‘Madam, If Every Mother Talked That Way . . .’

by Jay Nordlinger

In Impromptus today, I write about a new book about Arthur Vandenberg, the longtime senator from Michigan: leader of the isolationists before the war, and a leading internationalist after. The book is by Hendrik Meijer of Vandenberg’s hometown, Grand Rapids (also the hometown of Gerald R. Ford).

Early in his book, Meijer tells a story about Theodore Roosevelt, whom Vandenberg greatly admired. I retell the story in my column today. Roosevelt, an ex-president, was furious at Wilson, the incumbent president, for not entering the war in Europe. He cursed him up and down until he did (in April 1917).

In May 1916, Roosevelt gave a speech in Detroit, attended by Arthur Vandenberg. Roosevelt’s theme was military preparedness. As he spoke, he was interrupted by a woman in the balcony, who called out, “I have two sons who will respond.” What she meant was, they will enlist. A silence hung over the auditorium (as you can imagine). Then Roosevelt said, “Madam, if every mother talked that way, there would be no need for any of our sons to fight, because the power of our national defense would save us from all trouble.” The crowd burst into mighty applause.

Roosevelt made a striking statement of deterrence — a striking statement in behalf of the principle of deterrence. And this reminded me: Roosevelt stands as one of the most unusual Nobel peace laureates in history. I got to know them all, when I was writing my history of the peace prize. There are over a hundred of them. Many were very, very interesting on the subject of peace — and none more so than Roosevelt (the laureate for 1906, when he was president). (TR won chiefly for his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War.)

In his autobiography, Roosevelt made a statement that drew gasps for years: “In my own judgment the most important service that I rendered to peace was the voyage of the battle fleet around the world.”

Anyway, Hendrik Meijer has written a magnificent biography of Vandenberg, which I will dwell on today and tomorrow.

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