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Why did the United States fail to join the League of Nations?

Question submitted by Adepoju Adeola Praise, from Eastern Mediterranean University, May 15, 2013

Answered by: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

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The League of Nations was championed by President Woodrow Wilson in a fourteen-point speech to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918, and formally began its operations in January 1920. However, the League failed to win Senate approval and is forever remembered as a major example of a communications breakdown between the president and the Senate.

The major players in this drama were Wilson, the Democratic president, who was stubborn and unwilling to compromise, and Henry Cabot Lodge, the senior senator from Massachusetts for twenty-five years. In 1916, when Wilson had been reelected president, the United States had stayed out of the European war, and Democrats won both houses of Congress. But in 1917, the combination of increasing U-boat attacks, Wilson's request for a declaration of war, and the approaching midterm elections in the fall of 1918, prompted unease in the country. Wilson issued an open letter in late October 1918 to his "fellow countrymen" urging that Democrats retain their majorities in both chambers and suggesting that a Republican victory would give comfort to the Germans.

The letter infuriated Republicans, who indeed had backed the war, and in the 1918 midterm elections the Republicans won control of both the House and the Senate. This allowed Lodge to become majority leader and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He offered a string of reservations to the League's charter, which Wilson refused to accept or even compromise on. Wilson asked Democrats to vote against the package, thinking he could change minds later. But Wilson suffered a crippling stroke in 1919 that incapacitated him for the remainder of his term. Republican Warren Harding replaced him as president in 1920, pledging opposition to the League and forecasting its failure in the United States.

The lesson for today's presidents is that compromise with the opposition usually can produce better results than refusing to negotiate.