Chapter 10: Breaking the Heart of the World
by John Milton Cooper
[Reprinted from John Milton Cooper's book, Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations, Copyright © 2001 by Cambridge University Press]
A wall in the Imperial War Museum in London used to display a trio of paintings that were done at the end of World War I. Dominating the display and taking up much of the wall was the expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent's massive "Gassed." It is an outdoor scene that shows British soldiers blinded by mustard gas lying on the ground or standing in a line waiting for medical treatment. On either side of that painting hung two much smaller paintings from the peace conference done by the British artist Sir William Orpen. Each of these paintings depicts an ornate interior scene in which the high-ceilinged room dwarfs the human subjects. One painting is of the Council of Ten in the Hall of Clocks at the Quai d'Orsay, the same room where Woodrow Wilson unveiled the Draft Covenant of the League of Nations. The "Big Four" - Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando - sit in the center, and other prominent figures such as Colonel House and Arthur Balfour are close by. The second painting is of the signing of the peace treaty in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It shows the back of the German delegate slumped in a chair with an aide stooping alongside, under the scrutiny of the virtually the same array of conference leaders.1
The message conveyed by these paintings was hard to miss. The disparity in size between Sargent's depiction of the horrors of the war and Orpen's portraits of the would-be peacemakers left little doubt about which enterprise was more potent and which was more likely to prevail. The paintings' message also raised and strongly suggested the answer to the great overriding question about the League fight: What did it all mean? Did the outcome of the League fight do what Wilson said it would do? Did the failure of the United States to join the League "break the heart of the world"? Or were the obstacles to peacemaking so great, were the odds stacked so heavily against the restoration of world order, that it was an exercise in futility? Did those obstacles and odds make it, in the words of Shakespeare's Macbeth, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"? These questions define the two poles in the argument that lasted for the first four or five decades after the League fight.
Unlike most great historical arguments with lasting relevance, this one has led to broad agreement. Since the middle of the twentieth century, few historians or other analysts have doubted that the second set of answers to the question about what the League fight meant is the right one. The near consensus that has emerged around those answers usually employs a more polite phrasing than "sound and fury." It also includes a bow or two toward marginal differences that American membership in the League might have made. But, at bottom, few writers have challenged the notion that the course of American foreign policy and international relations would have been much the same regardless of the outcome of League fight.2
Ironically, Wilson's posthumous apotheosis in the 1940s and the sense of having belatedly heeded his warnings have contributed more than anything else to the prevalence of this view of the meaning of the League fight. As usually stated, the prevailing argument boils down to three interlocking propositions. First, Wilson was ahead of his time. Second, Americans were not ready after World War I to make the full-scale commitment to collective security and international enforcement that Wilson demanded. Third, it took World War II to drive home the lessons that Wilson had tried to teach. These propositions need to be examined both separately and together. Separately, each one reveals different assumptions about why the League fight turned out the way it did and what its lasting repercussions were. Together, they provide answers to the question of whether the outcome of the League fight did indeed break the heart of the world.
Each of these propositions is like the face of a three-sided pyramid. Each one takes its shape from the central question of what the League fight meant, yet at the same time each one presents its own distinctive aspect. The first proposition - that Wilson was ahead of his time - speaks directly to his personal role. That role has long since come to be judged as pivotal. Without Wilson, the League fight almost certainly would not have arisen in the first place. A less bold and visionary leader - one who was not ahead of his or her time - would not have attempted to do so much. Likewise, without Wilson, the League fight would almost certainly have ended in some kind of compromise. His unbending insistence upon joining an essentially political international organization with firm obligations under Article X ruled out any halfway house between that position and rejection of membership. In short, the correctness of Winston Churchill's early pronouncement about "this man's mind and spirit" seems incontrovertible.
But there is more to the proposition that Wilson was ahead of his time, and this is where controversy persists. At issue are the value and meaning placed upon his being ahead of his time. In one way, any strong leader must have the capacity for anticipating events and forecasting opportunities and dangers. This capacity is what Shakespeare meant by recognizing the "tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune" and what Bismarck meant by hearing the distant hoofbeat of the horse of history. Conversely, leaders must retain an appreciation of how willing and able their followers are to accompany them in great leaps forward. Most interpreters of Wilson in the League fight have stressed the negative aspect of his being ahead of his time. "Too far ahead" is the prevailing judgment, and the controversy revolves around why this appears to have been the case.
Two broad schools of interpretation have arisen to account for this perceived fault. One school is cultural and psychological; the other is circumstantial and physiological. The key word for the first school is "messianic." That word, in its view, captures Wilson's religiously based affliction with delusions of divine revelation and chosenness. He believed, so this argument goes, that he and he alone had both the capacity and the message to save the world. This is a cultural view of Wilson for two reasons. First, it sees him as a product of his own culture - the Anglo-American Protestant middle-class world that flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century. Second, this view grows out of the culture of those who have held it, the twentieth century "modernist" dispensation that arose in Europe before World War I and took firm hold there and in America starting in the 1920s. As applied to Wilson, this view found earliest expression in Keynes's depiction of him in The Economic Consequences of the Peace and was soon followed by similar treatment at the hands of Mencken and other "debunkers" of that decade.
