Upon his return home from Paris, the President immediately invited, in
most cordial fashion, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee to confer with him at the White House. Some of those who
received the invitation immediately announced that as a condition
precedent to their acceptance they would insist that the conference should
not be secret in character and that what would happen there should be
disclosed to the public. The President quickly accepted the conditions
proposed by the Republican senators and made a statement from the White
House that the conditions which the conferees named were highly acceptable
to him and that he was willing and anxious to give to the public a
stenographic report of everything that transpired.
In view of subsequent history, the conversation between the President and
Senator Harding about the distinction between "legal" and "moral"
obligations, which was interesting at the time, takes on an added
interest. Said Senator Harding: "If there is nothing more than a moral
obligation on the part of any member of the league, what avail articles X
The President: Why, Senator, it is surprising that that question should
be asked. If we undertake an obligation, we are bound in the most solemn
way to carry it out.
Senator Harding: If you believe there is nothing more to this than a
moral obligation, any nation will assume a moral obligation on its own
account. Is it a moral obligation? The point I am trying to get at is:
Suppose something arises affecting the peace of the world, and the council
takes steps as provided here to conserve or preserve, and announces its
decision, and every nation in the League takes advantage of the
construction that you place upon these articles and says: "Well, this is
only a moral obligation, and we assume that the nation involved does not
deserve our participation or protection," and the whole thing amounts to
nothing but an expression of the league council.
The President: There is a national good conscience in such a matter. I
should think that was one of the most serious things that could possibly
happen. When I speak of a legal obligation, I mean one that specifically
binds you to do a particular thing under certain sanctions. That is a
legal obligation, and, if I may say so, has a greater binding force; only
there always remains in the moral obligation the right to exercise one's
judgment as to whether it is indeed incumbent upon one in those
circumstances to do that thing. In every moral obligation there is an
element of judgment. In a legal obligation there is no element of
Never before did the President show himself more tactful or more brilliant
in repartee. Surrounded by twenty or thirty men, headed by Senator Lodge,
who hated him with a bitterness that was intense, the President, with
quiet courtesy, parried every blow aimed at him.
No question, no matter how pointed it was, seemed to disturb his serenity.
He acted like a lawyer who knew his case from top to bottom, and who had
confidence in the great cause he was representing. His cards were frankly
laid upon the table and he appeared like a fighting champion, ready to
meet all comers. Indeed, this very attitude of frankness, openness,
sincerity, and courtesy, one could see from the side-lines, was a cause of
discomfort to Senator Lodge and the Republicans grouped about him, and one
could also see written upon the faces of the Democratic senators in that
little room a look of pride that they had a leader who carried himself so
gallantly and who so brilliantly met every onslaught of the enemy. The
President anticipated an abrupt adjournment of the conference with a
courteous invitation to luncheon. Senator Lodge had just turned to the
President and said: "Mr. President, I do not wish to interfere in any way,
but the conference has now lasted about three hours and a half, and it is
half an hour after the lunch hour." Whereupon, the President said: "Will
not you gentlemen take luncheon with me? It will be very delightful."
It was evident that this invitation, so cordially conveyed, broke the ice
of formality which up to that time pervaded the meeting, and like boys out
of school, forgetting the great affair in which they had all played
prominent parts, they made their way to the dining room, the President
walking by the side of Senator Lodge. Instead of fisticuffs, as some of
the newspaper men had predicted, the lion and the lamb sat down together
at the dining table, and for an hour or two the question of the
ratification of the Treaty of Versailles was forgotten in the telling of
pleasant stories and the play of repartee.
Although, at this conference of August 19, 1919, the President had frankly
opened his mind and heart to the enemies of the Treaty, the opposition
instead of moderating seemed to grow more intense and passionate. The
President had done everything humanly possible to soften the opposition of
the Republicans, but, alas, the information brought to him from the Hill
by his Democratic friends only confirmed the opinion that the opposition
to the Treaty was growing and could not be overcome by personal contact of
any kind between the President and members of the Foreign Relations
It is plain now, and will become plainer as the years elapse, that the
Republican opposition to the League was primarily partisan politics and a
rooted personal dislike of the chief proponent of the League, Mr. Wilson.
His reŽlection in 1916, the first reŽlection of an incumbent Democratic
President since Andrew Jackson, had greatly disturbed the Republican
leaders. The prestige of the Republican party was threatened by this
Democratic leader. His reception in Europe added to their distress. For
the sake of the sacred cause of Republicanism, this menace of Democratic
leadership must be destroyed, even though in destroying it the leaders
should swallow their own words and reverse their own former positions on
An attempt was made by enemies of the President to give the impression to
the country that an association of nations was one of the "fool ideas" of
Woodrow Wilson; that in making it part of his Fourteen Points, he was
giving free rein to his idealism. As a matter of fact, the idea did not
originate with Woodrow Wilson. If its American origin were traced, it
would be found that the earliest supporters of the idea were Republicans.
