Why Didn’t the US Join the League of Nations?

After World War I, US president Woodrow Wilson leapt at the opportunity to create an international body to promote peace…but his opponents in Washington rebuffed it.

Apr 15, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

why didnt the us join the league of nations


World War I was so brutal and destructive that many called it the “war to end all wars.” When Germany asked for an armistice, US president Woodrow Wilson jumped at the opportunity to create a new type of international order. The victorious Allied Powers met in Paris to craft a peace treaty to officially end the war. Wilson, the most idealistic of the Allied leaders, brought with him a list of Fourteen Points that he thought should govern the post-WWI order. It included the creation of a League of Nations, which would prevent future wars. But when it came time for the US Senate to ratify it, the vote failed. Why?


Setting the Stage: Europe’s Pre-WWI Alliances

A map showing military alliances in Europe in 1914, via the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)


In the late 1800s, two developments began creating tensions throughout Europe. The first was the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s, during which time European powers “scrambled” to carve out colonies in Africa. Similarly, these same powers also sought colonies or spheres of influence in Asia. Colonies and spheres of influence gave European powers prestige and access to natural resources and captive trading markets. Within Europe itself, two major nations became unified only after 1860: Italy and Germany. These two events set off a period of intensifying geopolitical competition as European powers sought to prove themselves dominant.


Britain, with its globe-spanning empire, was the de facto superpower. However, the swift victory of Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 shocked Europe and introduced a rival to Britain. European nations began entering into secret alliances to counter this upset in the traditional balance of power. The Triple Entente powers of Britain, France, and Russia thought that Germany would not make a hostile move if it could be attacked from both sides. To counter being surrounded, Germany created the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. When World War I did erupt in the summer of 1914, these firm military alliances resulted in all major powers of Europe entering the conflict.


Setting the Stage: World War I

A photograph of soldiers in WWI trenches, which resulted in the new trench warfare that caused tremendous casualties, via The National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City


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Instead of the quick war that most European leaders thought they wanted, in which national prestige would be boosted by victory in a relatively bloodless show of force, World War I devolved into one of the most brutal wars in history. On both the Western Front in France and the Eastern Front in eastern Europe, opposing armies dug trenches to provide cover from artillery and gunfire. This trench warfare resulted in a war of attrition that caused mass casualties. New weapons like the machine gun and poison gas killed indiscriminately, while elaborate defenses, including barbed wire and land mines, made it almost impossible for attackers to make it from their own trenches to the enemy’s trenches before being mowed down by gunfire.


In April 1917, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and Russia). Although Russia exited the war only months later during the Communist Revolution, America’s entry provided the Allies with ample manpower. Beginning in June 1917, American soldiers landed in France, with up to 10,000 per day arriving a year later. Meanwhile, Germany was being starved into submission by a British naval blockade, resulting in food shortages that sapped Germans’ desire to continue the bloody war. On March 21, 1918, Germany took a gamble and launched its Spring Offensive, wagering that thousands of soldiers freed up from the Eastern Front from Russia’s exit from the War would tip the balance on the Western Front.


Germany Asks for an Armistice

A newspaper showing Germany’s request for an armistice in November 1918, via The United States World War I Centennial Commission


Unfortunately for Germany, although it finally took the war out of the trenches, its Spring Offensive was not strong enough to break the Allies. Backed by American might, the Allies held strong and then responded with their own Hundred Days Offensive. From summer into fall, the Allies pushed back. Facing food shortages and labor unrest, Germany decided that it was unable to continue the war after its military leaders announced that its situation was untenable. On November 9, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his position. On November 11, Germany agreed to the Allied demands for a cease-fire.


There was much celebration among the Allies, but an armistice is not the same as a surrender. Germany wanted to end the war, but only on agreed-upon conditions. This meant the Allies, although victorious, would have to create a peace deal acceptable to Germany’s leaders. If too much was demanded of Germany, the nation could decide to continue to war. To avoid further bloodshed, the Allies would have to hand Germany an acceptable deal. On their end, the Germans would be pressured to accept the deal or face continued Allied offensives.


Allies Meet at the Paris Peace Conference

A photograph of diplomats meeting in Paris in 1919 as part of the Paris Peace Conference, via The National WWI Museum and Memorial


So what deal would the Allies impose on Germany? Leaders of the four Allied powers–the United States, Britain, France, and Italy–met in Paris to decide on this deal at the Paris Peace Conference, which began in January 1919. Unfortunately, each ally had its own goals, ranging from shares of the spoils of war to how harshly Germany should be punished. France, which had faced the brunt of the war damage, wanted a large share of any spoils of war and wanted Germany to be punished severely. The United States, which had entered the war late, wanted less punishment for Germany.


There were some complications at the Peace Conference. In addition to the Big Four of the Allied Powers, there were also two dozen other members that wanted to be heard. The United States, although a major contributor to the Allies, was technically not one of the Allied Powers because it had not been a part of the Triple Entente and entered the war late. Russia had left the war during the Communist Revolution, and the Allies did not invite its new communist government to the conference. This left questions about how to deal with Germany’s territorial gains in the east from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed by Germany and Russia in March 1918.


Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

A newspaper headline announcing US president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, via PBS


US president Woodrow Wilson was an idealist who believed he could achieve a lasting peace. He arrived in France to popular fanfare and brought with him his Fourteen Points, which he had introduced to the US Congress in January 1918. These points addressed the issues which had brought about World War I, ranging from secret treaties to unfair trade conditions to preventing open seas. His fourteenth and final point called for the creation of a League of Nations, which would be an international body that would solve disputes through diplomacy rather than force. Although popular with the public, many leaders at the Paris Peace Conference and in the US Congress were less supportive.


