As World War I was ending, Woodrow Wilson described his plan for peace. In his mind, the way countries worked with one another was broken and this is what caused World War. Wilson said that wanted the United States to lead the way to creating a new world order. He said that there should be a new international organization with representatives of all the countries of the world that would be a place where problems could be solved by talking, instead of with war.
Unfortunately for Wilson, leaders in Congress had other ideas about what role America should play in the world. They thought Wilson was going to make a new world government that would have more power than the American government. Since the days of George Washington, America had tried to stay away from these kinds of international agreements and organizations. They feared that Wilson’s ideas would mean the United States would end up in wars it didn’t want.
Wilson was angry. He thought the Republicans in Congress were letting a great chance to protect peace for the future slip by. If not at the end of the Great War, when would the United States have another chance to lead the world to a new way of working in peace? Did America and the world’s children have to live through another, maybe even worse war before leaders in Congress would see the importance of being a part of the world community?
On the other hand, Wilson’s opponents said, what was stopping the rest of the world from getting the United States into another war? If America promised to be a part of the great community of countries, it might just be promising to be a part of another great war before it even began.
What do you think? Should America be involved in the world or isolationist?
WINNING THE WAR
When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, both the Allies and the Central Powers had been fighting already for years. Great Britain and France had borrowed a lot of money to buy supplies made in the United States and Germany was having a hard time finding supplies because of the British blockade. While the 200,000 American troops that went to France was a small fraction of the total Allied armies, the addition of new soldiers, and the promise of many more who would come over the next few years was enough to make a difference in the war.
Primary Source: Photograph
General Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.
By March 1918, the Germans had won the war in the East against Russia. A revolution in Russian started the year before and the poor people of Russia had risen up and gotten rid of Tsar Nicholas II. Communist revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin won the revolution and started working to turn Russia into a communist country. They wanted to work on making the Soviet Union, not fighting Germany, so Russia agreed to a peace treaty with Germany. Germany moved the soldiers that had been fighting Russia to the other side of Europe to fight the French, British and Americans. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF), under General John “Blackjack” Pershing, joined the fight in May 1918, just in time to meet the Germans coming from the East.
In battles between May and August of 1918, the American, British and French armies were able to stop the German attacks. The fighting was terrible and over 10,000 Americans were killed or hurt in just three weeks. In one battle, 1,087 men died in just one day. But as bad as they were, the Americans lost only a tiny number of men compared to France and Great Britain. Still, these summer battles were enough to change the war, with the Germans being pushed out of France and Belgium by the end of July 1918.
Primary Source: Photograph
American soldiers celebrate the announcement of the armistice on November 11, 1918
By the end of September 1918, over one million American soldiers made a full attack into the Argonne Forest. By November, after almost 40 days of fighting, the German lines were broken, and their army leaders told Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany needed to find a way to end the war. Wilhelm abdicated, or quit as king, and left Germany. Two days later, on November 11, 1918, Germany and the Allies agreed to an armistice, or a truce, and said that they would begin working on a peace treaty. November 11, or Armistice Day, is still a holiday around the world. In the United States, November 11 is called Veterans’ Day.
When the armistice was announced, 117,000 American soldiers had been killed and 206,000 wounded. The Allies had lost over 5.7 million soldiers, mostly Russian, British, and French men. The Central powers lost 4 million men. Although the Americans joined at the very end of the war and Americans were less than half of 1% of all the men who died, the arrival of the Americans was enough to make the difference and help the Allies win.
Primary Source: Photograph
Police officers on a streetcar in Seattle check to make sure riders are wearing masks during the influenza outbreak in 1918.
The war had a huge effect on the United States but made an even bigger difference in Europe. Of the 60 million European men who had joined the armies from 1914 to 1918, 8 million were killed, 22 million had been hurt. Germany lost 15.1% of its young men, Austria-Hungary lost 17.1%, and France lost 10.5%.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians also died, mostly because there was not enough food and people were not strong enough to fight off sickness. In 1914 typhus killed 200,000 in Serbia. From 1918 to 1922, 3 million people died from typhus. Nothing, however, compared to the flu pandemic that spread around the world during the war. Overall, the 1918 flu pandemic killed at least 50 million people, or about 3-5% of all the people in the world.
THE TREATY OF VERSAILLES
While Wilson had tried to keep the United States out of the war, he thought that since America had been a part of the war in the end, America should be part of making the plan for what the world would look like after the war. Since there had been no fighting in the United States, and fewer Americans had died than from other countries, the United States was the world’s strongest country in 1918. Wilson wanted to use this power to get other countries to agree to follow his ideas about moral diplomacy.
