January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gave his now-famous “Fourteen Points for Peace” Address.
His battle to gain acceptance for, and support of, a “League of Nations” was an uphill battle, made more difficult following the compromises Wilson made in Paris, working toward finalizing the Treaty of Versailles.
From Woodrow Wilson by H.W. Brands:
Wilson’s campaign for the league continued upon his arrival in America. Some of his advisers urged him to adopt a conciliatory stance toward the skeptics of the treaty. House urged him to seek common ground; if he showed the senators the same consideration he had shown Lloyd George and Clemenceau, House said, all would be well. Wilson replied that the time for conciliation was past. “I have found that one can never get anything in this life that is worthwhile without fighting for it,” he declared.
On July 10 Wilson personally delivered the treaty to the Senate (breaking another long-standing tradition). Despite a torrential rain that day, the gallery of the upper chamber was jammed with onlookers eager to see the president take on his opponents. Lodge escorted Wilson in. “Mr. President,” he said, “can I carry the treaty for you?” “Not on your life,” Wilson responded.”
As he physically laid the treaty out for inspection, Wilson summarized what it contained—and what it meant. He reminded his listeners that the United States had entered the war upon a different basis than had the other opponents of Germany. “We entered it, not because our material interests were directly threatened or because any special treaty obligations to which we were parties had been violated, but only because we saw the supremacy, and even the validity, of right everywhere put in jeopardy and free government everywhere imperiled…. We entered the war as the disinterested champions of right.” Lodge and some of the senators might have objected here, recalling that the sinking of American ships was what had prompted them to vote for war. But this was Wilson’s moment, and they kept still. The president asserted the United States had negotiated the peace in the same way it had fought the war, as the disinterested champion of right. And America must remain the champion of right. “There can be no question of our ceasing to be a world power. The only question is whether we can refuse the moral leadership that is offered us, whether we shall accept or reject the confidence of the world.” Wilson’s peroration must have stirred even those it didn’t convince.
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 lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision. Itwas 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.
Lodge knew he couldn’t match Wilson’s eloquence, and he didn’t try. Instead he employed a strategy of delay and sapping. He read the entire treaty, word by word, slowly and aloud, killing two weeks. He held hearings whose purpose was less to enlighten than to take more time, on the premise that the enthusiasm for the treaty must diminish as America’s attention turned from the peace conference lately concluded to the affairs of ordinary life now resumed. He entertained amendments to the treaty by the dozens, then the scores-some reasonable, some transparently obstructive.
Wilson countered by opening the doors of the White House to the senators, inviting them to drop by any morning with questions or comments. He held more formal sessions with groups of senators, including one full morning with Lodge and the Foreign Relations Committee. In these meetings he made clear that he could accept the idea of interpretive reservations to the treaty: statements by the Senate of its understanding of particular clauses and articles. But he could not accept substantive amendments to the treaty itself Amendments would require the approval of the other parties to the treaty; recalling how difficult the closing phases of the Paris conference had been, the president feared that any resumption of negotiations would cause the entire treaty to unravel.
Wilson had hoped for a quick vote on the treaty; when Lodge succeeded in stalling into September, with little prospect of a vote before October or November, the president decided to take his case to the people. Abandoning Washington, he headed west on a cross-country speaking tour on behalf of the treaty and the league. Had he held office a decade hence, he could have addressed the nation by radio; four decades hence, by television. But in 1919 the only way he could let America hear his voice was to visit America personally.
January 10, 1920, the League of Nations came into effect—without ratification from the United States.
Though the United States had not joined the League (and never would), President Wilson was honored as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920, “in recognition of his Fourteen Points peace program and his work in achieving inclusion of the Covenant of the League of Nations in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.” (Click to read his acceptance speech.)
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The following are the audio clips and text to speeches given by three senators, on different sides of the League of Nations debate.
Senator Gilbert Hitchcock case against “Senators who oppose the League of Nations.”
Listen (click here) or read text from the speech.
The trouble with Senators who oppose the League of Nations is that they are thinking of the days that are gone and gone forever. The conquering empires of the world have been wiped out. The fall of Russia and Germany and Austria-Hungary removed from the world the last representatives of the conquering spirit and of autocratic power. The world is now democratic. Senators should cease to turn their eyes to the past and should turn them to the future, and see what we have before us.
The spirit of democracy has come into its own. We have come into a new world. We are about to organize the democracies of the earth to establish law and order among the nations. And we can do it now for the first time in the history of the world. We need take in no despots. We need take into consideration no conquering empire. That day has gone, and we have come into a new era. The senators should realize it. Let them grasp the fact that the spirit of the age is to end conquest. That the spirit of the age is to have the people rule. That the spirit of the age is that government shall be content to serve their own people and not to despoil others. Let them see the New World as it is, and the new spirit which inspires it. Let them appreciate the fact that humanity is not willing to sacrifice itself further, that men and women demand of their government that as the fruit of this terrible war an agreement shall be entered into for the preservation of world peace in the future. If senators will turn from the past towards the future, they will behold a new heaven and a new earth, not a millennium perhaps, but a world in which the affairs of nations are to be administered in justice and reason and humanity. A world in which the chief affair of government shall be peace and development and progress. A world in which man shall attain its highest destiny and happiness. This was impossible in the days of tyrants and autocrats and conquerors, but it is possible in the new age of liberty, statesmanship, and philanthropy.
