Woodrow Wilson couldn't convince the Senate to approve the Treaty of Versailles. Image:
Woodrow Wilson couldn't convince the Senate to approve the Treaty of Versailles. Image:

Republican senators made news recently when they signed a letter warning Iranian leaders that any nuclear agreement reached with President Barack Obama could be swiftly undone.

      “We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei,” the letter said.
     Some commentators questioned whether the senators had violated the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments.
     The controversy also has included a reference to the Senate's refusal in 1919 to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, negotiated by President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). Here is an overview:

     World War I (1914-1918): An estimated 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians lost their lives during the four painful years of the first global conflict, which the U.S. did not enter until 1917. The arrival of fresh American troops upended the balance of power and is credited with helping defeat Germany.

     A peace plan: In an address to Congress on Jan. 8, 1918, Wilson presented a 14-point program for world peace. The final point called for the League of Nations, stating: “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

     The war ends: The Germans surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918.

     Wilson jumps in: Armed with his 14 points, the president personally led the U.S. delegation to negotiate the treaty. In doing so, he became the first American president to travel to Europe while still in office.   
     In the book, Wilson, author A. Scott Berg notes that in assembling his negotiating team, the president, a Democrat, wanted “at least the suggestion of nonpartisanship.  Because the Senate had to approve all treaties, several prominent Republicans in the upper house were mentioned, Henry Cabot Lodge chief among them. He was not only the leading Republican senator, but he also chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His well-known enmity toward the president kept anybody from seriously considering the idea, though pundits ever since have suggested that if chosen, he would have ensured passage of the treaty.”

     A constitutional problem:  The president also believed that he actually couldn’t appoint Lodge, or any other legislator, Berg writes, because of the Constitution’s stipulation that “no Senator or Representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office under the authority of the United States, which shall have been created.”

     The treaty: Beyond the fact that the treaty basically demilitarized Germany, the agreement stripped the country of its overseas territories and hit it with crippling war reparations. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau has been described as believing that Germany should be permanently incapacitated. 
     In representing the U.S., Wilson promoted the League of Nations and successfully persuaded the major powers – Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan – to sign on. The Smithsonian book, World War I, The Definitive Visual History (editorial consultant Richard Overy), points out that politicians had different ideas about the way the League of Nations would work:  
     “Interpreted by Wilson as initiating a new era in international relations and by Clemenceau as a permanent military alliance against Germany, it was enshrined in Part I of the treaty.”    

       Failure to launch: Wilson returned home and personally delivered the treaty to the Senate.
      “Recently returned from Paris and his unprecedented self-assigned role as leader of the American negotiating team, Wilson hoped for prompt Senate approval, but feared trouble from Republicans, newly restored as the chamber's majority party,” the Senate website says.
       Suffering medical issues, Wilson stumbled through his speech.

       Prominent opponents:  That was only the beginning of Wilson's problems. Lawmakers had a variety of objections. Some thought the treaty was too harsh.
       Most notably, the president had an influential rival – the aforementioned Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge’s committee added “reservations” and amendments to the treaty.

       Major reservations: Lodge’s chief problem with the treaty was this paragraph: “The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.”
     Lodge thought this constituted a “universal, perpetual commitment binding the United States to send troops anywhere in the world at any time to repel aggression,” wrote James E. Hewes, Jr., chief of military history for the Army in a 1970 analysis, “Henry Cabot Lodge and the League of Nations.”  

     The upshot: Instead of haggling over the wording, Wilson opted for an end run around the Senate. Hoping to appeal directly to the voters, he scheduled an arduous speaking tour to promote the League, but he suffered a breakdown after a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, on Sept. 25, 1919. While given a Noble Peace Prize, Wilson didn’t win over the Senate. On Nov. 19, 1919, the Senate rejected the peace treaty.
     Wilson’s successor, President Warren G. Harding, also rejected the idea of joining the League of Nations. In 1921, Harding approved a separate treaty concluding the war.

     Parallels to the present-day: The story of Wilson and the League of Nations involves high-octane partisan politics and proves, yet again, that revered historical figures can be just as petty as the rest of us. The story also features an erudite Democratic president who was once a college professor (sound familiar?) and a newly minted Republican majority.  
     But most of all, the story illustrates an old adage: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Wilson would have done well to remember this – so, too, Obama and the letter-writing senators.

     Not so fast: In another sense, the parallel doesn't work. As of this writing, there is not a treaty with Iran. Senators are reacting before a deal has been inked.  Indeed, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, author of the letter, told The Washington Post that he had written it two weekends ago.
     Beyond that, Lodge voiced credible reservations about the country’s role in keeping world peace -- based on a thorough knowledge of the treaty. 
     He’d actually read the thing.  



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