The psychological side of this school also flowered early. Starting with the American literary critic Edmund Wilson in the mid-1920s, various writers have attributed Woodrow Wilson's alleged messianism to psychological deformations. As viewed through their Freudian lenses, Wilson emerged from his childhood with a severely damaged ego and unresolved oedipal conflict. Further, those maladjustments bred in him messianic delusions and compulsions toward figuratively mortal conflicts with father figures. This happened first in his academic career and later in politics, where Lodge in the League fight played the part of the last of these adversaries. In fact, Sigmund Freud himself painted just such a portrait of Wilson, in collaboration with the defector from the American delegation to the peace conference, William Bullitt. Their contribution did not come to light, however, until the 1960s. In the meantime, this essentially Freudian interpretation had already entered the mainstream of American political interpretation, in general through the writings of Harold Lasswell and in particular application to Wilson through the work of Alexander and Juliette George.3
This school of interpretation has several shortcomings. The main defect of the cultural interpretation is - to reverse Mark Twain's celebrated crack about Wagner's music ("It's not as bad as it sounds") - it is not as good as it sounds. This interpretation was present though not greatly developed in Keynes's depiction of Wilson in The Economic Consequences of the Peace and found fuller expression in the late 1930s in E. H. Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis. More recently, others have stressed racial, gendered, and ethnocentric biases that supposedly crippled him in dealing with the more diverse and disorderly world of the twentieth century. Wilson, in these views, was the exponent of culture-bound, antiquated, hegemonic notions of order ill suited to the realities of the twentieth century.4
The main response to this interpretation is - at the risk of impoliteness - so what? Where else except from his own cultural background was Wilson going to get his ideas about world order? It is blatantly presentist and ahistorical to expect anything else. More important, do the origins and limitations of his ideas necessarily invalidate them? Perhaps so, but perhaps not. The alternatives to his vision of order, "pluralism" and "disorder," entailed ethnic and national conflicts, genocides, and world wars. Viewed in that light, Wilson's time-bound views do not look so bad, especially because his insistence upon flexible application of them and adjustment over time left room for growth and change.
Likewise, the stress on Wilson's psychological flaws has three major flaws of its own. First and most clearly, any reading of what Wilson said at almost any time during the League fight makes it difficult to sustain the allegation of messianism. For example, he never uttered the phrase "war to end all wars." That came from Lloyd George, as did "self-determination" as both a phrase and a general principle. Wilson, by contrast, made a limited and circumspect case for his program, as he had done earlier with the Fourteen Points and as he continued to do throughout the League fight. He stressed that the League marked only the indication of the direction and the beginning of the journey toward a more just and peaceful world. He called the League "a living thing," and he expected and wanted it to evolve over time. He repeatedly claimed that he would welcome a better alternative if his opponents could come up with one. To be sure, that was a rhetorical offer, but at a deeper level Wilson meant it sincerely. In laying stress on the obligation under Article X, he revealed that he cared far less about the particular provisions of the treaty and the Covenant and far more about ensuring his nation's commitment to an active role in preserving peace. The only way to reconcile such sophisticated, self-critical arguments with messianism is to impute fantastic deviousness and insincerity to Wilson. This requires a psychological stretch that only a few of his worst enemies in the League fight were willing to make.
The second flaw in this psychological interpretation is that it resembles the biblical parable of the mote and the beam. It detects and pounces on Wilson's supposed shortcomings while remaining oblivious to its own greater limitations. Its own "modernist" assumptions limit and disable this psychological interpretation. Those assumptions stress the supremacy of unconscious and emotional forces, combined with racial, class, and gendered biases. Thereby, Wilson and figures like him - who drew their assumptions from orthodox religious creeds and believed in disinterestedness and the power of reason - have become literally incomprehensible to this modernist sensibility. In fact, it was Wilson's grounding in that very culture of his time, especially his youthful immersion in some of the most sophisticated religious thinking of that day, that inoculated him against the messianic tendencies that did afflict others in the atmosphere of supercharged idealism and evangelism that suffused much of American political life from 1900 to 1920.5
The final flaw in this psychological interpretation is its downgrading of physiological factors. The need to see the "real" Wilson in his refusal to compromise during the League fight requires adherents to this school to scoff at suggestions that other circumstances in 1919 and 1920 may also have played an important role. Leaving aside the question of whether anyone's behavior at a particular time can reveal the "real" person, this refusal to give consideration to the major stroke that Wilson suffered appears willful or even perverse. How could such a devastating illness not have affected his behavior? How could the worst crisis of presidential disability in American history not have affected the outcome of the League fight? These objections become particularly acute when they are set against the events of January and February 1920. Then, virtually every League advocate and every member of the president's inner circle, including Tumulty, Dr. Grayson, and Mrs. Wilson, tried to persuade him to compromise. To imagine that a healthier Wilson would not have tried to bring the League fight to a better, more pleasant, more constructive conclusion requires another psychological stretch. It demands an insistence upon personality-warped messianism that borders on the ludicrous.6
The other broad school of interpretation of Wilson's being ahead of his time - the one that stresses circumstantial factors - answers that last, health-based objection to the cultural-psychological interpretation. But this second school of interpretation did not originate as a response to the first one. Rather, it initially stressed not his health, but other circumstances, as part of the Wilsonian position during and right after the League fight. Wilson was ahead of his time, this view holds, chiefly because so many of his contemporaries in the nation's political leadership refused to keep up with him. This view shifts the onus for an unsatisfactory outcome to the League fight over to the Republicans, particularly Lodge and, to a lesser degree, Root. These men stand accused of putting personal dislike of Wilson and pursuit of partisan advantage ahead of the greater good of the nation and the world. By contrast, Taft and others in the LEP stand as paragons of enlightenment and bipartisan harmony.7
The flaws in such a circumstantial case are not hard to see. Like the opposing school, this one also imputes hidden and ignoble motives to the actors whom it dislikes. It gives little credence to the sincerity and rationality of Lodge or Root when they raised what they regarded as practical and principled objections to Wilson's program. It also fails to recognize that, given their inconstancy in supporting that program, Taft, Lowell, and the Thirty-One Republicans of October 1920 were not so different from their fellow partisans. Furthermore, to deplore partisanship and exalt bipartisanship, as this school does, is to misunderstand the essentially adversarial nature of the American two-party system. Like this country's legal system, the two-party system demands vigorous conflict between the two sides, whereas bipartisanship usually requires abdication by one of the adversaries. This system has built-in limitations. These limitations become particularly acute in harnessing diverse coalitions within one or the other of only two parties and in processes that require supermajorities in one or both houses of Congress, such as the two-thirds needed for approval of constitutional amendments or consent to treaties. But to blame the outcome of the League fight on partisanship is like blaming the weather. To blame Lodge, Root, and others for acting like partisans is to blame them for doing what they were supposed to do.
