The League of Nations and the reason why the United States refused joining

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson, the then-President of the United States, advocated strongly for the establishment of an international organization that could prevent future wars and maintain peace across the globe.

This vision gave birth to the League of Nations after the carnage of World War I. However, the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty that would have made the country a member of the League of Nations. Why was that case?

In the article below, World History Edu explores the history of the League of Nations as well as the primary reason why the United States declined to be a member.

Why was the League of Nations established?

The primary function of the League was to prevent the outbreak of war by setting international quarrels and solving the disputes between States which might result in a war between them.

During the first ten years of its existence, the League had several achievements to its credit. It settled several international disputes between States and nations and thus prevented the outbreak of war between them. During its twenty years of existence, the League settled thirteen political disputes.

Did you know?

  • In 1924, the headquarters of the League was named “Palais Wilson”, after Woodrow Wilson. The US president is generally credited as the “Founder of the League of Nations.”
  • The first meeting of the Council of the League of Nations took place on 16 January 1920 in the Salle de l’Horloge at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris.

The Palais Wilson (also known as Wilson Palace) in Geneva, Switzerland served as the HQ of the League of Nations from 1920 to 1936.

European powers scramble for colonies abroad and the tense geopolitical situation that led to World War I

The Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century saw European powers colonize and influence the continent for its natural resources and trading markets. Italy and Germany were relative newcomers to this scramble and were looking to expand their influence.

Having experienced firsthand in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 how devastating the Germans can be, France, along with Britain and other European nations, became increasingly suspicious of the Germans. In response, the Triple Entente powers of Britain, France, and Russia formed alliances to stand up to Germany’s growing influence and might. Germany then proceeded to establish its own alliance in response, forming the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy.

And just as predicted by the great Prussian statesman and diplomat Otto von Bismarck, “a great European war” came to the continent after Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Obviously, as tragic as the assassination of the heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungry was, Europe was already teetering on the brink of implosion before the event at Sarajevo.

When World War I erupted in the summer of 1914, the general assertion was that the conflict was going to be a quick and relatively bloodless one.

However, it turned out to be one of the most brutal wars in history, with trench warfare becoming a new kind of warfare. Both military alliances in the war took to building trenches to offer cover against artillery and gunfire, and soldiers suffered attrition and casualties due to the technological advancements made in lethal military gear like tanks, machine guns and poison gas, barbed wire, and land mines.

For example, WWI was the first time tanks were used on the battlefield. The tanks were the British Mark I, which had steering tail at the rear.

Image: Tanks on parade in London at the end of World War I

April 1917: The United States make an entry into the War

The US entered World War I in April 1917, supporting the Allied Powers with troops and finances. The arrival of U.S. troops went a long way in turning tides in the favor of the Allied Powers, and pressure began to ramp up on the Germans and their allies.

United States enters World War I

President Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, 2 April 1917

Even though the Germans had some breathing space after the Russia pulled out, the fact that they had to contend with the several tens of thousands of well-trained and energetic US forces made things dire for them. Making things even worse for the German Kaiser and his ministers was the naval blockade erected by the British meant to cause severe food shortages in Germany.

In the spring of 1918, the Germans decided to take the fight to the Allied Powers by unleashing the Spring Offensive. That offensive did not go according to plan. Allied Powers managed to brush of Germany’s offensive and embarked on a counterattack with the Hundred Days Offensive.

First World War

Italian soldiers in trench, 1918

The US and its European allies successfully pushed Germany back throughout the fall of 1918. By early winter of that year, the German leadership had begun to buckle under the pressures of chronic food shortages and a myriad of social unrest. German Kaiser Wilhelm II decided the time had come for him to pack and leave. The Kaiser abdicated on November 9, 1918.

Armistice of 11 November 1918

Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch, second from right, pictured outside the carriage in Compiègne after agreeing to the armistice that ended the war there.

All across the United States, people celebrated when the Germans agreed to a cease-fire two days after the abdication of their Kaiser. As France was one of the biggest sufferers of the four-year bloody war, its diplomats at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 demanded Germany be punished severely. Britain and other European nations shared similar ideas.

