By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The "League of Dam-Nations"
Progressives and the League of Nations
I. Collapse at Pueblo
With the promised new world order at Versailles in shambles, the League of Nations became at once the last, best hope for peace to some on the left and a symbol of all that had gone wrong in Paris to others. The League had enjoyed the support of both progressive internationalists and conservatives before WWI, but it would face its most strident opposition from progressive nationalists in the Senate, most notably Senators William Borah, Hiram Johnson, and Robert La Follette. The outcome of the ensuing debate would not only destroy a president, but determine much of the course of foreign policy in the decade to come.
Despite the near-universal condemnation in progressive corners for Woodrow Wilson's performance at Versailles, the president returned to the United States with absolutely no intention of admitting defeat on the treaty issue. Having staked so much on the creation of a League of Nations during the negotiations, Wilson was irrevocably committed to seeing at least this one facet of his vision become manifest.
It was owed to "the mothers of America and the mothers of France and England and Italy and Belgium and all the other suffering nations," Wilson told a Memorial Day crowd at the American Army graveyard in Suresnes, west of Paris, that they "never be called upon for this sacrifice again. This can be done. It must be done, and it will be done. The great thing that these men left us," speaking of the deceased soldiers before him, "is the great instrument of the League of Nations." Then, in a feat of presidential séance, Wilson spoke for the fallen: "'We command you [the living] in the names of those who, like ourselves have died to bring the counsels of men together, and we remind you what America said she was born for.'" If the League does not pass, in other words, the dead had died in vain.2
Framing the League in such stark Gettysburgian terms suggested much about the president's mindset on the issue. For one, with the sacrifices made so great, there could be no compromise. And thus Wilson became that much more unyielding on the League in the face of criticism. The Treaty "has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God, who led us into this way," Wilson told the Senate upon submitting the document for ratification. The message to doubters was clear: One cannot improve, nor does one compromise on, the word of God.3
For another, it now befell Wilson, like the soldiers before him, to give his last full measure of devotion to the cause. Despite his obviously deteriorating health, Wilson's sense of divine mission - and the sacrifices of the fallen - propelled him onward. "I do not want to do anything foolhardy but the League of Nations is now in crisis," Wilson told his private physician upon embarking on the grueling pro-League speaking tour that would ruin him, "and if it fails I hate to think what will happen to the world. You must remember that I, as Commander in Chief, was responsible for sending our soldiers to Europe. In the crucial test in the trenches they did not turn back -- and I cannot turn back now. I cannot put my personal safety, my health in the balance against my duty - I must go."4
The outcome of this ill-fated decision is well-known. During a month-long train tour around the country, Wilson exhorted crowds several times a day to back the treaty, growing weaker with each stop. As the trip wore on, the exhausted president began suffering severe headaches and even bouts of blindness. After a speech in Pueblo, Colorado on September 25, 1919 -- one in which he once again invoked the memory of those dead in Suresnes -- Wilson suffered a minor stroke. His physician ordered an immediate return to Washington, but the damage had been done. A week later, on October 2nd, Wilson collapsed on the bathroom floor of the White House, suffering another, more powerful stroke, one that nearly killed him. Instead, Wilson was left paralyzed along his left side and incapacitated for the remainder of his presidency.5
With the president having sacrificed his health, no one, not even the ghosts of Suresnes, could doubt his commitment to the League. And yet, however much he gave for the cause in the end, Wilson had actually been a relative latecomer to the idea of an international League. (And while Wilson had remained adamant about the League's importance throughout the Versailles negotiations, its actual creation had been spearheaded mainly by British diplomats, most notably Lord Robert Cecil, Lord James Bryce, and South Africa's Jan Smuts.) Rather, the idea of a League had instead been nurtured along in America by several different groups across the political spectrum -- progressives, socialists, and conservatives -- and each had held different views of how the League should be organized.6
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2. Smith, When the Cheering Stopped, 51-52.
3. Miller, 25.
4. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Arthur S. Link, ed., vol. 67, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 466-670). Reprinted at http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/14wilson/14facts1.htm. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, among others, thought Wilson's decision to take his fight to the people "lost rather than gained support for the Treaty. It came to me from various sources that the public began to consider that the objections have some merit, otherwise the President would not have taken so much trouble to answer them." George Creel - a man who knew a thing or two about the art of propaganda - also deemed Wilson's move "a fatal blunder." Pietrusza, 44.
5. Miller, 28-29. "There seems to me to stand between us and rejection or qualification of the treaty," Wilson told the crowd at Pueblo, "the serried ranks of those boys in khaki - not only those boys who came home but those dear ghosts that still deploy upon the fields of France."Miller, 29. Pietrusza, 9. Smith, 95.
6. Crunden, 258.
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