The most serious flaw in this circumstantial interpretation is that it does not square with the facts of the League fight. In one way, the more culpable partisans were the Democrats. Many of them bowed to Wilson's dictation against their better judgment. Republican senators were scoring partisan points when they leveled such charges at their colleagues across the aisle before the votes on the treaty, but they were largely correct. On the Republican side, what seems noteworthy is not how staunchly the non-Irreconcilable senators opposed Wilson but how far, by their lights, they went to meet him. After the Round Robin and the Foreign Relations Committee's effort to amend the Lodge reservations represented a considerable retreat for many of them. As for Lodge, despite his manifest negativism toward the League and hostile stance toward Wilson, he showed much greater flexibility than most interpreters have given him credit for or than he himself cared to remember. Both his dealings with Stephen Bonsal in November 1919 and even more his conduct in the bipartisan talks in January 1920 revealed a wavering in his total rejection of Article X and some openness toward compromise. Lodge did not come away from the League fight a beloved figure, but he was not at all the wily, underhanded villain of contemporary and later caricature.8
What this circumstantial view does stress correctly is that others besides Wilson contributed to his being ahead of his time. This view also correctly calls attention to the excessive heat of partisan conflict in 1919 and 1920. Much of that heat stemmed from the emotions that had been whipped up during the war and had not abated after the abrupt end of the fighting in November 1918. Simultaneously with the League fight, those emotions and other discontents were exploding into race riots and lynchings, massive labor strikes, and the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920. Much of the partisan heat of those years also stemmed from the uneasy position of both parties. Thanks largely to their own earlier internecine conflicts, the once-dominant Republicans had endured banishment from the White House and congressional majorities for the longest period in their party's history. Their victory in the 1918 elections raised their hopes, but they gained control of Congress only by narrow margins, and their best presidential prospect, Roosevelt, died in January 1919. By the same token, the Democrats approached the postwar situation with mingled hope and apprehension, and few of them had any stomach for questioning the leadership of their only president to win reelection since Andrew Jackson. In short, these political circumstances would have taxed the resources of even the ablest, healthiest leader who tried to pull off a foreign policy coup like Wilson's.9
Clearly, the weightiest circumstance of all was that Wilson was not the healthiest of leaders during the League fight. Whether he was the ablest leader available is a different question and one that cannot be answered apart from considerations of his health. With the exception of Thomas A. Bailey, those who developed the circumstantial interpretation of Wilson's performance did not pay much attention to his health. Only with the work of Edwin Weinstein, a trained neurologist, in the 1970s did anyone confront head-on the question of what impact illness in general and the 1919 stroke in particular had on Wilson's behavior. The leading Wilson scholar and editor of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Arthur Link, soon joined Weinstein in promoting a more physiological interpretation of his life and career. Several of the published volumes of this series came to include extensive notes and appendixes both by Link and his fellow editors and by medical experts about the likely influences of his physical condition at different times but most significantly during the peace conference and the League fight.10
Such attention was long overdue in interpreting why Wilson behaved as he did in 1919 and 1920. Moreover, the emphasis on his health throughout his life broadened the inquiry beyond the narrow question of whether the stroke was responsible for his failure to compromise. Unfortunately, in their zeal to pursue their medical interpretation, Weinstein and Link gratuitously attacked the psychological school and provoked a series of furious rejoinders by the Georges, who enlisted a medical expert of their own. The ensuing melee showed neither side at its best, but when the dust had settled some agreement did emerge about the likely influences of Wilson's cardiovascular and neurological condition in 1919 and 1920. The most important area of agreement lay in examining his condition prior to as well as following the stroke. "Cerebrovascular accidents," especially ones such as Wilson suffered, have an antecedent pathology, which often includes "small strokes" and which, even without those, often affects the victim's personality and behavior. That pathology, together with the impact of age and fatigue, underscores the conclusion that Wilson was operating at a level far below his best standard of performance in the White House.11
Unfortunately, this stress on his health and the controversy with the psychological school created the impression that Link and Weinstein were putting all their interpretative eggs in one basket and that they were seeking to exculpate Wilson. That was not the case. Weinstein, in particular, mixed his medical interpretations with a psychological portrait of Wilson that differed in tone but not much in content from earlier views. This was a surpassingly important point that went unnoticed in the scholarly fracas. Whatever the impact of Wilson's stroke, its antecedent pathology, and its subsequent effects, that impact could only have occurred in conjunction with his psychological makeup. Put another way, a different person would have reacted differently to an illness like this.
It might seem tempting to try to reconcile the psychological and physiological interpretations by claiming that the stroke and its surrounding neurological condition simply accentuated his personality deformations and exacerbated his messianic tendencies. But such an attempt at reconciliation would only make a bad interpretation worse. The one sound element in that blending of views is the neurologists' finding that such strokes often exaggerate their victims' personality traits. Clearly, this was true with Wilson. Combined with the ill effects of his isolation from outside contacts, his stroke appears to have destroyed previously exercised compensations for tendencies toward self-righteousness and stubbornness. But the psychological injuries inflicted by the stroke did not turn him into a would-be messiah. Rather, the stroke, its treatment, and perhaps its preceding neurological effects operated on a different aspect of Wilson's personality. His condition rendered him incapable of compromise only partly because of stubbornness and self-righteousness and not at all from messianic delusions.