However, there were some diplomats, mostly those from the United States, who believed that exacting a harsh peace deal on the Germans could result in the resumption of the bloodshed.

Paris Peace Conference in 1919

The Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference on 27 May 1919, following the end of World War I. Wilson is standing next to Georges Clemenceau at right.

The Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference on 27 May 1919, following the end of World War I. Wilson is standing next to Georges Clemenceau at right. Image (L-R): David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States

The Paris Peace Conference was anything but a simple affair. It was wrought with challenges with complex questions right from the onset. For example, should the United States have any say in the peace process considering the fact that it was not even part of the Triple Entente to begin with? And since Russia had pulled out a year before the war ended, should Russia, who was then under communist leadership, be invited to Paris? All those questions made the Paris Peace Conference a site filled with diplomatic land mines.

Difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day

Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

Even before the Germans accepted a cease-fire in late 1918, then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had started drawing up peace plan for Europe and the rest of the world. In January 1918, the Democrat President summited what he termed as the Fourteen Points to lawmakers on Capitol Hill for deliberation.

The Fourteen Points were based on several key principles, including the right of all peoples to self-determination, the establishment of free trade, the ending of secret treaties, the reduction of arms, and the creation of an international organization to resolve disputes through diplomacy.

President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points

An American political cartoon showing US President Woodrow Wilson with his 14 points trying to make difficult choices between competing claims by European powers following the end of World War I.

The League of Nations: An international order to end all future wars?

The fourteenth and final point in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points called for the creation of a League of Nations, an international organization that would serve as a forum for resolving disputes between nations.

Wilson’s vision for a new international order was motivated by a desire to prevent future wars and to ensure that the United States would be a leader in promoting peace and stability around the world.

The notion of an international organization promoting peace was welcomed by many people both at home and abroad. However, many diplomats at the Paris Peace Conference as well as Republican members of the U.S. Congress vehemently opposed the League of Nations. For example, Britain and France once again believed that the atrocities and pain during WWI were simply too huge for them to be dealt with by the Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Furthermore, those countries believed that the peace plan proposed by the American president was not harsh enough on Germany.

In the end, diplomats and negotiators in Paris were able to attain a peace treaty – the Treaty of Versailles. To Woodrow Wilson’s slight disappointment, European powers were able to exact a harsh peace terms on Germany. However, Wilson was consoled by the fact that the treaty included his proposal to establish the League of Nations.

Treaty of Versailles 1919

The Treaty of Versailles included harsh peace terms on Germany, including war reparations, and the League of Nations was included in the treaty. Germany was not admitted until it showed that it was bent on the path of peace. Image: The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919, by Sir William Orpen

Woodrow Wilson puts his all trying to convince lawmakers to ratify the peace treaty

As mandated in the U.S. Constitution, international treaties struck by the executive ought to get a two-third majority vote in the Senate before it can be binding. Right from the get-go, President Woodrow Wilson knew that it would take an absolute miracle to get the Republican-controlled Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

It turned out that Republican lawmakers were already fuming at the president for his decision not to take a single Republican lawmaker on his trip to Paris for the peace negotiations. That blatant snub would go on to cost the president severely as he pushed to get the treaty ratified.

The President, who was in his final term at the time, was secretly carrying a number of serious illnesses. The strain of the war and peace negotiation process had taken a huge toll on his health. Those issues, including a number of mini-strokes, would rare their ugly head during his nation-wide campaign to convince his fellow Americans of the benefits of the US ratifying the treaty.

Why the US refused to join the League of Nations

America’s refusal to join the League of Nations put a huge strain on the international body’s ability to meet its mandate. Image: The Gap in the Bridge; the sign reads “This League of Nations Bridge was designed by the President of the U.S.A.” Cartoon from Punch magazine, 10 December 1920, satirizing the gap left by the US not joining the League

Up until Woodrow’s election in 1912, the political landscape in Washington, D.C. had been largely dominated by the Republicans since the American Civil War era (1861-1865). A significant population of the country, especially African Americans who had just been freed from centuries of slavery and economic suppression, had come to adore Republican politicians for their hard work during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).