The late war cost seven million lives, and millions more of cripples. It has destroyed hundreds of towns, it has widowed millions of wives, it has brought in its train the inevitable consequences of war, pestilence, and famine. One of the war diseases alone has cost this country over three hundred thousand lives of the civilian population. It has let loose and inflamed the passions and lusts of man, and crushed and humiliated millions of women. Massacre, torture, and assassinations have accompanied it. Law and order have been overthrown. Bolshevism and anarchy have been profligated. The confidence of men in government has been shaken. It will never be restored until governments devise some way to end war. The League of Nations is that way.
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s case against Wilson’s League of Nations
Listen (click here) or read the text from the speech.
I am as anxious as any human being can be to have the United States render every possible service to the civilization and the peace of mankind. But I am certain that we can do it best by not putting ourselves in leading strings, or subjecting our policies and our sovereignty to other nations. The independence of the United States is not only more precious to ourselves, but to the world, than any single possession.
Look at the United States today. We have made mistakes in the past; we have had shortcomings. We shall make mistakes in the future and fall short of our own best hopes. But nonetheless, is there any country today on the face of the earth which can compare with this in ordered liberty, in peace, and in the largest freedom? I feel that I can say this without being accused of undue boastfulness, for it is a simple fact. And in taking on these obligations, all that we do is in the spirit of unselfishness, and it is a desire for the good of mankind. But it is well to remember that we are dealing with nations, every one of which has a direct individual interest to serve, and there is grave danger in an unshared idealism. Contrast the United States with any country on the face of the earth today and ask yourself whether the situation of the United States is not the best to be found.
I will go as far as anyone in world service that the first step to world service is the maintenance of the United States. You may call me selfish if you will, conservative or reactionary, or use any other harsh adjective you see fit to apply. But an American I was born, an American I’ve remained all my life. I can never be anything else but an American, and I must think of the United States first. And when I think of the United States first in an arrangement like this, I am thinking of what is best for the world. For if the United States fails, the best hopes of mankind fail with it. I have never had but one allegiance; I cannot divide it now. I have loved but one flag and I cannot share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league. Internationalism, illustrated by the Bolshevik and by the men to whom all countries are alike, provided they can make money out of them, is to me repulsive. National I must remain and in that way I, like all other Americans, can render the amplest service to the world.
The United States is the world’s best hope, but if you fetter her in the interest through quarrels of other nations, if you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her powerful good, and endanger her very existence. Leave her to march freely through the centuries to come, as in the years that have gone. Strong, generous, and confident, she has nobly served mankind. Beware how you trifle with your marvelous inheritance — this great land of ordered liberty. For if we stumble and fall, freedom and civilization everywhere will go down in ruin.
Secretary of War Newton D. Baker’s case for the League of Nation
Listen (click here) or read the text:
The speculated doubt and the fears of the timid with regard to the treaty and the League of Nations have now all been discussed. The great document which the president brought back from Paris has been analyzed and dissected in the cold atmosphere of higher criticism, but little has been said about the life of the document itself, the necessity for a new order in our diplomatic and international relations. One might almost suppose from the discussion that the literary merits of the paper were the chief points of interest.
Meantime, it is necessary to remember that the lack of such a league in 1914 threw the world into the chaos of this war. Terrified statesmen endeavored to sustain the delicately poised balance of power. They ran here and there, uttering their oldtime cautions and speaking with pathetic diligence for what they called a formula that would compose the mad impulses which were threatening to engulf the world. They failed because the means were not adapted to the ends — because in the modern world, things move too fast for the stagecoach diplomacy of the Middle Ages.
Had there been a League of Nations then, could Sir Edward Grey have summoned into conference the authoritative representatives of the great civilized powers, and through them have focused the intelligence and the conscience of mankind on the Austrio-Serbian quarrel? There would have been gained the priceless moment of meditation which would have enabled the heady currents of racial and national passion to be allayed. Today there would be in all in the devastated countries of the world that calm progress which a continuation of peaceful civilization ensures. Billions of wealth, now utterly lost and destroyed, would still be in existence to comfort and enrich the life of nations, and millions of men, women, and children, gunned to death in battle, or carried away by famine and pestilence, would still be alive to enjoy the normal portion of human happiness and to contribute by their labor and their love to the making of a better world. The four horsemen of the apocalypse rode abroad in the world, taking their toll among the fairest and best of the children of men, only because their was no bridle, no League of Nations to restrain their wild and destructive force.
The question of this hour therefore is not whether a classically phrased and inerrant document has been drawn, but whether the fairest hope of men shall be realized. If we have but the goodness and the faith necessary to make any league of nations work, we can make this one work. The people will furnish the faith, if the statesmen will but stand aside. Thus only can we match our works with the devotion of our soldiers, and gather for their children the fruits of their sacrifice and their victories.