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

VII. Things Fall Apart

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

Writing Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas in August 1919, Republican editor, Roosevelt Progressive, and League supporter William Allen White -- whose homespun wisdom and espousal of common-sense Midwestern values earned him the moniker "the Sage of Emporia" -- urged his former Governor to be careful about crossing Wilson on the League of Nations. "I would vote for the League with certain restrictions and reservations," he told Capper, "but I would never vote for an amendment to the League which would be unacceptable to the President. He is too smart. He is a singed cat. You think you can play politics all around him, but he fools you." Indeed, White thought the League issue could very well decide the election of 1920. "[Wilson] can be pretty nearly elected to a third term in this country…[I]f we defeat the League of Nations, we are in the Devil's own box for next year. You can discredit the old man this year, but he will turn up smiling next year, and Heaven knows that the country has had so much Democratic incompetency that another term of it would swamp us."1

William Allen White was right about the League of Nations being an election issue, but not much else. For, however canny his political instincts might have been in the past, when Woodrow Wilson arrived back in America in early July, he returned to a very different political environment than the one he had left in March.2

For one, the rude facts of the Versailles Treaty had arrived before he did, and soured many on the peace process. As early as May 1919, the Women's International Conference for Permanent Peace at Zurich weighed in with a damning statement against the treaty, expressing "deep regret that the terms of peace proposed at Versailles should so seriously violate the principles upon which alone a just and lasting peace can be secured and which the democrats of the world had come to expect." They argued the Treaty "tacitly sanctioned secret diplomacy, denied the principle of self-determination, recognized the rights of the victors to the spoils, and created all over Europe discords and animosities which can only lead to future wars." Seconded by Jeanette Rankin, the former Member of Congress who had opposed entry into World War I, the statement was approved unanimously -- meaning it also enjoyed the support of former Wilson allies Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, and Jane Addams.3

For another, Wilson's erstwhile allies among both the progressive and conservative internationalists were, after Lodge's Round Robin, now pushing for alterations in their respective directions. Even as the progressive League of Free Nations Associations (LFNA) and conservative League to Enforce Peace (LEP) officially joined forces in the summer of 1919, they began to pull Wilson's League apart.

While arguing that a "League of Nations is essential to the world's future peace, progress, and prosperity" and that a "failure to ratify a League Covenant that seems a promising beginning would be a crime against the whole world," Paul Kellogg's progressive League of Free Nations Association (LFNA) also now declared that "it would be little less criminal to regard as final and unalterable what has been wrought in haste out of the pressing exigencies of a world crisis." Stanford President David Starr Jordan, one of the early founders of the LFNA, now argued to Borah that "the ratification of the present Treaty, bad as it is, with certain reservations can be made to give better results than would follow rejection."4

By December, the LFNA was arguing that, while the Senate's reservations to the League were "vicious and petty," "the concessions made at Paris to European and Japanese nationalistic self-interests have made it impossible for President Wilson to underwrite unqualifiedly the Treaty of Versailles, with its territorial and other compromises." These compromises, "some of them violating the principles upon which the armistice was based," gave opponents of the League "their most effective argument against the treaty - that the covenant would, in effect, make the United States the chief guarantor of the perpetuation of some of the worst features of the old diplomacy and imperialistic policies of the great powers." And so they offered their own amendments to the Covenant, among them issuing a clarification that Article X would not be used to authorize "interference by the League in internal revolutions…[or in] preventing genuine redress and readjustment of boundaries."5

Caught in the grip of repression at home, other left-leaning Americans were even more vocal in their desire to see Wilson and the League fail. Writing Robert La Follette in September, Amos Pinchot urged the Irreconcilables to "shout the truth…that [Wilson] spent his time at Paris standing in the corner with a dunce cap and that he came home so thoroughly spanked that he had to run around the country because he could not sit down."6

At The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois remained a stalwart defender of the League, warts and all. "The proposed League is not the best conceivable -- indeed, in some respects, it is the worst," he told his readers in November 1919. "But the worst Internation is better than the present anarchy in international relations." However "oligarchic, reactionary, restricted, and conservative…it has a democratic Assembly, it recognizes no color line, and it can enforce peace." Thus, The Crisis argued: "Let us have the League with all its autocracy and then in the League let us work for Democracy of all races and men."7

But Du Bois and The Crisis would be increasingly lonely in this view as the League fight dragged on. More often heard in progressive circles was the view of The New Republic: "With the publication of the Treaty," the magazine recalled in November of 1920, "the New Republic was forced to conclude that the character of the peace was such that it would disturb the world it enforced. From May of 1919 the New Republic has therefore stood irreconcilably against the ratification of the Treaty which contains the Covenant of the League of Nations on the ground that the whole value of American participation in the League would be engulfed by American obligation under the Treaty."8

