Woodrow Wilson's Perspective
ARTHUR S. LINK
Woodrow Wilson's perspective on the League of Nations and the American debate over it is developed by Arthur S. Link of Princeton University in the first essay. A prominent Wilson biographer, Link explains the politics of the question and lauds Wilson as a prophet.
Wilson returned to the United States in June 1919 to face the crucial task ~ of winning the support of the American people and the approval of the Senate for the Versailles Treaty, the underpinning of the Paris settlements, During the months following Wilson's homecoming, indeed until the election of 1920, there ensued in the United States a debate no less important than the great debate of 1787-1789 over ratification of the Constitution. At stake was the issue of American participation in a new world order capped by the League of Nations, an instrumentality designed to promote world cooperation and peace and armed with sanctions (including military force) to prevent aggression.
Some details of the well-known parliamentary struggle and of the biggest personal controversy between Wilson and his chief antagonist, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, cannot be ignored. However, the emphasis of this chapter will be upon what has often been obscured by too much focus on the dramatic details-how the great debate of 1919-1920 revealed differences in opinion concerning the role that the United States should play in world affairs. These differences were fundamental and authentic because they transcended partisanship and personality. They also are as relevant to Americans in the latter part of this century as they were in Wilson's day.
The general lines of battle over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles were drawn before Wilson went to Paris, and largely by Wilson himself. Wilson's appeal during the congressional campaign had given a partisan coloration to the whole process of peacemaking. Many Republicans had regarded Wilson's appointment to the American Peace Commission of only one nominal Republican-Henry White, a career diplomat-as a slap in the face. By ignoring the Senate in his appointment of the commission, moreover, Wilson made it inevitably certain that the fight over the Treaty would renew in virulent form the old conflict between the President and the upper house for control of foreign policy.
It would be a great mistake to assume, as some historians have done, that the fate of the Treaty was foreordained by the injection of partisanship into the question of peacemaking or by Wilson's failure to appoint senators to the commission. In the subsequent controversy, Wilson had the warm support of the League to Enforce Peace, composed mainly of prominent Republicans, including former President William Howard Taft. The debate in the country over the Treaty was not a partisan one; and, in the final analysis, the votes in the Senate were partisan only to the degree that a large number of Democratic senators followed Wilson's demands. The important point is that the country at large and the Senate, to a large degree, divided over profoundly important issues, not along party lines. Finally, the fact that Wilson took no senators with him to Paris was of no consequence for the final result.
While Wilson was in Paris, there were unmistakable signs at home that he would encounter significant opposition in the Senate. The most ominous of these was the so-called Round Robin resolution that Lodge read to the Senate on March 4, 1919. It was signed by thirty-seven senators, more than enough to defeat the Treaty, and declared that the Covenant of the League of Nations, "in the form now proposed to the peace conference, was unacceptable. At the same time, isolationists in the Senate were already beginning a furious rhetorical attack against the Covenant.
Although Wilson was defiant in a speech in New York just before he sailed for Paris, he did accept the advice of his friends who urged him to conciliate his critics. He first tried, through Henry White, to ascertain precisely why the Covenant was not acceptable to Lodge and the signers of the Round Robin. Then, when Lodge refused to give any specifics, Wilson consulted Taft and other Republican supporters of the League and, in response to their suggestions, obtained changes in the Covenant. They provided for the right of member nations of the League to withdraw after giving due notice, exempted domestic questions from the League's jurisdiction, permitted member nations to refuse to accept a colonial mandate, and, most important, accorded formal recognition to the Monroe Doctrine.
Wilson was exhausted by the end of the peace conference and showed numerous indications of an unwillingness to compromise further with his senatorial critics. Colonel House, on the day that Wilson left Paris, urged him to meet the Senate in a conciliatory spirit. "I have found," Wilson is alleged to have replied, "that one can never get anything in this life that is worthwhile without fighting for it." This self-referential statement suggests that Wilson felt a great burden of guilt because of the compromises that he had made. If this was true, then the guilt feelings were reinforcing his determination to make no further compromises.
