By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The "League of Dam-Nations"
Progressives and the League of Nations
VI. The Articles of Contention
As progressive irreconcilable Asle Gronna told the Senate in October 1919, "I doubt if any two members of this body or any two citizens anywhere would agree upon the construction and the meaning of this article." And yet, for both its supporters and detractors, it was the crux of the Covenant. Wilson called it the "king pin" of his League, "the very backbone of the whole covenant." Its absence, he told audiences during his speaking tour, would mean "we have guaranteed that any imperialistic enterprise may revive, we have guaranteed that there is no barrier to the ambition of nations that have the power to dominate, we have abdicated the whole position of right and substituted the principle of might." Removing or revising it, he continued, would mean a "rejection of the covenant" - It would "change the entire meaning of the Treaty and exempt the United States from all responsibility for the preservation of peace." As he said to his future successor, Warren Harding, in August 1919, "Without it the league would be hardly more than an influential debating society."1
At a February 1919 dinner with members of Congress, before the Irreconcilable opposition in the Senate had truly begun to coalesce, Wilson had been asked about what Article X might mean for American sovereignty. The president fundamentally misread his audience. "[S]ome of our sovereignty would be surrendered," he told them, since a League could not work "without some sacrifice…each nation yielding something to accomplish such an end." Wilson went on to argue that America "would willingly relinquish some of its sovereignty for the good of the world," and that the League "would never be carried out successfully if the objection of sovereignty was insisted upon by the Senate."2
Unfortunately for Wilson and the League, this objection was vociferously insisted upon by progressives and conservative nationalists alike. Citing the historic examples of Washington's Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine time and again, Borah deemed himself "a thorough believer in the proposition that America should not politically and governmentally entangle herself in European affairs. I entertain no possible doubt that any such program would be the end of the Republic."3
Asle Gronna argued much the same. "Let us protect our own people first -- the people of the United States -- with confidence and full assurance and belief that we shall in the future as we have in the past, to the utmost of our ability, assist the helpless, defend the defenseless, assist and protect the oppressed, and to the best of our ability aid and support the people of the nations which may suffer injustice." If America signed aboard a League with Article X, he argued, "the people of the United States will resent the idea, and will take it as an insult, to be told by a council composed mostly of aliens that we must do thus and so."4
As Gronna's oration reflects, closely connected to the question of endangered American sovereignty is what entrance to the League would mean for the Constitution. Would the United States Congress still have the right to declare war, or would that power now be ceded to the League? For the peace progressives, even the creation of the League was constitutionally suspect, since, rather than asking for their advice and consent during the treaty-making process, Wilson had delivered a fait accompli to the Senate. "[It is] too late for the advice to be effective after the treaty is made and signed and passes out of hands and into the possession of the Senate," argued La Follette."5
While always foremost, the threat to American sovereignty and the Constitution was not the only objection to Article X in the progressive irreconcilable's arsenal. They also believed that respecting the "territorial integrity" of current members would mean a global and irrevocable locking-in of the status quo. In the words of Hiram Johnson, it would mean "a war against revolution in all countries, whether enemy or ally," and that the United States would have to send her troops overseas to police the borders of European empires. It would "freeze the world into immutability and put it in a straightjacket," making "subject peoples…subject until the crack of doom."6
Similarly, Robert La Follette argued this stipulation was included to "build an iron ring of conservative governments…and wall in the dangerous doctrines of the Soviet government." To the readers of his magazine, he declared: "We don't need to restrain the peoples of different countries from making war upon each other. We do need to restrain the ruling classes of every country, from inciting or compelling its people to war upon those of some other country."7
William Borah was also put off by the geopolitical stasis Article X seemingly endorsed, calling it tantamount to "maintaining the status quo by force." Writing after the dust had cleared, he told a constituent: "I think it was the most unconscionable scheme to reduce the world to military control and to place all peoples under the dominancy of the military power of the few Nations that has ever been conceived. It has always been one of marvels to me how people, who really love peace and who believe in a Government founded upon reason and upon the maxims of liberty, could be in favor of a scheme to place the military power of four or five Nations over the destiny of the entire human race."8
Writing in his memoirs years later, Herbert Hoover -- who knew more than most about the origins of the Treaty -- made a similar argument against Article X. "It was a practical freezing of the world into a mold of Versailles cast in the heats of war - and was a stifling of progress and all righting of wrongs. Moreover, I knew this article had been forced into the League by the French as a part of their demand for an indirect military alliance of the principal Allies."9
Two and a half weeks after Lodge's Round Robin had opened the door to Senate adjustments to the final treaty, progressive journalist William Hard argued in the New Republic for the removal of Article X from the League on similar grounds. It "lays an individual obligation to maintain the world's present boundaries upon every individual nation in the world," he argued. By its decree, "the United States, by itself if necessary, must defend the territorial integrity of Italy against the Jugo-Slavs." While conceding that "a League is essential to a peace," he argued that Article X was a "manifest mistake" which the Senate should eliminate "no matter what the President may do or say."
