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

IV. Progressive Nationalists

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

In the oft-told tale of the League's demise in the Senate, much has been made of the enmity between President Wilson and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge. As Lodge told Theodore Roosevelt in 1915, "I never expected to hate anyone in politics with the hatred I feel toward Wilson." And the feeling was mutual. When Republican Senator James Watson of Indiana fretted that Lodge might be giving Wilson what he wanted by offering reservations to the Treaty, Lodge replied: "[M]y dear James, you do not take into consideration the hatred that Woodrow Wilson has for me personally. Never under any set of circumstances in this world could he be induced to accept a treaty with Lodge reservations appended to it."1

However, as historian Robert Crunden has noted, "Wilson's true enemies were the group of senators called the Irreconcilables, or the Battalion of Death":
Fourteen Republicans and two Democrats, they fought Wilson and his schemes to the end and successfully prevented Lodge from making compromises to ratify any treaty. The most visible leaders of the group were two of the most progressive men in Washington. In fact, the fight over the Treaty of Versailles was also the last great battle within progressivism. Each side continued to have a moral vision of America's place in the world that depended on past attitudes, progressive attitudes. 2
These two progressive leaders Crunden mentions were Senators William Borah of Idaho and Hiram Johnson of California, both of whom were against the League from the start.3 In fact, both men, against the professed wishes of Lodge, would eventually follow Wilson around the country on a counter-speaking tour.4 A close third at the head of the left-leaning Irreconcilables was Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. All three were progressive nationalists who believed, in the words of Borah, that Americans were "'perfectly willing to do all they can for the pacification and for the uplifting of the world except to imperil the independence or surrender the sovereignty of their own Republic. They do not believe that to be either in the interest of peace in America or peace in the world." Rather, the nation should stay "true to the old Republic as we have enjoyed it for nearly a century and a half."5

As Westerners who came to public life at a time and place where populism and progressivism intermingled -- and unlike both conservatives and the international-minded progressives -- they were both intensely anti-imperialist and intensely nationalistic in their outlook. They were, in a word, Jeffersonians, and from the start they were dedicated foes of Wilson's league. Along with other Senate progressives like George Norris of Nebraska and Asle Gronna of North Dakota, they were the balance of power who helped to determine the treaty's ultimate fate. And they - particularly Borah, who led the crusade against the Treaty (and it was very much a crusade) and would later serve as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Twenties - would become a central locus in the foreign policy debates of the ensuing decade.

Like Teddy Roosevelt, William Borah often heaped scorn on the cosmopolitan mindset. He abhorred "this weakening, simpering, sentimental internationalism which would destroy national character and undermine nationalism." "Internationalism absolutely defeats the national spirit and patriotic fervor,' he argued another time, deeming it a "disloyal doctrine that the American Constitution can be subordinated to a pact with foreign powers." In fact, disloyalty was a theme for Borah. To him, an advocate of the League was "a man who 'no longer wants an American Republic, no longer believes in nationalism and no longer desires to see the American flag a little higher in the heavens than that of any other nation." He occasionally took to comparing internationalists to Benedict Arnold -- "the most worthy exemplar I know of for those who feel America alone is not quite sufficient -- that we must be broader and more pliable - not so pronounced in our Americanism."6

At the same time, however, Borah had no truck with the conservative approach either. In 1915, he argued that Taft's League to Enforce Peace "ought to be entitled a League to Undermine and Destroy Republican Institutions," and that it was a scheme put forward by wealthy plutocrats to protect their overseas investments. "Let no one be misled," he argued. "The real force behind this traitorous scheme is not peace but plunder. There are those who have their investments in Europe who see tremendous opportunity for the exploitations of the people of those countries and the natural resources of the countries but who will not enter upon the doubtful investment until our own government gets behind the securities and underwrites their exploitations. There has never been so bold an attempt to literally sell a free government, to auction it off, since they auctioned off the emperorship from the parapets of Rome."7