Refreshed by the return voyage, Wilson returned to Washington on July 8 in a confident mood. And with good reason. Much of the senatorial criticism of the Treaty was captious. Most important, by this time thirty two state legislatures had endorsed the Covenant in concurrent resolutions; thirty-three governors had expressed their approval; and a Literary Digest poll indicated overwhelming support for the Covenant among editors of newspapers and magazines. Indeed, the whole country seemed to be in a fever of excitement about the League.
Wilson was, therefore, in the mood of a triumphant leader presenting his adversaries with a fait accompli when he laid the Treaty formally before the Senate on July 10. He did not refer to the senators, as he had often done, as his "colleagues," and he did not use his favorite phrase "common counsel," that is, the necessity of reasonable give and take before arriving at a final decision. On the contrary, he "informed" the senators that a world settlement had been made and then took the highest possible ground to urge prompt and unqualified approval. The League of Nations, he exclaimed, was the best hope of mankind. "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" He gave the answer in an impromptu peroration at the end:
The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. We cannot turn back. We can only go forward, with bright eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision. It was of this that we dreamed at our birth. America shall in truth show the way. The light streams upon the path ahead, and nowhere else.
Wilson met reporters in an informal press conference after delivering this address. He was relaxed and confident. There had been much talk of reservations to the Treaty. What did the President think of that idea? Wilson replied that he was determined to oppose all reservations, for they would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate and necessitate renegotiation of theTreaty. lt is significant that a constitutional scholar should have made such a mistake. He had no doubt that the Treaty would be ratified just as it stood.
Actually, the situation was far less simple and reassuring than Wilson imagined at the beginning of the great debate. For one thing, powerful voices were already raised in outright and violent condemnation of the Treaty on various grounds. Idealists, who had thrilled at Wilson's vision of a new world, condemned the Treaty because it failed to establish a millennial order. The German-Americans believed that the Treaty was a base betrayal of the Fatherland; the Italian-Americans were angry over Wilson's opposition to Italy's demands. Most important, the several million Irish-Americans, inflamed by the civil war then raging in Ireland, were up in arms because Wilson had refused to win Irish independence at Paris and because the Treaty allegedly benefited the hated English. The powerful chain of Hearst newspapers was marshaling and inciting all the hyphenate protests. Out-and-out isolationists believed that American membership in the League of Nations would mean entanglement in all of Europe's rivalries and wars. They had powerful advocates in a small group of so-called irreconcilables or bitter-enders in the Senate, led by Hiram W. Johnson of California, William E. Borah of Idaho, and James A. Reed of Missouri, who opposed the Treaty for various deeply rooted reasons-nationalism, chauvinism, and idealism.
These were the major groups who opposed ratification of the Treaty. In the ensuing debate, they were the loudest and busiest participants of all. They were, however, a minority among the leaders of thought and political opinion, and they spoke for a minority of the people, at least before 1920, if not afterward. This is a simple point but a vital one, because, in its important aspects, the debate over the Treaty was not a struggle between advocates of complete withdrawal on the one side and proponents of total international commitment on the other. It was, rather, a contest between the champions of a potentially strong system of collective security and a group who favored a more limited commitment. It was a choice between these alternatives, and not between complete isolation or complete internationalism, that Wilson, the Senate, and the American people eventually had to make. We will, therefore, let the arguments of the isolationists pass without analysis and concentrate our attention upon the two main and decisive courses of the debate.
Differences of opinion in the United States over the territorial and other provisions of the Treaty were insignificant as compared to the differences evoked by the Covenant of the League and its provisions to prevent aggression and war. Those provisions were clear and for the most part unequivocal. Article 10 guaranteed the political independence and territorial integrity of every member nation throughout the world. Articles 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, and 17 established the machinery of arbitration for all international disputes susceptible to that procedure and decreed that an act of war against one member nation should "ipso facto be deemed to ... [be] an act of war against all the other Members" and should be followed automatically by an economic blockade against the aggressor and by Council action to determine what military measures should be used to repel the aggression. These were almost ironclad guarantees of mutual security, meant to be effective and unencumbered by the right of any nation involved in a dispute to veto action by the League's Council. Whether such a worldwide system could work, and whether the American people were prepared at this stage of their development to support such a system even if it did work-these were the two main issues of the great debate of 1919-1920.
