Opposing trenches: The political battle between Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge

Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge shared similarities. Both died from strokes in 1924. Both earned doctorates in political science from prestigious universities. Both became titans of early 20th century politics. Both were accomplished orators, with Henry Adams describing Lodge as “an excellent talker…an accomplished orator, with a clear mind and a powerful memory” and the historian H.W. Brands once describing Wilson as possibly the most eloquent speaker of all of our American presidents.

But despite their shared traits and achievements, these men are known to history for their differences. Lodge was born into a wealthy family with deep roots in Massachusetts. Wilson, on the other hand, was a son of the South, born in Virginia, but bounced around Georgia, South and North Carolina as a child. Lodge was a Republican and Wilson a Democrat. Most famously, Wilson favored united international cooperation and membership in the League of Nations. Lodge fiercely fought it.

When Wilson was elected president in 1912, he did so at the expense of Lodge’s dear friend, Theodore Roosevelt, becoming just the second Democrat to claim the office since 1856. Roosevelt, who had vowed not to run for re-election in 1908, became so frustrated with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, that he decided to oppose him in the Republican primary in 1912. After losing, he decided to run a third party campaign as nominee of the Bull Moose Party. This move served to split the Republican Party and hand Wilson the presidency.

At this time in Europe, tensions had reached a boiling point in the Balkans. The members of the Balkan League—Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Greece—gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire through a series of wars and treaties, leading to a destabilized Europe. Combined with the fact that several new alliances had been formed in the latter part of the 19th century, this destabilization had a ripple effect when Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip killed Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Countries, in the name of their alliances, began declaring war on one another, leading to World War I.

The United States, much as they would in the second World War, remained out of the fray for as long as possible. In a foreshadow of what was to come, Winston Churchill, serving Britain as the First Lord of the Admiralty, desperately wanted the Americans involved in the war as part of the Allied Powers (as opposed to the Central Powers). There even some speculation that he purposefully offered up the Lusitania to a German U-boat in an effort to get his wish. At this point a Massachusetts U.S. Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge feared that a weak response to the conflict would undermine American sovereignty and patriotism. He lobbied for war, criticizing President Wilson’s peaceful and neutral approach. Wilson would not be persuaded until 1917, when the Germans reneged on their pledge to enact restricted submarine warfare. The Germans had declared any vessel sailing the waters as targets for their U-boats, leading to the Lusitania sinking. After the global outcry, Germany backed off this stance, but reverted shortly thereafter. Wilson knew that the role he desired for the United States—neutral peacemaker—was no longer a possibility. The Americans must enter the war. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany.

American involvement in the war was swift. The fighting ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

But the defining battle of Wilson’s Presidency was just beginning. He believed that the sacrifice paid by American and Allied soldiers would be in vain if the resolution simply ended the war. He envisioned a unified international community, based upon the Fourteen Points speech he gave to Congress in January 1918. He envisioned the League of Nations, a forum that would reduce war and bring order to international conflict. In fact, Germany’s decision to end the battle was based upon its interest in Wilson’s plan.

Lodge wholeheartedly disagreed with Wilson. Once the Treaty of Versailles was constructed between Germany and the Allied Powers in 1919, it was brought before the United States legislature, where the Republican, as unofficial Senate majority leader (he would become the chamber’s first official majority leader in 1920) and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relationships, led the fight against approval. Specifically, Lodge opposed Article X of the treaty, which entangled signatory countries in the affairs of others, in part creating the League of Nations. It did not require declarations of war, but could force the US to enforce embargoes or cut off diplomatic relationships based on its membership. Lodge felt it too restrictive to American interests. Lodge felt that the US should be afforded the authority to police the world and intervene in international affairs as it saw fit, but he did not like being tied to the problems and concerns of other nations. From a speech he gave on the treaty:

“The United States is the world’s best hope, but if you fetter her in the interests and quarrels of other nations, if you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her powerful good, and endanger her very existence. Leave her to march freely through the centuries to come, as in the years that have gone. Strong, generous, and confident, she has nobly served mankind. Beware how you trifle with your marvelous inheritance; this great land of ordered liberty. For if we stumble and fall, freedom and civilization everywhere will go down in ruin.”

Lodge campaigned for approval of a modified version of the treaty.

Wilson, leading a fractured Senate Democratic minority, stood opposed to modifications. His view was that the treaty would be approved in its current form or not at all. With battle lines drawn, the Treaty of Versailles never reached the two-thirds vote necessary for ratification in the Senate. The US went on to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, but did so separately from the Allied Powers.

The League of Nations was formed, but America did not join. The League of Nations never achieved its designed goal, dissolving in 1946. The Treaty of Versailles, given its War Guilt clause and calls for German disarmament and reparations, is often cited as a causal factor in the rise of German Nazism.

Lodge had won, thanks in part to party-line stances and ethnic interests. Being a melting pot of primarily European immigrants, the US had citizens with strong ties to Germany, Ireland, and Italy, all with interests and criticisms of the Treaty of Versailles. Lodge was able to build a coalition of these different groups to achieve his desired result.

Though the battle came to an end in 1919, the philosophical conflict between Lodge’s American supremacy and strong foreign interventionism and Wilson’s idealistic, intergovernmental approach to foreign affairs is still being had to this day.

  1. Wilson – A Portrait. (n.d.). Retrieved July 22, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wilson/portrait/wp_war.html
  2. “Woodrow Wilson.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.
  3. “Henry Cabot Lodge.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016
  4. “The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.” Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.
  5. Showalter, Dennis E. “World War I.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.
  6. “Treaty of Peace with Germany.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.
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