THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS:
WHY AMERICA STAYED OUT
by Patrick Killough [04/18/1998]
Why did the U.S. Senate twice (late 1919 and early 1920) reject American membership in the League of Nations?
Was the Senate the triumphant antagonist in a Greek tragedy? Was our protagonist President inevitably done in by his own character?
It is true enough that personality flaws
of U.S. President Thomas Woodrow Wilson prevented Senate ratification.
Wilson was the League's idealistic principal author and defender. But his
health was ruined by October 1919. He could and did make enemies of key
isolationist and other opposition Senators. Yet he lacked the physical
strength to beat them back. But there were also
Woodrow Wilson's Character and Negotiating Blunders
Woodrow Wilson went from being President of Princeton to President of the United States in only two years--by way of an interlude as the Democratic Party's reform Governor of New Jersey. Along the way he won many admirers.
Wilson came late to foreign policy. He found that Theodore Roosevelt's "League to Enforce Peace" was already an idea and was being stoutly promoted by a private American organization of the same name. The League to Enforce Peace had behind it leading Republicans such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and former President William H. Taft. But on May 27, 1916 the fiercely partisan Democratic President Wilson in a major address in Washington embraced the league concept. From that day forth Wilson treated the league to enforce peace as if it were his own invention and his personal property. He went so far, days before the November 11, 1918 Armistice, to urge the American people to vote only for Democrats in the Congressional elections. Otherwise there would be no League of Nations, he assured them. That challenge enraged pro-League Republicans. Democrats narrowly lost the Senate, with Henry Cabot Lodge, by now the President's bitter, visceral enemy, becoming both Majority Leader and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. This made Lodge the Senate's manager of the forthcoming peace treaty with Germany, whose text would include the Covenant of the League of Nations.
Wilson needed Republican support for his
League of Nations proposal at least as much as he needed the support of
the victorious Allies. Yet
Wilson subsequently dealt with the Republican led Senate as a haughty, ineffective school master deals with primary school students. He set Republican Senators' teeth on edge continuously and needlessly. A mere handful of Republican "Irreconcilables" were determined to humiliate Wilson by rejecting the Treaty of Versailles, of which the League Covenant made up Article One. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge told that group, in effect, to be patient. For he would play Wilson like a fish. He had studied Wilson's flaws and knew how to enrage him into impotence. Lodge's tactic was to surround the treaty text with a series of interpretations and reservations: conditions which he insisted be added to any text of America's agreement to accept and join the League of Nations. Wilson rejected some of them--even though France and Britain urged him to go along. Woodrow Wilson ordered his Democratic Senators not to compromise. Wilson then lost the League, his own brain child, in two Senate votes in 1919 and 1920.
There were Substantive Disagreements As Well
Personal dislike of Wilson by Republicans was not the only reason why America did not enter the League of Nations. The Irreconcilables and Lodge also had a different, much more isolationist, view of America's role in the world, from that of Wilson and the American internationalists. Poll after poll showed that in 1919 at least 75% of the American people favored America's membership in and leadership of "a" league of nations. Republican nationalists/isolationists acknowledged this popular support and said, in effect, we Republicans are not against "a" league (small "l"); we are just against "THE" League of Nations of Wilson. But it was "THE" League not "A" league which was on the table.
Isolationists and other patriotic Americans
cited against the League
The core of the League concept, by consent
of all, was Article X which
And so it was that America never joined the League of Nations. Wilson had expected that America would not only be in the League but also lead the League. But it was not to be. Dislike of Wilson as a person combined with isolationist, nationalist substantive arguments of some merit did the League in so far as the USA was concerned. A great opportunity to shape the peace of the world was missed.
The good news is that twenty years later, as World War II fell upon Europe and Asia, Americans recalled Wilson's mistakes. Statesmen like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Presbyterian leader John Foster Dulles and many other American internationalists, both liberal and conservative, remembered the tragic duel between Wilson and Lodge about America's role in a world striving for peace. They remembered well. As a result the U.S. Senate in July 1945 ratified the Charter of the United Nations by a vote of 89 to 2.
for Asheville TRIBUNE