Versailles Peace Treaty: American Rejection of the Treaty


Figure 1.--

The Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was signed on June 28, 1919, about 7 months after the Armistice stopping the fighting on November 11, 1918. It was one of the most important treaties of the 20th century. President Wilson after submitting a Draft Covenant for a League of Nations on February 14, 1919, left Paris on February 15, returning to the United States. He sought to promote the League which he saw as the central feature of the Versailles Peace Treaty and a "world made safe for democracy" without the scourge of war. Upon arriving in Boston on February 15, he gives his first speech promoting the League. Wilson met with highly skeptical Congressional leaders over dinner on February 26. Key Republican leader, Republican Majority Leader and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge, in a February 28 speech rejected the principle of mutual guarantee in the Wilson proposal, but not the League outright. With Wilson's refusal to compromise, the Senate overwhelming rejected the Treaty by wide margins in two votes on November 19. The Senate rejected the Treaty with the 14 Lodge reservations 39-55. Both Democratic candidates actively expoused President Wilson's global idealism and promoted the League. Americans were having none of it. The War losses, mild by European standards, were very real. The economy by 1920 had turned down in post-war recession. The Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding was another Ohio publisher serving in the Senate. Harding offered a "return to normalcy" and was on November 2, elected in a Republican landslide. This effectively end the debate in the United States over the League of Nations and active participation in European affairs.

League of Nations

President Wilson saw at the center of a new international order, a League of Nations. As soon as he returned home from the Versailles Peace Conference, he launched upon a cross-country tour to promote the Treaty and U.S. membership in the League. He told Americans, "At the front of this great treaty is put the Covenant of the League of Nations. It will also be at the front of the Austrian, treaty and the Hungarian treaty and the Bulgarian treaty and the treaty with Turkey. Every one of them will contain the Covenant of the League of Nations, because you cannot work any of them without the Covenant of the League of Nations. Unless you get the united, concerted purpose and power of the great Governments of the world behind this settlement, it will fall down like a house of cards. There is only one power to put behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind. It is the power of the united moral forces of the world, and in the Covenant of the League of Nations the moral forces of the world are mobilized." [Wilson]

American Public Opinion

American public opinion was strongly pro-British and pro-French even before America entered the War. Americans enthusiastically embraced the Allied cause after declaring war. There was, however, a rapid change in American public opinion after the Armistice and end of the War. We are not entirely sure why this occurred. Perhaps the diplomatic wrangling following the War looked to many Americans like the typical European diplomatic conspiracy following every other War rather than a peace settlement anticipated with the War to End All Wars. There were major differences between America and the European colonial powers and these became more apparent after the war. Many Americans came to feel that they had been rushed into the War. Some even felt that American had been drawn into the War by British propaganda. The specter of Communism and the association of socialism with European immigrant groups in America were other factors affecting the change in American attitudes. Whatever the cause, many Americans began to think that America would be better off by cutting its brief participation in European affairs and returning to a more isolationist approach. [Wells, p. 930.] This was part of the "return to normalcy" for which the Republican Presidential candidate Warren Harding would soon begin campaigning.

U.S. 1918 Congressional By-election

America voted just 6-days before the Armistice ending World War I was declared. Had the Armistic have come a few days earlier, the electiin results probably woukd have been different. President Wilson has campaigned on a campsign of keeping the United States out of the War. German and Irish Americans in particular had not favored the War. The Republicans gained 25 seats in the House and 7 seats in the Senate. It meant that for the first time, President Wilson faced a Republican House and Senate. The new Senate Majority Leade was Henry Cabet Lodge. Lodge advised the President to include prominant Republicans in the delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. The President was reluctant to do so. He knew what he wanted and thought that having to accomodate Republicans would complicate the negotiations.

Wilson Proposes the League

President Wilson after submitting a Draft Covenant for a League of Nations on February 14, 1919, left Paris on February 15, returning to the United States. He sought to promote the League which he saw as the central feature of the Versailles Peace Treaty and a "world made safe for democracy" without the scourge of war. In the World War I peace settlement, Wilson compromised many of his principles to get the support of the Allies (Britain, France, and Italy) fo what he saw as the cornerstone of the new world order--the League of Nation. [Chace] Upon arriving in Boston on February 15, he gives his first speech promoting the League.