The decisive opposition to the Versailles Treaty came from a group of men who, to a varying degree, would have answered no to both these questions. This group included some of the most distinguished leaders in and out of the Senate, like Senator Frank B. Kellogg of Minnesota, President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, former Secretary of State Elihu Root, and Charles Evans Hughes, Republican presidential candidate in 1916. Most of them were Republicans, because few Democrats active in politics dared to incur the President's wrath by opposing him. They were not isolationists but limited internationalists who believed that the United States should play, in a varying degree, an active role in preserving the peace of the world. Most of them favored, for example, arbitration, the establishment of something like a World Court to interpret and codify international law, and international agreements for disarmament, economic cooperation, and the like. Some of them even supported the idea of alliances with certain powers for specific purposes.
On the other hand, all the limited internationalists opposed any such approval of the Treaty as would commit the United States unreservedly to the kind of collective security the Covenant of the League had created. Their arguments might be summarized as follows:
First, a system of collective security that is worldwide in operation is not likely either to work or to endure the strains that will inevitably be put upon it, because in practice the great powers will not accept the limitations that the Covenant places upon their sovereignty, and no nation will go to war to vindicate Article 10 unless its vital interests compel it to do so. Such sweeping guarantees as the Covenant affords are, therefore, worse than no guarantees at all because they offer only an illusory hope of security.
Second, the Covenant's fundamental guarantee, embodied in Article 10, is impossible to maintain because its promise to perpetuate the status quo defies the very law of life. As Elihu Root put it:
If perpetual, it would be an attempt to preserve for all time unchanged the distribution of power and territory made in accordance with the views and exigencies of the Allies in this present juncture of affairs. It would necessarily be futile.... lt would not only be futile; it would be mischievous. Change and growth are the law of life, and no generation can impose its will in regard to the growth of nations and the distribution of power upon succeeding generations.
Third, the American people are not ready to support the Covenant's sweeping commitments and in fact should not do so unless their vital interests are involved in a dispute. They would and should be ready to act to prevent the outbreak or any conflict that threatened to lead to a general war, but it is inconceivable that they would or should assume the risk of war to prevent a border dispute in the Balkans, or to help maintain Japanese control of Shantung Province or British supremacy in Ireland and India. Unconditional ratification of the Treaty by the United States would, therefore, be worse than outright rejection, for it would mean the making of promises that the American people could not possibly honor in the future.
Fourth, unqualified membership in the League will raise grave dangers to American interests and the American constitutional system. It will menace American control over immigration and tariff policies, imperil the Monroe
Doctrine, increase the power of the President at the expense of Congress, and necessitate the maintenance of a large standing army for the fulfilment of obligations under the Covenant.
Fifth, and most important, full-fledged participation in such a system of collective security as the Covenant establishes will spell the end of American security in foreign affairs, because it will mean transferring the power of decision over questions of peace and war from the President and Congress to an international agency which the United States could not control.
The limited internationalists, voicing these objections day in and day out as the great debate reached its crescendo in the autumn of 1919, made their purposes and program indelibly clear. They would accept most of the provisions of the Treaty unrelated to the League and acquiesce in the ones that they did not like. They would also sanction American membership in the League of Nations. But they would also insist upon reserving to the United States, and specifically to Congress, the power of decision concerning the degree of American participation in the League; and they would make no binding promise to enforce collective security anywhere in the future. This strategy was devised by Elihu Root in July 1919.
