America and the League of Nations




The Treaty of Versailles was the first peace accord to not make it through Congress.  Written to end World War I, the Treaty of Versailles contained within it demands for reparations from Germany, established new territorial boundaries, and additionally contained the controversial creation of the League of Nations.  It is this inclusion of the League mandates that essentially caused the Treaty to fail in Congress.  The rejection of the Treaty of Versailles is in all intents, a rejection of the League of Nations.  For this reason, when discussing any opposition to the Treaty it should be understood as opposition to the League and her mandates.  It is possible to understand Congress’ rejection of the treaty as a political move from a Republican Congress to a Democratic President.  However, it also contains within it a lens from which to understand the shifting opinion of the American people as a whole.  In understanding the American reaction to the Treaty of Versailles, namely the idea of a world governing body, it is possible to understand—not only their opinion of the war—but also their idea of what American involvement in world affairs should look like after the war.  In order to have a clear understanding of the American reaction it must be gauged against the reality of World War I itself and the European reaction.  Furthermore, the events that occurred throughout the ratification debates are also important when attempting decipher the cause and effects the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles had on America, namely in regards to future diplomatic endeavors.



World War I: A Brief Overview

The world was decisively and definitively different after World War I.  Economically and politically, the War had caused shifts in the dominant world powers.   The rise of America was matched by the dire economic conditions found in much of central Europe, as well as Russia.  War debt from Europe to America and the subsequent demand for reparations from Germany to the Allies, left much of Europe and America intertwined in a web of economic dependence.  Such a dependence filtered into political implications that necessitated, to some degree, involvement by all European nations and America in the global community as a whole.  However, given the diverging conditions that nations found themselves in after the war, the character of each nation’s involvement would begin to reflect much of that country’s opinion on the war and foreign affairs.  The clearest example of the differing reactions to the war is through the treatment of the Treaty of Versailles, particularly regarding the inclusion of the League of Nations within the peace treaty.  Therefore, in understanding the process that Europe as a whole took towards the creation and ratification of the treaty and comparing it to the American rejection of the treaty one can see the core differences between the America and Europe after World War I.

World War I, at the time commonly referred to as the war to end all wars, was fought from June of 1914 until end of 1918.  It began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  The total cost of the war in dollars was well over a hundred billion dollars, with America alone spending over twenty-two billion dollars.  Over half the men mobilized by either the Allies or the Central Powers were counted among the causalities by the end of the war.  While the world had seen conflicts involving several nations before, the number of participants and type of warfare present in World War I made it one of the deadliest wars of the twentieth century.

Technological advancements in weaponry caused an evolution in military tactics which resulted in trench warfare and an increase in casualties.  The three advancements that had the greatest impact of military affairs were the infantry rifle, machine guns, and field artillery.[1]  These weapons were faster and deadlier; having combined such ideas as breech loading and rifled barrels, these weapons allowed a single man to be more effective in battle. Daniel T. Lathrop wrote, “Each of these new weapons decreased the ability of normal infantry to attack well-defended positions and resulted in massive casualties during the initial stages of World War I. This drastically reduced the effectiveness of all massed infantry and cavalry formations in the open during daylight and resulted in “…one protected mans capability of defending against several attackers…which raised the odds for the defense.”[2]  Furthermore, advances in photography and journalism allowed this war to be documented.  Such documentation coupled with the stories of returning soldiers would ultimately have a grave and important effect on the American reaction to the war.

The Ally victory on November 11, 1918 allowed Britain, France, and America to have a large amount of influence on the character of the postwar world.  Germany, as the strongest of the Central Powers, would receive strict demands within the Treaty of Versailles.  Also included in the Treaty were discussions of political relations between Germany and her neighbors-- including Belgium, Luxemburg, and France—as well as laying out German rights and responsibilities.


