Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
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Chapter Two:
The "League of Dam-Nations"

Progressives and the League of Nations

V. The Treaty Arrives

I. Collapse at Pueblo
II. The Origins of the League
III. The League After Armistice
IV. Progressive Nationalists
V. The Treaty Arrives
VI. The Articles of Contention
VII. Things Fall Apart
VIII. Aftermath

By the time the treaty came back for Senate consideration, four harrowing months later, word had leaked of the diplomatic shenanigans at Versailles, and of the resignations of William Bullitt and other members of the Peace Commission, and progressive opinion had begun to sour on Wilson. As La Follette wrote to his sons, "my impression is that Wilson & the League & Treaty are losing ground every day - at least it looks so from this angle." Similarly, Hiram Johnson wrote his son in May that "[o]ne of the notable things of the East is that every liberal paper has turned against Wilson and his League."1

Compounding matters, official Senate consideration of the Treaty began with what looked to be another petty Wilson snub: The Treaty had leaked to the public before it had been transmitted to the Senate. Wilson refrained from publicizing the text, insisting that the treaty was not final until the Germans agreed to it and it was signed. And so Hiram Johnson introduced a resolution demanding that Secretary of State Lansing send a copy of the full treaty to the Senate, which - after giving the body the first of many chances to debate the treaty in full - passed by a 2-to-1 margin.2

During this contentious debate, William Borah poured gasoline on the fire twice -- first by declaring that copies of the text were already circulating, not just across Europe, but in New York's financial sector. Lodge confirmed, noting the existence of four copies in New York. Apparently, Lodge quipped, "the only place where it is not allowed to come is the Senate of the United States." Soon thereafter, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began an inquiry into exactly how the House of Morgan received the Treaty before the Senate, and whether they had any financial interests involved in its writing.

This investigation was actually an idea put forward by Wilson Democrats to embarrass the Republicans, but true-to-form, Borah intended to run with it. When hearing that Borah intended to call up "J.P. Morgan et al" before the committee, Robert La Follette mused: "Of course they will tell all about it -- NOT," but he nonetheless offered to help Borah "in any way I can. If Borah will do it I am going to get him to examine them as to the extent of their private loans prior to the time we went into the war. That will be useful information to have later on -- if we can get it." But, exercising his considerable leverage with Republicans, Elihu Root -- one of the recipients of the treaty in New York -- stepped in to quash an extended investigation.3

Then, three days after passage of the Johnson resolution (and after Wilson had again demurred to send the treaty along), Borah brought his own bootleg copy of the text into the Senate. When unanimous consent to print it as a Senate document was refused, he began reading it into the Record. Thus, remarked La Follette to his sons, "making Good Wilson's pledge of open Covenants openly arrived at."4

Borah's decision to circumvent the normal process drove Wilson Democrats into apoplexy -- particularly Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska, the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and so by extension the unofficial leader of Wilson forces on the Treaty (although progressive Thomas Walsh of Montana also aspired to that role.) Hitchcock cried treason, arguing that "the majority of the United States Senate is deliberately cooperating with the German government" in order to throw "a monkey wrench into the negotiations." Covering all the bases, the Senator also invoked the B-word. "The Senate of the United States is putting itself in the attitude of a Bolshevik organization, running amuck here in the treaty negotiations." His argument was carried on by another Democrat, John Sharp Williams of Georgia. Wilson, he said, "represents the American people and his opponents represent all the hyphenates in America -- all of the enemy hyphenates in America."5

In that Senate melee, Hitchcock also announced the fateful Democratic decision that would ultimately spell doom for the Treaty: "The issue is this league or none…if this league is defeated, there will be no league at all." In other words, the Democrats wanted a "clean" treaty -- There would be no reservations agreed upon. (However angry at the time, Hitchcock was following orders here: "It is manifestly too late now to effect changes in the Covenant," Wilson had told Lansing. "I hope…Hitchcock and all his friends [will] take a most militant and aggressive course, such as I mean to the minute I get back.")6

Continue to Chapter 2, Pt. 6: The Articles of Contention.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. La Follette, 965-966. Hiram Johnson to Hiram Johnson, Jr., May 31, 1919. Johnson, 105.
2. La Follette, 965-966. Ambrosius,140-141. Weatherson and Bochin, 90-91.
3. La Follette, 966. The ultimate culprit: Thomas Lamont , the Treasury Department's advisor to the American peace delegation. He gave a copy to his partner at JP Morgan, Henry Davidson, who was in Paris leading the American Red Cross. Davidson had been given instructions to show the treaty to Root and others. Ambrosius, 140.
4. La Follette, 965-966.
5. Ambrosius, 141-142.
6. Ambrosius, 142.

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