This was also the final, public position of Senator Lodge, the man who devised and executed the Republican strategy in the upper house during the parliamentary phase of the Treaty struggle. Personally, Lodge had little hope for the success of the League, a profound contempt for Wilson, and almost a sardonic scorn for Wilson's international ideals. The Massachusetts Senator was an ardent nationalist, almost a jingoist. He was no isolationist, but a believer in a strong balance of power. His solution would have been harsh terms, including dismemberment of Germany, and the formation of an Anglo-Franco-American alliance as the best insurance for future peace. But, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and leader of his party in the Senate, it was his duty to subordinate his own strong feelings and to find a common ground upon which most Republicans could stand. That common ground, that program acceptable to an overwhelming majority of Republicans inside the Senate and out, was, in brief, to approve the Treaty and to accept membership in. This would be subject to certain amendments and reservations that would achieve the objectives of the limited internationalists.
Amendments and reservations designed to satisfy the moderate internationalists were embodied in the report that the Republican majority of the Foreign Relations Committee presented to the Senate on September 10, 1919. During the following weeks, that body rejected the amendments (on the ground that they would require renegotiation of the Treaty) and adopted most of them in the form of reservations, fourteen in all. Most of them were unimportant, but there was one that constituted a virtual rejection of the kind of collective security that Wilson had envisaged. It was Reservation 2, which declared that the United States assumed no obligations to preserve the territorial integrity or political independence of any other country, unless Congress should by act or joint resolution specifically assume such an obligation. In addition, the preamble to the reservations provided that American ratification of the Treaty should not take effect until at least three of the four principal Allied powers had accepted the reservations in a formal exchange of notes.
This, then, was the program to which most of Wilson's opponents stood committed by the time that the Senate moved toward a formal vote on the Versailles Treaty. Whether Lodge himself was an irreconcilable who desired the defeat of the Treaty, or whether he was merely a strong reservationist, is an important question but an irrelevant one at this point. The significant fact is that he had succeeded in uniting most Republicans and in committing them to a program that affirmed limited internationalism at the same time that it repudiated American support of a tentative collective security system.
Meanwhile, despite his earlier show of intransigence, Wilson had been hard at work in preparation for the impending struggle. In an effort to split the Republican ranks, he held a series of conferences in late July with eleven Republican senators who he thought would favor approval of the Treaty after the adoption of a few interpretive reservations. On August 19, the President met the Foreign Relations Committee at the White House for a three-hour grilling on all phases of the settlement. The interchange produced no new support for the Treaty. What Wilson did not know, and never did seem to know, was that virtually all of the so-called mild reservationists had already coalesced into the central hard-core Republican pro-League group in the Senate. They were the men who voted with Democrats to convert Lodge's amendments into reservations. They were the ones who forced Lodge, for the sake of party unity, to support the treaty with reservations. Finally, they were the real authors of the reservations. Thus, confer as much as he could, Wilson made no headway in winning the support that would be vital when the Senate voted on the Treaty.
In response Wilson made one of the most fateful decisions of his career. It was, as he put it, to go to the people and purify the wells of public opinion that had been poisoned by the isolationists and opponents of unreserved ratification. He was physically weakened by his labors at Paris, and his physician warned that a long speaking tour might endanger his life. Even so, he insisted upon making the effort to rally the people, the sources of authority, who had always sustained him in the past.
Wilson left Washington on September 3, 1919, and headed for the heartland of America, into Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and the Dakotas-into the region where isolationist sentiment was strongest. From there he campaigned through the Northwest and the major cities of the Pacific Coast. The final leg of his journey took him through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, where the tour ended after Wilson's partial breakdown on September 25 and 26. In all he traveled 8,000 miles in twenty-two days and delivered thirty-two major addresses and eight minor ones. It was not only the greatest single speaking effort of Wilson's career, but also one of the most notable forensic accomplishments in American history.
Everywhere that he went, Wilson pleaded in good temper, not as a partisan, but as a leader who stood above party strife and advantage. He was making his tour, he explained, first of all so that the people might know the truth about the Treaty of Versailles and no longer be confused by the misrepresentations of its enemies.. . .