Britain and France were not thrilled with Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which they thought was too generous to a defeated Germany. Ultimately, the Treaty of Versailles, the culmination of the Paris Peace Conference, imposed harsh terms on Germany, including war reparations. However, Wilson was successful in getting his proposed League of Nations included in the treaty. Germany, however, would not be admitted as a member until it could prove itself to be a “peaceful nation.” According to the US Constitution, the Treaty of Versailles would not become binding for the United States until it was accepted by a ⅔ majority vote in the Senate.


The US Senate Opposes the League

A painting of US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican who was the Senate Majority Leader and opposed America’s entry into the League of Nations, via the Liberty Fund Network


Getting the Senate to ratify, or formally accept by ⅔ majority, the Treaty of Versailles would be a difficult task. President Wilson, a Democrat, had made several political missteps in his negotiations, such as not bringing any Republican congressmen to the Paris Peace Conference. This was a significant error, as the Republicans controlled Congress. Wilson himself had only become president in 1912 because the Republican Party, which had been dominant in presidential politics since the US Civil War (1861-65), had been split between incumbent president William Howard Taft and former president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Thus, Wilson’s position was relatively weak in Washington.


Just as crucial in Wilson’s weak bargaining position was the intense hostility between himself and US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), the Senate Majority Leader. Lodge was also the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, which would report to the entire chamber on the Treaty of Versailles. Lodge criticized the Treaty of Versailles as “peace without victory” and demanded a number of amendments, which he knew would be unacceptable to the president and Democrats. Although not totally opposed to the idea of an international peace-seeking body, Lodge and his allies criticized the League of Nations, a component of the Treaty of Versailles, as infringing on American sovereignty.


Wilson Takes the League to the People

A photograph of President Woodrow Wilson in Pueblo, Colorado to give a speech encouraging America’s entry into the League of Nations, via Colorado Public Radio


President Wilson decided to fight Lodge’s control of the Senate by appealing directly to the American public. For almost a month, he traveled across the country and gave passionate speeches in favor of the League of Nations. As he moved into the Midwest, crowds became more enthusiastic. However, Wilson’s health was failing, and he had likely been suffering from mini-strokes since his attendance at the Paris Peace Conference. Despite feeling poorly, Wilson pressed on.


Wilson’s final public speech occurred on September 25, 1919 in Pueblo, Colorado. Suffering from headaches, Wilson’s speech almost stopped before it began, but he pressed on. Attendees of the speech noticed the president’s weakened condition, including nearly stumbling as he walked on stage. He advocated passionately for the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations and was well received. That night, however, Wilson complained of feeling terrible and collapsed on board his train car.


Failed Senate Votes Means US Rejects the League

A political cartoon in 1919 criticizing the US refusal to join the League of Nations by not ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, via Teaching American History


In November 1919 and in March 1920, the US Senate voted on the Treaty of Versailles, which contained the provision for America’s entry into the League of Nations. Both votes failed to achieve the necessary ⅔ majority for ratification. Later, in 1921, the Senate would approve a separate peace treaty with Germany. Opponents of the League of Nations argued that it violated the advice given by first president George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address to avoid “foreign political entanglements.”


One specific provision that received criticism was that all League members would respond with force to stop an aggressor state from attacking a League member, which would compel the US to act without specific congressional approval. Prior to his Pueblo Speech, Wilson met with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to clarify and defend the Treaty of Versailles, but Lodge later criticized Wilson’s answers as “told us nothing.” After two failed votes in the Senate, the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations were considered dead; they would not be revisited.


Wilson’s Strokes End Future League Attempts

An image promoting education about the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1967, which details removing a president from power for disability, via Rock the Vote


One reason the Republican-controlled Senate could avoid revisiting the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations was the public absence of President Wilson. Although the president had been able to walk off the train in Washington when he returned from Pueblo, Colorado, he seemed in poor health. One week later, he collapsed from a stroke. His wife discreetly summoned a doctor, and the initial diagnosis was grave. Hoping to shield her husband, Edith Wilson forbade visitors from entering his bedroom and, according to some, became the de facto president for the remainder of Wilson’s term.


When cabinet members had important questions, Edith Wilson would take them into her husband’s room and return with “his” answer. By December, President Wilson was well enough to be seen by others but never regained full function. Decades later, Wilson’s condition was one of the reasons the United States ratified the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which lays out the process for removing power from a president who has not died but is considered unable to continue as chief executive. If the vice president and a majority of the president’s Cabinet formally declare that the president is incapacitated, the vice president assumes the role of president. In Wilson’s case, however, Vice President Thomas Marshall did not wish to intercede.


US Dismissal Leaves League Too Weak for Peace

A photograph of Italian troops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1936 during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which directly violated the League of Nations, via Foreign Affairs


Although the League of Nations was successfully launched as part of the Treaty of Versailles, despite America joining the rest of the Allies, the body did not have much success in preventing military conflicts. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic goals, most member states of the League sought to find loopholes in the League’s charter to pursue their own goals. Not surprisingly, League members did not relish the idea of going to war to stop aggression against third parties, especially when their own economies were suffering from the worldwide Great Depression. Specifically, Italy decided to embark on wars of conquest in northern Africa in 1935 and 1936 in direct violation of the League of Nations.


A photograph of the US Senate chambers, where two votes to ratify America’s entry into the League of Nations failed in 1919 and 1920, via Teaching American History


Some nations, like Germany, took advantage of the League’s “guarantee of minority rights” to try and retake territory lost under the Treaty of Versailles. New nations created after World War I, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, included minority populations of ethnic Germans. Later, Nazi Germany would seize foreign territory by claiming to be protecting the rights of ethnic Germans in those provinces. Ultimately, the League was unsuccessful in either stopping wars or preventing the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, or Japan, resulting in World War II.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.