by William H. Benson
September 26, 2002
Woodrow Wilson wanted peace. The Great War in Europe had claimed millions of lives, and it was Wilson’s dream to create a lasting peace, a world without war. And so he offered Fourteen Points and proposed disarmament, self-determination, and his final point–a League of Nations, an international body that would eliminate war.
In Paris, Wilson urged the winners of the war–the British, French, and Italians, to accept his Fourteen points, and they willingly agreed so long as they could then exact reparations from the defeated–the Germans and the Austrians, as well as blame them for the war. Germany had no choice but sign the Treaty.
In June of 1919 Woodrow Wilson returned to America and asked Congress to rubberstamp his Versailles Treaty. When Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concerns and came up with his own Fourteen Reservations, Wilson was incensed that anyone should question his ideas.
When the Democrats in Congress suggested a compromise, Wilson shouted, “Never! Never!”
Throughout his career as an educator at Princeton and as a politician, Woodrow Wilson was unbending, unyielding, uncompromising, unforgiving, and autocratic in his manners. He aroused animosity when he would deliberately snub people. Henry Cabot Lodge said, “I never expected to hate anyone in politics with the hatred I feel towards Wilson.”
Wilson took his case to the American people. Beginning in August he traveled by rail some 8000 miles giving an hour-long speech everyday for twenty-two days. At age 63 his health was not the best, but the strain of this schedule crushed him. On September 25, following a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, he collapsed and was rushed back to Washington where he suffered a stroke.
He lay in a coma for weeks, and when he regained consciousness, he discovered that he was paralyzed on his left side, and incapable of continuing much of a fight with the Senate, other than to stonewall. His wife, Edith, kept him secluded for the next eighteen months of his presidency.
Three times the Versailles Treaty came up for a vote, and three times the Senate voted it down as well as the League of Nations. Neither Congress nor the debilitated President would bend.
The nations of the world eventually created the League but without the power and influence of the United States, it proved ineffectual, especially when confronted with the rise to power twenty years later in Germany of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, it was the Versailles Treaty that Hitler so hated and was so determined to undo, and around which he rallied the Germans to take up arms.
In 1919 the Democratic President wanted peace. Today the Republican President wants war. In 1919 the President believed in the power of an international organization to enforce the peace. Two weeks ago the President stood before the United Nations and listed all of the resolutions that Saddam Hussein has failed to abide by; in so doing, Bush drew attention to the ineffectiveness of the United Nations.
In 1919 the Republican-controlled Congress wanted no part of a League of Nations and trusted solely in Congressional sovereignty. But today the Democratic-controlled Congress must also consider itself as the most prominent member of the United Nations.
In 1919 Congress refused to accept its rightful position as a world leader and involve itself in another nation’s affairs. Today the world’s nations watch warily as the President threatens Saddam Hussein and promises to set things right in Iraq. In less than a century the roles reversed.
The key question asked in 1919 as well as today is: “What kind of a relationship should the United States–the most powerful nation on the globe–have with the United Nations?” In 1919 the answer was “None!” In 1945 following World War II, the answer was “congenial and collegial”. But today the answer that the Bush administration is promoting is “go-it-alone” and not wait upon mulitlateral agreement. Some see danger in this approach. Others see the threat of annihilation as reason enough to go to war. The answer to that key question is being rehashed and rethought and reworked today–for the better or for the worse.