Treaty of Versailles: General Summary of Clauses

Written in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles ended World War and settled political and territorial issues.   Articles 31 -39 gave Belgium express and immediate sovereignty over her territory, which included, “territory of Prussian Moresnet situated on the west of the road from Liege to Aix-la-Chapelle [and]… the whole of the Kreise of Eupen and of Malmedy.”[3]  Essentially, any changes in territory can be understood in this manner: Alsace-Lorraine was given to France; Eupen and Malmedy were given to Belgium, Northern Schleswig was given to Denmark, and Hultschin was given to Czechoslovakia.[4] Additionally, all of Germany’s overseas colonies were placed under control of the League of Nations.  Furthermore, the land Germany had acquired in the Treaty of Brest-Litsovk went into the creation of three new states (Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia), as well as the expansion of Poland.  Beyond territorial changes the Treaty saw that Germany was limited in naval and military power.  Under the Treaty it was also mandatory for Germany to accept full responsibility for the war.  This article, number 231, is known as the War Guilt Clause and anchored Germany with the financial responsibility for postwar reconstruction in Britain and France.  The amount of the debt owed was not set at this time; however, the existence of this debt would prove to be interesting economic and political reality for the world between the World Wars.  The treaty also included in it lesser points concerning railways, waterways, and prisoners of war.  Yet, the core of the League—outside of ending the war itself—was the creation of the League of Nations.  This matter was dealt with in the first twenty-six articles and created the first world governing body.




League of Nations: Origin of Idea

The League of Nations was the practical consequence of an idea that was in development long before the end of the war.  John H. Latané writes in the introduction to his discussion of the evolution of the League idea that, "The idea of a league to preserve peace is an old one and has claimed the attentions at intervals of statesmen and publicists from the famous plan of the Duc de Sully, minister of Henry IV of France to Roosevelt's speech at Christiania in 1910, but it was not until after the outbreak of the World War in 1914 that the idea took hold of the popular imagination."[5]  Theodore Roosevelt's speech that Latané references is a speech given on May 5, in which Roosevelt clearly stated the reasons for and the hopes toward the erection of such a league as the League of Nations, "Finally, it would be a masterstroke if those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force if necessary, its being broken by others. The supreme difficulty in connection with developing the peace work of The Hague [a world court] arises from the lack of any executive power, of any police power to enforce the decrees of the court. In any community of any size the authority of the courts rests upon actual or potential force: on the existence of a police, or on the knowledge that the able-bodied men of the country are both ready and willing to see that the decrees of judicial and legislative bodies are put into effect."[6]  Beyond just the general idea of a world governing body, the specific idea of a league began to take form with the beginnings of World War I.  A letter as early as October 18, 1914 had Theodore Marburg writing to President Wilson that, "... in fact the only road to a league of peace is the crushing of German militarism."[7] 

Americans were first introduced to the ideas behind the League in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which Wilson presented to a joint session of Congress in January of 1918.  Practically, Wilson was laying out his plans for postwar reconstruction, however, it is within these Fourteen Points that Wilson began to discuss the responsibility and potential for America to part of bringing democracy, order, and freedom to the other nations of the world.  While some of these points are merely practical decrees—such as the thirteenth point demanding a free Poland—there exists still an express idea of a world governing body.  Point fourteen states clearly, "A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike."[8]  History shows that the idea of a world organization created to promote and guard peace is not necessarily a new one; however, the specific idea for the League of Nations was an underlying discussion between politicians and statesmen unlike from the beginning of World War I.  Even America, a nation that was not officially involved in the war, found itself asserting the idea of an international agency.  This assertion can be linked to the idealistic and ambitious nature of President Wilson.  That, however, will be discussed momentarily.  First it is important to walk through, briefly, the steps taken at the Paris Peace Conference to establish the first modern world governing body.


versai.gifLeague of Nations: Covenant and Structure

A little more than a year after the Wilson’s proposed Fourteen Points were offered as the American answer to postwar construction, the plenary council at the Paris Peace Conference accepted the creation of the League of Nations.  Two days later, on January 27, 1919, the election for the Covenant planning committee occurred and concrete construction for the League was under way.[9]  By April 18th, less than three months later, the Covenant as drafted was unanimously accepted by the Council.