The U.S. Senate

Wilson met with highly skeptical Congressional leaders over dinner on February 26. Key Republican leader, Republican Majority Leader and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge, in a February 28 speech rejected the principle of mutual guarantee in the Wilson proposal, but not the League outright. Ratification of the Treaty required the approval of two-thirds of the Senate where the opposition Republicans had a narrow majority. Thus on March 2, 1919 when 39 Senators sign Round Robin to separate League from Treaty, it is clear that approval was imperiled. In a Senate composed of 96 members, 33 senators could block ratification. Wilson is adamant ion the issue of the League and in a March 4, 1919 speech in New York insists that the Covenant and League are inseparable. He then returned to Paris to attend the rest of the Peace Conference. Wilson in a effort to meet Congressional critics permits four changes in Covenant: 1) no League member had to accept a mandate; 2) exclude domestic affairs from League jurisdiction; 3) acceptance of the Monroe Doctrine; and 4) permit League members to withdraw after giving 2 years notice. The 66th Congress convenes on May 19. There are wide differences on the League. Over a fourth of the Senate, 27 Democrats, were strongly internationalists and side with Wilson. About 8 Republicans led by Butler and Taft (the former president) have weaker internationalist sentiments and are not outright opponents. The bulk of the Senate, about 40 Republicans and Democrats have mild preservationists. Senator Hitchcock led this group. Lodge led a group of 7 Republicans with strong reservations. Borah and Johnson led a group of 14 Republicans and 1 Democrat that called themselves irrenconcilables--fundamentally opposed to the League.

The Debate

After the Treaty was signed June 28, Wilson returned home to the United States, arriving July 8. He presents the Treaty to the Senate July 10, saying "The stage is set, the destiny disclosed." Senator Lodge July 14-28 insisted on reading all 246 pages of Treaty aloud to the Senate. Lodge in his Foreign Relations Committee conducted public hearings from July 31-September.. He called 60 witnesses. Wilson at a 3 hour lunch meeting with entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 19 agreed to interpretative reservations. Wilson then on September 4 launches on an unprecedented 8,000 mile tour to sell the Treaty and the League to the American people. He gave 40 speeches in 29 cities in 22 days. Senators Borah and Johnson on September 10 began their own national speaking tour to oppose the Treaty. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 10 proposes 45 amendments and 4 reservations. All amendments are defeated by the full Senate and the Treaty went back to Committee. It was at this critical juncture that President Wilson collapses in Pueblo, Colorado on September 25 after delivering the speech quoted above. The remainder of his speeches are canceled and he id brought back to Washington, D.C. There he suffered a stroke on October 2 and lies ill for 7 months, unable to participate actively in the ensuing national debate.

Lodge Reservations

While Wilson lay sick, Senator Lodge proposed 14 reservations aimed at limiting any kind of real commitment to mutual security. Wilson who had compromised with the Allies in Paris and had been willing to compromise with the Senate earlier, after the stroke refuses to compromise further. Wilson opposes all of the Lodge reservations and tells Senator Hitchcock on November 7, "Let Lodge compromise!" Hitchcock on November 13 proposed 5 mild reservations as an alternative to the much more substantial Lodge reservations, but they are voted down by the Foreign Relation Committee. Wilson sent a letter to Senate Democrats on November 18, urging them to oppose the Lodge reservations. It is clear at this time that without Lodge's support, the Treaty ratification and U.S. participation in the League is not possible. Wilson refused, however, to compromise further.

Treaty Rejected

With Wilson's refusal to compromise, the Senate overwhealmingly rejected the Treaty by wide margins in two votes on November 19. The Senate rejected the Treaty with the 14 Lodge reservations 39-55. It then rejected Wilson's original Treaty 38-53. Many Republicans and Democrats in the Senate with mild reservations to the League on December 29 convinced Lodge to seek a compromise. Wilson however was adamant and on January 8, 1920 insisted that the Treaty should not be substantially altered by the Senate. Lodge helped form a Bipartisan Committee on January 16, but in the end he rejected its work on January 23. The Democrats on the Bipartisan Committee on January 27, offered the Hitchcock reservation to Article 10 but it was opposed by the Republicans. Democrats on January 29 agreed to support a reservation to Article 10 which was proposed by Republican Senator Taft reservation, but this was also rejected by Lodge