I submit that the first sentence of Article Ten is a surrender to the Tories. I submit that it binds the United States to use all its resources of men and money to 'preserve' forever every territorial iniquity which the present peace conference may establish…I submit that if the rule of Article Ten had been adopted in the days of Marcus Aurelius we should still have a Roman Empire from the Euphrates to the Tiber. I submit that the world has not yet arrived at the end of its possible growth. I submit that the first sentence of Article Ten is a sentence of death on much of the possible liberal growth of the future.10A week later, TNR officially agreed with Hard in an editorial entitled "Defeat Article Ten." While noting that "the Covenant as a whole is necessary to prevent every power from acting as Austria acted" in 1914, "Article Ten should be eliminated for the following reasons: first, because the hasty settlement now being made in Paris cannot do final justice, second because America should not be pledged to uphold injustices, third because Article Ten is destructive of the League's main purpose, in that it excludes from discussion a large class of questions" - namely the justice of current borders. And after striking Article X, the essay argued, "Article Eleven…[still] fully protects every nation against aggression."11
But, as it happens, the progressive irreconcilables in the Senate had very similar objections about Article XI, which stated that "any war, or threat of war, whether immediately affecting any of the Members of the League or not, is hereby declared a matter of concern to the League." Wilson had called this article, which he considered "in conjunction with Article X," his "favorite article in the treaty" -- because it allowed America to "mind other peoples' business and…force a nation on the other side of the globe to bring to that bar of mankind any wrong that is afoot in this world." To the Senate progressives, this was, as Borah put it, "the acme of tyranny." "If any war or threat of war shall be a matter of consideration for the league," Borah asked, "what is the necessity of Article X?...Is there anything in Article X that is not completely covered by Article XI?" In Gronna's words, Article XI "undertakes to dictate and regulate the affairs of every nation on the face of the globe," resulting in "limitless autocracy and oligarchy complete, self-determination…a thing of the past." Gronna continued:
This proposed treaty provides for the enforcement of peace by force, by the sword, by waging war, and it takes from the peoples of every nation on the face of the globe the right to have a voice in the matter. So in this matter, so important to the welfare of the human family, you are setting up a supergovernment ruled by what we hope may be a few benevolent despots; but, if we miss our guess, so that instead of directing their energies in the interest of benevolence, justice, and peace, if they desire to become autocrats, there is absolutely nothing to prevent them from becoming the greatest tyrants the world has ever known. And yet you call this a league to establish peace.12The progressives did not feel they were speaking hypothetically about the imperialist dangers of Articles X and XI -- They believed they had already seen the same dynamic at work in Russia, when Wilson sent 5000 troops to the port of Arkhangelsk in September 1918 to serve under British officers as part of the "Polar Bear Expedition." In fact, one of the reasons Johnson turned against the League early is that he saw in it the seeds of Wilson's military intervention there. "In the Russia situation, we have exactly the League of Nations," he wrote a friend. "The League decreed the Russia expedition against our vote. Congress never declared war, a war has been carried on by United States troops under the direction and command of the foreign nations…it is exactly what will be done under a League of Nations."13
If Russia was not example enough of budding imperialism in the League, the fates of Shantung and Korea in the Versailles Treaty proved another damning exhibit for the prosecution. Progressive George Norris of Nebraska, otherwise inclined towards a League, fell into the Irreconcilable camp mainly on the basis of these provisions in the Treaty. They demonstrated beyond a doubt "the germs of wickedness and injustice" in the compact, as well as "the greed and avarice shown by the nations…that are to control the League." "When you start to build the temple of justice upon a foundation of sand, of crime, of dishonor, of disgrace," he warned, "your temple will crumble and decay just as surely as history repeats itself."14
And the imperialist dangers of the League were not lost on the wider progressive community either. As Oswald Villard editorialized in The Nation, the American people will soon "realize that the League of Nations as drawn commits us to a policy of imperialistic interference in the affairs of all the world, and threatens to fill the future with constant warring in behalf of men and causes alien to our entire historic spirit and purpose." Similarly, Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Dial that the League was "an instrument of realpolitik, created in the image of nineteenth century imperialism."15
Columnist H.L. Mencken -- never a progressive so much as a bitterly cynical moralist -- made a similar satiric argument about the League, while taking time to skewer the fickle "war is the health of the state" progressivism of Dewey and The New Republic:
"Personally, I am in favor of the League - not that I am under any delusion about its intents and purposes, but precisely because I regard it as thumpingly dishonest. Like democracy, it deserves to be tried. Five years of it will see all the principal members engaged in trying to slaughter one another. In other words, it will make for wars - and I have acquired an evil taste for wars. Don't blame it on any intrinsic depravity. There was a time when I cooed for peace with the best of them, but all the present whoopers for peace insisted upon war, and after viewing war for six years I found it was better than a revival or a leg-show - nay, even better than a hanging."16While much more concerned about threats to American sovereignty than incipient imperialism, the Republican foreign policy intelligentsia -- Lodge, Charles Evans Hughes, William Howard Taft, Elihu Root -- all agreed Article X was at best a weak point and more often a dealbreaker for the League as well. And, despite Wilson's warning to the contrary back in February, it became the hinge point on which the fate of the Treaty rested.17
