United States Refusal To Join The League of Nations

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In 1920 the United States (U.S.) had denied the Treaty of Versailles, refusing to become a member of the League of Nations. President Wilson was a firm believer that the League would allow all of the world’s nations to live in peace with one another. However, the U.S. Senate was concerned that the obligations of League membership would force them to become too involved in international affairs.

Many Scholars have linked the failure of the League to the United States refusal to join. This paper will examine how newspaper articles and scholarly historical works differ from each other. This paper will look at various forms of historical sources and compare and contrast their contents to understand why the United States had decided to opt out of the League of Nations.

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The United States and the League of Nations

Newspaper Articles

On March 20th, 1920, the article, “America Isolated Without Treaty,” appeared in the New York Times newspaper. The article was written in response to the U.S. government’s decision not to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  The journalist was very critical of the United States for not signing the treaty and believed that this decision would have negative effects on the country; he predicted that the United States’ refusal to join would deteriorate their international relationships and that this would ultimately have a negative effect on their economy.

The journalist proposed that the United States’ decision to not sign the Treaty of Versailles would leave them isolated from the European countries. The League of Nations was based on the idea that all the great powers would unite together to ensure international peace and the protection of sovereignty.

By the United States not participating in the new world order, the journalist predicted that international relationships would fall apart. The journalist declared how President Wilson had already lost favor with European countries and goes further to say that the rest of the world was in disfavor of the United States, which would result in the loss of international friendships.[1]

As international relationships deteriorated the United States would no longer be welcomed to participate in post-war decisions. The journalist also declared that the U.S. would not be able to benefit from post-war trade opportunities. Furthermore, since the United States had not signed the treaty, they remained at war with Germany.

This forced the United States to cease all trade with Germany and prevented any future trade with the nation until the war was over and peace had been established. However, other countries would still be participating in trade with Germany, creating economic/trade relationships.[2]

The journalist also believed that trade between the United States and the other nations would be “greatly handicapped by the decisions.[3] Overall, the journalist believed that not signing the treaty would leave the United States in a position that would lead to increased international political and economic isolation.

The article also demonstrated the uncertainty regarding how the United States would obtain peace with Germany. The journalist suggested that the government would adopt the Senator Knox resolution.[4] The Knox resolution consisted of the idea that the Treaty of Versailles would be adopted with a few alterations, with a focus on removing the League of Nations mandate.

Interestingly, also noted is the fact that President Wilson would not accept any alterations to the treaty. Many scholars believed that if Wilson had accepted the ratification of the Knox Resolution, the United States would have joined the League.

The League of Nations, United States, Allies, Axis, 1919
                                                                 

The newspaper article, “American Interest and the League,” was published on March 24th, 1921 in the Washington Post. This article concentrated on the aftermath of the United States’ decision not to join the League of Nations. The main emphasis of the article was the economic backlash faced by the United States. The journalist focused on how the members of the League manipulated the true objective in order to gain economic benefits over the United States.

The members of the League were portrayed as over-exerting their powers in order to gain economic advantages. The journalist focused on the idea that equal treatment of Mesopotamia under the British mandate would only be given to members of the League of Nations.[5] This mandate created an unequal economic advantage to those within the League.

Furthermore, the United States was forbidden to participate in the decisions regarding dispersion of German territories. This led to losing the possibility of gaining valuable natural resources, mainly oil. By the United States not entering the League they would not gain as many post-war benefits. The writer was especially critical of Britain’s argument that the country had found an opportunity to discriminate against American citizens in the worldwide struggle for oil.[6]



This journalist viewed the League of Nations as a very negative and corrupt organization. The League’s members were portrayed as using the League’s diplomatic influence to gain economic advantages, especially in the oil monopoly. Therefore, his conclusion was that the members of the League of Nations had their own personal agendas that did not include the interests of the United States.

In conclusion, the journalist stated that, even if the United States had joined the League of Nations, American interests would be sacrificed because of the European manipulation of the League.[7] Overall, the journalist agreed that the United States’ decision not to join the League of Nations was the correct choice as they would have been at the mercy of the European agenda.

The first newspaper article was critical of the United States’ decision to not enter the League of Nations. The author predicted that by not signing the Treaty of Versailles, international relationships with the United States would deteriorate resulting in economic discrimination against them.

The second newspaper article written a year after the United States’ decision not to join the League, focused on the aftermath of the decision and the negative impact on the country’s economy because of international discrimination. However, the journalist was not critical of the United States for not joining the League. Instead, he maintained it was the right decision and that if the United States had joined the League it would have resulted in the loss of power over their internal/external affairs.

Both articles focused on the aftermath of the United States’ decision not to enter the League of Nations. Both journalists used the events occurring at the time in order to form their personal opinion on how the decision would affect and had affected the country.