Meanwhile, Wilson's conservative support was badly buckling as well. The conservative internationalists who originally comprised the League to Enforce Peace (LEP) had always envisioned a League grounded in international law - where nations could arbitrate and appeal, as nations, under commonly accepted rules - rather than one subject to the whims and vagaries of political councils. But as Wilson's August distinction between legal and moral obligations makes clear, the president did not envision the law as the cement of his new League. In the words of Elihu Root, Wilson's League would see "all questions of right…relegated to the investigation and recommendation of a political body to be determined as matters of expediency." As such, it "practically abandons all effort to promote or maintain anything like a system of international law," and "puts the whole subject of arbitration back where it was twenty-five years ago." Similarly, Charles Evans Hughes lamented that "suitable steps have not been taken for the formation of international legal principles and to secure judicial determinations of disputes by impartial tribunals." Instead, decisions would rest "largely upon the decision of bodies likely to be controlled by considerations of expediency."9

Even in the face of this conservative disappointment, LEP president William Howard Taft had put on a good face -- appearing with Wilson at events and publicly supporting the League. But, in July of 1919, the façade of presidential bipartisanship was broken by the leaking of a confidential letter Taft had written to Republican Party chairman Will Hays. In it, Taft criticized Wilson's work in Paris, arguing that "some of the defects of the League of Nations are due to him. I am confident that he prevented the adoption of the plan of the League to Enforce Peace in respect to an international court and the settlement of justiciable questions…His prejudice against courts is well known."3

In this private letter, Taft did argue that "the attempt of such men as Senator Borah, Senator Johnson…and others to defeat the treaty…do not, I think, indicate the attitude of the majority of the Republican Party," and that he was "strongly in favor of ratifying the treaty as it is" and "would not hesitate to vote for it." But he also went on to outline several reservations he would offer to make the League more palatable - including limiting America's obligation under Article X to five years and making other concessions to American sovereignty, such as recognizing the Monroe Doctrine and reaffirming the prerogatives of Congress.11

Taft offered to resign as head of the LEP after his letters had been made public -- likely by Hays or one of Wilson's opponents in the Senate, with whom Taft and Hays shared the correspondence -- but the damage had been done. On both the left and right, the consensus behind the current League had fallen apart. There was no longer any debate that the League should be modified in the Senate -- only what form these changes should take. If Wilson would not be moved to accept reservations in one direction or another, the Treaty would fall.12

As is well known, Wilson was not so moved. "My clear conviction," he wrote before returning from Paris, "is that the adoption by the Treaty by the Senate with reservations would put the United States as clearly out of concert of nations as a rejection. We ought either to go in or stay out." He was assuredly not going to let the Senate make the League a tool of lawyers and imperialists. And so, already exhausted from the interminable Paris negotiations, Wilson resolved to make a stand on his League.13


The rest of the story of the League is a death of a thousand cuts. On July 10th, two days after returning from Paris, Wilson address a joint session of Congress where he implored them to follow the will of the world and pass the Treaty as written. "The stage is set, the destiny disclosed," he thundered:
It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. We cannot turn back. We can only go forward, with lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision. It was of this that we dreamed at our birth. America shall in truth show the way. The light streams upon the path ahead, and nowhere else.14
According to the New York Times, the "President's address was heard with the keenest interest by his splendid audience, but it was heard in silence." Belle La Follette -- present in the gallery above during the President's speech -- later wrote her children: "[T]here was not one handclap throughout his address and when he finished there was not nearly the warmth in the applause that there was in reception. From the few comments Daddy got from the floor, there was evident disappointment and not much pretense at satisfaction."15

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee then took up the treaty, with Lodge deliberately slow-walking the debate to let public opinion continue to turn against it. After two weeks of reading the treaty aloud, as well as the August 19th White House question-and answer session with Wilson, hostile witnesses came to testify throughout August and early September -- the most damning being that of William Bullitt, the young diplomat who would resign in disgust, on September 12th, 1919. After three hours of testimony, Bullitt read from a memo that quoted Secretary of State Robert Lansing as an opponent of the League. According to Bullitt, Lansing "considered many parts of the treaty thoroughly bad, particularly those dealing with Shantung and the League of Nations.
[Lansing] said: "I consider that the League of Nations at present is entirely useless. The great powers have simply gone ahead and arranged the world to suit themselves. England and France in particular have gotten out of the treaty everything that they wanted, and the league of nations can do nothing to alter any of the unjust clauses of the treaty except by unanimous consent of the members of the league, and the great powers will never give their consent to changes in the interests of weaker peoples."16
In case anyone had missed the point, Bullitt concluded, "Mr Lansing said: 'I believe that if the Senate could only understand what this treaty means, and if the American people could really understand, it would unquestionably be defeated."17