Sensing the danger, Wilson tried to rephrase his arguments for Article X in another meeting with Senators - this time in August 1919. There, he insisted that Article X was "a moral, not a legal, obligation, and leaves our Congress absolutely free to put its own interpretation upon it in all cases that call for action. It is binding in conscience only, not in law." He then confused the issue further, by telling Warren Harding that a moral obligation "is of course superior to a legal obligation, and, if I may say so, has a greater binding force."18
In this distinction between legal and moral obligations, Wilson was trying to square the logical paradox that Article X presented for its defenders. If Article X was not binding, it was powerless, and could therefore be removed without issue. The only reason it needed to exist was if it in fact bound members to certain obligations (which, in a simpler time only a few months earlier, Wilson had already conceded.) As historian Robert Crunden put it, "either Article X meant nothing and should go, or it meant that Americans could be involved in war without specific congressional sanction." As conservative Irreconcilable James Reed of Missouri articulated the Democrats' dilemma in Senate debate, "All you have argued thus far is that your League is a powerless thing, and yet it is to save the world!"19
While Articles X and XI were almost always the center of debate, other issues also rankled the progressive irreconcilables. Believing that enlightened public opinion was the only real fulcrum that could move the world, they believed another fundamental defect was the manner of the League's creation: The whole process lacked suitable transparency. As Borah put it, the "treaty and the league were written behind hermetically sealed doors and all the material facts were studiously and persistently kept away from the people."
We are creating a supergovernment with its capital in Europe which will deal with the destinies of millions behind closed doors. It will take but little time if we judge the future by the past for such a secret council to fall to the lowest standard of venality and corruption. Yet to such a body we are about to delegate tremendous powers for evil…It was thoroughly understood from the beginning that unless this treaty was written in secret and the facts concerning it kept secret and it was put through in haste it could not get through at all.20Nonetheless, Borah took heart that, "[despite] the highly capitalized and thoroughly organized propaganda carried on by the sinister interests with large investments and securities in Europe[,] the people at large are coming more and more to understand and be against the League and the treaty. Just in proportion as they learn the facts they are turning against it." Public opinion - the great engine of progressivism - was running smoothly.21
Robert La Follette also abhorred the secrecy in which the Treaty had come about, in defiance of Wilson's promise of "open covenants openly arrived at." One would think that Article 23 of the League's covenant, which argued that members "will endeavour to secure and maintain fair and humane conditions of labor for men, women, and children, both in their own countries and in all countries to which their commercial and industrial relations extend," should have been music to the ears of a La Follette. More than a few conservatives opposed the League for exactly this inclusion. But the Wisconsin Senator saw an inherent flaw in the mold. "The vice which goes to the very root of all the labor provisions of this proposed treaty," he argued, "is that they provide for the enactment of labor legislation by the secret and undemocratic method by which treaties are made." Due to both this secrecy and the seeming enshrinement of the status-quo laid down by Article X, La Follette argued the League would only serve to "crystallize the present industrial conditions and to perpetuate the wrong and injustice in the present relations existing between labor and capital."22
Like the legal and moral obligations of Article X, the question of secrecy also came up at Wilson's August 1919 meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When asked about secret treaties made among the Allies before the war, Wilson claimed to have no knowledge of them entering the Paris talks, even though they had been widely publicized. The lie struck many as an act of desperation. "If he was ignorant," La Follette concluded, "he was the only man connected in any way with public life in the United States who was ignorant of the terms and purposes of the secret treaties." Sensing an "almost universal conspiracy to lie and smother the truth," an increasingly irate Walter Lippmann agreed. This "initial lie has taken the decency out of him, he wrote to his friend Bernard Berenson. "He is as unscrupulous today as LG [Lloyd George] and a great deal less attractive."23 (In fact, Lippmann had helped prepare Borah and the Irreconcilables for this White House meeting, by giving them questions based on his inside knowledge of the Inquiry. It was a decision he would come to regret later in life.)24
Sovereignty, constitutionality, imperialism, secrecy -- To the Senate progressives, all of these objections to the League were intermingled, and not just with each other. As historian Thomas Knock notes, progressive "disappointment with Wilson and the Covenant were multiplied a hundredfold by the treaty itself…the progressives [simply] believed that the President had helped to make a bad peace." In the words of La Follette:
"The little group of men who sat in secret conclave for months at Versailles were not peacemakers. They were war makers. They cut and slashed the map of the Old World in violation of the terms of the armistice…They betrayed China. They locked the chains on the subject peoples of Ireland, Egypt, and India. They partitioned territory and traded off peoples in mockery of that sanctified formula of 14 points, and made it our Nation's shame. Then, fearing the wrath of outraged peoples, knowing that their new map would be torn to rags and tatters by the conflicting warring elements which they had bound together in wanton disregard of racial animosities, they made a league of nations to stand guard over the swag!...Mister President, whatever course other Senators take, I shall never vote to bind my country to the monstrous undertaking which this covenant would impose."25He was, in a word, irreconcilable. Unfortunately for those who wanted to see America in a League of Nations, so too was the President of the United States.