Actually, in January 1918, before Americans had even joined the fight, Wilson gave a speech to describe his ideas for what should come after the war. He had 14 ideas, and his plan and speech are now called the Fourteen Points. Wilson said that countries should not keep secrets, that there should be free trade, freedom of the seas, people should vote for their leaders, and more. Also, he wanted to make a League of Nations as a sort of club for countries to talk about their problems instead of fighting.
As the war ended, Wilson said that he would go to the Paris Peace Conference himself, instead of sending someone else to represent the United States. This was very unusual. Because Wilson was going, other countries’ leaders also went to the conference, and the Paris Peace Conference was the largest meeting of world leaders ever at that time. For six months, Wilson stayed in Paris to work on the treaty.
The people of France were excited for Wilson to come, but other world leaders were not sure Wilson’s plans for a “peace without victory” were a good idea. Great Britain, France and Italy wanted revenge on Germany for getting them into the war. They wanted to be stronger so they could protect themselves and to keep their colonies. Great Britain and France wanted Germany to have to pay and give up land. Japan hadn’t joined the fighting in Europe, but they wanted new land in Asia, and Italy wanted more land in Europe. Finally, many countries were worried about Vladimir Lenin and the communists who had taken over in Russia. Mostly, they were worried that communist revolutions might start in other countries. So, Wilson came to Paris looking for ways to prevent a future war, but the other countries’ leaders had very different goals.
Primary Source: Painting
The Paris Peace Conference met that the Palace of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors. Amid this setting of opulence that was the work of kings, Wilson, who is seated in the center left of the painting, worked to find ways to enact his ideas of moral diplomacy and make the world safe for democracy.
In the end, the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended World War I didn’t include much from Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Japanese, French, and British land and colonies from Germany. France and Great Britain got new colonies in the Middle East like Iraq and Palestine. France made sure the treaty had a “war guilt clause” that said that Germany had started the war and had to pay $33 billion to the Allies as a penalty.
The only idea from the Fourteen Points that Wilson was able to get into the final treaty was his dream for a League of Nations. And the key, Wilson hoped, to stopping future wars, was that all member countries in the League said they would defend any country that was attacked. This was Article X of the Convent of the League of Nations and Wilson thought no country would dare to start a war knowing that the whole rest of the world would fight back. But in the end, it was this Article X that stopped Wilson’s dream from coming true.
THE RATIFICATION DEBATE
The other countries in Paris agreed to the Treaty of Versailles, but for Wilson, his hardest job was after he came home to America. The Constitution gives presidents the power to make treaties with other countries, but the Senate must ratify, or approve any treaty before the United States has to follow it. This is an important limit on the power of the president. Wilson knew that a yes vote in the Senate would be difficult to get.
The most important thing for the senators was Article X of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Even before Wilson came home, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge said that he did not think the treaty, or the League of Nations were good ideas. Lodge was an isolationist. He did not want the United States to get involved in agreements with other countries. Lodge was afraid that Article X would take away Congress’s power to decide when the United States would and would not go to war. If the United States joined the League of Nations, the country would have to defend any other country that was attacked no matter what. For Lodge and other Republicans in the Senate, this was not ok. They thought the United States should stay totally independent of the world and its problems.
On the other side, interventionists like Wilson said that the United States had a moral obligation to the rest of the world to use its power to make sure there was world peace. Without the United States at the table, they said, the hard-won peace would fall apart as hundreds of little problems pulled the world back into war.
Some Republicans, known as Irreconcilables, said they would not vote for the treaty no matter what, but others, called Reservationists, would vote yes for the treaty if there were changes to get rid of Article X. Wilson decided that to convince the senators to vote yes, he would have to get the American people to support him, so he left for a cross-country trip to give speeches about the treaty. But after the stress of six months in Paris, the speaking tour was too much for him. Wilson had a stroke and could hardly walk or talk. His wife Edith Wilson took care of him, and many historians think that decisions President Wilson officially made at this time were probably really made by Edith.
Angry that his dream of a new world order was slipping away and that he could no longer get around, Wilson wrote a letter to Democrats in the Senate telling them not to agree to any changes the Republicans wanted. With no one willing to give up anything, Congress voted against the Treaty of Versailles and the United States did not join the League of Nations.
The United States had to make its own separate peace treaty with Germany and never joined the League of Nations. As Wilson had feared, without the United States, the League of Nations was not strong enough to stop countries from starting wars. Although Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts to create world peace, he was embarrassed and angry that his country would not participate. He died just two years later in 1921.
