On September 3, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson embarks on a tour across the United States to promote American membership in the League of Nations, an international body that he hoped would help to solve international conflicts and prevent another bloody world war like the one from which the country had just emerged—World War I. The tour took an enormous toll on Wilson’s health.
The First World War, which had begun in 1914, grimly illustrated to Wilson the unavoidable relationship between international stability and American national security. In January 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I, Wilson urged leaders from France, Great Britain and Italy to come together with leaders of other nations to draft a Covenant of League of Nations. Wilson hoped such an organization would help countries to mediate conflicts before they caused war.
Having successfully broached the plan with European leaders, Wilson returned home to try to sell the idea to Congress. The plan for a League of Nations met with stiff opposition from the Republican majority in Congress. Wary of the international covenant’s vague language and legal loopholes regarding America’s sovereignty, Congress refused to adopt the agreement and did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Still, Wilson was undeterred.
At a stalemate with Congress, 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 national borders. He stressed that the League of Nations embodied American values of self-government and the desire to settle conflicts peacefully, and shared his vision of a future in which the international community could preempt another conflict as devastating as the First World War.
The tour’s intense schedule—8,000 miles in 22 days—cost Wilson his health. During the tour he suffered constant headaches and, in late September, collapsed from exhaustion in Pueblo, Colorado. He managed to return to Washington, but suffered a near-fatal stroke on October 2. 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. The League of Nations was eventually created, but without the participation of the United States. America would not join a multinational league until after an even larger and more destructive world war forced the League to be reinvented as the United Nations.
READ MORE: The League of Nations