This Day In History: August 19

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On August 19, 1919, in a break with conventional practice, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appears personally before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to argue in favor of its ratification of the Versailles Treaty, the peace settlement that ended the First World War.

The previous July 8, Wilson had returned from Paris, France, where the treaty’s terms had been worked out over a contentious six months. Two days later, he went before the U.S. Senate to present the Treaty of Versailles, including the covenant of the League of Nations, the international peace-keeping organization that Wilson had envisioned in his famous “Fourteen Points” speech of 1918 and had worked for so adamantly in Paris. “Dare we reject it?” he asked the senators, “and break the heart of the world?”

The 96 members of the Senate, for their part, were divided. The central concern with the treaty involved the League of Nations. A crucial article of the league covenant, around which much debate would center in the weeks to come, required all member states “to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” This principle of collective security was thought by many to be an obstruction to America’s much vaunted independence. At least six Republican senators, dubbed the “Irreconcilables,” were irrevocably opposed to the treaty, while nine more were “Mild Reservationists” whose most important concern about the treaty, and specifically the League of Nations, was that American sovereignty be protected. Some three dozen Republicans were uncommitted as of yet. While most Democrats publicly went along with Wilson, many privately thought more along the lines of the Mild Reservationists.

So things stood on July 31, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by the Republican Senator (and Wilson’s nemesis) Henry Cabot Lodge, began six weeks of hearings on the Versailles Treaty. Lodge’s Republicans had a majority of only two in the Senate, and Wilson could conceivably have won over the moderates among them—the Mild Reservationists and those undecided—to his side, thus building a coalition in favor of ratification, by accepting some reservations. Wilson was absolutely unwilling, however, to accept any degree of change or compromise to the treaty or to his precious League of Nations. His mental and physical health already deteriorating over that summer, Wilson broke tradition to make a personal appearance before the committee on August 19, making it clear that he continued to stand firm on all points.

Four days later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on the first of many amendments to the treaty—the reversal of the award to Japan of the Shantung Peninsula, and its return to Chinese control. Furious, Wilson decided to take his case directly to the American people. On September 2, 1919, he began a whistle-stop tour across the country, sometimes making as many as three speeches in one day. The strain of the trip destroyed his health; suffering from exhaustion, he returned to Washington in late September, and the rest of the tour was canceled. On October 2, back at the White House, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralyzed; he would never effectively function as president again.

He continued to influence the proceedings on the treaty, however, all the way from his sickbed. The treaty made its way through the Senate all through October and part of November, as a total of 12 amendments were defeated by Democrats and moderate Republicans. Lodge marshaled most of the Republicans together, and their votes were enough to attach a number of reservations before assembling a vote on ratification—the most crucial was attached to Article X, saying the U.S. would not act to protect the territorial integrity of any League member unless Congress gave its approval. Wilson, on his sickbed, remained determined; when told of the reservation, he said “That cuts the very heart out of the treaty.” After Wilson expressed his vehement opposition to ratification on these terms, the Senate took a vote on Lodge’s motion. It was defeated by a combination of the majority of the Democrats, loyal to Wilson, and the Republican Irreconcilables, who opposed ratification in any form. A last-ditch effort by moderates to find a compromise came close to succeeding—against Wilson’s best efforts to block it—and when the Senate voted on March 19, 1920, on a new ratification resolution, 23 Democrats voted in favor, and the resolution passed. It failed to win the necessary two-thirds majority, however, and the Senate consequently refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

Though Wilson, the newly anointed winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, bemoaned the rejection of the treaty, he never admitted any doubts about his resolute unwillingness to compromise. Though the United States later signed separate treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary, it never joined the League of Nations, a circumstance that almost certainly contributed to that organization’s inefficacy in the decades to follow, up until the outbreak of the Second World War.