Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Seven:
America and the World

Progressives and the
Foreign Policy of the 1920s


II. Guarding the Back Door

I. The Sins of the Colonel.
II. Guarding the Back Door.
III. Disarming the World.
IV. The Outlawry of War.
V. The Temptations of Empire.
VI. Immigrant Indigestion.

Perhaps the most obvious crux of difference between the progressive internationalists and the Senate nationalists in the Twenties was on the continuing issue of the League of Nations. Particularly after pro-Leaguers Charles Evans Hughes and Herbert Hoover entered Harding's cabinet, the former irreconcilables kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Instead of going into the League of Nations gaily by the front door," Hiram Johnson grumbled to Harold Ickes in May 1921, ""apparently, we are going to sneak in by the back door." Ickes concurred. "During the campaign I felt that Harding's position was such that he could jump either way once he was in the White House and since March 4 he certainly jumped in different directions," he replied. "The Lord only knows where he will end up finally in our international relations, but my guess is that we will be in the League of Nations in some way at some time." Writing in April 1921, Borah had much the same thought: "Having failed to enter the front door and having received the open condemnation of the people," he argued, "the plan [for the League] seems to be now to enter the back door." After all, if leading Republicans would change their vote on the Colombian Treaty, who was to say they now wouldn't do the same on the Treaty of Versailles?1


In fact, the Senate irreconcilables were right to worry. According to Charles Evans Hughes later in life, Harding thought coming into office that "we would ratify the Treaty of Versailles, with reservations, and enter the League with reservations," while Hoover had promised Colonel Edward House after the election that "pro-League Republicans expect to make the fight of their lives." In the first weeks of the new administration, Harding asked Hughes to go see Frank Brandegee of Connecticut on the Foreign Relations Committee, who had proved pliable on the Colombian treaty, and see what he thought about reopening the League question. Not this time - Senator Brandegee told Hughes that "ratification of the Treaty of Versailles in any form is impossible," and warned the president that the Senate Republicans would bolt his administration for good if he attempted to force it on them. Hughes then contemplated resigning his position, but eventually decided to stay since the Senate would not accept "participation in the League on any terms."2

With the Treaty of Versailles apparently dead, Senator Philander Knox of Pennsylvania introduced a resolution the day after Harding's address to Congress, calling for an official end of hostilities between the United States and Germany. This passed quickly, and with the House version became the Knox-Porter Resolution, which Harding signed on July 1st, 1921. But a peace treaty still needed to be devised -- a responsibility which fell upon Hughes. (Hughes had suggested resubmitting the Versailles Treaty with the League of Nations scrubbed and additional reservations included, but advisors in the Senate balked at this as well.) And so, he assembled a treaty that let America avail of all the "rights, privileges, indemnities, reparations, and advantages" of the Treaty of Versailles, without any of the encumbering responsibilities. "The United States," read Article Two, Section Two, "shall not be bound by…any provisions of that Treaty…which related to the Covenant of the League of Nations, nor shall the United States be bound by any action taken by the League of Nations." This was signed by both America and Germany on August 25th, and became known as the Treaty of Berlin.3

Even this language was not removed enough from Versailles for William Borah, who thought, by citing the rights and advantages favorably, the United States gave "its moral sanction" to a treaty that "comes as near creating a complete autocracy based upon military force." The Versailles Treaty, Borah told the Senate, "is the most pronounced negation of…moral law which has yet been crystallized into form by the hand of man." Anything less than a full repudiation of it, he warned, opened America to "every conceivable question which can arise in Europe." Senator La Follette, for his part, wondered aloud why the Harding administration was focused on "foreign policy, in which the international bankers and imperialist of Wall Street have billions at stake." Nonetheless, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took only two days to peruse the Treaty of Berlin before voting it out 9-1, with only Borah dissenting. (La Follette was not on Foreign Relations.)4