Return to the Table of Contents.
3. Borah to S.H. Clark, May 31, 1921. WJB, Box 91: Disarmament - Illinois. In that same letter, Borah pushed back against the argument that he was an isolationist. "I do not know just what you mean…by American isolation. Of course, America is not isolated, and never has been, so far as commercial and business affairs are concerned. He also argued that "Washington never at any time proposed that we should remain out of foreign wars if we [were] assailed…Had Washington been living, in my opinion, he would have entered the war immediately after the sinking of the Lusitania."
5. La Follette, 977.
6. Crunden, 266. Johnson, 96.
7. David P. Thelen, Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1976). 150.
8. Borah to Rev. Doremus Scudder, March 18, 1921. WJB.
9. Hoover, 11.
10. William Hard, "Article Ten of the League," The New Republic, March 22, 1919, 239-240.
11. "Defeat Article Ten," The New Republic, March 29, 1919, 264-265.
12. William Borah, "The League of Nations," November 19, 1919, in Robert Byrd, The Senate Classic Speeches, Volume Three (Washington: US Government Printing Office.) Johnson, 97-98. Gronna. The first to draw attention to Article XI's centrality among the progressive irreconcilables, historian Robert David Johnson writes that it "escaped the mention of virtually every other Senate opponent of the League. Their opposition to Article XI distinguished their ideology from that held by the other irreconcilables, and best illustrated the role played by anti-imperialism in solidifying peace progressive opposition to the League." Ibid.
13. Weatherson and Bochin, 85.
14. Fred Greenbaum, Men Against Myths: The Progressive Response (New York: Praeger, 2000), 39.
15. The Nation, July 5, 1919. Vol. 109, No. 2818, p. 4. Knock, 253.
16. Mencken, 26.
17. Crunden, 260-261. Although, for strictly political purposes, Lodge was not above echoing the anti-imperialist arguments of Norris and others on Shantung on the Senate floor.
18. Crunden, 270. As Crunden notes, Wilson turned out to be right on Article X in practice. He writes: "Article X did not matter because a nation had to be willing to join the fight, and no outsider could force that act. During the twenty year history of the league, most countries operated as if Article X contained no obligations at all. They proved unwilling even to employ sanctions, let alone soldiers."
19. Crunden, 260-261. Ambrosius, 139. Compared against the progressives, Reed is a key example of the strange bedfellows within the Irreconcilable camp: One of his central arguments against the League was that the seventeen nations harboring "black, brown, yellow and red races," "steeped in barbarism" as they were, would overwhelm the fifteen white nations to undermine "civilized government". Irreconcilable differences, indeed.
20. Borah to Frank Rea, January 5, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Alabama.
22. La Follette, 976.
23. La Follette, 978. Steel, 163. Lippmann and Berenson had actually become friends through their shared disillusionment with the Paris peace process. "Do you happen to recall how I came to see you in your office in the corner of the Rue Royale during the peace conference," Berenson wrote Lippmann years later. "You were still in uniform at your desk. I came to ask you whether you were aware that we Americans were being betrayed, that no attention was being paid to our aims in the war, and that a most disastrous peace treaty was being forged. You said nothing, but your eyes filled with tears. I have loved you since." Steel, 178.
24. True to Lippmann's penchant for displacing blame on others, he later said: "The decision was basically Croly's. I followed him, though I was not then, and am not now, convinced that it was the wise thing to do. If I had it to do all over again, I would take the other side; we supplied the Battalion of Death with too much ammunition." Steel, 166.
25. Knock, 252. La Follette, 981.
If you found this dissertation useful or entertaining, please consider contributing to the tip fund.
Alas, history isn't the wildly remunerative discipline it used to be.