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The Treaty of Versailles

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute


By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and consequences of U.S. involvement in World War I

From 1914 to 1917, the president and Congress debated America’s stance toward the war in Europe. Once the United States had been drawn into the conflict in April 1917, their attention turned to debating how best to execute the war and to shape the peace to come after the successful conclusion to the conflict. Guided by progressive ideals, President Woodrow Wilson’s vision was to create a new world order as part of the Treaty of Versailles, in which a league of nations would ensure that this, indeed, was “the war to end all wars.” During the treaty ratification process, Wilson had to decide whether he would fight for this goal without compromising or whether he would work with the Senate to get most of what he wanted.

Wilson’s idealistic vision was challenged in Congress by Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Lodge had opposed Wilson’s neutrality policy during the war and opposed the Treaty of Versailles after the war. During the peacemaking process, the conservative Lodge was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and led the fight against the ratification of the Wilson peace plan, which he viewed as unconstitutional and threatening to American national sovereignty and traditional foreign policy principles. Lodge had to decide whether to obstruct the ratification of the treaty or find areas of compromise with the president.

Portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge.

Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, pictured here in 1916, led the group in Congress whose members opposed President Wilson’s peace plan.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 had prompted President Wilson to urge Americans to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.” Lodge thought neutrality was unsound and impractical and wanted to support the Allied powers. In May 1915, a German U-boat (submarine) sank the passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Wilson asserted that Americans were “too proud to fight” and instead pursued peace for the good of the world. Lodge and his friend Theodore Roosevelt thought the president’s response was feeble idealism inappropriate to the tragedy.

In 1916, Wilson spoke at a meeting of the League to Enforce the Peace. In that speech, he articulated a vision of an association of nations that would keep the peace and end warfare. An international body of nations would stop aggression rather than relying on the existing balance-of-power diplomacy and system of alliances among sovereign nations. Wilson’s ideas culminated in his “peace without victory” speech of January 22, 1917, in which he promoted “the future security of the world against wars.” The new world order was to be rooted in a community of power to achieve peace.

Only a week later, Germany announced it would unleash unrestricted U-boat warfare, gambling that it could starve Great Britain and the Allies into submission before the United States entered the conflict. On April 2, the president went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war. Wilson said the United States must “make the world safe for democracy” by destroying autocracy in Europe and vindicating “the principles of peace and justice” in the world. Congress obliged by declaring war a few days later.

A photograph of U.S. soldiers dressed in uniform.

The American Expeditionary Forces were made up of approximately two million troops and helped support the war-weary English and French troops when the United States entered World War I. Pictured are officers of the AEF c. 1918.

As American troops fought in Europe, Wilson worked out his vision of a just and peaceful postwar order. In January 1918, he delivered his Fourteen Points speech, in which he argued for freedom of the seas, a reduction in arms, and national self-determination of ethnic minorities. Most important, Wilson developed his idea of a league of nations. The covenant, or agreement, of the League was the “key to the whole settlement,” as he saw it.

Wilson made several blunders preparing for the peace conference in Versailles. During the 1918 midterm congressional elections, he had made blatantly partisan appeals, stating that Republican dissent with administration policies was unpatriotic. Republicans then won control of both houses of Congress, making Lodge the Senate’s majority leader and the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which considered the peace treaty. Wilson made additional missteps by not inviting any Republicans or senators onto the Versailles peace conference delegation and not consulting with Lodge before he left for Paris. Yet he needed the support of two-thirds of the Senate for the peace treaty to be ratified.

Wilson had a sense of providential destiny about his vision for the League of Nations and his own leadership. Against the recommendations of his advisors, he decided to be the first president to travel overseas to negotiate a peace treaty, because he believed no one else could achieve his goals. When he arrived in Europe in December 1918, millions celebrated him in Paris, London, and Rome, which fed his vanity and sense of moral purpose.

The president briefly returned to the United States in February 1919. On the evening of February 26, Senator Lodge and other members of the Foreign Relations Committee attended a dinner at the White House. Lodge sat impassively while the president spoke about a league of nations to keep the peace. Then he asked Wilson a series of questions. The answers confirmed Lodge’s fear that Article X of the Treaty of Versailles would commit the United States to a war against an aggressor nation that attacked another nation, thus bypassing the constitutional requirement that Congress retain the power to declare war.