The treaty's smooth sailing through the Senate was interrupted, however, by a ghost from the past who took its bilateral approach as a personal insult. "It is not to be wondered that this Treaty was so readily and rapidly negotiated and agreed upon," former President Wilson wrote his closest Senate ally, Carter Glass of Virginia. "It is of the sort most familiar and most easily understood in Berlin, inasmuch as it is based upon the old Prussian principle of sacrificing the interests of every other nation, whether friend or foe, in order to gain your own object. We now figure as the pupils of Prussia." Wilson urged Glass to organize the Democrats in opposition, after which "I will be glad to put at their disposal the utmost resources of my thought and judgment. Otherwise, I should not feel justified in adding such a responsibility to the present tasks of my brain."5

Glass tried valiantly to rally the Democrats in opposition, and managed at least to delay the vote several times as Republicans worried if the balance of Wilson Democrats and ornery progressives could defeat the treaty. (Democrats took a particular relish in reading Henry Cabot Lodge's earlier words from the League fight back to him: "We cannot make peace except in company with our Allies. It would brand us with everlasting dishonor and bring ruin to us also if we undertook a separate peace.")6

Nonetheless, on October 18th, 1921, the Treaty of Berlin passed easily, 66-20. Fourteen Democrats voted for the final treaty, including Minority Leader Oscar Underwood and former Minority Leader Gilbert Hitchcock, who had led the Democratic fight for the League in the previous Congress. (From his house on S Street, Wilson asked for the full list of fourteen, so he knew exactly who to despise forever after. "I have washed my hands of them entirely forever," he told Breckinridge Long.) Senators Borah and La Follette joined the majority of Democrats in opposition, while George Norris, who was sick at the time, missed the vote but had already announced his opposition. Hiram Johnson, for his part, happily voted for the Treaty. "I remember very vividly that Mr. Hughes desired to take us into the League of Nations, and the restraining hand of the President prevented him. I recall that Mr. Hughes desired to send back to us the Versailles Treaty…and again it was the power of the President which prevented it." Now at last, Johnson averred, "We have accomplished all that we fought for."7

Other progressives were not so sure. From the early days of the Harding administration, there had been talk of restructuring the debt of America's former allies from the Great War, which stood somewhere between $10 and $11 billion. After Secretary Mellon asked the Senate for the power to exchange long-term bonds for demand notes from the former Allies, Robert La Follette had introduced a resolution early in 1921 forbidding the administration from refunding the British debt without a vote from Congress. Mellon's request made it out of the Senate Finance Committee, and La Follette's resolution was buried there by Boies Penrose. So La Follette issued a minority report arguing that "no man has ever lived who should be intrusted with such a gigantic responsibility…No man should ever be given such untrammeled control over the finances of this country and the destinies of other nations." Instead, the Senate allowed Mellon to convene a commission on the subject instead - This commission chose to favorably restructure England's war debt in 1923. This decision, La Follette declared in a front-page editorial in his magazine, would "foster and stimulate imperialism" by allowing Britain to "extend their monstrous schemes of conquest" and forcing America to support the "vastly over-extended and shaky structure of the British empire."8


For his part, William Borah was "absolutely opposed to the cancellation of the debt, or any part of it, or to the forgiving of the interest," since "[t]here would be no difficulty about these governments paying the debts which they justly owe if they would curtail their armaments and settle down and go to work." He was not alone in this assessment. "In view of the recent [armaments by Britain and France]," wrote former Senator Albert Beveridge to Borah, "the pleas that these nations are not able to pay even the interest on our debt does not appear to me to be convincing." Harold Ickes thought similarly. "Raymond Robins tells me he has written you advising you to fight the proposal of the administration to refund the debts of Europe and I believe his advice is sound," he wrote Hiram Johnson in June 1921. "I don't believe our people are in any mood to assume further financial burdens for Europe. I don't think it is sound economics for us to do so. We need our own capital for the development of our own industries and the greatest contribution we can make to the prosperity of the world is for us, ourselves, to become prosperous."9