There remained the greatest threat of all to the integrity of the Covenant, the challenge of the reservation to Article 10. This reservation, Wilson warned, would destroy the foundation of any collective security, because it was a notice to the world that the American people would fulfill their obligations only when it suited their purposes to do so. "That," the President exclaimed at Salt Lake City, "is a rejection of the Covenant. That is an absolute refusal to carry any part of the same responsibility that the other members of the League carry." "In other words, my fellow citizens," he added at Cheyenne,
what this proposes is this: That we should make no general promise, but leave the nations associated with us to guess in each instance what we were going to consider ourselves bound to do and what we were not going to consider ourselves bound to do. It is as if you said, "We will not join the League definitely, but we will join it occasionally. We will not promise anything, but from time to time we may cooperate. We will not assume any obligations. . . ." This reservation proposes that we should not acknowledge any moral obligation in the matter; that we should stand off and say, "We will see, from time to time; consult us when you get into trouble, and then we will have a debate, after two or three months we will tell you what we are going to do." The thing is unworthy and ridiculous, and I want to say distinctly that, as I read this, it would change the entire meaning of the Treaty and exempt the United States from all responsibility for the preservation of peace. It means the rejection of the Treaty, my fellow countrymen, nothing less. lt means that the United States would take from under the structures its very foundations and support.
The irony of it all was, Wilson added, the reservation was actually unnecessary, if the objective of its framers was merely to reserve the final decision for war to the American government. In the case of all disputes to which it was not a party, the United States would have an actual veto over the Council's decision for war, because that body could not advise member nations to go to war except by unanimous vote, exclusive of the parties to the dispute. Thus, Wilson explained, there was absolutely no chance that the United States could be forced into war against its will, unless it was itself guilty of aggression, in which case it would be at war anyway.
These were, Wilson admitted, legal technicalities, and, he added, he would not base his case for American participation in the League of Nations upon them. The issue was not who had the power to make decisions for war, but whether the American people were prepared to go wholeheartedly into the League, were determined to support a collective security system unreservedly, and were willing to make the sacrifices that were necessary to preserve peace. Wilson summarized all his pleading with unrivaled feeling at the Mormon capital:
Instead of wishing to ask to stand aside, get the benefits of the League, but share none of its burdens or responsibilities, I for my part want to go in and accept what is offered to us, the leadership of the world. A leadership of what sort, my fellow citizens? Not a leadership that leads men along the lines by which great nations can profit out of weak nations. Not an exploiting power, but a liberating power-a power to show the world that when America was born it was indeed a finger pointed toward those lands into which men could deploy some of these days and live in happy freedom, look each other in the eyes as equals, see that no man was put upon, that no people were forced to accept authority which was not of their own choice, and that, out of the general generous impulse of the human genius and the human spirit, we were lifted along the levels of civilization to days when there should be wars no more, but men should govern themselves in peace and amity and quiet. That is the leadership we said we wanted, and now the world offers it to us. It is inconceivable that we should reject it.
We come now to the well-known tragic sequel. Following his address at Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919, Wilson showed such obvious signs of exhaustion that his physician canceled his remaining engagements and sped the presidential train to Washington. On October 2, Wilson suffered a severe stroke and paralysis of the left side of his face and body. For several days his life hung in the balance; then he gradually revived, and by the end of October he was clearly out of danger. But his recovery was only partial at best. His mind remained relatively clear; but he was physically enfeebled, and the disease had wrecked his emotional constitution and aggravated all his more unfortunate personal traits.
Meanwhile, the Senate was nearing the end of its long debate over the Treaty of Versailles. Senator Lodge presented his revised fourteen reservations on behalf of the Foreign Relations Committee to the upper house on November 6, 1919. Senator Gilbert M. Hitchcock of Nebraska, the Democratic minority leader, countered with five reservations, four of which Wilson had approved in substance before he embarked upon his western tour. They simply sought to make clear the American understanding of Article 10 and other provisions of the Treaty. The issue before the Senate, therefore, now seemed clear whether to approve the Treaty with reservations that did not impair the American obligation to uphold the Covenant, or whether to approve the Treaty with reservations that permitted repudiation of all compelling obligations and promised American support for only a limited international System.
