Hanson, who is of Swedish ancestry, grew up on a family farm at Selma, in the San Joaquin Valley of California. His mother was a lawyer and judge, his father an educator and college administrator. Hanson's father and uncle played college football at the College of the Pacific under Amos Alonzo Stagg. Along with his older brother Nils and fraternal twin Alfred, Hanson attended public schools and graduated from Selma High School. Hanson received his B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1975 and his Ph.D. in classics from Stanford University in 1980. He is a Protestant Christian.
Hanson is currently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Fellow in California Studies at the Claremont Institute. Until recently, he was professor at California State University, Fresno, where he began teaching in 1984, having created the classics program at that institution.
In 1991 Hanson was awarded an American Philological Association's Excellence in Teaching Award, which is awarded to undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. He has been a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991–92), National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992–93), as well as holding the visiting Shifrin Chair of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002–03). He was a visiting professor at Hillsdale College in 2004, 2006, and 2007.
Hanson writes two weekly columns, one for National Review and one syndicated by Tribune Media Services, and has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, American Heritage, City Journal, The American Spectator, Policy Review, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and The Weekly Standard, among other publications. In 2006, he started blogging at Pajamas Media. In 2007, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush.
Many of Hanson's readers refer to him by his initials, "VDH."
Hanson is a registered member of the Democratic Party but a conservative who voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections. He has been described as a neoconservative by some commentators, and has stated that: "I came to support neocon approaches first in the wars against the Taliban and Saddam, largely because I saw little alternative." Feeling that the current Democratic Party does not have a morally responsible approach to US foreign policy and no longer addresses the concerns of ordinary Americans, Hanson writes: "The Democratic Party reminds me of the Republicans circa 1965 or so – impotent, shrill, no ideas, conspiratorial, reactive, out-of-touch with most Americans, isolationist, and full of embarrassing spokesmen."
Hanson has been a strong defender of George W. Bush and his policies, especially the Iraq war. He was also a vocal supporter of Bush's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Hanson wrote of Rumsfeld that he was: "a rare sort of secretary of the caliber of George Marshall" and a "proud and honest-speaking visionary" whose "hard work and insight are bringing us ever closer to victory."
On the issues pertaining to the constant political turmoil in the Middle East, Hanson emphasises the lack of individual and political freedom in many Middle Eastern nations as a major factor retarding economic, technological and cultural progress. He further relates the root cause of radical Islamic terrorism to insecurities and a need to regain honour and reputation