Nonetheless, Borah had an altogether different concern about debt restructuring, which he confided to Beveridge. "[W]ithout accusing anybody individually," Borah wrote, "the Senegambian in this woodpile is the thought and hope in some places that another back door has been found to the League. Imperial finance is to my mind about as objectionable as militarism." The situation became even more fraught in January 1923 when the Treaty of Versailles brought on another European crisis. After the Weimar Republic defaulted on its reparations payments, French forces initiated a two-year occupation of the resource-rich Ruhr valley in Germany as recompense, with the intention of extracting German coal, iron, and steel for themselves. (While legal under the Treaty, this action prompted an international outcry and sent the German currency spiraling into hyperinflation.)10

To address the ensuing crisis, a committee led by Chicago banker and former Harding Budget Director Charles Dawes concocted a plan in 1923 that included a restructuring of Germany's repayment schedule and a $200 million loan to Germany, $110 million of which was ultimately floated by the United States. This "Dawes Plan" - America pays Germany, Germany pays France and England, France and England pay the United States, with international banks taking a cut at each stage - was accepted by all parties involved over the course of 1924, and France pulled back her troops the following summer.

The Dawes Plan ultimately garnered its namesake the Nobel Prize, but it was less well-taken by Senate progressives. Henrik Shipstead called it a "gold brick loaded with dynamite" and wondered "why is it not stipulated in the contract that Europe disarm before she gets the money." Robert La Follette thought the plan was the obvious product of a committee "entirely controlled by Morgan influences." And George Norris, looking back on the plan from the vantage of 1931, argued that it was devised "mostly by international bankers to enforce as much of the Versailles Treaty as they thought the world, and particularly Germany could stand." Writing in 1958, historian William Leuchtenburg argued "[i]t would have made equal sense for the United States to have taken the money out of one drawer in the Treasury and put it into another." Nonetheless, whatever enterprises American dollars may have been used to fund around the world, neither the restructuring of allied debts nor the Dawes Plan ended up being exactly the back door to the League that Borah had feared.11

But the threat was still not quite past. In his inauguration address, Warren Harding had equivocated in Gamalielese on the issue of the League. (On one hand, "a world supergovernment is contrary to everything we cherish and can have no sanction by our Republic." On the other, "we are ready to associate ourselves with the nations of the world, great and small, for conference.") But he had also been firm and specific in his endorsement of a World Court. America, Harding said, "would gladly join in that expressed conscience of progress, which seeks to clarify and write the laws of international relationship, and establish a world court for the disposition of such justiciable questions as nations are agreed to submit thereto."12

As noted previously, an association of nations based on law conformed more to the wishes of conservative internationalists like Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, and William Howard Taft. And, given it was now the best thing going, progressive internationalists rallied behind the court plan as well. The National Women's Trade Union League, for example, adopted a resolution advocating "a permanent international court representative of peoples as well as governments for the settlement of international disputes" in June 1921. By 1923, it had joined with the National Council for the Prevention of War, a broad umbrella peace organization encompassing twenty-eight diverse groups, ranging from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom to the American School Citizenship League, and including members such as the American Association of University Women, the International Association of Machinists, the National Education Association, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. As part of its "Law Not War Day" platform - held in 2000 communities each year on July 28th, the day the World War had begun -- the National Council urged American participation in the World Court.13

Even Borah himself -- strangely enough for someone who prized American independence above all else -- was not averse to a World Court if it had the power to adjudicate disputes between nations and, more importantly, was not tied in any way to the League of Nations. (This, as we shall see later, was integral to his Outlawry of War plan.) But the World Court that came into being in January of 1922 had arisen directly out of Article XIV of the League Compact, which called for "the establishment of a Permanent Court of International Justice." As such, to Borah, it was conceived in original sin, and was merely another iniquitous tool of the League to further its own devious and imperialistic ends. "I am in favor of a real international judicial tribunal," he argued. "I am not in favor of an international political tribunal masquerading in the guise of a judicial tribunal. I am not in favor of a court which shall be under the thumb of the European Premiers." To Borah, this "Court is inseparably a part of the League. It is tied to it in every conceivable way that we would tie a tribunal of this kind to a political institution."14

