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The Senate and Ratification of the Treaty of Versailles

President Woodrow Wilson labored in Europe during much of the first half of 1919, seeking a peace that would incorporate what he had proposed earlier in the Fourteen Points. At home, doubts about the wisdom and fairness of Wilson’s plans began to be expressed. In the general populace, opposition developed among various ethnic groups. German-Americans became angry as it became evident that Wilson had given up on his fight to treat Germany leniently; he had held firmly to his vision of the League of Nations and secured recognition of that body in the peace treaty in return for allowing the other Allied powers to extract vengeance on Germany. Italian-Americans had generally been pleased when Italy had switched to the Allied side in 1915, but were irate to find that Wilson opposed expansionist plans at Fiume. Irish-Americans were unhappy that the president had championed the cause of so many ethnic minorities in Europe, but had failed to embrace Irish independence. Further, many Americans who lacked strong ties to the Old World were exhausted by the war, tired of the wrangling over peace and anxious to get back to domestic pursuits. A greater immediate threat to the president`s plans was raised in the Senate, where Wilson would need a constitutionally-mandated two-thirds vote for ratification. Opposition centered on Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which would conduct hearings on the treaty prior to the Senate vote. Lodge held a deep distaste for the president personally as well as legitimate questions about the agreement. The Covenant of the League of Nations was the source of much criticism. Article X of that document prescribed the use of collective security actions to guarantee the status quo in the postwar world. Lodge and others were disturbed by the prospect of having American soldiers called to protect the territorial integrity of other member states and serve under the command of foreigners in faraway places. Other critics pointed to the League’s voting procedures that assigned a single vote to the United States, but allowed six from the British Empire. Despite these sources of opposition, it should be noted that when the treaty was submitted to the Senate in July 1919, the weight of public opinion and an overwhelming majority in the Senate favored ratification if certain adjustments could be made in the agreement. Lodge realized that he was taking an unpopular position and decided that time was his ally. He began his stalling tactics by carefully reading the entire text of the treaty into the record of his committee, a poorly attended event that required two weeks. Six weeks of hearings followed, during which important testimony was offered by expert witnesses in some instances, but in others, numbing evidence was presented in excruciating detail for little purpose other than to delay the proceedings. In mid-August, Wilson attempted to speed matters along by inviting a number of the senators to the White House. He patiently answered questions for several hours, but failed to change many minds. The president then abandoned his effort to counter Lodge in the Senate and turned his attention to the general populace. Beginning on September 3, he departed on an 8,000-mile railroad trip in which he sought to drum up support for the treaty. However, the barnstorming venture came to a sudden halt late in the month when Wilson became ill. He retuned to Washington and suffered a paralyzing stroke on October 2, leaving the proponents of the treaty without effective leadership. Senate opinion on the treaty was divided into three distinct views:

  1. Supporters. Democrats loyal to Wilson wanted the treaty to be ratified in its original form without any amendments or reservations; some within this group were receptive to a small number of minor changes.
  2. Reservationists. This group claimed to be in favor of the treaty, but only after including a series of reservations prior to ratification. Senator Lodge of Massachusetts was the leader of this faction and was personally dedicated to frustrating the aims of his rival, Wilson. Other senators in this group sincerely favored the treaty, but wanted some modification to protect vital American interests. The Reservationists were the largest of the three factions.
  3. Irreconcilables. Isolationist senators, including Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, William E. Borah of Idaho and Hiram Johnson of California, opposed the treaty and American entry into the League of Nations under any circumstances. They had counseled against entering the war in the first place and now opposed participation in European affairs.
The Senate gave consideration to several dozen proposed amendments to the treaty, but eventually decided to offer their changes as reservations, which would not require the formal renegotiation of the agreement. Wilson sent word that he did not oppose “mild” reservations, but strongly rejected any attack on Article X, which he regarded as the “heart of the Covenant.” On November 19, 1919, the treaty with 14 Lodge reservations was defeated by a Senate vote of 39 in favor and 55 opposed. Democrats loyal to Wilson joined with the Irreconcilables in defeating the Reservationist proposal. A follow-up vote was taken on the treaty in its pure form without reservations; this attempt also failed. A vote of 34 for and 53 against found the Democrats supporting the measure, but the Reservationists joined the Irreconcilables in voting no. The treaty`s defeat prompted a public outcry and made Senator Lodge the target of much criticism. In February 1920, the Senate felt compelled to take up the matter again. After lengthy debate, the Senate voted on the treaty with 15 reservations on March 19. Wilson had communicated his displeasure to Democratic senators, but his control over his party was waning. A number of Democrats deserted the president’s position and voted in favor of the proposal, but the final tally of 49 in favor and 35 opposed was seven votes short of the required two-thirds total for ratification. In this instance, the loyalist Democrats teamed with the Irreconcilables to stop the measure. The ratification of the Versailles Treaty and its provision for the League of Nations had become a bitter partisan issue. Many authorities believe that if a Republican had occupied the White House — or perhaps a Democrat other than Wilson — the treaty would have gained approval. In May, Congress enacted a measure declaring a formal end to the war, but Wilson promptly vetoed it. The president remained resolute. He chose to take the matter to the electorate, asking that the Election of 1920 be a “solemn referendum” on the treaty. Wilson’s recent history of taking issues to the public had not been successful and this effort failed as well. Warren Harding and the Republicans won a smashing victory on a pledge of returning the country to “normalcy.” Wilson slipped into a bitter and short retirement. A Congressional joint-resolution ended the war with Germany and Austria-Hungary in July 1921.
See also Wilson`s Search for Peace.