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Woodrow Wilson

Fighting the Senate and Final Days: 1919–1924

Fighting for Peace: 1918

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Although Wilson had succeeded in creating the League of Nations and meeting many of the goals outlined in his Fourteen Points speech, his battles were not yet over. Indeed, at that point they had barely begun. According to the Constitution, Wilson still had to convince the required two-thirds of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. If he failed to acquire the necessary sixty-seven votes, the peace that he had fought so ardently for would most likely die.

Wilson's fight with the Senate was uphill all the way. The Senate did not like the idea of the League of Nations and was still bitter about having been excluded from representation in Wilson's delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. Moreover, the Senate at the time was primarily Republican. Many of its members were isolationists, and few were unwilling to entangle the United States in international agreements that could either challenge American sovereignty or draw the nation into another European war. Many in the Senate had deep reservations to say the least.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held hearings on the Versailles Treaty for six weeks during the summer of 1919. These hearings proved to be fatal for the treaty. Although Lodge himself was not entirely opposed to the treaty, the six-week debate allowed many other Senators more opposed to the League and the treaty to speak out and persuade their colleagues. The more powerful of these senators included Hiram W. Johnson of California and William E. Borah of Idaho, both isolationists. As the summer drew to a close, Wilson realized that he was losing support and that his dream would die unless he did something drastic.

Wilson's solution was to take the treaty and the League to the American people. Wilson believed that if he convinced enough Americans that only the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations could prevent all other future catastrophic wars, then the Senate would have no choice but to ratify the treaty. The President boarded his campaign train and set out for the Midwest and the West, the places where isolationist tendencies were strongest. Wilson's plan worked, at least for the month of September 1919. Though Wilson often received a lukewarm reception each time he arrived in a new Midwestern city, by the time he had spoken to the citizens, they almost invariably gave him roaring cheers. Toward the end of the month, however, Wilson was beginning to tire. He had delivered nearly forty speeches in half as many days over, 8,000 miles of America. He finally collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919. A week later, back in Washington, D.C., Wilson suffered a stroke. He was paralyzed on the left side of his entire body and remained half paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Confined to bed for much of the remainder of his Presidential term, Wilson could do little but watch as the Senate prepared to vote on the treaty. By this time, over a dozen modifications had been made to the treaty, the most damaging of which required a joint resolution from the House and the Senate to participate in the League of Nations. Wilson ordered the Democrats in the Senate to vote "nay" for that particular version of the treaty. Because of this and the Republican opposition, the Senate voted down the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson tried to revive it in the spring of 1920, but it failed again.

The rest of Wilson's time in office was uneventful. His wife Edith stayed by his bedside and relayed his orders, but the President could not seriously work on anything else. Despite the treaty's failure in the Senate, Wilson believed until the day he died that he had been in the right to fight for it. He also believed that the United States and the rest of mankind would regret the Senate's decision. Although the League of Nations was created under the Treaty of Versailles, it was never taken seriously as a forum of discussion or as a protector of peace because it lacked American support.

The issue of American ratification resurfaced in during the Presidential election in the autumn of 1920. The Republicans, led by candidate Warren G. Harding, opposed the League, while the Democrats, led by James M. Cox, supported it. The Republicans won that year by an overwhelming majority and thus sealed the fate of American involvement in the League of Nations. Wilson's work, however, did not go entirely unrecognized: in 1919 he became the second President, after Theodore Roosevelt, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wilson spent the remainder of his life in retirement in Washington, D.C. Shortly after he stepped down as President, he returned to practicing law. Along with Bainbridge Colby, his third Secretary of State, he founded a law firm in the city. However, his paralysis continued to prevent him from seriously working. He gave his last speech on November 11, 1923, again pledging his support for the League of Nations. Then, on February 23, 1924, Wilson died in his sleep, and was buried in Washington two days later. He was sixty-seven years old.

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