In the summer of 1922, facing pressure from the Federal Council of Churches and other progressive internationalists to become more involved with both the League and the Court, the administration sent State Department liaisons to sit in on the League's meetings, and began using Chief Justice William Howard Taft as an unofficial go-between with the League's leadership to feel out the question of America joining the World Court. By the following February, Secretary of State Hughes had drafted a resolution for membership that included specific reservations emphasizing that America's joining the Court was no indication of its stance on the League. President Harding sent this draft on to the Senate on February 24, 1923, where -- it being close to adjournment -- it was tabled by the Foreign Relations Committee for the following session.15

Progressive internationalists and the peace movement strongly rallied behind Harding's move, with the Federal Council of Churches pushing their 20,000 member congregations to lobby the Senate, and pacifists making the case around the country for the Court on "Law-Not-War" Day. But anti-League forces felt blindsided by the president. "The glorification of the World Court is an attempt to draw a red herring across the trail of the great domestic issues," declared Senator La Follette. It "is a part of the cleverly-conceived plan of the International Bankers to entangle the United States in the affairs of Europe." Deeming the Court "the League in disguised and diluted form," La Follette and Borah began making plans for a summer speaking tour against it. Harding, argued the Hearst-owned New York American, wanted to "put the United States in a position of obedience to a Supreme Court chosen by and controlled by the League of Nations. Having refused to be led into the League of Nations through the front door, the American people are now to be squeezed in through the kitchen door." Exultant Democrats argued that Harding, in the words of Gilbert Hitchcock, was having America join the League "on the installment plan." (This was too slow for Woodrow Wilson, who from his sickbed penned a letter calling for immediate American entry into the Court with none of Hughes' anti-League reservations.)16

Over the next few months, as domestic scandals rather than foreign policy began to move to the fore in Washington, Harding insisted that America would not join the League "by the side door, or the back door, or the cellar door." Instead, he proposed simply and unilaterally separating the Court from the League, which Hughes and others thought might not go over well with the current members of those two organizations. On the first stop of the Voyage of Understanding, Harding put this plan forward, and -- perhaps thinking of the ill-fated western tour of his predecessor -- promised a St. Louis audience that "I shall not attempt to coerce the Senate of the United States. I shall make no demand upon the people. I shall not try to impose my will upon anybody or any person. I shall embark on no crusade." Harold Ickes, for one, was dumbstruck by the president's new position, which alienated pro-League forces without swaying any irreconcilables. "It has been unseasonably and unreasonably hot here for several days and I may be suffering from the heat," Ickes wrote to Senator Johnson the day after Harding's speech, "but it does seem to me that this is the damnedest fool proposition in the way of international relations and cooperation that has yet been advanced...[Harding] has deserted his ground and is now occupying an entirely new position which to me seems utterly untenable from any American point of view and impractical as a matter of international politics."17

Soon thereafter, the president was dead. In his last address, published two days before his passing, Harding declared he "would be insensible to duty and violate all the sentiments of my heart and all my convictions if I failed to urge American support of the Permanent Court of International Justice. 'I do not know that such a Court will be unfailing in the avoidance of war, but I know it is a step in the right direction and will prove an advance toward international peace for which the reflective conscience of mankind is calling."18

With the president's death, the idea of joining the World Court was put on the back burner while the nation confronted the depths of the Harding scandals. But it did not slumber completely. Two months before the president's passing, wealthy philanthropist and former Ladies Home Journal editor Edward Bok had put forward what became known as the Bok Peace Prize, a $100,000 grant to "the American individual or organization presenting the best practicable plan by which the United States may cooperate with other nations for the achievement and preservation of world peace." "This is the psychological time," Bok argued in announcing his prize, "to crystallize public opinion on the question of the United States' responsibility for preventing wars." (The Crisis's succinct answer to Bok: "Stop despising men. Stop hating and suspecting 'foreigners' and fearing yellow men and enslaving brown and black men…If white men believed Negroes were men ever as they are, they would not murder each other in order to mortgage the labor and raw material of Asia and Africa")19

