Our Council Celebrates 75 Years of Encouraging Global Conversations


WAC 75th Logo Horizontal Color

In the years after World War II, Western Michigan was (again) becoming increasingly isolationist. So, in 1949, two young men—businessman Edgar Orr and Judge Douglas Hillman—started an organization solely concerned with American foreign policy and international issues.


They were young men inspired by the legendary U.S. Senator from Grand Rapids, Arthur J. Vandenberg (1884-1951). In his early years in the U.S. Senate, Vandenberg was a vocal isolationist. He gradually understood the importance of global partnerships as World War II ravaged the globe, becoming one of the architects of the United Nations Charter in 1945. He was at the forefront of crafting the country’s formation of NATO and the Marshall Plan. His famous quote, “Politics stops at the water’s edge,” is still invoked by political leaders today. Senator Vandenberg knew of the young Council and was slated to be a speaker but passed away before that could happen. The Council still honors its “Mentor in Spirit.”


Thus began “The World Affairs Council of Grand Rapids” on November 1, 1949. It officially became “The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan” in the mid-70s when the then-President of Grand Valley State University Arend (Don) Lubbers and Mr. Jay Van Andel, co-founder of Amway Corporation, served on the Council board and achieved non-profit status for the organization.


The Council is an educational non-profit (501c3), non-partisan and non-advocacy organization. It takes no stand on any issue. Its members are from all over the political spectrum but would agree on one issue: We want the World Affairs Council to start the conversation in this community on American foreign policy and other international issues. Regional companies that do international business have strongly supported the Council, understanding that employees must be globally astute for success in a globally competitive environment. Regional colleges and universities have taken advantage of the unique opportunities for their students to hear from and interact with diplomats and global experts.


The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan is dedicated to educating people about other countries, cultures, and regions of the world and providing a forum for discussing critical foreign policy issues facing this country. Offering over 40 programs a year, the Council is best known for sponsoring the award-winning Great Decisions Global Discussion Series, which has been running since the late 1950s. The discussion series, now hosted at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, is used by local colleges and universities as a credit course and is attended by Council members and the public as a gift to the community.


In 2020, the Council instituted the Vandenberg Prize to honor an individual whose efforts to develop global understanding and collaboration have been influential on the world stage. Recipients have been Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Jr.; Gen. (ret.) James Mattis; Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch; and U.N. World Food Programme director David Beasley.


A local award, for regional efforts on behalf of global connections, is called the Hillman-Orr Award after the co-founders of the Council. Recipients have been Birgit Klohs; Ambassador Peter Secchia; Bing Goei; and Sonja Johnson and Kendra Kuo.


The Council is guided by a 21-person board of corporate, university, and civic leaders, and administered by a dedicated staff.


More information on the Council is available here.