upcoming presidential election, giving the White House to the Republicans for the first time since 1932.
Normally, during a presidential election year, very little significant foreign policy is conducted, since treaties must be ratified by the Senate. Politicians know that heated debates on controversial issues distract from every candidate's prime missions—raising money and getting reelected—so those debates are avoided, if possible.
But 1948 was an unusual year: Tens of millions of Europeans were still homeless, unemployed, living in ruined cities, struggling with food rationing, and living under shaky governments still trying to reestablish themselves. Worse yet, the Russian bear was refusing to relinquish occupied territory in Eastern Europe and was threatening to take over even more countries.
America needed a stronger Western Europe—one financially strong enough to be a trading partner, and one militarily strong enough to resist communism. The State Department had two proposals that might help to achieve these goals: The Marshall Plan and the creation of the North American Treaty Organization.
The problem with the proposals was that while President Truman and his cabinet were Democrats, the Republicans were the majority party in the Senate. Senator Arthur Vandenberg (right) was not only Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee—where Senate approval of any treaty would be initiated—but as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, could also easily block the passage of any treaty.
While the Republican Presidential Convention was still months away, it was common knowledge that Vandenberg was expected to be the Republican candidate that fall, and as Truman’s popularity waned, most expected that it would be a President Vandenberg who would eventually tackle the ticklish problems of rebuilding Europe and containing Soviet aggression.
Senator Vandenberg knew that a successful conclusion of treaty negotiations would be handing a huge political victory to Truman just before the election, and that if the treaty were simply stalled a few months, he could very well become the next president of the United States.
Announcing that “politics stops at the water’s edge”, Vandenberg worked closely with Secretary of State Marshall and Undersecretary Robert Levitt. Authoring the Vandenberg Resolution, the Senate overwhelmingly authorized President Truman to seek mutual defense agreements with the countries of Western Europe—a step that would lead directly to the formation of NATO.
And it was a step that led indirectly, to the reelection of Truman. Vandenberg wasn’t even his party’s choice as a presidential candidate. He retired from politics in 1949.
Senator Vandenberg’s resolution is a monument to bipartisan cooperation. In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy redecorated the Senate Reception Room, directing that only the portraits of the greatest senators should be on exhibit. Vandenberg’s portrait is one of nine so honored.
Historically, most successful treaties have been the result of bipartisan effort. This is why when presidents travel outside of the country, members of both parties usually accompany him. When Nixon visited Russia in 1972, for example, he included Democrats among his traveling party.
When Wilson travelled to Paris in 1918 to negotiate the Versailles Treaty, he neglected to take any Republicans with him, and as a result, the terms of the treaty became a bitter partisan issue in the next presidential election. The United States never ratified the Versailles Treaty, never joined the League of Nations, and all but ignored the foreign events inevitably leading to the Second World War. There is no better example of why world peace should not be allowed to become a partisan talking point.
Three years ago, for the same reasons—lack of bipartisan participation. No Republicans were part of the complicated multi-party negotiations, and as expected, the agreement became a partisan topic, figured prominently in the 2016 election, and was never ratified by the Senate. Fully aware that the Republican-controlled Senate would not approve the proposed treaty, Obama said, “I've got a pen and I've got a phone - and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”
Obama lifted the existing sanctions against Iran by an executive order, meaning that President Trump could—with another executive order—begin the process of backing out of the agreement.
Today, President Trump is starting the process of negotiating with North Korea, and—once again (like Wilson and Obama before him)—the President is excluding participation by members of the opposition party. And once again, I am predicting failure. Already, Senator Chuck Schumer has referred to the meeting as mere theatrics without substance.
Note. Actually, Schumer said, "The summit was more show than substance, what the Texans call 'all cattle, no hat,'" The actual expression—at least as we Texans use it—is ‘all hat and no cattle,’ but since it was one New Yorker talking about another New Yorker, who am I to quibble?
Personally, I am in doubt about North Korean sincerity. The possibility of a meaningful peace treaty seems incredibly remote, but I can at least pretend to be optimistic. Since November of 2016, I am finding it increasingly easier to accept the unlikely. I hope President Trump is successful in North Korea. With that in mind, I suggest that Trump take Senator Schumer with him on his next overseas negotiation trip.
In the meantime, how do we go about finding and electing more men like Senator Arthur Vandenberg? A man who understands that patriotism is more important than political party? A man who understands that politics stops at the water’s edge?