Another Try at Isolation

A newspaper political cartoon from 1919 makes fun of the Senate's resistance to ratifying the treaty of versailles.
A newspaper political cartoon lampoons the Senate's resistance to ratifying the Treaty of Versailles." ("Seein' Things" - Brooklyn Eagle, 1919, Image courtesy

Entangling Alliances

During the war, President Wilson and others tried to find some way to bring about peace based on four principles: the substitution of an international organization for the old alliance system; the substitution of arbitration for armaments; the institution of self government; and the avoidance of seizures of territories and of reparation demands. In 1916 he advocated the idea of a "league of nations" and the next year he called for a "peace without victory." In fact, Wilson spurned the idea of entangling alliances when the United States entered the war not as one of the "Allies" but rather as an "associated" belligerent.

The Fourteen Points

By January 1918, Wilson announced his Fourteen Points, with the hope of bringing a lasting peace. Generally, these points reflected his belief in the interconnections between free trade, democratic institutions, and human liberty. While the Allied leaders disliked the Fourteen Points, sufficient pressure was applied to make them the basis of the Armistice. But Wilson later confronted powerful geopolitical forces in Europe that forced numerous concessions in the Fourteen Points. Compromises were made related to rights of self-determination and harsh reparations were imposed on Germany. Still, the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, may have been the best deal he could make considering the politics and attitudes of those involved.

Wilson hoped a key provision of his Fourteen Points and the Treaty of Versailles would provide a mechanism to rectify with some of the treaty's shortcomings. The treaty included the covenant of the League of Nations. In the aftermath of the greatest carnage ever seen, the league sought to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security. Among other provisions, members agreed to seek arbitration through the league before going to war.

Seeking Senate Ratification

Henry Cabot Lodge in suit with beard and mustache.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge. (Image courtesy Library of Congress)
The president then turned his attention to gaining the necessary ratification of the treaty by the U.S. Senate to allow American participation. Popular opinion in the nation was generally favorable. But the Senate was full of cross currents of opinion and two-thirds of the body was needed for ratification. Many senators believed that rather than get involved in international affairs, the United States should create a model society for other nations to emulate. Other senators wanted to make adoption of the treaty based on various reservations, many related to the League of Nations.

In the end, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty. Politics, personal animus, and Wilson's refusal to compromise doomed the effort. Throughout the negotiations, Wilson had to contend with Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge. The two men hated each other and Lodge was well positioned to cause problems for the president. Lodge was not an isolationist, but he believed the League of Nations threatened national sovereignty. He and others demanded changes that Wilson refused to make on moral and other grounds.

The USS Arizona sinking on december 7, 1941
The USS Arizona sinks Dec. 7, 1941 in Hawaii. The attack on Pearl Harbor ended any question of the U.S. entering World War II. (Image, USS Arizona Memorial)
As the negotiations dragged on, public opinion lost interest, with focus shifting to the rising problems of inflation, unemployment, and fear of radicalism. And with the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920, America turned inward as it embraced his call for a return to "normalcy." The League of Nations limped on without American participation. 

Fascism Rises

Over the years, important provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, such as the "war guilt" clause and heavy war reparations imposed on Germany, contributed to the rise of resentment and radicalism in German society. Out of this context, Adolf Hitler and his fascist Nazi Party rose to control Germany by 1933. Once again, events in Europe reinforced American isolationism. Moreover, the stock market crash of 1929 and the rise of the Great Depression in the 1930s focused the nation further inward on the recovery of its own economy. As the shadow of fascism fell over more of Europe and a militant Japan rose in the east, a troubled America steadfastly refused involvement. Finally, the dramatic attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 collapsed isolationist resistance to the American entry into World War II.