For Wilson, the defection of his own Secretary of State into the opposition was the unkindest cut of all, and it was not helped by Lansing's terse response to the ensuing media firestorm, delivered just before a fishing trip to Lake Ontario: "I have no comment to make." (This did not stop The Nation from running a "Resignation Not Yet Written by Robert Lansing," which had the Secretary of State calling the treaty "a grave breach of faith…which the historians of the future will inevitably take note to condemn.") The real Lansing was slightly more circumspect to the president, telling him via wire that "I recognized that certain features of the Treaty were bad, as I presumed most everyone did, but that was probably unavoidable in view of conflicting claims and that nothing ought to be done to prevent the speedy restoration of peace by signing the Treaty."18

Wilson was livid, and more than a little paranoid. Bullitt's testimony, he told Joseph Tumulty, "is a confirmation of the suspicions I have had" about Lansing, whose "trail" he saw "on the other side…everywhere [he] went." "[H]ere in his own statement is a verification at last of everything I had suspected. Think of it! This from a man who I had raised from the level of a subordinate to the great office of Secretary of State of the United States! My God!" The day after receiving Lansing's cable, September 17th, Wilson was plagued with worse headaches than ever before. By the end of the month, he would collapse.19

The same day Lansing had wired Wilson, Senator Lodge -- his work complete -- finally brought the treaty out of committee for full Senate consideration. Two months later, after invoking cloture for the first time in its history, it was time to vote. Visiting the White House to encourage Wilson to support mild, Democratic-penned reservations that could counteract Lodge's list, Senator Gilbert Hitchcock confronted an "emaciated old man with a thin white beard which had been permitted to grow." But, however sick, Wilson remained steadfast against even the slightest alteration to the Treaty "I could not stand for those changes for a moment," Wilson told him, "because it would humiliate the United States before all of the Allied countries…the United States would suffer the contempt of the world." In fact, he went on:
I want the vote of each, Republican and Democrat, recorded…because they will have to answer to the country. They must answer to the people. I am a sick man, lying in this bed, but I am going to debate this issue with these gentlemen in their respective states whenever they come up for re-election if I have breath enough in my body to carry the fight. I shall do this even if I have to give my life to it. And I will get their political scalps when the truth is known to the people…I have no doubt as to what the verdict will be when they know the facts.13
Wilson was less emphatic in his message to Congress on the subject, but the meaning was still clear. "I sincerely hope that the friends and supporters of the treaty will vote against the Lodge resolution of ratification," Wilson told Congress. "I understand that the door will probably then be open for a genuine resolution of ratification."21

And so, on November 19th, 1919, the last day of session and one year, one week, and one day after the armistice had been signed, the day of the vote came. Even if the outcome seemed decided by the president's missive to brook no compromise, Irreconcilable William Borah took no chances -- Instead, he delivered a three-hour oration against the Treaty on the floor that moved Senators, among them Henry Cabot Lodge, to tears.

Threatening to replace rule of the people by rule of force, Borah argued, the League was an existential threat to the last best hope of the world, the American republic. Should it pass, America would be inextricably entangled with the affairs of Europe, contrary to the wisdom of Washington and Monroe, and the "maxim of liberty will soon give way to the rule of blood and iron…Autocracy which has bathed the world in blood for century reigns supreme, Democracy is everywhere excluded. This, you say, means peace." Instead, Borah urged Wilson to "turn from this scheme based on force to another scheme, planned one hundred and forty-three years ago in old Independence Hall, in the city of Philadelphia, based on liberty. I like it better."22