The prominent role that Woodrow Wilson had in the development of the League of Nations is an important part in understanding the American reaction.  To begin, Wilson himself went to Paris to handle the negotiations.  He arrived in Paris on December 14 and began almost immediately to push for the League of Nations, visiting with representatives from Italy and England.  Once the Conference began, Wilson headed up the commission created to draft the League Covenant.  Furthermore, the apparent leaning of the other commission members seems clear.  Colonel House, a member of Wilson’s own delegation, Lord Robert Cecil—a leading British advocate of the League idea, and General Jan Smuts were all open supporters of an international ruling body.  On February 14, President Wilson stood in front of the gathered delegates of the Conference and read aloud the completed draft of the League Covenant.  The victory that Wilson had in this document, known as the Draft Covenant, is clear when one sees the continuation of his thoughts within the articles of the Draft itself.  It is clear to John Milton Cooper Jr. as he writes of the woodrow.jpgLeague Fight and Wilson’s involvement that, “…Wilson could not disguise what a giant step he had taken… the Draft Covenant retained the essential features of his program.”[10]  Wilson, essentially and in all practical purposes, was the father of the League idea.  Furthermore, it was never far from his mind the political fight it would take to pass the League of Nations, and thus the Treaty of Versailles itself, through Congress.  It was important to him that he toe the line of American Constitutionalism, while to propagating his ideas for international peace and unity.  In the end he thought he had achieved that goal, proudly—though wearily—presenting the Draft Covenant less than a month after the commission was formed.  In the end the structure and the mandates of the League were laid out with the express goal of establishing and maintaining peace.


The League was to be established in Geneva, Switzerland—a neutral country during World War I.  There were four main Text Box: President Woodrow Wilsonelements to the formation of the League of Nations: the Assembly, the International Court, the Secretariat, and finally the League Council.[11]  Every state that is a member of the League has a representative within the Assembly.  This entire Assembly meets once a year, whereas the Council meets four times a year.  The Council is an interesting point of compromise within the formation of the League.  Originally, it was thought that the council would be made up of only the Great Powers—United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan.  Smaller states insisted that they have equal influence; thus an additional four rotating seats were added to the Council.  This left nine original seats on the Council: five permanent positions for the Great Powers and the remaining four to be revolving seats; these seats were on three year rotations which a mandatory three year break in between times of service.  There was a further shift in the Council make up in the mid twenties.  Germany’s entry into the League resulted in changes that created a fourteen person Council.  There were five permanent members with Germany being the additional permanent state and nine rotating seats.[12]  The Secretariat was the most constant and important part of the League structure.  “The Secretariat is the working instrument of the League, performing in the international sphere all the functions of a national civil service.  It consists of about 500 people… [t]he Sections deal with such questions as Mandates, Minorities, Disarmament and Health, political, legal, economic, financial, social, and other matters.”[13]

The League of Nations is structured in such a way that it is able to pass judgment—in large part through the Permanent Court of International Justice in Hague—and issue decrees.  However, it is the lack of enforcement mechanisms that effectively weakens the League to the obedience of its members alone.  That the League does not establish for itself a standing army or even mandate with membership compulsory supply of troops when needed means the greatest tool within the arsenal of the League is economic sanctions.  As stated in Article 16 of the League Covenant the initial and strongest action the League can actually take is cutting off financial and economic ties; “Should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other Members of the League, which hereby undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nationals of the covenant-breaking State, and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking State and the nationals of any other State, whether a Member of the League or not.”[14]  It must be noted that the desire to preserve national identity and sovereignty undermined the effectiveness of League as an internal executive force.  Harris writes in discussion of the League, “The Covenant itself is an international treaty , binding it signatories as formally and finally as other clauses of the same treaty… But it binds them, of course, to nothing not set out explicitly in its different articles.  The extent of the League’s powers is much less notable than their limitation.”[15]  The structure of the League allows it to be only as strong as the submission of nations—both members and non-members to it.  Thus the League’s need to assert its purpose and prove its necessity is constant and unfailing.

