As the war drew to a close, Woodrow Wilson set forth his plan for peace. In his mind, fundamental flaws in international relations created an unhealthy climate that led to the World War and he wanted the United States to lead the way to creating a new world order. Wilson proposed an international organization comprising representatives of all the world’s nations that would serve as a forum where disputes could be solved peacefully.

Unfortunately for Wilson, leaders in Congress had other ideas about what role America should play in the world. They viewed Wilson’s plan as a new form of supranational government that would limit the power of the American government and might drag the United States into foreign conflicts it didn’t want. Since the days of George Washington, America had tried to avoid just such entanglements.

Wilson decried his opponents as letting a great chance to ensure peace for future generations slip by. If not at the conclusion of the Great War, when would the United States have another chance to lead the world toward such a worthy cause? Did America and the world’s children have to live through another, perhaps even more deadly conflict before leaders in Congress would recognize the importance of being a part of the global community of nations?

On the other hand, Wilson’s critics argued, what was stopping the rest of the world from dragging the United States into another conflict. If America promised to be a part of the great community of nations, it might just be promising to be a part of that great hypothetical conflict before it even began.

What do you think? Should America be involved in the world or isolationist?


When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, both the Allied forces and the Central Powers were close to exhaustion. Great Britain and France had indebted themselves heavily in the procurement of vital American military supplies and Germany was struggling to maintain its ability to fight because of the crushing blockade. While the 200,000 American troops that arrived in France composed a tiny fraction of the entire Allied effort, the influx of new troops, and the promise of many more who would come over the coming years proved decisive.

Primary Source: Photograph

General Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.

By March 1918, the Germans had won the war on the eastern front. The Russian Revolution of the previous year had not only toppled the hated regime of Tsar Nicholas II but also ushered in a civil war from which the Communist revolutionaries under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin emerged victorious. Weakened by war and internal strife, and eager to build a new Soviet Union, Russian delegates agreed to a generous peace treaty with Germany. Emboldened, Germany moved the troops that had been fighting Russia to the west. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF), under General John “Blackjack” Pershing, entered combat in May 1918, just in time to counter the increased force on the German side.

In a series of battles along the front that took place from May 28 through August 6, 1918, including the battles of Cantigny, Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, and the Second Battle of the Marne, American forces alongside the British and French armies succeeded in repelling German offensives. The Battle of Cantigny, on May 28, was the first American offensive in the war. In less than two hours that morning, American troops overran the German headquarters in the village, thus convincing the French commanders of their ability to fight against the German line advancing towards Paris. The subsequent battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood proved to be the bloodiest of the war for American troops. At the latter, faced with a German onslaught of mustard gas, artillery fire, and mortar fire, U.S. Marines attacked German units in the woods on six occasions, at times meeting them in hand-to-hand and bayonet combat, before finally repelling the advance. The U.S. forces suffered 10,000 casualties in the three-week battle, with almost 2,000 killed in total and 1,087 on a single day. Brutal as they were, they amounted to small losses compared to the casualties suffered by France and Great Britain. Still, these summer battles turned the tide of the war, with the Germans in full retreat 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 staged a full offensive into the Argonne Forest. By November, after nearly forty days of intense fighting, the German lines were broken, and their military command reported to Kaiser Wilhelm II of the desperate need to end the war and enter into peace negotiations. Facing civil unrest from the German people in Berlin, as well as the loss of support from his military high command, Wilhelm abdicated his throne on November 9, 1918, and immediately fled by train to the Netherlands. Two days later, on November 11, 1918, Germany and the Allies declared an immediate armistice, thus bringing the fighting to a stop and signaling the beginning of the peace process. Armistice Day is still observed around the world as a day to remember the fallen. In the United States, it is called Veterans’ Day.

When the armistice was declared, 117,000 American soldiers had been killed and 206,000 wounded. The Allies as a whole suffered over 5.7 million military deaths, primarily Russian, British, and French men. The Central powers suffered four million military deaths, with half of them German soldiers. Although the Americans arrived late in the war and suffered less than half of 1% of all the casualties, the involvement of the United States proved to be a tipping point.

Primary Source: Photograph

Police officers on a streetcar in Seattle check to make sure riders are wearing masks during the influenza outbreak in 1918.

Economically, emotionally, and geopolitically, the war had taken an enormous toll in the United States, but especially in Europe. Of the 60 million European men who were mobilized from 1914 to 1918, 8 million were killed, 7 million were permanently disabled, and 15 million were seriously injured. Germany lost 15.1% of its active male population, Austria-Hungary lost 17.1%, and France lost 10.5%.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians also died, in large part due to food shortages and malnutrition that weakened resistance to disease. In 1914 alone, louse-borne epidemic typhus killed 200,000 in Serbia. From 1918 to 1922, Russia had about 25 million infections and 3 million deaths from epidemic typhus. In 1923, 13 million Russians contracted malaria, a sharp increase from the pre-war years. Nothing, however, compared to the devastation of a major influenza epidemic that spread around the world during the war. Overall, the 1918 flu pandemic killed at least 50 million people, accounting for 3-5% of the world’s entire population.


