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Classic Senate Speeches

Henry Cabot Lodge
Constitution of the League of Nations

February 28, 1919

On February 28, 1919, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts began an assault on President Woodrow Wilson's proposal to establish a League of Nations that ultimately culminated in the Senate's rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. Long after Congress agreed to a joint resolution declaring the end of the First World War in July 1921, politicians and scholars have asked whether, by joining and supporting the League of Nations, the United States could have prevented the outbreak of the Second World War. "The inquiry has been so enduring," historian Herbert F. Margulies has observed, "that the story of the League's rejection has entered folklore and become almost mythological, with President Woodrow Wilson and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge the larger-than-life protagonists."

In 1919, Lodge was at the height of a long and distinguished career. He had served a quarter century in the Senate when he became the Republican floor leader and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee after the Democrats lost control of the body in 1918. Possessed of an "ardent, somewhat effervescent temperament," he argued his nationalist sentiments with forceful conviction. An erudite scholar, he spoke "with his thumbs adjusted in his armpits and a copy of Shakespeare in his pocket . . . words that were brilliant but often bitter." Lodge himself likened his voice to "the edge of a saw, and the sound it gives forth is something like that which issues when that useful instrument is being filed."

Partisan differences and personal rivalry had long strained Wilson's relationship with the powerful and opinionated Massachusetts senator, but the intensely nationalistic Lodge and most of his fellow Republicans had supported the president throughout the war. Even before the November 11, 1918, armistice, however, differences over America's role in the postwar world began to emerge as Republican demands for Germany's unconditional surrender contrasted sharply with Wilson's idealistic vision of a "peace without victory." Although senators of both parties had generally supported Wilson's wartime call for the establishment of an international tribunal to prevent future conflicts, they were gravely concerned at his determination to conduct foreign policy without the advice and consent of the Senate. Wilson's usual reluctance to consult the Senate became even more pronounced once the Republicans were in the majority after 1918.

Wilson departed for the January 1919 Versailles peace conference without seeking the advice of senators from either party; once there, he insisted that his proposals for a League of Nations be incorporated into the peace settlement. He returned to the United States in February to report on the progress at Versailles, cabling ahead to invite the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to a working dinner at the White House to discuss the treaty provisions relating to the League of Nations. Lodge honored the president's request that the committee refrain from public comment on the matter and was outraged to learn that Wilson intended to deliver a public address in Boston to muster public support for the League immediately upon his arrival.

On February 28, 1919, two days after Lodge visited the White House, where he and the other committee members sat through a two-hour question and answer session that "told us nothing," he rose in the Senate to deliver the opening salvo in what would prove to be a protracted and bitter contest over the League of Nations and the shape of the postwar world.

Animated by the conviction that he would "follow no man and vote for no measures which, however well intended, seem in my best judgement to lead to dissensions rather than to harmony among the nations or to injury, peril, or injustice to my country," and his insistence that the Senate, "which is charged with responsibility . . . should investigate every proposal with the utmost thoroughness," Lodge's address was a painstaking critique of the League's constitution. He began with the impassioned argument that the document repudiated George Washington's September 17, 1796, Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine, two sacred canons of American foreign policy. "I ask the press and the public and, of course, the Senate to consider well the gravity of this proposition," Lodge pleaded, "before it takes the heavy responsibility of finally casting aside these policies which we have adhered to for a century and more and under which we have greatly served the cause of peace both at home and abroad."

Turning to the specific provisions of the proposed draft, Lodge argued that the provision guaranteeing the independence and territorial integrity of all members was particularly troubling. He warned that, to insure that guarantee, the United States "must be in possession of fleets and armies capable of enforcing them at a moment's notice." Lodge was equally concerned that the draft seemed to give the League jurisdiction over immigration matters. "Are we ready to give to other nations the power to say who shall come into the United States and become citizens of the Republic?" he asked. "If we do this," he cautioned, "we are prepared to part with the most precious of sovereign rights."

The remainder of the speech was a litany of questions, objections, and requests for information, and a ringing plea: "We must bring our men back from France . . . and to that end let us have peace with Germany, made now, and not delay it until the complicated questions of the league of nations can be settled with the care and consideration which they demand."

In the days that followed, several other senators proclaimed their opposition to the League on the Senate floor. Less than a week later, Lodge offered a resolution signed by thirty-nine Republican senators, more than the one-third of the Senate necessary to defeat the treaty, declaring that the League—unacceptable "in the form 'now proposed"—should be considered separately from the peace settlement and only after the conclusion of the treaty. Wilson returned to France to continue his work on the treaty, which he presented to the Senate on July 10, 1919. The final draft addressed many of the concerns that Lodge had raised in his February 28 address, but the Massachusetts Republican was implacable. He succeeded in adding fourteen reservations to the treaty. The president, gravely ill after an exhausting tour to promote the League precipitated a crippling stroke, refused to compromise. At his urging, Senate Democrats refused to support the treaty with Lodge's reservations, and joined forces with the "irreconcilables"—who opposed the treaty in any form—to defeat it on November 19, 1919. Wilson submitted the treaty, without Lodge's reservations, to the Senate a second time in 1920 but failed to obtain the two-thirds vote needed for approval.

Congress ultimately declared the end of the war in a joint resolution adopted on July 2, 1921. Lodge and Wilson remained bitter enemies until Wilson's death on February 3, 1924.


Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1994.).

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