The intention behind the League of nations is asserted in the first words of the Covenant.  Every nation signing the Treaty of Versailles and joining the League must agree:

by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war,

by the prescription of open, just and honourable relations between nations,

by the firm establishment of the understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among Governments, and

by the maintenance of justice and a scrupulous respect for all treaty obligations in the dealings of organised peoples with one another[16]


The League is created to establish peace.  The subsequent articles of the Covenant reveal how the league intends to satisfy such an obligation.  Namely, the League is demanding an accountability for its members to submit any disputes of international concern to the League for arbitration.  Mediation seems to be one of the greatest mechanism the League has for maintaining peace.  Articles 12, 13 and 15 all expressly command nations to bring forth their disputes for international mediation over war or independent sanctions of any kind.  To further limit war, the League issued Article 8 which stipulates a disarmament—which is necessary in their minds for peace—that is still consistent with “national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations.”[17]  Finally the League took two steps in Articles 22 and 23.  First, it created mandates from which the League could issue rules and decrees for territories and colonies to help educate and advance the not yet modern land.  These mandates would place the League of Nations over most of Africa and parts of the South Pacific, to name a few areas of influence.  It was believed that by placing these places under the tutelage of League members these fledgling areas could be reared in such a manner to guarantee their development into peaceful members of the League.  Article 23 expanded the League’s influence into domestic issues; essentially humanitarian issues were clarified.  These included treatment of natives, proper and fair conditions for work, freedom of communications.  Article 23 also has the members of the League expressly permitting the League of Nations to supervise their agreements regarding trafficking of humans, drugs, and weapons.  These are the means that the League enacts so as to create a peaceful and functioning world.  It was the belief that if a system existed in which war was a last resort, it could be altogether avoided.  The hope was that economic interdependence and international opinion would be enough to curb the historical and, it would seem, natural tendency for nations to use force to protect and promote their own national well being.  Wilson desperately tried to bring his idea into reality for the world and America.  However, this attempt resulted in the first renunciation of a treaty by Congress in the history of America.


The League Fight: Opposition at Home

Politicians had been weighing in on how America should respond to the peace treaty and the League of Nations.  Even before the Draft Covenant was offered or accepted, opposition was already forming its arguments against the proposed League of Nations.  The opposition can be broken down into five groups:


Name of Position

Who Took It

Strong Internationalists

Wilson & 27 Democrats

Limited Internationalists

Butler, Taft, & 8 Republicans

Mild Reservationists

Hitchcock, 20 Republicans, & 20 Democrats

Strong Reservationists

Lodge & 7 Republicans


Borah, Johnson, 14 Republicans, &  1 Democrat

Table 1- Breakdown of Congress during League Fight[18]


In order to understand why the tension between these viewpoints was strong and a compromise almost impossible, each position’s viewpoint must be laid out.  The Strong Internationalists were Wilsonian supporters without much wavering.  They believed that the creation of the League was an issue that could not be reduced to American politics, but part of a greater international movement for peace.  No reservations or changes to the original Treaty could be accepted.  Wilson was the most prominent of the Strong Internationalists and had a strong following in 27 Democrats. 

Limited Internationalists were led mostly by William H. Taft.  These Limited Internationalists supported the idea of the League because they recognized that a unified international body could hold much influence in preventing war.  However, the idea that America could potentially be forced into an unwanted war causes them to hesitate to fully back the League.  They do, however, have faith in the ability of a unified and cohesive international body being able to effectively prevent any unwanted wars to erupt, thus nullifying the concern of fighting unwanted wars. 

Mild Reservationalists had the strongest numbers within the Senate.  Led by Senator Gilbert M. Hitchcock, Mild Reservationists found themselves supporting the idea of the League as the best possible hope for prevention of another war.  They were concerned with the imperfections with the League Covenant; however, the Mild Reservationists sought a compromise between the opposing sides in hope that the League could become a reality and effectively steer the world toward peace. 