Lodge beat down the Hitchcock reservations with the help of the irreconcilables and then won adoption of his own. Now Wilson had to choose between acceptance of the Lodge reservations or tun the risk of the outright defeat of the Treaty. He gave his decision to Hitchcock in a brief conference at the White House on November 17 and in a letter on the following day: Under no circumstances could he accept the Lodge reservation to Article 10, for it meant nullification of the Treaty. When the Senate voted on November 19, therefore, most of the Democrats joined the irreconcilables to defeat approva~ with the Lodge reservations by a count of thirty-nine ayes to fifty-five nays. The Democratic leaders, hoping to split the Republican ranks and win the support of the mythical mild reservationists then moved unconditional approval of the Treaty. This strategy, upon which Wilson had placed all his hopes, failed, as a firm Republican majority defeated the resolution with the help of the irreconcilables by a vote of thirty-eight ayes to fifty-three nays.
The great mystery is why Wilson rejected the Lodge reservation to Article 10. Before he left on his western tour, Wilson handed Hitchcock four "interpretive" reservations to the articles relating to the right of member nations to withdraw, Article 10, the nonjurisdiction of the League over domestic matters like immigration, and the Monroe Doctrine. Wilson's reservation to Article 10 said that the Senate understood that the advice of the League Council with regard to the use of armed force was to be "regarded only as advice and leaves each member free to exercise its own judgment as to whether it [were] wise or practicable to act upon that advice or not." Hitchcock's own reservation, which presumably Wilson had approved, went even further and said that Congress would have to approve the use of armed force if so requested by the Council.
Why, when the two sides were so close together, did Wilson reject the Lodge reservation to Article 10? Having built so grandly at Paris, having fought so magnificently at home for his creation, why did he remove by his own hand the cornerstone of his edifice of peace? Were there inner demons of pride and arrogance driving him to what Thomas A. Bailey has called "the supreme infanticide"?
Dr. Weinstein has described the effects of the devastating stroke on Wilson's personality and perceptions at this time. He is convinced that, had Wilson been in full health, he would have found the formula to reconcile the differences between the Lodge and Hitchcock reservations. There is a great deal of evidence to support this hypothesis. When Wilson made his decision, on November 17, to reject the Lodge reservation, he was still a very sick man. His mind could function well in certain circumstances, but his whole emotional balance had been shattered. He was sick, petulant, and rigid. He saw very few people between his stroke and November 17, and those who talked to him were careful not to upset him. From his lonely isolation in a sickroom, he saw the outside world from a limited and distorted view. A healthy Wilson certainly would have spent most of his time from his return to Washington from the West to mid-November conferring, cajoling, and doing everything possible to find an acceptable compromise on the reservation to Article 10. This was part of the genius of his leadership. He had displayed it many times before, most notably in negotiating the writing of the Federal Reserve Act and the Versailles Treaty.
Wilson's isolation and the unfortunate pathological effects of his stroke might well have caused him to give the most literal reading possible to the Lodge reservation to Article 10. Taken literally, this reservation could be read as an emphatic repudiation of American responsibilities under the Covenant. It read:
The United States assumes no obligation to preserve the territorial integrity or political independence of any other country or to interfere in controversies between nations-whether members of the league or not-under the provisions of Article 10, or to employ the military or naval forces of the United States under any article of the treaty for any purpose, unless in any particular case the Congress, which, under the Constitution, has the sole power to declare war or authorize the employment of the military or naval forces of the United States shall by act or joint resolution so provide.
Even a healthy Wilson might have concluded that this reservation amounted, as he put it, to nullification of the Treaty. And any strong President would have bridled at the closing phrases of the reservation, for they constituted the first important congressional constraints against the President as commander in chief to this point in American history and were probably unconstitutional.