Economic theory also played an important role in how the journalists formulated their arguments. Economic theory states that decreased interaction or isolation with a country would lead to a decrease in trade, and increased isolation; a position taken by both journalists, as opposed to an increase in interaction and trade leading to interdependence which decreases the possibility of conflict.

Overall, both newspaper articles agreed that by the United States not joining the League of Nations, there would be a negative impact on the economy. However, each journalist interpreted the impact of not having membership in a different way.

The first article discussed how the United States would now become an isolated country where international relationships where continuously deteriorating. The second article concluded that even with the economic backlash, it was a necessary decision in order to protect the personal interests of the United States, and ultimately their sovereignty.

Both newspaper articles represented two conflicting ideas that are still present to this day. There remains an ongoing debate regarding how the decisions of the League had affected the United States and more importantly, why the United States decided not to participate in the League.

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Academic Articles

The article, “Constitutional Issues Involving the Controversy over American Membership in the League of Nations 1918-1920” was written a significant time after the United States decided not to join the Treaty of Versailles in 2014. This article discussed the rationale why the United States government did not accept the League of Nations.

In order to conclude why membership within the League was denied the author examined the opposing views of President Wilson and the United States Senate. Overall, the United States was opposed to the League of Nations because the Senate felt that their country would have to forfeit too much power.

Thus, if the United States joined they would be forced to become involved in European issues and President Wilson was not willing to ratify the treaty to better fit the States’ constitution.

The major factor why the United States Senate denied the treaty was that it feared it would limit the constitutional powers of the President and Congress. Many Americans believed that membership within an international organization that exercised independent authority would conflict with their sovereignty.[8]

At the time it was also popular belief that if the United States joined the League it would take away the power of their government to control their national interests.




The Senate also agreed that joining the League of Nations would take power away from the United States government.

Senator Traft, a firm believer in the League, preached that no diplomatic power would be taken away from the United States by joining the League.[9] However, the majority of the Senate believed the League would force the United States to sacrifice their constitutional law.[10]

By joining the league, the United States would have specific obligations to other countries that would at times force them to act against national interests, and the Senate was not willing not give up any diplomatic power or control over their affairs. However, the Senate was willing to ratify the treaty if it better suited the interests of the United States.

President Woodrow Wilson, United States, Treaty of Versailles, League of NationsPresident Wilson was not willing to ratify the treaty proposed by the Senate and had, in fact, excluded the Senate from the treaty-making process. Instead, he firmly believed that the 14 points he created within the Treaty would ensure lasting world peace.[11]

Wilson stated that the League of Nations would maintain the balance within the world and that it would create a set of obligations that countries would have to follow when interacting with one another. In President Wilson’s view, in order to ensure peace, it was extremely important for the Senate to agree to his 14 points without changing them.

He further declared that the refusal of the League would “break the hearts of the world.[12] However, a key factor leading to the United States’ failure to join the League was Wilson’s refusal to work with the Senate to align the interests of the United States with the principles adopted by the League. 

The conclusion of this article was that the main reason why the United States had not entered into the League of Nations was because of the beliefs held by President Wilson. The United States was not willing to enter into an agreement that involved many critical issues, nor were they willing to join an international organization that had such wide-ranging powers.[13]

The Senate, however, was willing to ratify the League’s principles if they were modified to better fit the interests of the United States.

However, Wilson firmly believed that the possibility of creating mutual relationships would be destroyed if the country ratified the treaty proposed by the United States Senate. Even with reservations, Wilson directed Democrats to vote in opposition to the Treaty thus resulting in the United States not joining the League.

The article, “Article XI in the Debate on the United States’ Rejection of the League of Nations,” focuses on Article XI within the Treaty of Versailles. The author argued that this particular article was one of the major factors as to why the United States Senate did not agree with the League of Nations.

Article XI was originally written in order to create solidarity between the United States and the European countries. However, it was viewed as a negative entity that would take away the power of the United States in pursuing their national interests.

Many believed that Article XI represented and supported European Imperialism of which the United States’ politicians did not agree with. Lodge, a major critic of the Treaty, believed that the League of Nations would force the United States to become involved in European affairs.[14] He stated that “the hopelessly loose and obscure Convent could draw the United States through, moral obligations, into all conflicts of Europe and possibly lead to their involvement in internal conflicts in different countries.”[15]




            Article XI from the Treaty of Versailles was a major reason why the United States Senate did not wish to join the League of Nations. Some scholars argued that this was because the United States wanted to be isolated from European countries and not get involved in issues that were not their own.

However, according to this particular article, the United States did not want to get involved because it would force them to give up too much power over their own decision making.

Article XI was, however, President Wilson’s favorite article of the Treaty as it stood for the protection of the weak and allowed the United States to intervene in foreign conflicts. Article XI would stop immediate threats on smaller countries as they would be watched over and protected by the world’s superpowers.

