Updated: April 15, 2017
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918, the combatants in “a war [that was supposed] to end all wars” laid down their weapons, and the process of establishing an everlasting peace was to begin. Through his Fourteen Points, the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, presented a clear vision of how the ground work for world peace should be set up. He was successful in getting a majority of his Fourteen Points included in the treaty, but because of Wilson’s stubbornness, exacerbated by his poor health, and the alienation of key members of the Senate, the process of ratifying the Treaty of Versailles became an impossible task.
Woodrow Wilson was an intelligent and deeply religious man who steadfastly stood by his convictions and beliefs. He routinely accepted counsel when formulating a direction. If he was satisfied that proper resources and preparation were used to come to a decision, the decision would be final. He would become inflexible, some would say to a fault, and he would not modify his stance even when the circumstances may prove change to be more advantageous.
After the armistice, the United States was to send a delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris, France to participate in the formulation of the framework for lasting peace. Wilson’s partisanship was reflected in his choices for those who would participate in the conference on behalf of the United States. His selections, maybe more so in who he did not select, caused consternation among even his most ardent supporters — Wilson had snubbed former President, William Taft and, perhaps most notably, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the senior senator on the Committee on Foreign Relations. It was the profound lack of political diversity in the selection of those delegates that Wilson, a Democrat, may have otherwise doomed any success of ratification of the treaty by the Republican held Senate. Indeed, his supporters saw the value in a politically balanced coalition; nevertheless, Wilson distained Republicans and chose to leave them out.
While in Paris, the United States delegation and the allies worked for months to draft the Treaty of Versailles, and in July of 1919 it was ready to present to congress to be ratified. The work that had been accomplished to create the document had been an exhausting undertaking for Wilson, but that was just a taste of what he would endure while attempting to secure the Senate’s approval. Wilson’s health had been deteriorating. While in France during the treaty’s deliberations, he would uncharacteristically enter into fits of rage, leaving some to believe that he may have quite possibly suffered a stroke.
Back on United States soil, Wilson began to realize the opposition he would have to overcome. The Senate was divided into factions, each with their own concerns about the treaty. First, there were a number of Democrats that would vote in support of the treaty to support the president. Secondly, there were a number of Republicans that really had yet to commit to any stance. The staunchest opposition for Wilson came from a small number of Republicans and a few rogue Democrats, known as the Irreconcilables, who disagreed with the concept of a League of Nations altogether; however, even without their votes, Wilson could have realized treaty ratification if he would have just been able to compromise. The balance of the votes he needed resided with the Mild Reservationists.
The Mild Reservationists main desire was to ensure that the sovereignty of the United States was protected. The League of Nations’ mandate, specifically, Article X which, in theory, would provide the League’s council control of each member nation’s armed forces during a period of aggression. The Mild Reservationists wanted to add the reservation that any such action must be approved by Congress.
Wilson vehemently dismissed the possibility of any change to the document as it was written in Paris; still, the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations passed a number of reservations and amendments to the treaty. Infuriated by the Senate’s lack of support, Wilson believed he had nothing more to gain from direct negotiations with the opposing forces in the Senate, so he took the issue straight to the American people.
Wilson’s road trip took him all around the country. Traveling by train, he maintained a hectic tempo, often delivering two to three speeches a day, but his body would not be able to keep pace. Even before he embarked on the mission, his health was suspect. As the trip continued, his coughing attacks and headaches would manifest themselves with greater intensity and frequency until sometime during the night of September 25th, it was realized that he could no longer proceed.
Back in Washington D.C., on October 2nd, President Wilson suffered a massive stroke. Although he survived, his ability to put up any real fight for the Treaty had come to an end.
Ultimately, neither the original nor a modified version of the Treaty of Versailles would be ratified by the Senate. In the end, the United States did not join the League of Nations and signed separate treaties with each of the defeated adversaries. President Wilson’s health would inevitably bring the fight for ratification to an inauspicious end; but moreover, it was President Wilson’s partisanship and demonstrated inability to compromise once his mind was set that sealed the Treaty’s fate.
Source: Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan, copyright © 2001, Random House, Inc.