The best adjective to describe the aspect of Wilson's personality that was most significantly affected by his health is "promethean." He resembled the character in ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus, who defied the gods in order to steal fire from Olympus and bring it back as a gift to his fellow mortals. The promethean traits of boldness and willingness to gamble for great stakes formed central aspects of Wilson's character at least from middle age onward. Without such boldness, Wilson would have been an ordinary college president, not the most exciting academic innovator of his time. Without such boldness, he would not have gone into politics at all, rather than running for office for the first time at the age of fifty-three. Without such boldness, he might have become a humdrum governor, rather than a leading reformer ranked alongside such contemporary state-level "progressive" titans as La Follette and Hiram Johnson, as well as his party's presidential nominee within two years. Without such boldness, he might have been a cautious domestic president who felt his way slowly, instead of one of the three greatest legislative leaders in the White House in the twentieth century. Without such boldness, he might have pursued a cautious neutrality throughout the world war, instead of finally, for better or worse, intervening with full force in order to try to shape the postwar international order.12
Even without his role in the League fight, Wilson ranks as one of the most daring presidents in American history. Public images to the contrary notwithstanding, he moved much more boldly in the White House than his great rival Theodore Roosevelt had done. He may even have surpassed Franklin Roosevelt in his willingness to gamble for great stakes at home and abroad. Unquestionably, Wilson's biggest gamble was his basically political conception of the League of Nations combined with a strong American commitment to international enforcement. The promethean quality of his personality shone through more brightly there than anywhere else. His decision to go to Europe and stay for the whole peace conference, his refusal to take along senators or big-name Republicans who might get in his way, his seizing the moment to whip together the Draft Covenant with Article X at its heart, his defiance of the Round Robin, his speaking tour in September - all these actions bespoke the promethean character of Wilson's role in the League fight. Finally, tragically, even his fate was promethean. The gods punished Prometheus by chaining him for eternity to a rock, while vultures pulled out his innards. Both the physical disability and the psychological imbalance that the stroke inflicted were mortal equivalents to such divine punishment.
Whether such a promethean approach was wise in the abstract is a pertinent question. It is another way of asking whether Wilson got too far ahead of his time and, if so, whose fault that was. More concretely, it needs to be asked whether this was a wise approach given the state of Wilson's health. One who seeks to play the part of Prometheus had better be in possession of every possible strength and ability. Wilson was nowhere near such fighting trim. Even before his stroke, the flare-up at the Round Robin, the failure of the speech presenting the treaty to the Senate, the inability to reach out to sympathetic Republican senators, the slowness in hitting his oratorical stride, and the faltering on the speaking tour - all these sprang in some measure from failing health. Such physical shortcomings and their likely psychological effects would have hampered any leader at any time, but they proved devastating for a would-be promethean figure at such a critical juncture.
The stroke appears to have exacerbated this promethean trait by rendering Wilson literally incapable of compromise. With his stroke-warped judgment, he could not view his gamble on the League and Article X as anything but an all-or-nothing proposition. Half a loaf looked like poison to him. His delusions about some sort of "referendum" and running for a third term, together with the threat to withdraw from the peace treaty in the diplomatic note about Fiume, attested to his willingness to lose everything rather than settle for an inconclusive outcome to the League fight. Pride and convictions about the righteousness of his cause also gripped the stroke-plagued Wilson when he scorned compromise after compromise, but it was the gambler rather than the would-be messiah who found total, clearcut defeat better than an unsatisfying, muddled draw. Wilson could not do what he had once exhorted others to do. He could not accept "peace without victory."
The second proposition in the prevailing answer to questions about the meaning of the League fight - that the American people were not ready to assume Wilson's commitments - is a corollary to the first proposition about his being ahead of his time. This second proposition shifts attention from leaders to followers. Of these three propositions, this one has stirred the least controversy. Few interpreters have doubted that, indeed, the American people in 1919 and 1920 were unwilling to take up the burden that Wilson wanted to thrust upon them.
Perhaps the chief reason this proposition has gone relatively unchallenged is that it originated with Wilson himself. His bitter outburst to Grayson after the defeat of the treaty in March 1920 about people not supporting his program and having to break the heart of the world was more than a passing fancy. After he left the White House, Wilson's bitterness subsided, but his thinking remained the same. During the last year of his life, according to the recollection of his brother-in-law, Stockton Axson, Wilson said that it would have been "a mere personal victory" if he had prevailed in the League fight. Likewise, his daughter Margaret recalled that around the same time he said to her, "I think it was best after all that the United States did not join the League of Nations." Reiterating his eschewal of "only a personal victory," he explained to her, "Now, when the American people join the League it will be because they are convinced it is the right thing to do, and then will be the only right time for them to do it." Finally, she recalled, he added with a smile, "Perhaps God knew better than I did after all."13
It is hard to dispute the assessment of the person who should have known best. Still, the question needs to be asked: Is this proposition correct? Were people during and immediately following the League fight unwilling to follow Wilson? One answer is that not everyone was unwilling. A substantial minority of indeterminate size stood strongly behind him and his conception of obligations under the League. Where the majority stood is more difficult to assess. Public opinion polling based upon interviews and sampling did not begin until a decade and a half after the League fight. In the meantime, the best available indicators remain the Literary Digest's regular canvasses of newspaper editors and those occasional straw polls conducted among such groups as college students. Partisan ties consistently swayed the editors. More than two-thirds of Republicans favored the Lodge reservations, and over three-quarters of the Democrats supported Wilson's call for unreserved League membership. The college students showed a strong plurality for unreserved membership and a substantial minority for the Lodge reservations. None of these surveys registered much outright opposition to the League. The chief pro-Irreconcilable newspapers were the ones in William Randolph Hearst's ostensibly Democratic chain and the Boston Transcript. No major Republican organ, not even the New York Tribune or the Chicago Tribune, advocated complete rejection, and some, such as the St. Louis Globe Democrat and Los Angeles Times, echoed the views of Taft and the LEP.
