On this day in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson attends the Paris Peace Conference that would formally end World War I and lay the groundwork for the formation of the League of Nations.
Wilson envisioned a future in which the international community could preempt another conflict as devastating as the First World War and, to that end, he urged leaders from France, Great Britain and Italy to draft at the conference what became known as the Covenant of League of Nations. The document established the concept of a formal league to mediate international disputes in the hope of preventing another world war.
Once drawn, the world’s leaders brought the covenant to their respective governing bodies for approval. In the U.S., Wilson’s promise of mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike rankled the isolationist Republican majority in Congress. Republicans resented Wilson’s failure to appoint one of their representatives to the peace delegation and an equally stubborn Wilson refused his opponents’ offers to compromise. Wary of the covenant’s vague language and potential impact on America’s sovereignty, Congress refused to adopt the international agreement for a League of Nations.
At a stalemate with Congress, President Wilson embarked on an arduous tour across the country to sell the idea of a League of Nations directly to the American people. He argued that isolationism did not work in a world in which violent revolutions and nationalist fervor spilled over international borders and stressed that the League of Nations embodied American values of self-government and the desire to settle conflicts peacefully.
The tour’s intense schedule cost Wilson his health. During the tour he suffered persistent headaches and, upon his return to Washington, he suffered a stroke. He recovered and continued to advocate passage of the covenant, but the stroke and Republican Warren Harding’s election to the presidency in 1921 effectively ended his campaign to get the League of Nations ratified. The League was eventually created, but without the participation of the United States.