While Wilson had been loath to involve the United States in the war, he saw the country’s eventual participation as justification for America’s involvement in developing a moral foreign policy for the entire world. The United States emerged from the war as the predominant world power. Wilson sought to capitalize on that influence and impose his moral foreign policy on all the nations of the world.

As early as January 1918, a full five months before American military forces fired their first shot in the war, and eleven months before the actual armistice, Wilson announced his postwar peace plan before a joint session of Congress. Referring to what became known as the Fourteen Points, Wilson called for openness in all matters of diplomacy, an end to secret treaties, free trade, freedom of the seas, promotion of self-determination of all nations, and more. In addition, he called for the creation of a League of Nations to promote the new world order and preserve territorial integrity through open discussions in place of intimidation and war.

As the war concluded, Wilson announced, to the surprise of many, that he would attend the Paris Peace Conference himself, rather than ceding to the tradition of sending professional diplomats to represent the country. His decision influenced other nations to follow suit, and the Paris conference became the largest meeting of world leaders to date in history. For six months, beginning in December 1918, Wilson remained in Paris to personally conduct peace negotiations.

Although the French public greeted Wilson with overwhelming enthusiasm, other delegates at the conference had deep misgivings about the American president’s plans for a “peace without victory.” Specifically, Great Britain, France and Italy sought to obtain some measure of revenge against Germany for drawing them into the war, to secure themselves against possible future aggressions from that nation, and also to maintain or even strengthen their own colonial possessions. Great Britain and France in particular sought substantial monetary reparations, as well as territorial gains, at Germany’s expense. Japan had officially supported the allies but not engaged in the war in Europe, but they too desired concessions in Asia, whereas Italy sought new territory in Europe. Finally, the threat posed by a Bolshevik Russia under Vladimir Lenin, and more importantly, the danger of revolutions elsewhere, further spurred on these allies to use the treaty negotiations to expand their territories and secure their strategic interests, rather than strive towards world peace.

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 concluded World War I resembled little of Wilson’s original Fourteen Points. The Japanese, French, and British succeeded in carving up many of Germany’s colonial holdings in Africa and Asia. The dissolution of the old Ottoman Empire created new nations under the quasi-colonial rule of France and Great Britain, such as Iraq and Palestine. France gained much of the disputed territory along their border with Germany, as well as passage of a “war guilt clause” that demanded Germany take public responsibility for starting and prosecuting the war that led to so much death and destruction. Great Britain led the charge that resulted in Germany agreeing to pay reparations in excess of $33 billion to the Allies. As for Bolshevik Russia, Wilson had agreed to send American troops to their northern region to protect Allied supplies and holdings there, while also participating in an economic blockade designed to undermine Lenin’s power. This move would ultimately have the opposite effect of galvanizing popular support for the Bolsheviks.

The sole piece of the original Fourteen Points that Wilson successfully fought to keep intact was the creation of a League of Nations. In the covenant of the new league, all member nations in the League agreed to defend any nation that was under attack. This was Article X of the convent and Wilson intended for this provision of the covenant to prevent war, since no nation would be suicidal enough to start a war knowing that the entire rest of the world would come to the defense of the nation under attack. Ironically, this article would prove to be the undoing of Wilson’s dream of a new world order.


Although the other nations in Paris agreed to the final terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson’s greatest battle lay in the ratification debate that awaited him upon his return. While the Constitution gives presidents the authority to negotiate treaties, but the Senate must ratify any treaty before the United States is bound by its terms. This is an important check on the power of the president. Wilson knew that a yes vote would be difficult to achieve.

Central to the debate was Article X of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Even before Wilson’s return to Washington, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that oversaw ratification proceedings, issued a list of reservations he had regarding the treaty. An isolationist in foreign policy issues, Cabot feared that Article X would take away Congress’s ability to decide when the United States would and would not enter wars. If the United States agreed to join the League of Nations, the country would be obligated to defend any other nation that came under attack, regardless of when or where. For Lodge and other Republicans in the Senate, this was unacceptable. The United States should remain entirely independent of the world and its problems.

On the other side of the political spectrum, interventionists such as Wilson argued that Article X would impede the United States from using her rightfully attained military power to secure and protect America’s international interests. The United States had a moral obligation to the rest of the world to use its power as a deterrent to ensure peace. Without the United States at the table, they feared, the hard-won peace would crumble as petty problems pulled the world back into war.

Some Republicans, known as Irreconcilables, opposed the treaty on all grounds, whereas others, called Reservationists, would support the treaty if sufficient amendments were introduced that could eliminate Article X. In an effort to turn public support into a weapon against those in opposition, Wilson embarked on a cross-country railway speaking tour. He began travelling in September 1919, and the grueling pace, after the stress of the six months in Paris, proved too much. Wilson fainted following a public event on September 25, 1919, and immediately returned to Washington. There he suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving his second wife Edith Wilson in charge as de facto president for a period of about six months.