Wilson, whether because of his illness or not, did read the reservation literally. He believed, very deeply, that the one issue now at stake was whether the United States would join the League of Nations and give leadership to it wholeheartedly and without reservations, or whether it would join the League grudgingly, with no promises to help maintain the peace of the world. To Wilson, the difference between what he stood for and what the Republicans would agree to was the difference between the success or failure and the life or death of mankind's best hope for peace.
The vote on November 19 was not the end of the struggle, for during the following months an overwhelming majority of the leaders of opinion in the United States refused to accept the vote as the final verdict. In the absence of any reliable indices, it is impossible to measure the division of public opinion as a whole; but there can be little doubt that an overwhelming majority of thoughtful people favored ratification with some kind of reservations, even with the Lodge reservations, if that was necessary to obtain the Senate's consent.
Consequently, there was enormous pressure upon the leaders in both parties for compromise during the last weeks of 1919 and the early months of 1920. Prominent Republicans who had taken leadership in a nonpartisan campaign for the League (including former President Taft), scores of editors, the spokesmen of various academic, religious, and labor organizations, and Democratic leaders who dared oppose the President (like William J. Bryan and Colonel House) begged Lodge and Wilson to find a common ground. Alarmed by the possibility of American rejection of the Treaty, spokesmen for the British government declared publicly that limited American participation in the League would be better than no participation at all.
Under this pressure, the moderate leaders in both camps set to work in late December and early January to find a basis for agreement. Even Lodge began to weaken and joined the bipartisan conferees who were attempting to work out an acceptable reservation to Article 10. But the Massachusetts Senator and his friends would not yield the essence of their reservation, and it was Wilson who had to make the final choice.
By January, Wilson had recovered sufficient strength to take personal leadership of the Democrats in the Senate. One effect of his stroke was a strong if not complete tendency to deny that he was ill. For example, he would refer to his paralyzed left arm as "it" and not as a part of his body. He was absolutely convinced that he had the great mass of the people behind him and that they would crush any senator or party who opposed him. Living as he did in a world of unreality, Wilson concocted two stratagems.
The first stratagem was to challenge the fifty-seven senators from thirty eight states who opposed the Treaty altogether or supported the Lodge reservations to resign and then run for re-election in special elections. Should they be re-elected, Wilson would appoint a leader of the opposition as Secretary of State and he, Wilson, and his Vice President would resign and the Republican leader would become President. This plan proved to be unfeasible because of variations in state election laws.
Then Wilson, ever innovative, turned to his second stratagem-to make the treaty the leading issue of the coming presidential campaign. Moreover, he would be the Democratic nominee; he would go once again to the people and win an overwhelming mandate for the League. He even drafted a Democratic platform and his speech of acceptance. He set this plan in motion in a letter to the Jackson Day Dinner in Washington, then the chief meeting of Democrats preliminary to a presidential campaign, on January 8, 1920. He repeated his principal arguments for ungrudging approval, declared that "the overwhelming majority" of the people desired ratification of the Treaty, and concluded:
If there is any doubt as to what the people of the country think on this vital matter, the clear and single way out is to submit it for determination at the next election to the voters of the nation, to give the next election the form of a great and solemn referendum, a referendum as to the part the United States is to play in completing the settlements of the war and in the prevention in the future of such outrages as Germany attempted to perpetrate.
The Jackson Day letter spelled disaster for ratification of the Treaty in any form. Wilson committed the supreme error of converting what had really not been a partisan issue, except in the parliamentary sense, into a hostage of party loyalty and politics. Henceforth most Republican senators would have to vote as Republicans, most Democrats as Democrats, even though they might want to put the interests of the country above those of party and vote for ratification with reservations.