Thus, the League of Nations represented the final stage in the adoption of an anti-imperialist ideology.[16]

Two main ideologies existed within the United States as to why they should join the League of Nations. Those who agreed with the objectives of the League of Nations argued that the 14 points provided the foundations for peace, and that is was the responsibility of the United States to give every country basic human rights.[17]

However, those who were opposed were anti-imperialists and did not want to support nor give power to the European countries. Thus, the country had become split as to the extent of the United States’ role in international affairs. Unfortunately, because the United States had not become a part of the League of Nations World War II would follow shortly after.

Both scholarly articles discussed why the United States did not wish to join the League of Nations.

The first article focused on the contradicting ideas of what joining the League of Nations meant for the United States. Wilson believed it was necessary for the United States to forfeit some power in order to ensure world peace. However, the senators were more concerned with protecting the United States’ domestic interests as opposed to world politics. By ratifying the treaty, Wilson believed his hopes for world peace would be destroyed.

The second article focused on the idea that the United States would relinquish too much power by joining the League. However, within this particular article, the author discussed how the senate believed the power of the United States would be forfeited to that of the Europeans. The United States Senate did not want to be a pawn of the European governments but instead wanted total control of their interests.

Both articles agreed that the United States did not want to be obligated nor sacrifice their personal agenda for the greater good of the world.

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Books

The book by Author Link, “Wilson The Diplomatist”, heavily focused on President Wilson’s role within the League of Nations. President Wilson believed that the League of Nations had the ability to bind its’ members to one another in order to use economic and military force against any country that violated the international agreement by committing acts of hostility against another member.[18] This particular book described President Wilson’s struggle to ensure the United States entry into the Treaty.

            President Wilson whole heartily believed in the League of Nations as was evident in his stance that the United States should become a leader in the world’s affairs. Wilson wished to halt the notion of his fellow countrymen that the United States should remain a separate entity and stated, “The interests of all nations are our own also.[19]

He was very determined while pursuing the creation of closer allied relationships and had no desire to spare American resources or manpower.[20] Overall, President Wilson was willing to do anything in order for the United States to enter into the League of Nations. As it was to be the hope for all mankind, he believed it would allow all the world’s nations to live in peace, as well as allow the United States to become more influential in world affairs.[21]

However, the author placed an enormous amount of blame on President Wilson for the United States not joining the treaty as he had excluded the Senate in the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson had ignored the Senate in his appointment of the commissioners by going to Paris without a Senate member, actions which renewed an old conflict between the President and the upper house for control over foreign policy.[22]

Overall, the United States government found disagreement within itself. The Senate had been willing to ratify the Treaty if it could be altered in order to align to the needs of the country, yet president Wilson firmly disagreed a power struggle was occurring.

The book also discussed the fact that if the United States joined the League of Nations their government would be forced to forfeit power over their domestic interests. The isolationists believed that American membership in the League of Nations would mean entanglement in all rivalries and wars within Europe.[23]

Citizens of the United States were not interested in becoming more involved in international affairs and wanted to limit their involvement. Overall, this author declared that joining the League of Nations would force the United States into complete internationalism.

The second book, Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy, looks at Senator Lodge’s viewpoint on the League of Nations. Lodge was committed to an allied victory whereas Wilson hoped to arrange a “peace without victory.[24]

The United States had become divided between those who wished to play a role in the war’s aftermath and those who wished to become isolated from international affairs.

Senator Lodge and President Wilson held very distinct ideas from one another regarding the degree of influence the League should have within the United States. Lodge had favored a more limited League, an organization that would secure the benefits of the allies, keep Germany in check, and at the same time not change the country’s involvement in foreign affairs.[25]

Lodge had wanted the best of both worlds; he wanted the U.S. to be involved in international affairs as long as the country was able to maintain sovereignty.[26] As well, Lodge had not been willing to join the League under President Wilson’s 14 points but rather ratify the Treaty once it was altered to better suit the interests of the United States in its’ involvement in international affairs.

In the above book, President Wilson is perceived as the reason why the Treaty had not been accepted. Both Lodge and the Senate had been willing to join the League if the Treaty had been ratified. Lodge had only wanting reservations and stated that the United States “assumes no obligations” under Article X.[27]

By the United States assuming no obligations was a denial of the theory on what collective security was based.[28] The League was to unite all nations and create a mutual relationship where all countries were obligated to come to the aid of other League members.

However, Lodge had wanted total control over foreign decisions and did not want to be pressured by the League to act in events that would not benefit the United States.

Both books argue that if the United States had joined the League of Nations the United States would have had to forfeit too much power. This meant that the United States would have been obligated as a member of the League of Nations to become involved in international affairs even if they had to desire to do so.