Those indicators showed several things about public opinion in 1919 and 1920. Clearly, views on the League and Article X covered a spectrum that ranged from diehard Wilsonianism to staunch isolationism. Not surprisingly, the majority occupied a broad middle ground that stretched from critical support of Wilson's position through several degrees of reservationism toward obligations under the Covenant, especially Article X. Most strikingly, isolationism does not appear to have attracted a big following. That limited appeal may seem surprising in view of the isolationists' invocation of such sacred political texts as Washington's Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine. It may also seem surprising because for several generations foreign policy leaders and analysts have assumed that the American public will naturally lapse into isolationism without careful manipulation and frequent exhortations against enemies and dangers. Incomplete and unscientific as it is, the evidence from the League fight does not indicate widespread or natural tendencies toward isolationism among the mass of Americans.
Another indicator of public opinion toward League membership and its obligations comes from the Senate, in both voting and speaking. Six-year terms and election from states rather than apportioned districts do insulate senators to some extent from public opinion, and the men who dealt with the peace treaty in 1919 and 1920 repeatedly touted their independence of judgment and their fidelity to conscience. Still, despite those factors, alignments in the Senate accorded nicely with the other indicators of public opinion. In their votes on the treaty itself, 80 percent favored League membership in one form or another, whereas only 20 percent rejected it altogether. In their speeches, both mild reservationist Republicans and others who were not so mild affirmed their conviction that America had an obligation to maintain the peace. Interestingly, too, not every Irreconcilable was an isolationist. Knox rejected League membership and criticized other parts of the treaty because he found them unwarranted and unjust, but he repeatedly offered as an alternative his "Knox doctrine," which was a security pledge to Britain, France, and possibly other Allies. Outside the Senate, such anti-League activists as George Harvey also favored security commitments to Britain and France.
Additional support for the proposition that Americans were not ready to heed Wilson's call comes from the 1920 election. Harding's "tidal wave" victory convinced many participants then and interpreters later that this was a mandate against League membership -- a "referendum for isolation." In fact, the election became such a mandate and referendum only because some leaders, especially Harding and Lodge, chose to read it that way. The evidence does not accord with such a reading. Both sides trimmed their sails on the League issue. Despite their promise to Wilson, the Democratic nominees effectively endorsed the Lodge reservations and abandoned Article X. Harding perfected the technique of talking out of both sides of his mouth on a hot foreign policy issue -- the technique that Franklin Roosevelt would adopt in similar circumstances twenty years later. For all his quasi-Irreconcilable talk during the campaign, Harding also tipped his hat toward the popular desire to promote international peace when he stressed an "association of nations." He could legitimately have read his triumph at the polls as a mandate for League membership with the Lodge reservations instead of reading that victory as permission to stay out.
In sum, the indicators from both the people and their political representatives in 1919 and 1920 show mixed and unclear attitudes on the critical issue of an obligation to maintain world order. Wilson's program unquestionably enjoyed only minority support, as did the isolationists' position. Majority opinion does not yield to a clearcut reading either for or against international commitments. That is most likely because the largest numbers of American and their leaders did not hold sharply defined views. Subsequently, in the mid-1930s, the views of a large majority did shift strongly over to isolationism. But what is most remarkable about that later isolationist upsurge is how fleeting it was. Warily as he trod, Franklin Roosevelt had a much easier time after 1938 in pursuing pro-Allied and quasi-interventionist policies than anyone could have predicted. Even taking into account the changed circumstances at the end of the 1930s -- especially the greatly heightened sense of clear and present danger after the fall of France in 1940 -- the brevity of the isolationists' heyday and the ease with which FDR and others finally combated them was remarkable. This later experience also raises questions about how unready Americans really were to assume commitments like the ones that Wilson had urged. Perhaps Wilson reconciled himself too soon and too cheerfully to seeing the hand of God at work in his defeat.
Consideration of where the public stood during the League fight leads logically to the third proposition about its meaning that it took World War II to get Americans to heed the Wilsonian message. This third proposition requires acceptance of the preceding one, and it strikes closest to the central question of what the League fight really meant. Agreeing with these two propositions requires believing that the League fight meant comparatively little. This belief assumes further that American membership in the League and greater participation in world politics would not have done much to forestall the breakdown of international order in the 1930s. A different outcome to the League fight, so this answer holds, would not have prevented World War II. Failure to follow Wilson did not "break the heart of the world." Here is the heart of the matter. The basic question remains: Is this so?
The strongest argument in support of this third proposition is the observation that things did happen that way. World War II evidently did induce near universal and lasting support for Wilsonian commitments to maintain international order and peace. Two questions immediately arise about this proposition. First, could anything else have induced such support? Second, what were the nature and consequences of the support that World War II did induce?
The first question requires contemplation of alternatives. The critical consideration here is not so much League membership or Article X in itself but, as Wilson insisted, the American public's frame of mind toward a commitment to uphold world order. The critical time for creating the proper frame of mind was during and just after the League fight. Three possible alternative outcomes and aftermaths might have made a major difference.
One alternative is that Wilson might have won the League fight more or less on his own terms. The essential element for this outcome was a healthy Wilson. This Wilson might have made more speaking tours to educate the public further about what his program entailed. He might have bargained successfully with the Republican senators to achieve a mutually face-saving compromise about the obligation under Article X. He might have run for and won a third term, or he might have picked a successor, such as Newton Baker, who was firmly committed to pursuing his foreign policies. Those circumstances could have gotten American diplomacy in the 1920s and the League of Nations off to a much different start than they did get, and they could have helped to foster an effective structure of collective security. This alternative raises two objections. It requires a huge stretch of the imagination, and it downplays the influences besides Wilson's health that kept him from winning the League fight.