The above explains why Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat to enter the White House in the period between 1869 and 1913. And without taking anything away from President Wilson, the Democrats managed to sneak a White House victory in 1912 largely because the Republican Party was rocked by an infighting between ex-president Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft.

The fact that the Republicans managed to take control of the Senate in the 1918 midterm congressional elections was a telltale sign that Woodrow Wilson’s idealist views about peace did not sit too well with many Americans.

Henry Cabot Lodge – the US Senate Majority Leader who prevented the US from joining the League of Nations

In addition to all those odds stacked against Woodrow Wilson, he also had to come up against a very vibrant Republican and headstrong Congressman in the person of US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

Following the Republican Party’s taking of Senate in the 1918 midterm congressional election, the lawmaker from Massachusetts was voted Senate Majority Leader. He also served as the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, thereby making him wield enormous influence in the nation’s capital.

Born on May 12, 1850, in Boston, Massachusetts, Lodge served as a US senator from 1893 to 1924, making him one of the longest-serving senators in American history. He was also a renowned historian, journalist, and diplomat who played a pivotal role in shaping American foreign policy during the early 20th century.

US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

Republican Senator Lodge believed that that the League of Nations would infringe on American sovereignty. Image: US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

Lodge and his fellow Republican lawmakers opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to join the League because they reasoned that the international organization would infringe on American sovereignty and that its provisions would force the US to become entangled in European affairs.

He was also concerned that the League would be dominated by European powers and that it would be ineffective in preventing future wars. He argued that the League’s provisions were too vague and that its enforcement mechanisms were too weak to be effective.

As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lodge further called the Treaty of Versailles was a “peace without victory”. The Republican lawmakers pushed for several amendments to the treaty, including one that would have made US participation in the League conditional on congressional approval.

America's refusal to join the League of Nations

Henry Cabot Lodge and his fellow Republican senators did not want the US to be compelled by terms of the Treaty of Versailles to intervene militarily in a situation without congressional approval.

Aside from being on different sides of the political aisle, Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge were bitter rivals for large parts of their career. The latter, who considered a realist, vehemently opposed the former’s idealist view of foreign policies.

Perhaps had President Wilson brought on board some Republican lawmakers during the peace negotiation process in France, he might have been able to convince Lodge.

Instead, the president compounded his problem by tagging Lodge and his Republican allies as “poor little minds” that had a limited vision for the nation. At that point, there was simply nothing in the world that could reconcile the differences between the two men, with both considering themselves gurus in international affairs.

November 19, 1919: The United States Senate rejects a peace treaty for the first time

Despite Lodge’s opposition, President Wilson continued to push for US membership in the League of Nations. As stated above, the president embarked on a cross-country tour in October 1919 as he painstakingly tried to convince Americans to support the Treaty of Versailles. By then, Senator Lodge and the Foreign Relations Committee had added numerous “reservations” and amendments to the treaty.

However, Wilson’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, as the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the US never joined the League.

Rejection of the Treaty of Versailles by the US Senate in 1919

President Woodrow Wilson’s opponents and lawmakers on Capitol Hill vehemently refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and de facto majority leader Henry Lodge and Republican senators had a big problem with Article Ten of the League Covenant, which they believed required all League members to come to the aid of any member state under attack.

On November 19, 1919, about a year after WWI came to a conclusion, the Treaty of Versailles (with Senator Lodge’s resolution) was put to vote on the floor of the US Senate. Voting 55-39, the upper chamber failed to get the two-thirds majority needed for a ratification of an international agreement.

That same year, the second vote on the peace treaty (without reservations of any kind) on the Senate floor yielded almost similar result: 53-38.

The vote was a defining moment in US foreign policy as it became the first time in our nation’s history that a peace treaty was rejected.

By the time the Senate reconsidered the issue on March 19 the following year, it was apparently clear that Republican Senators wanted nothing to do with Woodrow Wilson’s peace treaty. This was evident in the 49-35 vote, which was seven votes short of the two-third majority needed to get the treaty ratified.

Purpose of the League of Nations

What happened after the US Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles?

