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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

100 Years Ago This Week: The League and Treaty as Viewed In America  

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From May 17th's edition of the WWI Centennial News Podcast, Episode 123:  

The story of the Paris Peace Conference not only plays out in the halls of Versailles, in Germany's Weimar, in the United Kingdom's parliament, but also here in America's Washington, DC. This week World War I Centennial News researcher and writer Dave Kramer explores the events on this side of the pond. The negotiations in Paris have been tortuous for Woodrow Wilson and things are no easier for him at home. As Mike Shuster told us, the Germans finally decide to sign the Treaty, even over the objections of their so-called irreconcilables. It's a very different story here in the States. We also have a group in the United States dubbed the irreconcilables. But unlike Germany, they hold the power to either ratify or kill the peace treaty to be completed in June. It seems hard to believe that Woodrow Wilson does not seem to take the Senate opposition to the treaty more seriously. The signs have been there for a long time.

President WilsonPresident Wilson ran into strong political headwinds as he tried to promote the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations at homeOn November 5, 1918, just days before the jubilation of an armistice to end the Great War, the US midterm elections hand the president a stunning defeat. Wilson Democrats lose control of both the House and the Senate to the Republicans. It is the Senate that gives the thumbs up or thumbs down for international treaties for the United States. By November 21, the Senate Republicans make it clear that they expect to have representation on the US Peace Commission. Citing earlier precedents, and based on the idea that these representatives will be better able to explain the reasoning behind complex or controversial terms of the treaty, The Washington Post believes that Wilson will grant their request. He doesn't and the Senate isn't very appreciative. It's not the terms of the peace treaty gradually being hammered out in Paris that caused the problems. It's the League of Nations. Republican senators believe the League will undermine US sovereignty. An important concession that they seek is to separate the League Charter from the peace treaty. What do these anti-League senators object to? Many feel that the League will force the US to enter into wars in defense of other league members and wars that may not hold any national interest for us. They worry that it will threaten the Monroe Doctrine, which largely keeps European and Asian powers out of the Western Hemisphere. In essence, they fear that the League will limit our own sovereignty and power.

Sadly, not all objections are as rational as these. At least one southern senator, a Democrat raises the race issue. Worrying that the League will be controlled, in his words, by black and brown people. Most of all though, anti-League sentiment simply reflects a desire to return to the good old days, the isolationist days before our involvement with the world and the World War. Wilson does have some strong Republican allies in Herbert Hoover and former president, William Howard Taft. Taft especially speaks out loudly and often to support both the treaty and America's participation in the League of Nations. He even tours the nation during February 1919 stumping for treaty approval. This effort is countered by Idaho Senator William Borah, the leader of the irreconcilables, who begins his own tour in late February purposely visiting many of the same cities as Taft. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusets opposes the treaty as it is written and offers 14 resolutions to modify it. Wilson resists him. The only change he fights for in Europe is a clause that protects the Monroe Doctrine. All of Lodge's other resolutions supported by a cadre of 37 senators are simply brushed aside. Lodge becomes the leader of the senators opposed to joining the League.

William BorahSenator William Borah helped lead Republican resistance to WilsonEven at this time, 100 years ago, as the treaty rushes forward in its final form, members of the US Senate make a last ditch effort to force revisions including separating the League charter from the peace treaty, as they have requested from the very beginning. Wilson and other European nations have no interest in this. In fact, Wilson's core strategy is that the League membership by Germany will resolve many of the punitive issues of the peace demands. Some senators threaten to form a delegation from the Senate to travel to Paris to represent their revisions in person, in opposition to their own president. But Lodge urges them to wait until the Senate can review the entire treaty. What about the United States people? We know that the League had a great deal of popular support. Wilson claimed in February that an overwhelming majority of Americans supported it. Was that true? Overall, a majority of newspaper editors across the country supported the League according to a poll by Literary Digest, although some of the papers in the largest cities opposed it. Another poll of American college students and faculty shows less than 10% opposed to the treaty with 45% in favor of the League and treaty as is and 50% in favor of the League and treaty with some modifications. During the spring of 1919, Congress receives many letters and petitions urging acceptance of both the peace treaty and membership in the League of Nations including one signed by 20,000 California women. Does this all add up to Wilson's "overwhelming majority?" It's hard to say. But the League of Nations is certainly a hot topic of discussion in schools and churches and barbershops all over the country as the drama plays out in the spring and summer 100 years ago in the aftermath of the war that changed the world.

By Dave Kramer, Writer and Researcher for the WWI Centennial News Podcast.