The second alternative also requires an imaginative stretch, but it envisions almost no difference in the outcome of the League fight itself. This alternative is that Theodore Roosevelt might have been elected president in 1920. The essential element here was a living Roosevelt. This Roosevelt might have resumed and expanded his earlier pursuit of great-power nationalism. Whether or not he chose to take the country into the League, he might have made strong commitments, formally or informally, toward maintaining world order. Granted that the international scene had changed greatly since Roosevelt's imperialist heyday, he might still have relished brandishing his big stick more openly as the world's greatest single power instead of as one of several great powers. Those circumstances could also have gotten American diplomacy in the 1920s off to a different start, and they could likewise have helped to foster an effective collective security system. Still, this alternative may also require too much of an imaginative stretch.
The last alternative does not require much of a stretch at all, and it also contemplates almost no difference in the League fight itself. This alternative is that General Leonard Wood might have won the Republican nomination and been elected president in 1920. Wood was the strongest contender going into the convention, and only his principled but unwise refusal to make deals kept him from winning the nomination. On the League, he stood firmly committed to membership with reservations. More generally, especially through his invocation of the Roosevelt mantle, Wood promised to be a strong, activist president. As a career military man who had been kept out of the world war, Wood might have paid a lot more attention to security concerns and might have used leadership of the League as a way to compensate for the wartime supreme command that he had craved. Inasmuch as Hughes was almost fated to be the first Republican secretary of state in the 1920s, he might have accomplished even more than he did under the constraint that Harding imposed on him. These circumstances could also have set a far more activist course for American diplomacy in that decade and could have contributed to greater concern for collective security.
Still, even this last, most plausible alternative can only remain speculative. Like the other alternatives, it remains open to the objection that things did not happen that way, or, as Mencken once jibed at democracy as a theory of government, "all the known facts lie against it." Those known facts include the performance of the Allied powers in the League and elsewhere in the 1920s. Even with matters left to themselves and unhampered by reservations to Article X, the British and French failed to erect a strong collective security system. Between their limited vision and their unreconstructed pursuit of short-term advantages at each others' and their defeated foes' expense, the European powers did little to build any world order, much less a new world order. It is hard to imagine that a greater American presence could have compensated completely for the weakness and wariness that characterized postwar European diplomacy. Likewise, the simultaneous impact in the 1930s of the depression and the breakdown of international order cannot be imagined away. Disillusionment with World War I had set in earlier in Europe than in America, but people in both places succumbed to the sentiments that spawned appeasement and isolationism. In the face of such known facts, these alternatives lose much of their plausibility.
Or do they? Do all the known facts lie against these alternatives? Other known facts are that appeasement faded rapidly after 1938 and that the Allies, minus Italy and Japan, did go to war for a second time in 1939. Other known facts are that FDR did successfully challenge isolationism, however deviously and imperfectly, and that America did intervene in this second world war. Whether things might have gone better with a strong collective security system present from the early 1920s onward is worth asking again. The real flaw in "the peace that failed" after World War I did not lie in its specific provisions or its general slant but, rather, in the subsequent lack of will to maintain it. Such will could have ensured firm responses to aggression by Japan in 1931, Italy in 1935, and Germany in 1936 and 1938. Such will could also have encompassed more generous attitudes toward the treaty's financial terms and willingness to consider revisions in territorial boundaries under conditions that did not involve threat and coercion. An essential element in instilling a firm but constructive will to maintain the peace settlement of 1919 could have been the commitment that Wilson and others wanted to instill in the American people. Perhaps these alternatives were not so implausible after all.
The other question that needs to be asked about this third proposition about the meaning of the League fight is what it amounts to. How did World War II convert Americans to Wilsonian commitments? What were the consequences of the way in which this conversion took place? World War II did shock Americans into an appreciation of the interdependence of the world and the stake that they had in the maintenance of international order. But, despite the popular apotheosis of Wilson, this was not really a conversion to his ideas and approaches. FDR's obfuscation of the differences between great-power nationalist and Wilsonian visions of international commitment, coupled with the collapse of nearly all opposition, isolationist or otherwise, smothered popular reflection on America's proper role in the world. For the great majority, this was a foxhole-style conversion. Americans came to believe that they needed to maintain commitments in the world because they were fighting a powerful and implacable enemy. This was true both during World War II against the Nazis and later in the Cold War against the Communists. This war-borne dispensation would form the only basis on which the United States has thus far been able to sustain a great-power role in the world. Small wonder, then, that American foreign policy seemed adrift after the end of the Cold War.14
Except for the basic fact of international commitment, this was not the way that Wilson wanted things to turn out. The critical Wilsonian element that has been missing since World War II has been education of the public through informed discussion and debate. In the 1950s and 1960s, realists such as George Kennan and Walter Lippmann would decry sloppiness, moralism, emotional outbursts, and lack of proportion in American foreign policy, and they would blame those shortcomings in part on "Wilsonian" idealism. Those realists put their finger on significant, often dangerous, flaws, but they were completely off-base in their ascription of blame. Wilson had desired above all to make the public constantly aware of and reflective about foreign policy in order to avoid exactly the flaws that those realists deplored. He wanted Americans to think about their role in the world in many different circumstances and over the long haul, not to be in a state of perpetual fear and trigger-happiness about real or imagined enemies. He wanted his country to gain experience in world leadership over time in noncrisis situations, not to lurch along with a permanent wartime mentality. An America guided by those Wilsonian lights after 1945 might have gone in many of the same directions as it did anyway, but it would have gone with a different spirit and attitudes.