The Strong Reservationists were headed up by Wilson’s greatest political—and perhaps personal—enemy, Henry Cabot Lodge.  Essentially, Lodge’s greatest dilemma with the League of Nations was that it impeded upon American sovereignty.  The two points of contention for Lodge were the delegation of the legislative powers—to make war, dictate disarmament, and establish sanctions—from Congress to a body outside of the United States.  For Lodge, it was unconstitutional to delegate these powers in any manner; to hand those powers over to an international body would effectively reduce America to the dictates and decisions of the League of Nations.  Furthermore, his issues with Article X were evident.  That America could be expected to fight wars that are unwarranted or irrelevant to America political and daily life seems to be a direct encroachment upon national sovereignty. 

Finally the Irreconcilables held the position that practically the League was not going to function as planned.  The idea that a group of nations, which have historically acted on behalf of their own national interest, would surrender such notions and approach arbitration selflessly seemed to the Irreconcilables to be overly idealistic.  Furthermore, what plan of action did America have if the League acted in an unwanted manner?  Was American membership in the League contingent upon constant American approval?  For the Irreconcilables like William Borah, this issue caused him to oppose the League wholly.  No reservations or changes could be presented which would change the fundamentally flawed nature of the League of Nations.[19]

Much of the League Fight surrounds Article 10 which states, “The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.”[20]  Therefore, the three reservations offered to Congress dealt mostly with changes within Article 10.  The three reservations offered were known as the Lodge Reservations, the Taft Reservations, and the Hitchcock Reservations. 

83701.jpgThe first set of reservations offered were the Lodge Reservations on November 6, 1919.  There were fourteen total reservations which dealt with maintaining and asserting American sovereignty.  Henry Cabot Lodge (pictured to the left) offered these reservations as a means to his idea of American nationalism.  With respect to the Constitution, Lodge asserts that Congress alone can engage US military personnel in any form of combat or to accept any form of mandates without Congressional approval (Reservations 2 &3).   Furthermore, under these reservations it would be America alone who would decide if her international obligations were satisfied in the case of League withdrawal (Reservation 1) and the United States would still act in accordance with past legislation, namely the Monroe Doctrine.  Essentially, these reservations were retaining American sovereignty at the expense of the League credibility.  On November 19, 1919 both the original treaty and the treaty with the Lodge reservations was struck down by Congress.

The Hitchcock Reservation dealt only with Article 10.  It stated:

Text Box: Henry Cabot LodgeThe United States assumes no obligation to employ its military or naval forces or the economic boycott to preserve the territorial integrity or political independence of any other country member under the provisions of Article X or to employ the military or naval forces of the United States under any article of the treaty for any purpose unless in any particular case the Congress which under the Constitution has the sole power to declare war or authorize the employment of the military or naval forces of the United States shall by Act or joint resolution provide. . Nothing herein shall be deemed to impair the obligation in Article 16 concerning the economic boycott[21]

Hitchcock, as a Mild Reservationist, sought a compromise above all else.  On January 27, 1920 he offered his own reservations.  Thus, in maintaining the American legislative right to declare war of its own volition and still allowing the League to retain some of its influence over America, Hitchcock hoped to provide a middle ground from which to join the League.  This reservation never made it to a vote.

The final attempt at compromise through changes to the treaty was offered by former President Taft on January 29, 1920.  Taft’s reservation trumps the idea of moral obligations.  In it he states, “The United States declines to assume any legal or binding obligations to preserve the territorial integrity or political independence of any other country under the provisions of Article X or to employ the military or naval forces of the United States under any article of the treaty for any purpose; but Congress which under the Constitution has sole power in the premises, will consider and decide what moral obligation if any under the circumstances of any particular case, when it arises, should move the United States in the interest of world peace and parties, to take action therein and will provide accordingly”[22]  This reservation also never made it to a vote.

