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
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
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.
Joseph R Stromberg for
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.
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',
Foreign Affairs (1995)