Why the World War II-style conversion to international commitment took a non-Wilsonian form is a critical question. The responsibility, or blame, lies in several quarters. Wilson himself sometimes betrayed his own convictions about educating the public. During World War I, he allowed popular hatreds and repressions -- "the beast of patriotism," as Frank Ninkovich has called such things -- to be stirred up. On his speaking tour he occasionally appealed to revenge toward Germany and anti-Red sentiments. Wilson also neglected to do necessary preparatory work in sharing his ideas with the public and with other political leaders. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Wilson had taken the steps in the summer of 1918 that he did a year later. What if he had held meetings with individual senators or small groups of them? What if he had made a speaking tour? In fact, he did contemplate such a tour then but let the opportunity pass because of the press of war-related business. Also, Allied victory remained in doubt until the end of the summer of 1918, and Wilson could not tell how much leverage he would have over the peace settlement until he went to Europe at the end of the year. Still, this modern Prometheus would have done well to prepare his fellow mortals better for the gift that he wanted to bring them.15
There was another element of defiance of fate in this attempt to educate the public. As Robert Kraig has shown, Wilson represented a latter-day flowering of the golden age of American oratory. That oratory, which drew upon the classical models of Demosthenes and Cicero, had seen its brightest hours during the decades between 1810 and 1880, particularly before and during the Civil War. After 1896, domestic reform issues had helped to spawn a revival of that kind of oratory by such figures as Bryan, Roosevelt, La Follette, Beveridge, Borah, and Hiram Johnson, as well as Wilson. Like Wilson, those men redirected their oratorical firepower to foreign policy during World War I. The prominence of most of those other men in the League fight ensured that Wilson's major opponents were using the same oratorical approach as he was, aimed at educating the public. That was what made the League fight such a great public debate.16
But the sun was setting on this type of politics. Two-party competition had always featured manipulation and heated emotional appeals. Starting in the 1880s, marketing and advertising techniques began to infect politics. The use of those techniques culminated in the Republicans' carefully crafted campaign behind McKinley in 1896, which Harding's 1920 effort copied and refined. At the same time, a different oratorical approach, borrowed from Protestant evangelism, was coming into fashion. Both Bryan and TR, who coined the term "bully pulpit" for the presidency, drew upon this evangelical model, as they blended emotional and symbolic appeals with their educational expositions. Even Wilson was not immune to touches of evangelism, as he showed in some of his speeches on the tour in 1919. Also, as his encounter with the microphone and the amplifier in San Diego demonstrated, still more changes were in the offing. First radio, then newsreels, and finally television would vastly enlarge politicians' ability to reach the public. But that gain would come at the expense of shorter exposures with less opportunity for education and more for manipulation. Heavy as his responsibility was, that greatest student of the League fight, Franklin Roosevelt, did not act alone in setting a pattern that precluded further great debates like this one.17
The lack of such debate would serve America and the world badly not only during the years immediately following World War I but also for the rest of the twentieth century. Lack of such debate formed one of the major sources of the foreign policy flaws that Kennan, Lippmann, and other like-minded critics deplored during the Cold War. It may be unseemly to carp at success in a good cause, such as World War II or the Cold War, but too often in those conflicts the United States did behave like a clumsy, ignorant giant that inflicted excessive anguish and harm on others and itself. What went wrong in the outcome of the League fight was that a chance had been lost -- a chance to ground this nation's foreign policy more soundly and gain precious experience earlier, before having to take up the burdens of singular world leadership.
Both that missed opportunity and the possible alternatives should call into question the prevailing answer to the question of what the League fight meant. Was it really just an interesting and heated conflict but at bottom an exercise in "sound and fury"? Or did it mean something different? Was it truly a great missed opportunity? Did its out-come "break the heart of the world" after all?
One last consideration needs to be noted in answering the overriding question of what the League meant. This is the matter of what was at stake.
The stakes that Wilson strove to win in the League fight were nothing less than to prevent a recurrence of the carnage that had raged from 1914 through 1918. Even without seeing with his own eyes, he grasped how truly death-dealing and calamitous modern industrial-technological warfare had become. He also recognized that death and wounding and destruction did not comprise the sum of this kind of war's evil effects. He saw that order had broken down not only among nations but also within them, releasing terrible passions that might feed into lurid ideologies.
Wilson does not need to be exalted to the status of a secular prophet in order to appreciate his vision. He understood Communism only dimly, although he recoiled from the Bolsheviks' revolutionary violence. He did not foresee Fascism and Nazism, although he feared the nationalist passions that he saw unleashed in Europe and elsewhere. He did not foresee nuclear weapons, although he did envision how conventional warfare could become even more terribly destructive, as it did in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Wilson did not need to be a prophet. It was enough for him to be a sensitive man who had glanced into the abyss that yawned ahead if people and nations did not mend their ways. He never claimed to be a messiah or to have surefire solutions. As he said repeatedly on his speaking tour for the League, he was offering only some insurance against a repetition of what had just ravaged the world. But, he insisted, any insurance, even limited, partial insurance, was better than none. This was the same man who had cried out to Frank Cobb of the New York World in March 1917, as he agonized over whether to intervene in the war, "If there is any alternative, for God's sake let's take it."18
Did the outcome of the League fight "break the heart of the world"? Of course it did. It is not necessary to claim that a different outcome would have prevented the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, World War II, or the dropping of the atomic bomb. Just to list those events and to remember other things that have occurred between the end of World War I and the last decade of the twentieth century is to gain an appreciation of what the stakes in the League fight really were. Just to recall those events is to see that Wilson was absolutely right to grasp at any insurance against such things happening. Decent and reasonable people disagreed with him. They did not see the stakes the way Wilson did, and they believed that what he was asking was excessive and dangerous. Wilson failed to be as flexible and persuasive as he should have been, and his illness turned him into the biggest obstacle to a more-constructive outcome. But two facts remain incontrovertible. For all their decency and intelligence, Wilson's opponents were wrong. For all his flaws and missteps, Wilson was right. He should have won the League fight. His defeat did break the heart of the world.