Borah also made an eloquent case for the progressive vision of America. "[D]emocracy," he intoned, "is something more vastly more, than a mere form of government by which society is restrained into free and orderly life:
It is a moral entity, a spiritual force as well. And these are things which live only and alone in the atmosphere of liberty. The foundation upon which democracy rests is faith in the moral instincts of the people. Its ballot boxes, the franchise, its laws, and constitutions are but the outward manifestations of the deeper and more essential thing -- a continuing trust in the moral purposes of the average man and woman. When this is lost or forfeited your outward forms, however democratic in terms, are a mockery…These distinguishing virtues of a real republic you cannot commingle with the discordant and destructive forces of the Old World and still preserve them. You cannot yoke a government whose fundamental maxim is that of liberty to a government whose first law is that of force and hope to preserve the former…We may become one of the four dictators of the world, but we shall no longer be master of our own spirit. And what shall it profit us as a nation if we shall go forth to the dominion of the earth and share with others the glory of world control and lose that fine sense of confidence in the people, the soul of democracy?23
If the Irreconcilables had offended, Borah argued, it was only because they had too much faith in America - "because we have placed too high an emphasis upon the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, too exalted an opinion upon the patriotism of the sainted Lincoln…[I]f we have, in our limited vision, seemed sometimes bitter and at all times uncompromising," Borah explained, "the things which we have endeavored to defend have been the things for which your fathers and our fathers were willing to die."24

In the final vote, those fathers were not dishonored. The Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles with the Lodge reservations attached by a vote of 59 to 33 -- seven short of the needed two-thirds majority -- and then rejected it again, without reservations 53-38. In the first vote, the Irreconcilables had joined with the Democratic stalwarts to defeat the Lodge reservations. In the second, they sided with the Republicans against the Wilsonians.25

Either way, the treaty was defeated. But even then, there was still one more chance to save the treaty. The Senate, after being bombarded with requests from both conservatives and Wilsonian progressives, agreed to hold one more vote on the League in the following session. But the deeply ill president remained recalcitrant -- and increasingly desperate.

Early in January, Wilson contemplated "challeng[ing] the following named gentlemen, members of the Senate of the United States, to resign their seats in that body and take immediate steps to seek re-election to it on the basis of their several records with regards to the ratification of the treaty. For myself, I promise if all of them or even a majority of them are re-elected, I will resign." After much discussion was his advisors, Wilson was talked out of this high-stakes gambit. Instead, at a January 8, 1920 Jackson Day Dinner, Wilson threw down a slightly more subtle gauntlet: "The clear and single way out is to submit it for determination at the next election to the voters of the nation, to give the next election the form of a great and solemn referendum."26

The following month, on Sunday, February 1st, 1920, ambassadors from England and France told Wilson they would accept the Lodge reservations in order to preserve the participation of the United States in the League, Wilson replied: "No, Ambassador, I shall consent to nothing. The Senate must take its medicine." When Bernard Baruch, head of Wilson's War Industries Board, implored the president to agree to the Lodge reservations, Wilson answered simply, "Et tu, Brute." To Senate Democrats who were thinking of embracing the reservations in March, Wilson wrote: "I hear of reservationists and mild reservations, but I cannot understand the difference between a nullifier and a mild nullifier."27

For their part, the Senate followed to form. Even with some Wilson Democrats joining the reservationists in an attempt to save the League, they again rejected the treaty in March. Irreconcilable James Reed called the League "as dead as Hector" - To Lodge, it was "as dead as Marley's ghost." Wilson began envisioning for himself a martyr's death. "It probably would have been better if I had died last fall," he told his doctor after the vote. Visiting the president a few days later, George Creel was aghast at what he saw. Wilson's "bloodless lips," Creel reported, "moved continuously, as if framing arguments and forming new appeals." His eyes were "filled with an anguish such as I trust never to see again. 'If only I were not helpless,' he whispered." The final nail of the coffin came that November, when, even worse than two years before, Wilson and his party were decisively repudiated at the polls. "So far as the United States is concerned," said Lodge in the flush of victory, "that League is dead." Similarly, in his first speech after being elected in a landslide, Harding pronounced Wilson's League "now deceased." Whatever form a League under Harding might take, the president-elect promised, "it will be an association which surrenders nothing of American freedom."28

