By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The "League of Dam-Nations"
Progressives and the League of Nations
Looking back in 1923, William Allen White would articulate the sentiments of many of the progressive internationalists about the experience of the League fight. "The golden moment has passed," he wrote. "Sometimes I persuade myself that the world had reached a height of aspiration between November 1918 and January or February 1919 when it might possibly have been wise to unite the nations of the world in an altruistic enterprise. But alas, that day is a memory and the memory of it is only an illusion. Perhaps there was no reality to that day, but only an emotional fizz."1
The irreconcilables were not much more sanguine. Despite their victory in the Senate, William Borah felt uneasy about the League, and would spend much of the Twenties re-litigating the same fight he had won in 1919. "Having failed to enter the front door and having received the open condemnation of the people," Borah wrote a constituent in early 1921, "the plan [for the League] seems to be now to enter the back door." Senator Borah believed he and his allies would have to remain vigilant guardians of that backdoor. "We must realize that the conflict is not over," he wrote. "Those who propose to be in on the exploiting of the subject peoples of the Old World, the filching of their natural resources, and oil, and all kinds of mineral wealth, do not propose that the United States shall stay out of this gigantic scale of militarism and imperialism."2
Borah was not alone in this fear of the League being agreed to by other means. "I grow more apprehensive all the time that, in spite of our historic victory, we shall find ourselves drawn in to the European vortex which swirls more madly all the time," wrote Albert Beveridge after the election. And Hiram Johnson thought similarly, and he too pledged to keep up the fight. "You have done such a wonderful job in this matter - more than any other living, human being," he wrote Borah after the election, "and I want to continue with you and I want to aid in preventing all the effort from going to naught." Johnson was particularly perturbed by a missive from Elihu Root arguing that "a new deal here from the beginning by abandoning the Versailles Treaty is impossible…The only possible course is to keep the treaty, modifying it to meet the requirements of the Senate reservations[.]" Hearing of this, Borah replied to Johnson: "The fight, from now on…is coming inside of our own party":
Of course, there were thousands of people in this fight who were in good faith in favoring the League, who honestly believed that it would bring peace. But that class of people we can easily deal with. They are honest and sincere, and after they see the developments in Europe and more fully examine the League, they change their minds. But with those who are actuated by selfish and sinister purposes, there is nothing for them except a club. They belong to the same profiteering class who robbed our home people while the Great War was raging and now they propose to rob the people of the Old World and deprive them of their natural resources and make us stand back of their scheme."3If the victors remained uneasy, the loser of the great battle for the League seemed irredeemably broken. Reflecting on this last chapter of Wilson's story after the election, The New Republic sought "to state, and then if possible, to understand what it is that makes Woodrow Wilson one of the really strange figures of history. What makes the scene so tremendous," it determined, "is not the spectacle of a Lodge triumphant…It is the interior tragedy played between the Wilson of the armistice and the Wilson returned from Versailles." To TNR, "the Wilson who acquiesced in the disastrous peace was a man who at the worst had made mistakes, as all human beings do. But the Wilson who returned from Versailles denying those mistakes, the Wilson who attempted to exploit the sacred confidence of common men to make those mistakes seem a triumph, that is the lonely Wilson. That is the Wilson who will interest his real biographer, for it is here that the paradox of his life culminates."4
Visiting the former president a few weeks before his death in early 1924, League of Nations official Raymond Fosdick found Wilson still writhing upon this paradox to the very last. "Our conversation wandered over many topics," Fosdick wrote in TNR, "but his chief thought was of the League of Nations, and its promise for the future." Breaking into tears at one point, Wilson insisted the League would be "America's contribution to the race…It might come soon, it might come late, but come it would. America would not stand in the way of human progress, America would not long thwart the hope of the race." But, however certain his vision of the future, Wilson could not hide his bitterness about all that had happened in that final conversation. As Fosdick recalled, "[h]is voice rose in indignation as he recalled the charge of 'idealism' so often levied against the League. 'The world is run by its ideals,' he exclaimed. 'Only the fool thinks otherwise.'"5
The world is run by its ideals. It is a maxim that, until Wilson at Versailles, many progressives had shared. But even as the president fought for his new world order in Paris, distressing events at home further turned progressives against Wilsonian ideals. "America could not aid the world toward permanent peace," Frederic Howe concluded in 1925, looking back at the failure of Versailles and the League. "Our alleged ideals did not operate at home, they could not operate abroad."6
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2. Borah to Arshag Mahdesian, April 9, 1921. WJB, Box 93: Foreign Affairs, 1920-1291.
3. Albert Beveridge to William Borah, October 6, 1921. WJB, Box 94: German Treaty. Hiram Johnson to William Borah, November 10, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - California. William Borah to Hiram Johnson, November 15, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - California. "Sunning Himself in Texas," The Independent, November 20, 1920, 270.
4. "Woodrow Wilson," The New Republic, November 17, 1920, 284-285.
5. Raymond Fosdick, "Before Wilson Died," The Survey Midmonthly, February 15, 1924, 495.
6. Howe, 318-320.
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