With the US Senate refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the United States still had to find some sort of peace treaty with the Germans and its allies. Therefore, US senators gave the thumbs up to a separate peace treaty with Germany in 1921.

The stress that came with those two defeats on the Senate floor made Woodrow Wilson’s health situation even more precarious.

The President largely withdrew from public duties, allowing his cabinet and vice president (Thomas Marshall) to represent him at many state functions. Wilson refused revisiting the treaty with lawmakers.

Criticism against Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

Then-U.S. First Lady Edith Wilson had to intervene as well and protect her husband from unnecessary disturbances that could worsen his health even further.

It is said that for the remainder of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the First Lady acted in an almost de facto role, screening everything that went in and out the president’s room.

After completing his White House term in 1921, Woodrow and Edith headed to their home in Washington, D.C. He tried to get back into law practice, however, his health did not allow him to do so.

By January 1924, Wilson’s health had declined so fast that he could not leave his bedroom. He passed away on February 3, 1924, at the age of 67.

Edith Wilson had a big bone to pick with US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge for going against her husband’s foreign policies

Fate of the League of Nations after the US refused to join

In spite of the Americans not wanting to join the League of Nations, European powers and other nations proceeded to establish the international body as per the Treaty of Versailles. As stated above, the complex issues raised at the Paris Conference in 1919 were too gargantuan for the international body to effectively handle. The absence of the United States also had a damning impact on the League’s effectiveness.

Members of the League took advantage of some of the technical ambiguities in the League’s charter to act in a very selfish manner. In the decades that followed, strong European nations continued to prey on weak nations both in Europe and abroad.

The Palace of Nations, Geneva, the League’s headquarters from 1936 until its dissolution in 1946

For example, Italy in the mid-1930s carried out a barbaric invasion on the weak African eastern African nation of Ethiopia, devastating the economy and social fabric of the region for years to come. Members of the League were too busy with trying to fix their WWI-devastated economies and infrastructure that they did not try to stop those aggressive moves.

Violations of the League’s charter continued to happen as members became increasingly disillusioned with the whole idea of international order to keep the peace. For example, in addition to the invasion of Abyssinia by Italy, the lack of international co-operation among the principal members of the League was the reason why conflicts like the following erupted:

  • Invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1931.
  • Bolivia-Paraguay conflict over the arid Gran Chao region in 1932.
  • The Spanish Civil War that broke out in 1936
  • The Japanese invasion of China in 1937.
  • The Soviet’s invasion of Poland and Finland in 1939.

A toothless international body and the various withdrawals of member states

It was often the case that whenever the League of Nations tried to reprimand a member state for violating its charter, that member state withdrew from the body. For example, Japan left the League of Nations Assembly in 1933 following the League’s opposition Asian giant’s invasion of Manchuria.

And after the end of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, the Italian-Fascist government to withdraw from the organization altogether in 1937. The League had refused to recognize Italian sovereignty over Ethiopia.

In the late 1930s, Spain, a permanent member of the League’s council, withdrew. This came after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, which ended in a victory for the Nationalists.

The Central American nation of Costa Rica was the first member to withdraw permanently from the League. The withdrawal took place on January 22, 1925. Brazil, a founding member, followed suit on 14 June 1926.

Germany cited the failure of the World Disarmament Conference as one of the reasons why it withdrew from the League in 1933. Then in 1939, the League expelled the Soviet Union for it flagrant violation of its charters when it invaded Finland.

Perhaps the gravest failure of the League of Nations came in the late 1930s, when it was absolutely powerless to prevent another war – which was even more brutal than WWI – from erupting. League members stood on the sideline while Germany operated under the League’s “guarantee of minority rights” to invade smaller European countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland. And so they say, the rest is history. World War II erupted in 1939 as a vindictive Germany and its allies sought for global dominance.

Did you know?

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson’s brief incapacity toward the later period of his presidency was the reason why the US Congress ratified the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution. Ratified on February 10, 1967, the amendment states that the vice president steps into the role of the president in case the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office. It also provides the condition for the vice president to temporary fill the role of the commander-in-chief in case the president is incapacitated. The decision has to be made by the vice president and majority of the president’s cabinet.

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