Continue to Chapter 2, Pt. 8: Aftermath.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. White to Arthur Capper, August 21, 1919. Johnson, 200-201.
2. While there was no way he could have known, White was also wrong about the big picture. In the same letter, he argues: "Here is the political situation as I see it. Sixty per cent of the Kansas people are against the League today, possibly more. But if the League is defeated, we will have to go ahead with a strong military program, which will mean universal service and a big navy…[T]o use a military program as a permanent, everlasting policy of America would lick the Republican party worse than it has ever licked before, and it would be the last licking it would ever get." Generations of later Republicans would emphatically disagree with this assessment.
3. "Women Denounce Terms," New York Times, May 15, 1919. "Women see Germans doomed to Poverty," New York Times, May 16, 1919.
4. It is Up to You!," advertisement for LFNA, The New Republic, 1919. David Starr Jordan to William Borah, Borah Box 82: 1919-1920 Espionage. My italics.
5. "Frames Proposal on Treaty Changes," New York Times, December 7, 1919.
6. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 184. Like so many other progressives, Pinchot blamed Wilson's personality for the failure at Versailles. "The public is inclined to think Mr. Wilson a wise person. As a matter of fact, he does not know much, hates to digest anything, and trusts to his brilliancy and tact to carry him through." If America knew "how ignorant" and "utterly sloppy…his preparation for the great struggle with European diplomacy," Pinchot argued, "they would begin to say 'This man is either a liar or an ass."
7. "The League of Nations," The Crisis, Vol. 19, No. 1, November, 1919, 336-337.
8. "The Verdict on the League," The New Republic, November 10, 1920, 255.
9. Wertheim, 797-836.Upon discovering that lawyers were writing the first draft of the League covenant in Paris, Wilson exclaimed: "Who authorized them to do this? I don't want lawyers drafting this treaty." To Wilson, "law in a moving, vital society grows old, obsolete, impossible, item by item."
10. "Taft's Move Conciliatory," New York Times, July 24, 1919.
11. Ibid. John Milton Cooper, Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 115.
12. Cooper, 115. Knock, 258.
13. Cooper, 116. Knock, 258, 267-269 In the words of historian Thomas Bailey in 1945, Wilson's intransigence was "The Supreme Infanticide…With his own sickly hands, Wilson slew his brain child." Similarly, Richard Hofstadter argued that the League fight "became a matter of the most desperate psychological urgency for him. His plans had been hamstrung, his hopes abandoned until nothing but the League was left…The League was now a question of moral salvation or annihilation, for everything he stood for hung in the balance." To this oft-told story, more recent historians have added the depths of Wilson's sickness, which further calcified and hardened his position. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 128-129.
14. Woodrow Wilson, "Address to the Senate," July 10th, 1919. Reprinted at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4979/
15. La Follette, 969-970. John Milton Cooper notes: "On the return voyage, Wilson uncharacteristically struggled for several days to produce a draft of the speech…Ray Stannard Baker noted in his diary on July 1st that Wilson 'found probably for the first time in his entire life that his work of the day before had not satisfied him, so he was forced to begin all over…He said he found it a difficult message to write…' Wilson claimed the trouble was that 'he had so very little respect for the audience to which he would deliver the address.' The president also reads his speech to five advisors on the ship - three financiers (Thomas Lamont, Bernard Baruch, Norman Davis), democratic activist Vance McCormack, and academic economic Frank Taussig, According to Cooper, "his reaching out now betrayed uncharacteristically shaky self-confidence and questionable judgment in his test audience." Cooper, Breaking the Heart of the World, 116-117.
16. Cooper, 169-170.
17. Ibid.
18. "A Resignation Not Yet Written by Robert Lansing," The Nation, Sept. 20, 1919, 389. Cooper, 170. Pietrusza, 42-43.
19. Pietrusza, 43. The following year, in February of 1920, Lansing would be forced to resign due to "disloyalty" - namely, calling Cabinet meetings without the sick president attending. Said Senator George Norris of this incident, in a letter that leaked to the New York Times: "first the President was incapacitated, and it was necessary for someone to look after the Government; second, the mental expert that was employed at the White House was discharged too soon." Lowitt, 124.
20. Pietrusza, 50-51.
21. La Follette, 982.
22. William Borah, "The League of Nations," November 19, 1919.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid. Borah was such a believer in the American system of democracy that, two years later, he (perhaps presciently) prescribed it for Europe: "There is another subject," he told an editor of the New York Times, "if I could find the time, to give the Times an article on, and that is the subject of the federalization of Europe. It may be a fanciful one in the minds of some, but I venture to say that just the proposition as the principal upon which the American Republic was founded (just now unfortunately being destroyed), is the principal which will finally bring peace and prosperity to Europe." Borah to R.H. Graves, July 26, 1921. WJB, Box 99: Newspapers.
25. Knock, 263-264. Henry Cabot Lodge, The Senate and the League of Nations, 1925. Senate.gov, http://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_item/Versailles.htm
26. Pietrusza, 181.
27. Ibid. Wesley M. Bagby, The Road to Normalcy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), 54, 57.
28. Ann Hagedorn, Savage Fear: Hope and Peace in America, 1919 (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997), 407. Smith, 142-143. Knock, 269. "A Constructive World League Program," The Nation, November 17, 1920 (Vol. 111, No. 2889), 549.

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