Why the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles

How Wilson killed the Treaty


Here, two modern historians explain - in different ways - why they think that Woodrow Wilson - not American isolationism - killed the Treaty of Versailles.



The Ghost of Henry Cabot Lodge

The standard textbook account has long been along the following lines.   Wilson, a spiritually developed idealist, wished to organize the postwar world via a League of Nations …   This would have been a wonderful thing, apparently.   Everyone would have lived happily ever after.    Unfortunately, narrowly nationalist and bigoted elements in the Senate, mostly Republicans, rallied against Wilson’s great vision, and the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.   The U.S. remained outside the League.   This was the terrible and costly victory of "isolationism," a force so diffuse and malevolent as to be comparable only with "hate."


But this account confuses two different groups who opposed the League for entirely different reasons.    Unilateral imperialists, like Lodge, wished to continue to build U.S. economic empire (the Open Door), but did not want their hands tied by any prior commitment to consult with other imperialist powers.


By contrast, anti-imperialists like Senator William E. Borah (R., Idaho) shied away from any form of U.S. imperialism, cooperative or unilateral.    This anti-imperialist minority of “Progressive Republicans” … saw the League as nothing but a central committee to coordinate the imperialist policies of Britain, France, etc., and the U.S., should we be foolish enough to enter the League.   Between the unilateralists and the anti-imperialists, there were enough votes to defeat the treaty.   It was hardly a clear-cut victory for "isolation" as such.

written by Joseph R Stromberg for AntiWar.com (2002)



Arrogant Obstinacy

The blame must rest primarily with Wilson's arrogant obstinacy, and then with his sick state of mind, which together bred his insistence that the treaty he had negotiated at Versailles, including the League of Nations provisions, be ratified unamended.   The American people were not opposed to U.S. participation in the league.   Polls taken at the time showed that Americans wanted to join a permanent peacekeeping body by ratios of four or five to one.    The Republican majority in the Senate also favored a league of some kind - the true isolationists among the Republicans were not more than a dozen, to which I would add that even some of those might have been won over by well-drafted concessions.


Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican leader, however he figures in the U.S. mythology, was no isolationist either.   His "Fourteen Reservations" to Wilson's Fourteen Points were designed to meet valid objections and so ensure overwhelming Senate ratification - all kinds of people associated with the peacemaking under Wilson, such as Colonel House, Herbert Hoover, and Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan, favored the reservations.    The only opponent of any significance was Wilson himself.   In March 1920, Lodge controlled 49 senators' votes in favor of the league with reservations.    The 23 votes Wilson controlled, added to this 49, were more than enough to secure U.S. membership in the league.   But Wilson's 23 supporters voted against the league rather than accept the Lodge reservations.   So America rejected membership.   An overwhelmingly internationalist country was turned in an isolationist direction as a result of a personal failure of leadership by a dying man.

'The Myth of American Isolationism - Reinterpreting the Past', by Paul Johnson, in Foreign Affairs (1995)