Britain and France

Concern over the debate in Washington grew in Europe which had counted upon American participation in the League which Wilson had proposed. Both the English and French Governments on February 1 declared they were willing to accept the Senate reservations. The Senate on February 9, votes to reconsider the Treaty and referred it to the Foreign Relations Committee. The Committee on February 10 approved the Treaty with the Lodge reservations. At this stage, had Wilson compromised, he cold have had the Treaty and the League. Wilson is, however, not prepared to compromise. The President on March 8, renewed his opposition to the Treaty with the Lodge reservations. As a result, the Senate on March 19, again voted to reject the Treaty with the 15 Lodge reservations in a 49-35 vote.

1920 Presidential Election

Without the Treaty, the United States was still legally at war with Germany. Congress attempts on May 20 to end the War by joint resolution, but Wilson vetoes the resolution. The Democrats in the for the fall presidential election nominated a newspaper editor from Ohio, Governor James M. Cox, as their presidential candidate, and a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt for vice president. Both Democratic candidates actively expoused President Wilson's global idealism and promoted the League. Americans were having none of it. The War losses, mild by European standards, were very real. The economy by 1920 had turned down in post-war recession. The Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding was another Ohio publisher serving in the Senate. Harding offered a "return to normalcy" and was on November 2, elected in a Republican landslide. This effectively end the debate in the United States over the League of Nations and active participation in European affairs. Harding became president in March 1921. Congress on July 2 ended the War by joint resolution which President Harding signed. Separate treaties with Germany, Austria, Hungary were ratified October 18. One historians stresses that America's withdrawl into isolationism was not a foregone conclusion. Had Theodore Rooselvelt not have died in 1919, he almost surely would have received the Republican nomination. With his internationalist outlook, he would have supported the League (with Lodge's reservationists) and he would have gained Amerucan military guarantees to the Allies which would have substantially changed the history of the 20th cenyury. [Chace]

Assessment

It must be said that the the Versailles Treaty was not as onerous as the Treaty of Breast-Litovsk (1918) which the Germans imposed on the Russians. Still it was undeniably harsh. Many historians see it at the first step toward World War II. Not only did it create immense ill-will in Germany, but it destroyed the creditability of the new Weimar Republic. Many Germans felt that their country had been humiliated and they came to blame the Weimar politicians that accepted the treaty. Had their been a more benevolent peace based on Wilson's 14 Points the Weimar Republic might have mustered the strength to successfully fight the post-War economic and social turmoil. This is, however, conjecture. One of the principal concerns of Germans were the territorial concessions and most of these were based upon the right to national self determination which was part of the 14 Points.

Franklin Roosevelt

A young Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was only the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, but he took the Wilsonian commitment to the League to heart. As the Democratic candidate for Vice President in the 1920 presidential election, Roosevelt campaigned tirelessly for the League. The massive Republican victory in 1920 convinced leading Democrats like New York's Al Smith, who ran for president in 1928, that the League was a losing issue. Roosevelt never lost his belief in the League, but he was an astute enough politician to see that Smith was correct in his assessment. When FDR was elected president in 1932, isolationist sentiment made any approach to the League impossible, especially because all of the energies of the New Deal were directed at the Depression--an economic crises of staggering proportions. Later in World War II, it was Roosevelt who believed that American refusal to join the League was a major factor in the outbreak of World War II, revived the issue of the League in the United Nations (U.N.). He even hoped to be the first Secretary General after the War was over. Sadly FDR's health did not permit this, but his wife Elenor played a major role in the founding of the U.N. after her husband's death. This time given FDR's stature and shifts in American sentiment, there was no serious opposition. Another major conclusion that FDR drew from World War I was that it had been a major mistake to stop the Allied Armies at the Rhine. After America entered World War II in 1941, he was determined to achieve unconditional surrender from both the Germans and Japanese. One of the consequences of that decision is today's democratic, peaceful and very prosperous Germany and Japan.

Sources

Chace, James. 1912: The Election that Saved the Country.

Wells, H.G. The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man (Doubleday & Co.: New York, 1971), 1103p.

Wilson, Woodrow. Speech at Pueblo, Colorado, September 25, 1919.






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Created: January 31, 2003
Spell checked: January 24, 2004
Last updated: 6:17 PM 11/8/2010