Lodge believed in this constitutional principle and opposed committing U.S. troops to conflicts around the world based on the vote of an international body. He and other senators also feared that the League would supersede the Monroe Doctrine, which had asserted American preeminence in the western hemisphere for a century. Wilson was adamant that “you cannot dissect the Covenant from the treaty without destroying the whole vital structure.”

On the evening of March 2, Lodge worked at his home with two other senators to draft a Senate resolution expressing their opposition to the League of Nations. Thirty-nine Republicans signed it, and even some Democrats supported the measure. About a dozen senators were “irreconcilables,” who refused to support the treaty regardless of a compromise, and 40 were “reservationists” who were willing to ratify if Wilson compromised on Article X.

A group of men sit around an oval table that is covered in papers.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pictured here in 1919, was led by Henry Cabot Lodge (fifth from the left) and worked to garner support from fellow senators to block Wilson’s peace plan.

On March 3, Lodge delivered an important speech opposing the League of Nations. He criticized Article X for violating the United States’ national sovereignty and Congress’s prerogative to declare war, and he cited the danger that Americans would be forced to send their young men overseas to stop aggressor nations. He stated, “I want to keep America as she has been—not isolated, not prevent her from joining other nations for these great purposes—but I wish her to be master of her fate.” In the Senate, Lodge packed the Foreign Relations Committee with handpicked opponents of the League of Nations.

When President Wilson returned to the United States that summer, he broke with precedent and on July 10 presented the treaty to the Senate in person while addressing the body. As he walked into the chamber with the bulky treaty under his arm, Lodge jokingly asked, “Mr. President, can I carry the treaty for you?” Wilson retorted, “Not on your life.” In his speech, President Wilson asked the Senate rhetorically, “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?”

During committee hearings in August, Lodge repeated his concern that Article X violated the principles of the Constitution. He asserted that no American soldier or sailor could be sent overseas to fight a war “except by the constitutional authorities of the United States.” In addition, Lodge worried that membership in the League of Nations would bind the United States to fight in wars around the globe. He thought the primary goal of American foreign policy was to protect American national interests. He said, “Our first ideal is our country. . . We would not have our country’s vigor exhausted or her moral force abated, by everlasting meddling and muddling in every quarrel, great and small which affects the world.”

In September, Wilson further provoked Lodge and other opponents by taking the case for the League of Nations directly to the American people. His speaking tour was consistent with his view of American politics, in which congressional government was messy and the separation of powers an outdated principle. Instead, a strong president needed to act as a national leader who guided the nation in right principles through rhetoric. Large crowds applauded his message that the League was the “cause of mankind,” but the tour was soon cut short when the president suffered a debilitating stroke on October 2, which incapacitated him for months. From his sickbed, he refused any compromise because removing Article X “cuts the very heart out of the treaty.”

Early in the morning of November 19, 1919, spectators flooded the Senate gallery, jockeying for a good vantage point to view the historic debate and the vote on the treaty. Members of the press were there to report the outcome for their newspapers. The 68-year-old Senator Lodge captivated most people’s attention.

Foreign Entanglements as a bride and the United States as a groom stand at their wedding altar. Peace Proceedings lies at their feet. The minister holds a League of Nations book and says, “If any man can show just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak—” The minister is interrupted when the U.S. Senate crashes through a window holding Constitutional Rights.

This political cartoon, created by John T. McCutcheon in 1918, depicts the U.S. Senate objecting to a marriage between the United States and its “foreign entanglement” bride via the League of Nations. (credit: The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum)

The senators debated the treaty during a 10-hour marathon, hearing from all sides, and then prepared to vote. Prodded by Wilson, who told them not to compromise, they rejected the treaty with reservations by a vote of 55–39. A vote was then taken on the treaty without reservations, as the Wilson administration wanted. It was also defeated, by a nearly identical vote of 53–38. Several Democrats begged Wilson to compromise, but he refused. The president deluded himself that he could “bring this country to a sense of its great opportunity and greater responsibility” if only his health improved. When the treaty came up for another vote in mid-November, Wilson obstinately said, “Let Lodge compromise. Let Lodge hold out the olive branch.” The treaty was voted down again, and then for a final time on March 19, 1920.