The reference to "the parapets of Rome" was not unusual in Borah's rhetoric. On any given issue, the former Idaho lawyer's writing and speeches had a tendency towards the grandiloquent. But the battle of the League - or the "League of Dam-nations," as one of his constituents dubbed it - moved Borah to, even for him, increasing feats of grandiosity. "Nothing could be more imperialistic, more calculated to work injustice and to produce misery than the Versailles Treaty," he declared, calling it "the most important issue since the civil war." To Borah, the League it contained was "the evil thing with the holy name," "the most consummate organization for autocracy which has yet been attempted," and "at war with every principle of the Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and with the fundamental principles of justice, liberty, and freedom." It was a "conspiracy against justice, against peace, against humanity, and against civilization."8

If America joined the League, he wrote a few years later, "this old Republic will have started upon its downward career. We may keep a Republic in name, but we will cease to be a Republic in fact. If we adopt the European system and become a part of European affairs and a copartner in European turmoils and broils, we will not long remain the government which the Fathers gave us. I entertain no more doubt about that than that my Redeemer liveth." Speaking of said Redeemer, Borah also asserted that "[i]f the Savior of man would revisit the Earth and declare for a League of Nations, I would be opposed to it."9

And Borah was not alone in this strong sentiment against the League. In a letter to his son, Borah's fellow Irreconcilable, Hiram Johnson, called the League "the most iniquitous thing at least during my life time…How any man of liberal views can support it passes my comprehension." Considering Wilson's Peace "a travesty on his fourteen points" and "a mockery of every idealistic utterance," the former California governor railed against the diplomats who "have played the same old game of grab and gouge…The League of Nations is the product of this cupidity and intrigue, the instrument for their maintenance and preservation."10

On the Senate floor, Johnson argued that the peace forces "the chains of tyranny upon millions of people and cements for all times unjust and wicked annexations." It would mean the "halting and betrayal of New World liberalism, the triumph of cynical Old World diplomacy, the humiliation and end of American idealism." For Johnson, as for Borah, it all came down to preserving the national independence of the United States. "The issue is the Republic that Washington gave us, that Lincoln saved for us, whose traditions have been so gloriously upheld by our valiant sons abroad. The issue is America. And I am an American."11

Writing to his own sons, the formidable Wisconsin progressive Robert La Follette deemed the Versailles Treaty "an agreement to bind us to fight in every future world-war…without a parallel in all history as a spoils-grabbing compact of greed and hate." Following a path of argument that would become heavily trodden in the coming decade, he lamented what the relative quiet about the botched Peace suggested about American democracy:
One would think that sense of national honor, that a pride in keeping faith would make Americans with one voice insist that we make our word good. But you don't hear a peep. Outside a few radical papers like the Nation…there isn't a word being said. Even if everybody is still afraid of being called pro-German…still one would think that an intelligent citizenship would demand that the peace to 'end war' should not be permitted to become a mere scramble for spoils that must inevitably sow all Europe with a hatred that makes wars in the near future an absolute certainty." 5
Instead, La Follette surmised, "the people are thinking with their fears. They never want war again and because this is called a 'Covenant of Peace,' they think it must make for peace -- when it binds us into a fight in every war upon the orders of foreign governments. Not one in a thousand has ever read the League. Not one in ten thousand has ever analyzed it. They are just for a 'League to stop war.'"13 And why had public opinion failed in this regard? Wilson. In a January 1920 op-ed entitled "Wilson's Broken Pledges," La Follette exclaimed: "We have been lied to so much and for so long that we hardly know the face of the truth….I challenge any man to name one new privilege, one added new right which the common people of this or any other allied countries are to gain as a result of this war."14

In short, to La Follette, the League "[f]rom the first sentence to the last" was a "sham and a fraud." If ever it or the Versailles Treaty were adopted, he argued in a May 1920 speech, "we would stand convicted before the world, as a Nation without honor." Someday, La Follette argued, "Woodrow Wilson may emerge from himself and face that judgment" of the American people for putting such a plan forward. "God pity him when that time comes. He will find that judgment as harsh as Truth, as unrelenting as Justice."15

