America's Decision to Stay Out essay

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The U.S. Debate over Membership in the League of Nations

After the end of World War I, the world was weary of war and the ravages that it had taken on the European continent and it would seem reasonable to suggest that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic would be eager to form some type of league to resolve future conflicts. According to Margulies (1998), "Following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference in June 1919, where he played a major role in negotiating that treaty, which established the League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson turned his attention to persuading the U.S. Senate to ratify the new treaty" (273). The Senate of the 66th Congress was almost equally divided between the Republican Party with 49 and the Democrats who fielded 47 senators (Marguilies). Although the president could rely on the majority of the Democrats in the Senate to support his position on the treaty and the League of Nations, a number of Republican senators would also be required to achieve the two-thirds majority required for ratification (Marguilies). As a result, scholars have intensely examined the reasons for the president's failure to secure the Republican senators needed to ratify the treaty and the U.S. accession to the League of Nations over the years. In this regard, some authorities have suggested that the Republicans were less cohesive than Democrats and could be grouped according to the three different factions that emerged during the debate.

The first faction consisted of Republicans who were termed "irreconcilables" and were opposed to U.S. membership in the League of Nations no matter what; the second and third factions were comprised of the various mild and stronger proponents of various "reservations" that would need to be attached to the resolution in order to achieve Senate ratification. In this regard, Marguilies adds that, "Technically, reservations stated U.S. understanding of various treaty provisions; in practice, they were also statements of American qualifications and intentions" (273). One historian goes so far as to suggest that, "In 1919, a group of patriotic senators saved America from becoming entangled in the fledgling League of Nations. These stalwart souls became known as 'The Irreconcilables'" (Mcmanus 2002:31).

According to Kuehl and Dunn (1997), "On 8 January 1920, Woodrow Wilson issued a clarion call. In a letter to Democrats assembled for a Jackson Day dinner, the president declared that if the Treaty of Versailles foundered in the Senate, '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'" (quoted at 1). Indeed, the American president was not the only one who believed that the foreign policy debate would and should play a substantive part in the electoral campaign of 1920 (Kuehl and Dunn 1). For instance, Kuehl and Dunn point out that, "Leaders in both parties believed that their position on the League of Nations would affect success or failure at the polls. Nor was this concern restricted to the presidential race. Voters recognized that treaty votes in the Senate would be as important as, if not more important than, the position of the man who sat in the White House. League supporters had already targeted a number of opposition senators for defeat. Therefore, party leaders would have to move cautiously to establish a common platform on which to stand" (1).

Opponents to U.S. membership in the League of Nations were a relatively small coalition of politicians at the time; however, they represented a prominent and influential minority that the mainstream political machine had to taken into account. In this regard, Kuehl and Dunn note that the opposition to the League "insisted that the party renounce Wilsonian ideals and set a course of traditional unilateralism. At the opposite extreme, the internationalist wing of the party, led by former president William Howard Taft, Harvard University president A. Lawrence Lowell, and influential editor and internationalist Hamilton Holt, supported a Republicanized Wilsonianism" (2). The human and economic toll that wrought by World War I were powerful reasons for advocates of the League to continue to hammer away at the opposition and their support for U.S. membership was virtually unequivocal. For instance, Kuehl and Dunn point out that the proponents of the League "insisted that the United States should provide an unqualified endorsement of the World Court and should join the League on any reasonable terms. Recognizing this difference in emphasis among the party faithful, many Republican leaders counseled caution, especially prior to the convention, hoping that other issues would distract voters" (Kuehl and Dunn 2).

The fundamental differences in perspectives concerning the pros and cons of U.S. membership in the League became clear quickly thereafter as the leading candidates for office began articulating their respective positions which were based both on personal as well as political reasoning. For instance, Governor Frank O. Lowden of Illinois counseled against the League and suggested that the Hague Conferences was the proper body to formalize international law and to create an alternative system of peace-keeping that was based in a court of justice. By contrast, General Leonard Wood was in support of U.S. membership in the League; however, he was a proponent of the "reservations" faction and recommended that it should be "completely Americanized" (quoted in Kuehl and Dunna at 2). General Wood also maintained that the issue should be determined prior to the election, a position that was consistent with Senator Philander C. Knox's call for a congressional resolution that would end the war formally but would separate the peace treaty from the decision to join the League (Kuehl and Dunn 3). Other critics of the League of Nations such as Senator Hiram Johnson of California who was universally recognized as being uncompromising in his views on the issue and was therefore an "irreconciliable," consistently railed against U.S. membership in the League every chance he got (Kuehl and Dunn). According to Mcmanus, "By themselves, the 16 irreconcilables didn't have sufficient clout to defeat Wilson's drive for world government. Their cause was aided by Wilson's prideful intransigence, inflamed by personal antagonism between the president and Senator Lodge, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If President Wilson had been willing to play ball with "Mr. Wobbly" and other "reservationists," he would likely have gotten enough support to gain Senate passage of the treaty. But he was unwilling to do so" (32).

Taken together, this amount of dissension between the leading candidates and the president himself compelled Columbia University professor John Bates Clark to assert that the party ". . . would either oppose the League or be so ambiguous as to avoid any 'pledge of support'" (quoted in Kuehl and Dunn at 3). This divisiveness, experienced at length in the Senate debates concerning the Treaty of Versailles, also compelled Henry Cabot Lodge to seek some middle ground in the debate over the U.S. entry into the League of Nations. According to these historians, "The national committee was dominated by persons hostile to the League, and the choice of Chicago for the convention site sent a clear message. Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune had already established its isolationist reputation, and much of the press of that city revealed hostility toward the League" (Kuehl and Dunn 3). Based on his political acumen that emphasized the need for party unity, Lodge sought to strategize his party's approach to what would transpire at the convention carefully and thoughtfully to avoid further splintering among the Republicans. As a result, Lodge was able to gain a platform for expressing his views to the party elite as well as the nation at large. According to Kuehl and Dunn, Lodge "campaigned in the Massachusetts primary as a delegate-at-large and then publicly interpreted his victory as an endorsement of his position during the treaty fight. Thereafter, he sought and obtained the post of temporary chairman so that he could present the party's position on the League in his keynote address" (3).

In his efforts to seek a viable compromise among the various positions being advanced, Lodge collaborated with former secretary of state Elihu Root who was an well-known advocate of an international court but whose would not attending the Republican national convention (Kuehl and Dunn 3). During the opening ceremonies at the convention on June 8 in Chicago, Root was scheduled to be in attendance with the commission that was already coordinating the establishment of the Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague (Kuehl and Dunn 3). At the time, though, Root explained his viewpoints to Lodge and insisted that the so-called irreconcilables who were adamantly opposed to U.S. membership in the League not be allowed to change the Republican position that have been developed during the previous debates in the Senate concerning this issue (Kuehl and Dunn 3). According to these authors, "The former secretary of state insisted that that position 'rested…[continue]

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