Both books also lay blame on President Wilson for the failure of the United States to join the League. If Wilson had been willing to compromise regarding the ratification of the Treaty, the United States would have become a League member.

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Whats the Difference Between Sources? – Conclusion

Newspaper articles and scholarly historical works differ greatly from one another.

Newspaper articles are often biased and based upon personal interpretation and opinion regarding current events. In the newspaper articles discussed at the beginning of the essay, the journalists used subjective opinions based on trade theories in order to conclude the impact of the League of Nations on the United States.

The focus of the journalists was the issue specific to that time period, how the other countries viewed the United States after it had decided to deny the treaty and not join the League of Nations. Therefore, the journalists used information which was available at the time in order to formulate their own personal opinion regarding how the decision would affect the United States.

As well, the newspaper articles presented only specific information. For example, the journalists only discussed the economic backlash and international exclusion the United States would face. There was little mentioned concerning the political decisions made as to why the League was denied, only a prediction of the aftermath.

On the other hand, the scholarly articles and books offered a much clearer picture regarding why the United States had made the decision to deny the League. Both concluded that the United States would have had to give up too much power and that the county’s personal agenda would have been at the mercy of the members of the League.

Furthermore, the newspapers focused more the on contemporary issues of the time such as economic relations and political power derived from sovereignty. Yet the scholarly articles and books provided the background information lacking in the newspaper articles, thus allowing the reader to understand why the citizens of the United States had been afraid for their economy.

The scholarly articles and books also agreed that the Senate had been concerned with the sovereignty of the United States and the role President Wilson played in his refusal to modify the Treaty. The newspaper articles and scholarly articles align in consensus that if President Wilson was not willing to join any ratified treaty.

As well, the newspaper articles offered a biased opinion on the particular event and how it would affect the nation, while the scholarly books and articles provided background as to why the event occurred, and what the political mindset was at the time.

All the scholarly articles and books argued that the United States was unwilling to join the League of Nations fearing they would lose too much power.

The United States Senate believed that the United States would be forced to enter into events involving other countries because of their obligations to the League. The United States had not been ready to make this commitment to the rest of the world, fearing that their personal sovereignty may be sacrificed.

As well, the United States government was unwilling to forfeit their own personal interest concerned that they would become submissive to the European powers. President Wilson was also heavily blamed for of his unwillingness to ratify the treaty. If the treaty had been modified to better suit the interests of the country, the United States would have entered into the League of Nations.

The newspaper articles pertaining to the League of Nations are not overly similar to the scholarly works and differ in the following ways.

The newspaper articles disagree with one another as the first article believed that because the United States had not joined the league it left them isolated, therefore losing international respect and economic gain. The second article believed that if the U.S. had joined the League they would have lost control over their own international affairs and would have fallen to European powers. The second article also firmly believed that the United States would have lost the ability to protect the country’s personal interests.

The newspaper articles differed widely compared to the scholarly articles and books as the newspaper articles presented more specific positions.

For example, the newspaper articles mainly discussed the economic backlash and international exclusion the United States faced. Little was mentioned of the political decisions as to why the United States denied the League, with only a prediction of the aftermath presented. Whereas, the scholarly articles and books did provide more clarity regarding the rationale as to why the United States decided to deny the League.

However, all the newspaper articles and scholarly works did conclude that if the United States had signed the Treaty they would have relinquished too much power, and the government’s personal agenda would have been at the mercy of the members of the League.

Lastly, when the information contained within the newspaper articles, scholarly articles, and books is compiled, it can be concluded that the decision of the United States not to join the League of Nations ensured the protection of the country’s personal interests as well as their sovereignty.

 

Endnotes

[1] Unknown, “America Isolated Without Treaty,” New York Times, March 20th, 1920,

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Unknown, “American Interests and the League,” The Washington Post, February 24th, 1921,

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] William Ross, “Constitutional Issues Involving the Controversy over American Membership in the League of Nations 1918-1920,” American Journal of Legal History 53 (2014), 1

[9] Ibid, 18

[10] Ibid, 17

[11] Ibid, 3

[12]Ibid, 3

[13] Ibid, 87

[14] I William Ross, “Constitutional Issues Involving the Controversy over American Membership in the League of Nations 1918-1920,” American Journal of Legal History 53 (2014),506

[15] Ibid, 506

[16] Ibid, 513

[17] Ibid, 523

[18] Arthur Link, Wilson The Diplomatist, (United States: Quadrangle Books Inc, 1965), 95

[19] Ibid, 95

[20] Ibid, 97

[21] Ibid, 100

[22] Ibid, 129

[23] Ibid, 134

[24] William Widenor, Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy, (United States: University of California Press, 1980), 270 

[25] William Widenor, Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy, (United States: University of California Press, 1980), 318

[26]Ibid,318

[27]Ibid, 338

[28] Ibid,339


 

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