At the close of World War I, the leaders of the war’s victorious nations, American President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau, met in Versailles, France, to discuss a peace treaty that would formally end the war, decide the fate of the war’s main loser, Germany, and hopefully construct a lasting peace in Europe.
The result, the Treaty of Versailles, did none of those things, in part because Wilson, who originally wanted a treaty that would go easy on Germany, was unable to counter Britain’s Lloyd George, and especially France’s Clemenceau, who wanted to teach Germany a lesson by imposing the harshest terms possible. France, after all, shared a border with Germany, and it preferred a prostrate German neighbor to a powerful one.
But Wilson did see one ray of hope for Versailles’ success — his own provision calling for a League of Nations, which Wilson envisioned as an international body of member countries that would solve problems through “cooperative diplomacy,” backed up by “collective security,” in which — should diplomacy fail — League members would contribute military resources, including troops, in a communal military effort under League auspices.
On behalf of this League, Wilson essentially sacrificed his other positions regarding post-war Germany and Europe, while Lloyd George and Clemenceau, their own priorities satisfied, were only too happy to support an international organization that committed America to help protect the national integrity and political independence of other League members. They saw that as a no-lose proposition.
But Republican members of Congress, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, did not. Republicans were somewhat isolationist, but they were also unilateralist and therefore wary of conceding to some international “League” the power of Congress — assigned to it by the Constitution — over committing American troops to war. Thus most Republicans opposed the League, while Wilson, inflexible by nature, opposed any attempt to fashion a compromise. The subsequent battle between Wilson and the Republican-controlled Congress over ratification of the Versailles Treaty was so fierce, Wilson suffered a stroke that left him effectively bed-ridden for the remainder of his presidency.
Wilson’s illness was all Lodge needed to carry the day, and this week (Nov. 19) in 1919, the Senate rejected the treaty, thereby ensuring the impotence, and eventual demise, of the League of Nations.
It would, of course, be resurrected after the Second World War with a proposal to create a United Nations along similar lines. That the U.N. succeeded, while the League did not, can be attributed first to the fact that two world wars made such an international assembly more acceptable, and second to the fact that President Franklin Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, were better politicians than Woodrow Wilson.