Woodrow Wilson’s second term in office was dominated by World War I. Although the president had advocated for peace during the initial years of the war, in early 1917 German submarines launched unrestricted submarine attacks against U.S. merchant ships. Around the same time, the United States learned about the Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany tried to persuade Mexico to enter into an alliance against America. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, stating, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
America’s participation helped bring about victory for the Allies, and on November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed by the Germans. At the Paris Peace Conference, which opened in January 1919 and included the heads of the British, French and Italian governments, Wilson helped negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. The agreement included the charter for the League of Nations, an organization intended to arbitrate international disputes and prevent future wars. Wilson had initially advanced the idea for the League in a January 1918 speech to the U.S. Congress in which he outlined his “Fourteen Points” for a postwar peace settlement.
When Wilson returned from Europe in the summer of 1919, he encountered opposition to the Versailles treaty from isolationist Republicans in Congress who feared the League could limit America’s autonomy and draw the country into another war. In September of that year, the president embarked on a cross-country speaking tour to promote his ideas for the League directly to the American people. On the night of September 25, on a train bound for Wichita, Kansas, Wilson collapsed from mental and physical stress, and the rest of his tour was cancelled. On October 2, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Wilson’s condition was kept largely hidden from the public, and his wife worked behind the scenes to fulfill a number of his administrative duties.
The Senate voted on the Treaty of Versailles first in November 1919 and again in March 1920. Both times it failed to gain the two-thirds vote required for ratification. The treaty’s defeat was partly blamed on Wilson’s refusal to compromise with the Republicans. The League of Nations held its first meeting in January 1920; the United States never joined the organization. However, in December 1920, Wilson received the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to include the Covenant of the League of Nations in the Treaty of Versailles.