ISOLATIONISM AT HOME
Americans were saying no to internationalism in more ways than just staying out of Wilson’s League of Nations. People wanted to close off the country from what many people thought were dangerous outside ideas. For many years the United States has taken in waves of New Immigrants who had helped build the cities, bridges and factories that had made America a great power. The children of these new immigrants had fought for their new country in World War I. But now, Europe looked like a dangerous place, with radical ideas, and many thought immigrants from Europe would bring these dangerous ideas with them.
One such idea was anarchism. Anarchists think that all governments are bad. This was not a new idea in America. In fact, President William McKinley had been killed by an anarchist in 1901. But by 1918, a new and even more dangerous idea had come up during the war which scared Americans. Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin had led a communist revolution in Russia, which made communists and socialists in America hopeful that a similar revolution could happen in the United States. The old Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies of the late 1800s, who had always been a very small group suddenly seemed bigger and more dangerous. Taken together, the rise of communists in Russia and the changes the war caused in Europe led many Americans to think it was time to stop immigration and get rid of dangerous ideas at home.
There are three events that show how much Americans were afraid of these outside ideas. The first was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1921. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who were put on trial for robbery and murder. There was no proof that they had done it, but both men were anarchists who wanted to overthrow the American government and were immigrants as well. At their trial, the prosecutor talked about Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical ideas, and the jury found them guilty. Even after more evidence was found to show that they had not committed the crimes, both men were executed. The trial was clearly unfair, but people got what they wanted: protection from outsiders and foreign ideas.
Secondary Source: Painting
The painting “Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco” by the Lithuanian-born artist Ban Shahn. It hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Used with permission. www.moma.org
The second event that shows the isolationist feeling that was common after World War I are the raids led by President Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. He wanted to make sure there would never be a communist revolution in the United States. Palmer helped start the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI and in 1919 to 1920, Palmer and FBI officers searched the homes of people he thought might be dangerous to America. In total, about 5,000 were put in jail without even being able to talk to a lawyer. For Palmer, basic civil rights were less important than finding people who might hurt the country, especially communists. Historians call this time at the end of World War I the First Red Scare, using the color that is a symbol of communism. It was a time when Americans were willing to give up basic rights to protect themselves from dangers they thought were real.
Finally, the waves of immigration that are so famous from the Gilded Age came to an end. In 1921, Congress passed a law to limit the number of people that could come from any country. The Immigration Act of 1924 lowered the limit even more, making it harder to move to the United States. When President Coolidge signed the law, he said, “America must be kept American.” However, what it meant to be American seems to be based a lot on where a person was from, at least in the eyes of the people who wrote the laws. The quotas were so low that almost no one could come to America, except people from Great Britain and Germany where the country’s first, mostly White, mostly Protestant Christian immigrants had come from. Almost no one from Southern and Eastern Europe was allowed in, and immigration from China and Japan was totally stopped. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe lost a safe place to get away to, just as Hitler and his anti-Semitic Nazi Party was about to rise to power.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
A cartoon depicting Uncle Sam cutting off immigration after World War I.
In the end Wilson lost his fight to make the United States a key player in the world. Senator Lodge and the isolationists in Congress won the political argument and America stayed by itself during the 1920s and 1930s as wars began in Europe and Asia. Hitler took over in Germany and Japan invaded China. But in 1941 when Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, the question of isolationism or involvement was answered forever.
Politicians on both sides of the argument about the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations say that what happened in the 1920s and 1930s is proof that they had been right all along. For isolationists, being able to stay out of World War II for as long as possible meant that the United States was strong enough to come in and help win. Wilson’s supporters, on the other hand, think that if the United States had been part of the League of Nations from the start, it might have been able to stop Japan and Hitler from starting the war in the first place. Instead, the Americans were hidden away across the oceans while the world was falling apart.
What do you think? Should America be involved in the world as Wilson hoped, or isolationist as Senator Lodge and the Republicans wanted?
BIG IDEA: America joined World War I at the very end and American troops saw limited fighting, but President Wilson took a key role in the peace negotiations afterward. The Treaty of Versailles that formally concluded the war included his idea for a League of Nations, although the Senate refused to ratify the treaty and the nation moved toward isolationism in the 1920s.
The United States entered the fighting in the last year of World War I. Germany had been suffering under a terrible blockade and was short on food and supplies. Russia had already exited the war and was in the middle of a civil war. American commanders refused to let their troops be split up and insisted on fighting together as one large group. They were still a tiny fraction of all the men on the battlefields of Europe.
