The League of Nations
The Covenant, like all constitutions, was subject to interpretation. Two competing tendencies existed in the American internationalist movement, both born of the politics of neutrality and preparedness of 1915–16. “Progressive internationalists” considered peace essential to the cause of domestic reform. Like Wilson, they saw European imperialism, militarism, and balance‐of‐power politics as the root causes of the war; in their stead, they promoted the idea of a “community of nations,” to be sustained by a league.
Conservative internationalists, led by William Howard Taft and the League to Enforce Peace, also advocated a world parliament; but, while more or less endorsing the principle of collective security, most of them believed that the United States should expand its army and navy and reserve the right to exercise force independently. Disarmament and self‐determination were not among their concerns. Progressive internationalists viewed their conservative rivals as enemies of reform and as advocates of militarism. The two sides disagreed over domestic politics and foreign policy alike.
Had a national referendum been held in July 1919, the United States almost certainly would have joined the League. Two main factors, however, compounded the problem of ratifying the treaty. First, the Republicans, having captured majority control of Congress in the 1918 midterm elections, launched a fierce attack on Wilson's overall program. Second, large numbers of progressive internationalists had begun to abandon Wilson because the peace settlement had fallen short of the promised Fourteen Points; moreover, his acquiescence in the wartime suppression of civil liberties had further eroded his support among progressives.
As for the Senate itself, the preponderance of opposition was grounded in both partisanship and ideological principle, though only a few of the League's critics were irreconcilable isolationists. In part to preserve America's freedom of action, the Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, drew up fourteen reservations as conditions for ratification. Some of these reservations would have undermined the League's ability to arbitrate disputes, to supervise a reduction of armaments, and to impose sanctions embodied in Article X. In September, Wilson embarked upon a strenuous speaking tour on behalf of unqualified American membership. His exertions brought on a nearly fatal, paralytic stroke that rendered him a recluse. Political gridlock then ensued.
The Senate roll was called three times, in November 1919 and March 1920; but whether on a motion to ratify unconditionally or with the Lodge reservations, the necessary two‐thirds majority could never be mustered. In November 1920, the Republican Warren G. Harding won a landslide victory over Democrat James M. Cox. Alluding to Wilson's erstwhile wish that the election might take the form of a referendum, Lodge now declared, “that League is dead.”
Some historians have argued that Wilson's stroke prevented him from striving for the middle ground on the question of reservations. Other historians maintain that even a healthy Wilson would have refused to compromise, owing to his personality. Still others have stressed that the ideological gulf that separated the two branches of American internationalism, along with the president's failure to rekindle his own progressive coalition just as the parliamentary struggle began, sealed the fate of a Wilsonian league.
At least in part because of the absence of the United States, the fledgling organization boasted few achievements in the interwar period. Republican administrations assiduously avoided all formal association with it throughout the 1920s, even, for example, when promulgating the Dawes Plan of 1924, the effort to compose Europe's reparations–war debt tangle. Yet, in this endeavor, the League undoubtedly facilitated Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes's labors. Then, too, Hughes staunchly (if ineffectively) advocated American membership in the World Court. The United States further underscored its ambivalence in the salutary achievement of the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–22 as well as in the innocuous Kellogg‐Briand Pact of 1928; in both instances of internationalist foreign policy, the Americans conspicuously ignored the League. Perhaps the final blow came during the Manchurian incident of 1931–32. While condemning Japanese aggression there, the League proved utterly powerless to undertake effective sanctions; the United States merely refused to recognize Japan's puppet state, Manchukuo. During the 1930s, the League receded further into impotence as mounting crises led to renewed international conflict.
By 1944–45, many Americans had concluded that World War II might have been averted had they followed Wilson's counsel. Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully championed a new international organization, the United Nations, whose Charter incorporated many of the reservations prescribed by the Republicans in 1919. Although the United States took the lead in founding the United Nations in 1945, American foreign policy makers deemed it an inadequate instrument and they created regional alliances, particularly NATO, as the means of collective security.
[See also Isolationism; Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty; World War II: Causes.]
Thomas A. Bailey , Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal, 1945.
Alexander L. George and and Juliette L. George , Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House, 1956.
Arthur S. Link , Woodrow Wilson, Revolution, War and Peace, 1979.
William C. Widenor , Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy, 1980.
Lloyd E. Ambrosius , Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition, The Treaty Fight in Perspective, 1987.
Thomas J. Knock , To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order, 1992.
Thomas J. Knock