Finally, on May 20, 1920 Congress voted to end the war through a joint session.  Wilson vetoed this decision, essentially leaving America still in a state of war with Germany and the Central Powers.  However, in November of that year Senator Warren G. Harding was elected president.  This result was seen as a referendum of Wilson’s foreign policy.  In May of 1921 Congress again voted to end the war.  This time it made it through the new President and individual treaties were signed with Germany, Austria, and Hungary.[23]

Rejection of the League & Subsequent American Foreign Policy

In this manner the first peace treaty failed to make it through the Senate.  Wilson had fought hard for the full implementation of the League.  He traveled the country making speeches to entice public opinion toward the idea of the League.  Much of his foundation for support came from America wanting to avoid another bloody and protracted war.  However, with time America became disillusioned with idealistic reasons for entering the war in the first place.  Combining such a shift with the speaking tour of Borah and Wilson had lost, not only the support of the Senate, but also the consent of the people for the League of Nations.  Throughout the League Fight, Wilson stood firm on his belief that the Treaty must be accepted in its complete and original form.  He constantly asserted his disproval for any of the reservations, even when Britain and France supported them.  For this reason, the defeat of the League of Nations in America is understood as the great political and personal defeat of President Woodrow Wilson.

America, itself, faced an intriguing challenge.  In wanting to avoid war—essentially to become isolationist—while still being economically interdependent on the world, America created a tension in which they had to be active in world matters but on their own terms.  From this position one can understand the Washington Conference in 1921, and the three treaties that resulted from it, can be understood as the American effort to participate narrowly and with full control in disarmament.  The same can be said of the London Economic Conference in the early thirties.  In between the two World Wars, America was not completely isolationist.  However, the public push to be so was strong.  Domestically, Wilson’s reasons for entering the war were attacked, with almost complete blame falling on big businesses and economic ties with belligerent nations.  Having understood this, one can see how much, if not all, of American foreign policy up until she entered World War II was a reaction to Wilson’s ideology and the outcome of World War I.

America was able to take such a stand because of her geographical and economic position after the war.  Not threatened directly by any of the struggling or dangerous powers of Europe, America was able to make political decisions at a safe geographical position.  Furthermore, America was one of the few nations not on the brink of economic devastation after the first war.  In fact, it was American loans to Germany that kept the reparations system afloat as long as it did.  The three Presidents between Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt were much more domestically minded.  They concerned themselves with the booming economy and rise of the American middle class.



[1] Lathrop, Daniel T. How did the advancement in weapons technology prior to World War One

influence the rapid evolution of German infantry tactics from 1914 to 1918? (accessed April 27, 2008), 4

[2] Ibid. 7

[3] Treaty of Versailles, Articles 33 and 34. (accessed on April 27, 2008)

[4] Treaty of Versailles. “The terms of the Treaty of Versailles” (accessed April 27, 2008)

[5] Latané, John H. Development of the League of Nations Idea. New York: The Macmillan Company. (1932), vi

[6] Roosevelt, Theodore. Nobel Lecture, May 5, 1910. (accessed April 28, 2008)

[7] Marburg, Theodore. "Letter to Woodrow Wilson October 18, 1910" Development of the League of Nations Idea. Latané, John H. eds. New York: The Macmillan Company. (1932)

[8]Wilson, Woodrow. Fourteen Points. (accessed April 29, 2008)

[9] Strollo, Philip J. The World at War: League of Nations Timeline. (accessed April 29, 2008)

[10] Cooper, John Milton Jr. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight League of Nations. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. (2001), 53

[11] Harris, H. William.  The League of Nations.  London: Ernest Benn Limited. (1929) 12

[12] Ibid. 14-15

[13] Ibid. 15

[14] The Covenant of the League of Nations.  Article 16. (accessed April 29, 2008)

[15] Harris, H. William.  The League of Nations.  London: Ernest Benn Limited. (1929) 8

[16] The Covenant of the League of Nations. (accessed April 29, 2008)

[17] Ibid. Article 8

[18] League Fight: A Chronology. (accessed April 29. 2008)

[19] The Debate Over the League of Nations.  (accessed April 30, 2008)

[20] The Covenant of the League of Nations. (accessed April 29, 2008)


[21] League Fight: A Chronology. (accessed April 29. 2008)

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.