Secondly, in spite of his unshakable faith in the wisdom of the people, Wilson, an expert in the American constitutional and political systems, should have known that there is no way to convert a presidential election into a referendum upon a single issue. Bryan had tried to make the election of 1900 a referendum upon the question of imperialism and had failed utterly to do so. As it turned out in 1920, Warren G. Harding, the Republican nominee and a strong reservationist, had no trouble in muting and sidestepping the League issue. Indeed, a group of thirty-one prominent pro-League Republicans issued a statement during the campaign assuring their fellow Republicans that Harding's election would be the best assurance of ratification and American membership in the League of Nations!
Thirdly, and ironically, Wilson's Jackson Day letter destroyed Wilson's leadership among the various segments of elite opinion makers who had heretofore been his strongest supporters-religious leaders, educational leaders, publicists, editors, and politically active professionals. A reading of their correspondence, journals, editorials, and resolutions reveals a sharp and sudden turn in their opinion. In their view, Wilson was a petulant and sick man and now the principal obstacle to ratification. These leaders of opinion were in utter despair and confusion. Most of them simply gave up the fight. The effect would be devastating for Democratic fortunes during the presidential campaign.
However, Wilson continued to hope that he would lead the Democrats to victory as their presidential candidate. He made plans to have his name put in nomination at the Democratic national convention and to have himself nominated by acclamation. A group of his closest friends had to tell him that it was impossible.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary phase of the struggle moved to its inexorable conclusion when the Senate took its second and final vote on the Treaty on March 19, 1920. The only hope for approval lay in the chance that enough Democrats would defy Wilson, as many friends of the League were urging them to do, to obtain a two-thirds majority for the Lodge reservations. Twenty-one Democrats did follow their consciences rather than the command from the White House, but not enough of them defected to put the Treaty across. The Treaty with the Lodge reservations failed by seven votes.
In this, the last and greatest effort of his life, did Wilson spurn the role of statesman for that of prophet? It is easy enough from our vantage point to say that, in rejecting ratification on the only possible terms and in throwing the issue into the party arena, he did not act as a statesman. It is also clear that his illness gravely impaired his perceptions of political reality and was probably the principal cause of his strategic errors.
However, when we view the situation through Wilson's eyes, his behavior seems neither irrational nor quixotic. As has been said many times, he believed that he had the overwhelming support of the people. He had gone to them many times before, and, except in 1918, with resounding success. He was confident that he, or another pro-League Democrat, could do so again in 1920.
His friends feared that he would be devastated by Harding's victory. Ort the contrary, he was serene and confident on the morning after the election. He told his private secretary, "The Republicans have committed suicide." To the end of his life he was confident of the ultimate outcome and of the rectitude of his own position. As he put it: "I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately triumph than triumph in a cause that will ultimately fail. "
Wilson was fundamentally right in the one great principle at stake in he Treaty fight. The most immoral thing that a nation (or individual) can do is to refuse to exercise power responsibly when it possesses it. The United States exercised the greatest economic and potentially the greatest military power in the world in 1920. At least for a time it spurned the -responsibility that accompanied its power.
Moreover, Wilson was fundamentally right in the long run. As he put t in a speech on Armistice Day in 1923: "We shall inevitably be forced )y the moral obligations of freedom and honor to retrieve that fatal error and assume once more the role of courage, self-respect, and helpfulness which every true American must wish to regard as our natural part in the affairs of the world."
The postwar version of collective security failed in the crucial tests of :he 1930s, not because the Treaty of Versailles was responsible or the peace-keeping machinery of the League of Nations was defective, but because :he people of Great Britain, France, and the United States were unwilling to confront aggressors with the threat of war. Consequently, a second and more terrible world conflict came in 1939, as Wilson had prophesied it would.
The American people, and other peoples, learned the lesson that Wilson taught in 1919 and 1920, but at a fearful cost. And it is Wilson the prophet and pivot of the twentieth century who survives in history, in the hopes and aspirations of mankind for a peaceful world, and in whatever ideals of international service that the American people still cherish. One thing is certain, now that nations have the power to sear virtually the entire face of the earth: The prophet of 1919-1920 was right in his vision; the challenge that he raised then is today no less real and no less urgent than it was in his own time.