Summing up the Irreconcilable position in March 1919, progressive Senator Asle Gronna exclaimed, "I will die before I will vote for the League of Nations." (This turned out to be true - Gronna died in 1922, two years after losing a Republican primary to fellow progressive Edwin Ladd.) The intransigence of the Senate progressives early in the process gave Henry Cabot Lodge, who opposed the League for both philosophical and partisan reasons, the opening he needed. Late in the evening of March 3rd, just before Wilson was to return to Paris to continue negotiations on the treaty, he introduced his "Round Robin" resolution. Signed by thirty-seven Republicans - including the Irreconcilables - it argued that "in the form now proposed," a League "should not be accepted by the United States," and that consideration of it should await the final treaty.16

With that one stroke, Lodge broke the coalition of progressive internationalists, socialists, and conservatives that was emerging behind the League. Earlier, The New Republic had deemed the League covenant "the Constitution of 1919," arguing "if such an organization had been in existence in 1914 there would have been no war." Speaking for the Socialists, the Appeal to Reason had said the proposed League would end "belligerent and wholly selfish nationalism" and lead to "the internationalism of balanced justice and cooperation." Meanwhile, Taft and the League to Enforce Peace were also outspoken proponents of Wilson's League. The very next day after the Round Robin, March 4th, Wilson and Taft would appear together at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, just before Wilson would return to Paris for four long months.17

But, with the Round Robin, Lodge had opened the door to alterations to the League, leaving the question open of which direction these alterations would go. Almost immediately, doubts began to surface. In its current form, editor of The Dial Robert Morss Lovett wrote on March 8th, the League was "a blank check - a form which may be signed but will then require filling out with the figures which alone can give it meaning." He argued the League's Covenant needed more substance with regard to disarmament, direct representation of the people, and the economic causes of the war. The New Republic, while warning that too many reservations would "threaten to upset the whole applecart," and that progressives "should prepare to support any agreement which will set up a promising even though inadequate measure of international government," offered its own suggestions the following week, including guarantees of protection to minorities and revisions to the hot-button issue of Article X.18

On one hand, Wilson -- trying to steer a course between the progressives and the conservatives -- clearly recognized the danger that Lodge's Round Robin posed. Two days before it was introduced, the President had urged the progressive members of LFNA in a private meeting to get on board with the League now. "[T]he important thing to do is to get behind the covenant as it is,'" he noted, promising that any future changes would be "in a liberal direction [and] not in the direction of the opposition." On the other, the president fell right into Lodge's trap. Responding to the Round Robin on the day of his departure, Wilson told his audience at Metropolitan Hall: "[W]hen that treaty comes back gentlemen on this side will find the Covenant not only in it, but so many threads of the treaty tied to the Covenant that you cannot dissect the Covenant from the treaty without destroying the whole vital structure." By tying the fate of the League to the entire Versailles treaty - a treaty whose outcome was still very much in negotiation at the time - Wilson encumbered it with baggage it would not be able to overcome.19