1. The Orpen paintings are reproduced in this volume, pp. 271-273.
2. For a recent expression of this view, see Ninkovich, Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900 (Chicago, 1999), 76.
3. See Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt, Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study (Boston, 1967), and Alexander George and Juliette George, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (New York, 1956). Appropriately, the Georges were students of Lasswell's at the University of Chicago.
4. See E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis (London, 1939), esp. 102-112. Two able recent presentations of this view of Wilson are in Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective (New York, 1987), and David Steigerwald, Wilsonian Idealism in America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994).
5. Examples of Wilson's contemporaries who can fairly be accused of messianic tendencies include not only that paragon of evangelical and conservative Protestantism, Bryan, but also such apparent religious skeptics as La Follette and Roosevelt. On Wilson's religious upbringing and pre-presidential political thought, see John M. Mulder, Woodrow Wilson: The Years of Preparation (Princeton, N.J., 1978), and Niels Aage Thorsen, The Political Thought of Woodrow Wilson, 1875-1910 (Princeton, N.J., 1988).
6. To be fair to those who downgrade the influence of the stroke in particular, it should be noted that none other than Arthur Link once stated, "It is, therefore, possible, even probable, that Wilson would have acted as he did even had he not suffered his breakdown, for it was not in his nature to compromise away the principles in which he believed." Arthur S. Link, Wilson the Diplomatist: A Look at His Major Foreign Policies (Baltimore, 1957), 155. When he wrote those words, Link had evidently not completely discarded the critical, sometimes even harsh, view of Wilson that he expressed in the first volume of his biography, Wilson: The Road to the White House (Princeton, N.J., 1947), and in Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (New York, 1954). He later modified most of those criticisms of Wilson and reversed his evaluation of the effect of the stroke on Wilson's refusal to compromise in the League fight.
7. The stress on the nefarious influence of partisanship is one of the few points on which I disagree with the otherwise estimable and incisive treatment of the League fight in Thomas A. Bailey, Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal (New York, 1945).
8. Although I am less sympathetic toward Lodge, I do agree in the main with the assessments of him in William Widenor's excellent Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy (Berkeley, Calif., 1980), especially when he says, "We may reasonably assume that Lodge would have swallowed the League had he seen therein the means of securing a Republican victory" (309) and Lodge "had to be less forthright in expressing his views, had to be all things to all men" (322).
9. Grover Cleveland had won a second term as president in 1892, but only after having been defeated in 1888. He remains the only president to have served nonconsecutive terms in the White House.
10. See Edwin Weinstein, "Woodrow Wilson's Neurological Illness," Journal of American History, LVII (Sept. 1970), 324-351, and Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography (Princeton, N.J., 1981). Relevant notes and appendixes to The Papers of Wilson are cited above in the notes relating to Wilson's behavior in the summer of 1919 and the impact of the stroke.
11. On the controversy, see Edwin Weinstein, James William Anderson, and Arthur S. Link, "Woodrow Wilson's Political Personality: A Reappraisal," Political Science Quarterly, XCIII (Winter 1978-79), 585-598; George and George, "Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Reply to Weinstein, Anderson, and Link," ibid., XCVI (Winter 1981-82), 641-643; George and George, "Issues in Wilson Scholarship: References to Early Strokes in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson," Journal of American History, LXX (Mar. 1984), 845-853; Arthur S. Link, David W. Hirst, John Wells Davidson, and John E. Little, "Communication," ibid., 945-955; Alexander George, Michael T. Marmor, and Juliette George, "Communication," ibid., 955-956. For an appraisal of Weinstein's book and the first two items in this battle of the articles, see Dorothy Ross, "Woodrow Wilson and the Case for Psychohistory," ibid., LXIX (Dec. 1982), 659-668, and Lloyd E. Ambrosius, "Woodrow Wilson's Health and the Treaty Fight," International History Review, IX (Feb. 1987), 73-84.
12. A remark that revealed this side of Wilson's personality came in 1910 when he told his brother-in-law Stockton Axson, after his defeat in the graduate school controversy at Princeton, "I am not interested in simply administering a club. Unless I can develop something I cannot get thoroughly interested." Axson memoir, "Princeton Controversy," Ray Stannard Baker Papers, Box 99.
13. Ray Stannard Baker interview with Axson, Aug. 28, 1931, R. S. Baker Papers, Box 99; Margaret Wilson recollection quoted in Edith Giddings Reid, Woodrow Wilson: The Caricature, the Myth and the Man (New York, 1934), 236.
14. Here I am disagreeing with Frank Ninkovich's contention in his brilliantly argued book, The Wilsonian Century, in which he maintains that Americans during and after World War II became Wilsonians without Wilson. See, esp., 144, 223-226. What I argue in this paragraph and the next is that this is a contradiction in terms, that the critical Wilsonian elements of education of the public and enlightened pursuit of an international role were missing.
15. Ibid., 224.
16. Robert A. Kraig, "Woodrow Wilson and the Lost World of the Oratorical Statesman," Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999.
17. The end product of these developments would be the universally condemned "sound bite" of the 1990s. In fact, this kind of shortening of messages and the public attention span antedated the major intrusion of nonprint media. During World War I, the Committee on Public Information had distributed prepackaged messages for speakers, which lasted four minutes. The volunteer speakers, who numbered in the thousands, were called "Four Minute Men" and "Four Minute Women."
18. J. L. Heaton, ed., Cobb of the "World": A Leader in Liberalism (New York, 1924), 270. Some controversy later arose about when Wilson talked with Cobb and what he said, but even the leading skeptic about the interview conceded that Wilson's reluctance to enter the war and concerns about the effects of American intervention on international order were accurately depicted. See John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Vanity of Power: American Isolationism and the First World War (Westport, Conn., 1969), 211 n. 43.