Throughout the debate over the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, President Wilson and Senator Lodge rooted their positions in very different visions of American diplomacy. Wilson thought the only way to achieve a lasting peace and new world order was a league of nations. Lodge wanted to preserve American national sovereignty and protect American national interests. This debate between idealism and realism continued to define the course of American foreign relations during the twentieth century.


Review Questions

1. Woodrow Wilson’s plans for the postwar peace was most strongly challenged by

  1. Henry Cabot Lodge, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  2. Theodore Roosevelt, former president of the United States
  3. the United States House of Representatives
  4. supporters of the League of Nations

2. For President Woodrow Wilson, the “future security of the world against wars” most likely centered on

  1. restoration of a balance of power between France and Germany
  2. creation of a new world order based on a community of nations
  3. dominance of the United States in European politics
  4. retreat from American interventionism and internationalism

3. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points included all the following except

  1. self-determination for ethnic minorities
  2. freedom of the seas
  3. a league of nations
  4. promotion of European autocracy

4. A major misstep in President Wilson’s promotion of his peace plan after World War I was his

  1. failing to invite any Republicans or members of the Senate to the Versailles Peace Conference
  2. publicly outlining his Fourteen Points peace plan
  3. asking Congress for a declaration of war in 1917
  4. travelling overseas to attend the Versailles Peace Conference

5. The chief objection of the U.S. Senate to the Treaty of Versailles was

  1. the war reparations clause demanded by the European allies
  2. the war guilt clause aimed at Germany
  3. the self-determination proposal for ethnic minorities
  4. Article X of the League Covenant calling for collective security

6. Ultimately, the U.S. Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, stating that it violated

  1. the Senate’s constitutional power to negotiate treaties
  2. the President’s constitutional power to declare war
  3. national sovereignty
  4. a Supreme Court decision

7. Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles required President Wilson to gain the support of

  1. the “irreconcilables”
  2. the isolationists
  3. the internationalists
  4. the reservationists

Free Response Questions

  1. Compare President Woodrow Wilson’s and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s foreign policy goals at the end of World War I.
  2. Analyze the reasons the U.S. Senate ultimately refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

AP Practice Questions

“Resolved (two-thirds of the senators present concurring therein), that the Senate advise and consent to the ratification of the treaty of peace with Germany concluded at Versailles on the 28th day of June, 1919, subject to the following reservations and understandings . . .

1. . . . The United States shall be the sole judge as to whether all Its international obligations and all its obligations under the said Covenant have been fulfilled . . .

2. The United States assumes no obligation to preserve the territorial integrity or political independence of any other country or to interfere in controversies between nations . . .

4. The United States reserves to itself exclusively the right to decide what questions are within its domestic jurisdiction . . .

9. The United States shall not be obligated to contribute to any expenses of the League . . . unless and until an appropriation of funds . . . shall have been made by the Congress of the United States.”

Henry Cabot Lodge, “Reservations with Regard to the Versailles Treaty,” November 19, 1919

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The position outlined in the excerpt is most consistent with

  1. the message of Washington’s Farewell Address
  2. the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine
  3. the United States’ entry into the Spanish-American War
  4. the treaty ending the war with Mexico

2. What was a direct result of the trend evident in the excerpt?

  1. An end to Progressive economic reforms
  2. Growing support for American isolationism in the 1920s
  3. Ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment
  4. The United States taking the lead in the League of Nations

3. Which of the following statements best supports the position outlined in the excerpt?

  1. Changing world conditions necessitated American internationalism.
  2. States’ rights did not extend to international relations.
  3. The U.S. Constitution established a system of checks and balances.
  4. Direct election of U.S. senators freed the Senate from the influence of special interests.

Primary Sources

Lodge, Henry Cabot. “Constitution of the League of Nations.” February 28, 1919. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/LodgeLeagueofNations.pdf

Wilson, Woodrow. “Joint Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War Against Germany.” April 2, 1917. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=61&page=transcript

Wilson, Woodrow. “Peace Without Victory.” January 22, 1917. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=3898

Wilson, Woodrow. “President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.” January 8, 1918. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/wilson14.asp

Suggested Resources

Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

Cooper, John Milton Jr. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Cooper, John Milton Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Cooper, John Milton Jr. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 2009.

O’Toole, Patricia. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Widenor, William C. Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980.