100 years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent for the first time in over four years. With its population starving and near revolt and waves of fresh American troops arriving daily in France to bolster the allied western front, the German government agreed to an armistice. A formal peace deal was concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. While the other major Allied countries would ratify the treaty with relatively little controversy, it caused extensive debate in the United States. This was in large part because the signers would become members of the League of Nations, who, according to the wording of the treaty, would be obligated to preserve the “territorial integrity and…political independence” of all League members.
Today, the United States is a superpower with influence across the globe, but a mere 200 years ago the U.S. was a young republic that was barely able to assert its sovereignty on the world stage. The U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 signaled a radical departure from its previous foreign policy. President Woodrow Wilson believed that America had a duty to “make the world safe for democracy,” and that this path of global involvement in the affairs of other major nations was her duty.
Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge led a coalition of U.S. senators who argued that the commitments of being a member of the League of Nations would limit the American government from making its own decisions concerning foreign affairs. They feared that this obligation would force the U.S. to fight in wars across the globe that had nothing to do with American citizens and violated the foreign policy principles that the U.S. had followed up to that point. This group of senators refused to vote for the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, and the U.S. did not become a member of the League.
- Students will study President Wilson’s vision for the post-war world order
- Students will understand Senator Lodge and others’ opposition to the U.S. joining the League of Nations
- Students will form their own opinion on whether the League of Nations threatened U.S. sovereignty
- Handout A: Wilson’s War Message to Congress
- Handout B: Wilson’s 14 Points
- Handout C: Henry Cabot Lodge on the League of Nations
Warm-Up Activity: 10-15 Minutes
Directions: Have students read Handout A and answer the following questions.
- Why did President Wilson ask Congress for a declaration of war?
- Think of the previous wars that the U.S. had fought in up to this point (War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, etc.) Did the U.S. fight in these wars for the same reasons that Wilson wanted to fight in World War I?
- Why would the U.S. want to fight in a war to “make the world safe for democracy,” as Wilson stated? What do you believe Wilson intended with this statement?
Activity: 30 minutes
Directions: Have students read Handout B and Handout C and answer the following questions.
- How do the 14 Points attempt to achieve the world order that Wilson outlined in his war message?
- Why did Senator Lodge oppose the U.S. joining the League of Nations? Name one of his primary concerns.
Debate: 20 minutes
Directions: In class, divide students into equal groups. One group should be prepared to argue that the U.S. should join the League of Nations. The other should prepare to argue that the U.S. should not join the League of Nations.
Distribute “Questions to Consider” (provided below) to help students prepare their arguments. The teacher may add additional questions during the debate to help clarify or extend arguments. After students are prepared, the teacher will ask the “Questions to Consider” and give each side time to answer and debate.
Questions to Consider:
- What is national sovereignty?
- What are some potential consequences⎯both good and bad⎯of the U.S. joining the League of Nations?
- Can a governing body other than the U.S. Congress determine if American soldiers will go into combat?
- The U.S. practiced a policy of not becoming involved in other nations’ affairs and fighting in wars only to defend itself for the first century of its existence. Should policymakers after WWI have respected that precedent and not joined the League or did changing times after a catastrophic war justify a radically new policy?