In February 1924, after over 22,000 submissions, the Bok committee chose Peace Plan No. 1469, a relatively straightforward solution by an academic named Charles Levermore. His plan: Cooperate with the League of Nations without joining, and adhere to the World Court. "Five-sixths of all nations, including about four-fifths of mankind, have already created a world organization," Levermore noted. "Therefore, the only possible path to cooperation in which the United States can take an increasing share is that which leads toward the some form of agreement with the world as now organized, called the League of Nations. By sheer force of social international gravitation such cooperation becomes inevitable." Furthermore, "an immediately practicable step is the Senate's approval of the proposal that the United States adhere to the Permanent Court of International Justice."20

Charles Levermore and the Bok Committee were not alone in calling for increased American involvement on the World Court. 83% of newspaper editors, according to a poll conducted by the Bok committee, also approved Court membership, as did both party platforms in 1924. The following year, the World Court issue moved to the fore once more when new Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, arguing that "civilized nations are now beginning to recognize the real principles of international law," reintroduced the treaty into the Senate. "[D]id you ever such a sordid, nation-wide, corrupting, common, ordinary lying propaganda as is now going on for this World Court," Borah exclaimed to one correspondent. "It is as corrupt and un-American as it would be to stand at the polls with dollar bills in your hand." On the floor, the Idaho Senator again argued that this Court was merely the legal arm of the League, designed to rubber-stamp the "unrighteous fruit of the vicious secret treaties." While the elder La Follette had passed on, his son, recent arrival to the Senate Bob La Follette, Jr., spoke out against the Court as well, as did Farmer-Labor Senator Henrik Shipstead of Iowa, who argued its purpose was "to decide that loot acquired as a result of the last war has been legally acquired."21

While Borah could not defeat the World Court treaty this time -- it passed 76-17 -- he did manage to load it up in committee with various poison pill reservations, including giving America veto power over any case that involved the United States - something the rest of the Court's members would never consent to. Threatening the Court would "put this country into Europe," Borah pledged after the vote to devote "every inch of energy and ability I have to this cause from now on," including acting as "America's new Paul Revere" to warn the people about this new threat to their independence.

Hiram Johnson -- who thought the Court victory meant that "we have taken our first stop and that we'll ultimately now go into the League" -- was one with little faith in Borah's staying power on this issue. A year earlier, when Borah had made a similar rhetorical rally to arms about the Court issue, Johnson "noticed too, as always happens with Borah, that after making one speech he was assailed by the League of Nations men and he then retired to Idaho:"
From this friendly retreat he has indulged in one fulmination praising economy and Coolidge. Probably from Jenkins Cross Roads or Main Street of Babbitsville he will deliver a Philippic upon the World Court, but will take extraordinary pains to see that it is not offensive to the World Court people and that it may be utilized by Mr. Mellon and Mr. Coolidge. If the fight on the League of Nations had been left to him, this is just what would have happened with that epochal struggle. His leadership in the present instance…will result as his efforts, when he has undertaken anything in the past, always have resulted - either in compromise or surrender, and, if not either of these in utter and irretrievable defeat.

