The Magazine

A League of His Own

How Woodrow Wilson lost the fight for the League of Nations

Jun 5, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 36 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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Woodrow Wilson

by Louis Auchincloss

Viking, 128 pp., $ 19.95

Louis Auchincloss -- the American master of nuance and subtlety who has penned the latest in Penguin's eclectic series of brief biographies -- concludes his study of the twenty-eighth president with the admission that there seem to have been "two Woodrow Wilsons."

One was the "sensible, sensitive man of many interests and activities who conscientiously viewed all sides of a question." The other was the "self-idealist who could hardly conceive, much less admit, that he could be wrong."

The first was the dynamic college president, writer, orator, governor of New Jersey, and president of the United States. This was the Wilson who reformed Princeton University's curriculum, enacted a progressive agenda in New Jersey, and guided through Congress the Federal Reserve and Clayton Anti-Trust acts. He was always ready to compromise on his means to achieve his ends, and many observers noticed that he was also capable of abandoning long-held principles in pursuit of ambition.

But the second Woodrow Wilson -- ah, that was the man who never compromised and often gave the impression that he alone had discerned the true will of the people or, indeed, of the Almighty. It was this second Wilson who suffered the major defeat of his presidency: the failure to bring the United States into the League of Nations.

The battle over the League of Nations pitted the first Democratic president in a generation against the Republican Senate stalwart Henry Cabot Lodge, every inch Wilson's equal in intellect and pigheadedness. Opposition to Wilson's League centered on the obligation the treaty placed on nations to act collectively. This Lodge saw as a weakening of the prerogative to declare war the Constitution grants solely to Congress. But Lodge's real grievance was against the treaty itself -- and against the man who proposed it. Far from being an isolationist, Lodge had often urged the United States to act on a world stage. He thought, however, that the treaty's guarantees gave too blatant an invitation to other nations to draw the United States into conflicts that were not of its making or in its interests. Convinced that he had a strong case, Lodge delighted at the opportunity to repay Wilson for years of perceived (and actual) slights.

As Auchincloss admits, Wilson did himself no favors defending the League. The crafty Lodge knew that "reservations" (unlike amendments) do not require that a treaty be renegotiated, and Wilson's failure to acknowledge the distinction helped undermine his case. So, too, Wilson's rhetoric suggested that he would use force to advance universal principles: making the world "safe for democracy," the "self-determination" of all peoples, and "open covenants openly arrived at." His claim of deference to the prerogatives of Congress notwithstanding, Wilson insisted that the treaty carried a "moral obligation" superior to any mere legal or constitutional one. When he noted that all treaties cost their signatories some measure of sovereignty in exchange for benefits negotiated, Lodge could hardly have made the point better.

Auchincloss's slender volume serves as a reminder that the dichotomy between Wilson and Lodge was not always as pronounced as either pretended. Unlike many Marxist or leftist biographers, Auchincloss presents the Wilson of 1914 to 1917 not as an anglophile eager to enter World War I, but as a neutral determined to stay out: "Where is any longer the glory commensurate with the sacrifice of millions required by modern warfare to carry and defend Verdun?" the president who said his nation was "too proud to fight" asked in 1915. Wilson's determination not to go to war was intense enough that Lodge speculated the president was pro-German, pointing to Wilson's admiration for German education and his son-in-law's business interests with the investment bank Kuhn Loeb. (Most other accounts see the president as influenced by the pro-British Colonel Edward House, the ambassador Walter Hines Page, and the Morgan merchant bankers.)

When he did at last decide to fight, Wilson acted not to further an abstraction, but -- as Lodge himself urged -- to preserve a specific national interest, the freedom of the seas. And once in the conflict, the reluctant warrior worked relentlessly to achieve victory. He oversaw the recruitment, training, and placement of more than a million men in France and drove the nation to unprecedented levels of production to back them up. It was only toward the end, when attention turned to peacemaking, that the "second" Wilson took over and all his troubles began.