Continue to Chapter 2, Pt. 5: The Treaty Arrives in the Senate.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Pietrusza, 38-39.
2. Crunden, 265.
3. "For a solid hour and a half," the Boston Herald reported after one such stop, "Johnson pummeled the league to the intense delight and satisfaction of 3,000 persons until the poor old league looked about as groggy and with as many black eyes as 'Jess' Willard after his three-round conference with 'Jack' Dempsey." Michael A. Weatherson and Hal Bochin, Hiram Johnson: Political Revivalist (Lanham: University Press of America, 1995), 92.
4. Robert David Johnson, The Peace Progressives and American Foreign Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 103. Johnson, in fact, was also a solitary critic of Wilson's Fourteen Points, calling it "a most excellent presentation of Great Britain's war aims…pledging our country in various directions, which will require us to keep troops possibly in Togo Land, the Samerian [sic], and even in the Dardanelles." Johnson, 87.
5. John Chalmers Vinson, William Borah and the Outlawry of War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1957), 23, 29.
6. Ashby, 116. Vinson, 22-23. In fact, Borah found Arnold preferable to the modern cosmopolitan. "If I had to take my position along with Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr or along with the names of the men who sign this league in its present form, I would prefer the former because these men did at least have the defense that they were betraying the Republic before it was a demonstrated fact and before it had become the hope of the civilized world." Vinson, 22-23. Charles Toth. "Isolationism and the Emergence of Borah: An Appeal to American Tradition." The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2. (Jun, 1961), 558.
7. Vinson, 25. In March 1919, when the pre-Versailles progressive consensus still supported the League, Borah would be ruthlessly excoriated by The New Republic for attacking it, and Taft. TNR deemed Borah "a curiously petty man detailing an incredibly silly fable designed to evoke cheap laugh at the expense of a sincere and generous minded political leader. Borah may be distinguished in history as one of the forces of reaction that stood between the hundreds of millions and their desperate need for peace. But more likely he will be remembered only as man who sneered at Taft: Taft, who has risen…above personal and partisan motive; Taft who is laboring with single-hearted devotion for the honor and dignity of America, unmindful of the fact that the chief credit for his work will fall to the man who ousted him from the President's chair." "Borah the Fable-Maker," The New Republic, March 1, 1919, 130.
8. W.B. Hussman to Borah, February 7, 1920. WJB, Box 87: Railway Matters Borah to J.B. Moore, May 12, 1921. WJB, Box 87: Versailles Treaty. Borah to Frank Cobb, January 15, 1920. WJB, Box 82: 1919-20: Espionage. Toth, 560. Vinson, 25. William Borah, "The Versailles Treaty," September 26, 1921, WJB, Box 779: Speeches 1919-20.
9. Borah to John B. Mannerstam, March 7, 1922. WJB, Box 116: 1921-22: Legislation - Misc. Leuchtenburg, 57. Along the same lines: Borah commented of Rene Viviani, the French representative at the League of Nations: "I am told that Viviani is an agnostic, a disbeliever in the existence of God. I should think it would be quite natural for anyone who disbelieves in a God to thoroughly believe in the Versailles Treaty." Borah to Jas. Williams, Jr., March 29, 1921. WJB, Box 99: Newspapers.
10. Hiram Johnson to Hiram Johnson, Jr., May 31, 1919. Hiram Johnson. The Diary Letters of Hiram Johnson, 1917-1945., Robert E. Burke, ed. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983), 105.
11. Pietrusza, 179. Crunden, 266. Lloyd Ambrosius, Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 140. Weatherson and Bochin, 90.
12. La Follette, 968-969.
13. La Follette, 968. Henry Cabot Lodge wrote similarly to Beveridge, arguing that "the people of the country are very naturally fascinated by the idea of eternal preservation of the world's peace…[but t]hey have not examined it; they have not begun to think about it." Knock, 239.
14. Robert La Follette, "The War In Retrospect," RLF Box 222: Speeches.
15. Nancy Unger, Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 268.
16. Johnson, 92. Knock, 242. Of course, Borah and Johnson did not want a League even with reservations. But, with the help of Albert Beveridge as an intermediary, Lodge came to an agreement with Borah on the reservation strategy as the best way to defeat Wilson in toto. Ambrosius, 138.
17. Knock, 234,244. In that same article, TNR also presciently noted that "[i]f the League is really to be beaten, it will not be in the name of a more effective internationalism, but in the name of American nationalism, alleged to be impaired by its provisions." "The Constitution of 1919," The New Republic, February 22, 1919, 101.
18. Knock, 235, 242-243. "Agitation for a League of Nations Without Criticism," The New Republic, March 15, 1919, 202.
19. Knock, 244.

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