Frustrated that his dream of a new world order was slipping away, a frustration that was compounded by the fact that, now an invalid, he was unable to speak his own thoughts coherently, Wilson urged Democrats in the Senate to reject any effort to compromise on the treaty. With all sides unwilling to compromise, Congress voted and rejected the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations.

As a result, the United States had to conclude its own separate peace treaty with Germany and never joined the League of Nations, which, as Wilson had feared shattered the international authority and significance of the organization. Although Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1919 for his efforts to create a model of world peace, he remained personally embarrassed and angry at his country’s refusal to be a part of that model.


Americans were rejecting internationalism in more ways than just refusing to join Wilson’s League of Nations. Across the nation there was a desire to shut off the country from what many people believed were dangerous foreign ideas. For decades the United States has been enriched by waves of New Immigrants who had helped build the cities, bridges and factories that had propelled the nation into the upper echelons of global power. The children of these new immigrants had fought bravely 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 believe that all government is bad, no matter what form it takes. This was not an entirely new idea in America. In fact, President William McKinley had been assassinated by an anarchist in 1901. However, a new and even more threatening idea had taken root in Europe during the war which made Americans fearful. Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin had successfully led a communist revolution in Russia, giving support to the hope of communists and socialists in America that such a revolution might be possible in the United States as well. The old Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies of the late 1800s, who had never been much more than a fringe labor movement suddenly seemed like a threatening, subversive force. Taken together, the rise of communists in Russia and the upheaval the war had caused in Europe led many Americans to think it was time to stop immigration and root out potential problems at home.

Evidence of this attitude can be found in three events. The first was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1921. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who were accused of being part of a robbery and murder in Braintree, Massachusetts. There was no direct evidence linking them to the crime, but both men were anarchists who favored the destruction of the American market-based, capitalistic society through violence, and were immigrants as well. At their trial, the district attorney emphasized Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical views, and the jury found them guilty on July 14, 1921. Despite the discovery of more evidence of their innocence, recanted testimony, and an ex-convict’s confession, both men were executed on August 23, 1927. Even at the time, there were strong critics of the trial, including Albert Einstein, Upton Sinclair, and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. After the trial, he wrote, “By systematic exploitation of the defendants’ alien blood, their imperfect knowledge of English, their unpopular social views, and their opposition to the war, the District Attorney invoked against them a riot of political passion and patriotic sentiment…” In the end, the trial was clearly flawed, and everyday people’s desire to protect themselves from outsiders was revealed.

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.

The second event that illustrates the isolationist attitude that pervaded are the raids led by President Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer who was determined that there would never be a communist revolution in the United States. From 1919 to 1920, Palmer conducted a series of raids on individuals he believed were dangerous to American security. With Palmer’s sponsorship, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was created under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. In January of 1920, federal agents broke into the homes of suspected anarchists without search warrants, jailed labor leaders, and held about 5,000 citizens without respecting their right to legal counsel. Palmer felt that American civil liberties were less important than rooting out potential wrongdoers, most especially communists. Eventually most of the detainees were released, but some were deported. This period of has been nicknamed the First Red Scare by historians, using the color associated with communism to indicate the few years at the end of World War I when Americans were willing to ignore civil rights in their effort to protect themselves from perceived threats.

Finally, the waves of immigration that had characterized the Gilded Age came to an end. In 1921, Congress introduced a quota system that restricted annual immigration from any given country to 3% of the residents from that same country as counted in the 1910 census. The Immigration Act of 1924 went even further, lowering the level to 2% of the 1890 census. When President Coolidge signed the law, he declared, “America must be kept American.” However, what it meant to be American depended a lot on where a person was from, at least in the eyes of lawmakers. Quotas severely restricted immigration from almost everywhere, except the nations of Northern Europe, such as Great Britain and Germany that had been the source of the country’s first, mostly White, mostly Protestant Christian immigrants. The share of eligible southern and eastern Europeans was reduced to a trickle, and immigration from China and Japan stopped entirely. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe lost an important escape route, 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.


Ultimately Wilson lost his campaign to make the United States a key player in world affairs. Senator Lodge and the isolationists in Congress won the political argument and America sat on the sidelines during the 1920s and 1930s as conflicts engulfed Europe and Asia. Hitler rose to power in Germany and Japan invaded China. By the time 1941 rolled around and the United States found itself in World War II, the question of isolationism or involvement had been answered.

Politicians on both sides of the argument about the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations used the ensuing decades as evidence that they had been right all along. For isolationists, being able to stay out of World War II for as long as possible made it possible for the United States to be the deciding factor. Wilson’s supporters, on the other hand, believed that if the United States had been part of the League of Nations from the beginning, it might have had a chance to stop Japan and Hitler from starting the war in the first place. Instead, the Americans were hidden away across the oceans while catastrophe was unfolding.

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.



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.


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.

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