CRF Blog

A League of His Own

by Bill Hayes

In A League of His Own for Vanity Fair, A. Scott Berg looks at Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to get the United States to back the League of Nations.

My fixation on Wilson has been steadily refreshed over the decades whenever some current event reminds me that a political figure can maintain the loftiest ideals. But as Wilson demonstrated, time and again, one must be willing to fight for those beliefs. He brought a bold new approach to his office, one in which the executive and legislative branches co-operated the government. He literally walked the walk, violating a century-old tradition by appearing regularly before Congress — not just to deliver his State of the Union messages but whenever he had an important measure he wanted passed.

In 1917, Wilson’s powerful rhetoric convinced his isolationist nation to enter a war an ocean away — especially when he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” His goal was to construct a new world order around his Fourteen Points, the last of which sought to create a League of Nations. With this international parliament — whose goal was to maintain worldwide peace, resolving conflicts before they combusted into conflagrations — he believed mankind might have just fought the war to end all wars. In December 1918, amid the pandemonium of postwar victory, Wilson sailed to Paris to translate his Fourteen Points into the Treaty of Versailles. Except for a few weeks in the late winter, he remained there until July 1919, negotiating. He returned with a patchwork treaty in hand but his League of Nations intact. The strength of its Covenant was defined in Article X, which called for collective security, an international force to combat external aggression.

But the real battle lay before him. Constitutionally, the Senate holds the power to ratify treaties, and an exhausted Wilson found a polarized Congress also feeling marginalized. The Republican majority, under the leadership of Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, stood dead set against the Treaty of Versailles even before it had learned its contents. After two frustrating months, Wilson realized his only hope of persuading the obstinate Senate to vote for the treaty was to plead his case directly to the people. Knowing the president’s alarming medical history — headaches, gastric distress, the occasional palsied hand, even the loss of vision — his physician and confidant, Admiral Cary T. Grayson, insisted that he was too run-down to withstand a marathon tour of the country. But Wilson could not be stopped.

“We are not put into the world to sit still and know,” Wilson had told his students back at Princeton. “We are put in it to act.”

And therein lies the reason Wilson matters most today …. [more]