The end of the war came on November 11, 1918. The European powers had lost millions of men in battle, as well as civilians. A flu pandemic swept the world in 1918 killing millions more.
President Woodrow Wilson went to Europe after the war had finished to negotiate a peace deal. He believed it was an opportunity to forge an international system for a lasting peace. He described his vision for a peaceful world in a speech entitled the Fourteen Points. The most important of these was the creation of a League of Nations in which future conflicts could be resolved without war.
The result of the negotiations was the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson succeeded in getting the Europeans to create a League of Nations, although they also imposed a harsh punishment on Germany. Germany was forced to admit that the war had been their fault and pay enormous reparations. This punishing element of the treaty would be used later by Hitler to blame Germany’s problems on its neighbors.
Wilson’s efforts to join the new League of Nations faced a major challenge. The Constitution gives the Senate the authority to ratify all treaties signed by the president. One element of the League of Nations was a commitment by every nation to defend any nation under attack. In theory, this would deter nations from going to war since they risked punishment from the entire world. In reality, Republicans in the Senate feared that this would mean the United States would be forced to join wars that were not really its business.
When it looked like the Senate was going to reject the Treaty, Wilson travelled the nation giving speeches to build public support. This also failed and the Senate voted against the treaty. Without the United States, the League of Nations was seriously weakened. It is possible that if America had been at the table, World War II might have been avoided, but we can never know.
By rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations, the United States also rejected Wilson’s dream of internationalism. Instead, for the next twenty years the nation pursued a policy of isolationism.
In keeping with that new idea, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, cutting off almost all immigration from Europe and ending immigration entirely from Asia.
A fear of foreigners and dangerous foreign ideas swept the nation. With the success of the communist revolution in Russia, a Red Scare started. Immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted in a deeply flawed trial that many saw as evidence of a national eagerness to root out dangerous ideas.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Vladimir Lenin: Leader of the Bolsheviks in Russia during the Russian Revolution. He became the first leader of the communist Soviet Union.
American Expeditionary Force (AEF): American army units who fought in Europe during World War I.
John “Blackjack” Pershing: General who led the American army in Europe during World War I.
League of Nations: International organization created at the end of World War I. It was the brainchild of President Wilson and was designed to give nations a forum in which to resolve differences without war. It failed to prevent World War II.
Henry Cabot Lodge: Republican senator who led opposition to the Treaty of Versailles fearing that it would force the United States to join wars that were not central to American interests.
Irreconcilables: Republican senators during the debate over the Treaty of Versailles who refused to vote to approve the treaty no matter what changes were made.
Reservationists: Republican senators during the debate over the Treaty of Versailles who would consider voting to ratify the treaty if changes were made.
Edith Wilson: First lady and wife of President Wilson. She acted as his caretaker and made many decisions for him during the last few months of his presidency.
Anarchists: People who believe there should be no government.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti: Italian immigrants who were convicted of murder and put to death in the 1920s. They were probably innocent, but were found guilty in large part because they were anarchists in a time after World War I when anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant and Americans were fearful of dangerous foreign ideas.
Armistice: An agreement to stop fighting.
Fourteen Points: President Wilson’s reasons for fighting in World War I. These were aspects of his Moral Diplomacy and became the basis of American negotiations at the end of the war. Some of the ideas were included in the Treaty of Versailles.
Reparations: Payment by one nation to another as a form of apology or penalty.
Armistice Day: November 11, 1918 – the day fighting in World War I ended. Today it is remembered in the United States as Veteran’s Day.
1918 Influenza Pandemic: Major worldwide outbreak of the flu which killed 3-5% of the global population during World War I.
Paris Peace Conference: The meeting in 1918 and 1919 of world leaders to negotiate a treaty to conclude World War I.
Palmer Raids: Police raids led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer at the end of World War I on the homes of suspected communists and anarchists. They were characteristic of the First Red Scare.
First Red Scare: Time period immediately after World War I when Americans were afraid of the potential that communists might start a revolution as they had successfully done in Russia. The Palmer Raids were the most famous example of the attacks on suspected communists during this period.
TREATIES & LAWS
Treaty of Versailles: Peace treaty that concluded World War I and established the League of Nations. The United States Senate never ratified the treaty.
Article X of the League of Nations Covenant: Key component of the League of Nations in which the nations of the world agreed to join together to repulse any aggressive military actions.
Immigration Act of 1924: Law that ended the mass immigration of the Gilded Age by setting strict quotas on the number of immigrants from each nation. It cut off all immigration from Japan.