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The Treaty of Versailles and a Return to US Isolationism


The Treaty of Versailles

US voters returned a narrow Republican majority to Congress in the November elections of 1918 after
Wilson broke a partisan truce by encouraging support for the Democratic Party candidates. Wilsons
prestige at home and abroad declined due to his partys failure in the 1918 elections. Wilson then decided
to go to Paris to negotiate the peace personally, which infuriated the Republicans. No US President had
ever traveled to Europe before. Wilson added insult to injury by choosing a delegation to accompany him
that did not include a single Republican Senator. Keep this in mind.
Wilson was warmly received in Europe. Things turned toward the darker when the peace conference
actually began in January, 1919. The Big Four leaders of the US, Britain, France, and Italy dominated
the conference. In particular, the leaders of Britain and France were bitter about the war and in the case of
France, the previous war (Franco-Prussian, 1870-1871) too. While the leaders from Italy, Japan, France,
and Britain wrangled for revenge and goodies to extract from Germany, Wilson considered walking out of
the conference.
Germanys position had weakened since it sought the armistice. It had little bargaining strength and the
final terms were essentially dictated to the German representatives. Germany was disarmed, stripped of
colonies, forced to admit sole blame for the war, and saddled with reparation payments to the Allies.
France regained territory it lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War and Germany was forced to live
with a demilitarized zone on its border with France. Germany lost 10% of its population and 1/8 of its
Wilson did influence some of the treaty provisions. Former German colonies would be governed under a
mandate or trusteeship system and would, in theory, eventually become independent. It also recognized the
independence of Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Czechoslovakia and
Yugoslavia were carved out of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the treaty overall bred resentment in
Germany. It also did little to protect Russia. Before the peace conference, a fourteen nation force of the
Allies landed in Russia and took part in an effort to overthow the new Bolshevik government that had
established the Soviet Union (USSR). US troops remained in Russia until April, 1920. The treaty included
territorial settlements to weaken Russia and Wilson and the others in the Big Four supported an anticommunist Russian General in an unsuccessful campaign. Wilson refused to recognize the Bolshevik
government and the US did not formally recognize the Soviet Union until 1933.
As the conference wound down, Wilson increasingly focused on what he considered to be the centerpiece
of his work at Versailles the League of Nations. The League seemed to reflect the highest ideals Wilson
had espoused during the war.
Q: Go back and look at Wilsons war goals stated in his April 1917 address to Congress and his 14
Points. Was Wilson too idealistic about war and its realities? Was he too idealistic about this
particular war? Was he unrealistic?
Wilsons goals for the war were very optimistic and idealistic. He thought that after the war the world
would be a better place but this proved to not be true. There would later be more problems with Russia and
indecision about Germany.


Opposition in the US: A Return to Isolationism? An End to Progressivism?

However, when Wilson returned to the US in July, he found that the Republicans bottled up the treaty in the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Wilsons intellectual rival Henry Cabot Lodge. Wilson
attempted to rally public support for the treaty by engaging in a speaking tour of the West. However, the
grueling trip led to a physical breakdown for Wilson and he later had a devastating stroke in October.
Wilson attempted to recuperate but little recovery occurred over the next few months. His personal
physician counseled that he resign on medical grounds in January, 1920, but Wilson refused. Wilsons
fierce second wife protected him and concealed his condition from the public and from Congress.
With Wilson out of the game, the Senate Foreign Relations committee finally reported the Treaty out of
committee in September, 1919, but with a series of amendments. The Senate split three ways on the
League Democrats supported it, some Republicans (Irreconcilables) opposed the League completely,
and other Republicans (Reservationists) supported the League but only if the provision which promised
that members would preserve the political integrity and independence of other members was stricken.
USians did not support the Treaty as Wilson had hoped and Wilson was unwilling to compromise, even
ordering the Democrats to vote against the Treaty that had been stripped of the clause at issue. The
Democrats and Irreconcilables voted against the revised Treaty and it failed. A League of Nations was
formed, as Wilson intended, but the US did not become a member.
Q: Does the opposition to the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations reflect a return to US
isolationism? Does it reflect an end of Progressivism?
The opposition to the Treaty of Versailles somewhat reflected an end to the progressivism in the
United States. It showed that it wasnt in the common interest of the American people to keep moving
forward in that direction.