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Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points"

Nearly a year before World War I was over, President Woodrow Wilson had already come up with a plan of “Fourteen Points,” in which he outlined his version of a peace treaty. Leaders of America’s allies viewed it as both simplistic and overly optimistic. The French prime minister even sneered that because mankind couldn’t keep God’s Ten Commandments, it was unlikely that folks could keep Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

But so eager was Wilson to play a major role in the making of peace that he did something no other American president had ever done: He left the country while in office.

In December 1918, a month after the fighting ended, Wilson went to Paris to meet with the leaders of France, England, and Italy. The “Big Four” (which soon became the Big Three after the minister from Italy left in a snit) soon drafted a peace treaty that included almost nothing that Wilson wanted.

Instead, the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to accept the blame for the war, pay $15 billion to the winning countries, give up most of its colonies, and limit the future size of its military forces. But it did include something Wilson really wanted: The formation of a League of Nations, whose members would promise to respect each others’ rights and settle their differences through the League.

Wilson brought the treaty and the idea of the League back to America and presented them to the U.S. Senate for its constitutionally required approval. But the Democratic president was facing a Senate dominated by Republicans and led by Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Lodge, California Sen. Hiram Johnson, and some other “isolationist” senators were adamantly against the idea of “foreign entanglements” like the League. Lodge used his position to both stall consideration of the treaty and offer amendments to it that would have watered it down somewhat.

If Wilson had agreed to go along with a few changes, he may have gained the two-thirds approval he needed. But Wilson stubbornly refused to negotiate. Each side dug in and launched thunderous attacks on the other. Wilson made more than 40 speeches in three weeks on an 8,000-mile journey around the country.

In the end, Wilson’s valiant effort proved politically futile and personally tragic. In early October, he had a stroke. The next month, the Senate resoundingly rejected the League and the peace treaty. The Senate rejected it again in March 1920 when Democratic senators brought it back for reconsideration. America would go it alone for another generation, or until the next world war.

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