He is, however, the only man in the Senate with any pretense to Progressivism who can get great publicity now, and while it is true he gets this by virtue of the fact that he is Mr. Mellon's man and Mr. Coolidge's spokesman, nevertheless I think it a good thing for the cause, for it does, after all, give some publicity occasionally to a little of that in which we believe."22
In this case, Johnson's cynicism about his colleague may have been slightly unfair, since Borah's poison pills did in fact work their magic. Coolidge, knowing neither the Senate nor the other Court members would be willing to back down over the issue of the extra reservations, simply tabled the treaty for good. In her study of the foreign policy of the 1920's, Populist Nationalism, historian Karen Miller gives credit to Borah and Johnson both for the defeat of the League and the Court. These men, and the small band of progressive irreconcilables they led, were able "to effectively thwart the will of three presidents. Not only were these men of complex ideas; they were remarkably skillful practitioners of institutional politics." Even if, by the end, they had grown more than a little sick of each other.23

Continue to Chapter 7, Pt. 3: Disarming the World.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Johnson to Ickes, May 10, 1921. Ickes to Johnson, May 12, 1921. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Borah to Arshag Mahdesian, April 9, 1921. WJB, Box 93: Foreign Affairs, 1920-1291.
2. Wimer and Wimer, 13-15.
3. Wimer and Wimer, 16-18. "US Peace Treaty with Germany," August 25, 1921. Back when the League of Nations had seemed a viable option, Harding had urged Lodge to slow-walk any resolution ending the war, since "that sort of action might make it more difficult to effectively prevent the ultimate program we decide upon regarding the League of Nations." Wimer & Wimer, 16.
4. Johnson, Peace Progressives, 167-168. "Borah Speaks for Humanity," The Searchlight on Congress, October 1921 (Vol. 6, No. 5), 19-20. Wimer and Wimer, 19.
5. Wimer and Wimer, 19.
6. Wimer and Wimer, 18-24.
7. Wimer and Wimer, 18-24. "Final Vote on the Treaty," The Searchlight on Congress, October 1921 (Vol. 6, No. 5), 6.
8. La Follette, 1030-1031.
9. Borah to Calvin Keller, October 29, 1921. WJB, Box 94: Funding of Foreign Debt. Albert Beveridge to Borah, June 25, 1921. WJB, Box 94: Funding of Foreign Debt. Ickes to Hiram Johnson, June 30, 1921.
10. Borah to Albert Beveridge, June 28, 1921. WJB, Box 94: Funding of Foreign Debt. Cohen, Empire Without Tears, 32-33.
11. Johnson, Peace Progressives, 161. Lowitt, 529. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 110-111.
12. Warren Harding, "Inaugural Address," March 4, 1921.
13. Robert D. Accinelli, "Was there a 'New' Harding? Warren G. Harding and the World Court Issue, 1920-1933", Ohio History Review, Vol. 84 (Autumn 1975), 175. "National Women's Trade Union League and Outlawry of War," Life and Labor Bulletin, August 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 12), 1-2.
14. "The Covenant of the League of Nations," June 28, 1919. Johnson, Peace Progressives, 171. Vinson, 74-75, 80. Borah to Edward Whiting, December 10, 1925, WJB Box 219: World Court.
15. Accinelli, 168-173.
16. Robert La Follette, "Release for Morning Papers," April 26, 1923, RLF Box 201: World Court. Accinelli, 175.
17. Ickes to Johnson, June 22, 1923. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
18. Accinelli, 177-178. "Harding the Apostle of Peace," Literary Digest, August 11, 1923.
19. Vinson, 53-54. "Bok Peace Plan Debate, April 11, 1924," Columbia Law Library (http://library.law.columbia.edu/ttp/TTP_Bok.htm) Hannah White-Catlin, "Mr. Bok Sets Us Talking," The Survey, January 15, 1924 (Vol. LI, No. 8), 371. Charles Levermore, "Peace Plan No. 1469," The Survey, January 15, 1924 (Vol. LI, No. 8), 372, 417. "Mr. Bok," The Crisis, October 1923 (Vol. 26, No. 6), 249.
20. Ibid.
21. Borah to O.K. Davis, December 10, 1925. WJB Box 219: World Court. Vinson, 105. Johnson, Peace Progressives, 172-173.
22. Johnson to Ickes, February 1, 1926. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, July 20, 1925. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
23. Ashby, 202-204. Miller, Populist Nationalism, xiii.

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