I remember with what reluctance the President accepted the invitation of
the League to Enforce Peace, tendered by Mr. Taft, to deliver an address
on May 27, 1916, at the New Willard Hotel, Washington, a meeting at which
one of the principal speakers was no less a personage than Senator Henry
Cabot Lodge, with Mr. Taft presiding. For many months the President had
been revolving this idea in his mind and for a long time he was reluctant
to accept any invitation that would seem to give approval to the idea. He
patiently waited to make a complete survey of the whole world situation,
to be convinced that the permanent participation of the United States in
world affairs was a necessity if peace was to be secured.
It was not an easy thing to draw the President away from the traditional
policy of aloofness and isolation which had characterized the attitude of
the United States in all international affairs. But the invitation to
discuss universal peace, urged upon the President by ex-President William
H. Taft, was finally accepted.
In that speech he said: "We are participants, whether we would or not, in
the life of the world, and the interests of all nations are our own;
henceforth, there must be a common agreement for a common object, and at
the heart of that common object must lie the inviolable rights of peoples
and of mankind. We believe these fundamental things: First, that every
people has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live.
Second, that the small states of the world have a right to enjoy the same
respect for their sovereignty and for their territorial integrity that
great and powerful nations expect and insist upon. [This idea was
substantially embodied in Article X]; and third, that the world has a
right to be free from every disturbance of its peace that has its origin
in aggression and disregard of the rights of peoples and nations."
These statements were uttered in the presence of Senator Lodge and
applauded by Mr. Taft and his Republican associates gathered at the
The President, continuing his address, then gave expression to his views
regarding the means to attain these ends. He was convinced that there
should be an "universal association of the nations to maintain the
inviolate security of the highway of the seas for the common use of all
nations of the world, and to prevent any war begun either contrary to
treaty agreements or without warning and full submission of the causes to
the opinion of the world--a virtual guarantee of territorial integrity and
political independence." And he ventured to assert, in the presence of
Senator Lodge, who afterward became the leader of the opposition to these
very ideas, "that the United States is willing to become a partner in any
feasible association of nations formed in order to realize these objects
and make them secure against violation."
Woodrow Wilson believed that the League of Nations was the first modern
attempt to prevent war by discussion in the open and not behind closed
doors or "within the cloistered retreats of European diplomacy." To him
the League of Nations was the essence of Christianity. Yet when he took up
the advocacy of the League of Nations, Senator Lodge, the spokesman of the
Republican party at the dinner of the League to Enforce Peace, became the
leader in bitter opposition to it.
Senator Lodge at this very dinner on May 27, 1916, delivered the following
I know, and no one, I think, can know better than one who has served
long in the Senate, which is charged with an important share of the
ratification and confirmation of all treaties; no one can, I think,
feel more deeply than I do the difficulties which confront us in the
work which this league--that is, the great association extending
throughout the country, known as the League to Enforce Peace--
undertakes, but the difficulties cannot be overcome unless we try to
overcome them. I believe much can be done. Probably it will be
impossible to stop all wars, but it certainly will be possible to stop
some wars, and thus diminish their number. The way in which this
problem must be worked out must be left to this league and to those
who are giving this great subject the study which it deserves. I know
the obstacles. I know how quickly we shall be met with the statement
that this is a dangerous question which you are putting into your
argument, that no nation can submit to the judgment of other nations,
and we must be careful at the beginning not to attempt too much. I
know the difficulties which arise when we speak of anything which
seems to involve an alliance, but I do not believe that when
Washington warned us against entangling alliances he meant for one
moment that we should not join with the other civilized nations of the
world if a method could be found to diminish war and encourage peace.
It was a year ago in delivering the chancellor's address at Union
College I made an argument on this theory, that if we were to promote
international peace at the close of the present terrible war, if we
were to restore international law as it must be restored, we must find
some way in which the united forces of the nations could be put behind
the cause of peace and law. I said then that my hearers might think
that I was picturing a Utopia, but it is in the search of Utopias that
great discoveries are made. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime.
This league certainly has the highest of all aims for the benefits of
humanity, and because the pathway is sown with difficulties is no
reason that we should turn from it.
Theodore Roosevelt, in his Nobel Prize thesis, also expressed himself as
follows, with reference to an association of nations:
The one permanent move for obtaining peace which has yet been
suggested with any reasonable chance of obtaining its object is by an
agreement among the great powers, in which each should pledge itself
not only to abide by the decisions of a common tribunal, but to back
with force the decision of that common tribunal. The great civilized
nations of the world which do not possess force, actual or immediately
potential, should combine by solemn agreement in a great world league
for the peace of righteousness.
Upon the President taking up the League of Nations fight, Senator Lodge
drew away from it as if in fear and trembling and began discussing our
responsibilities abroad, evidencing a complete change of heart. He no
longer asked Americans to be generous and fearless, but said:
The hearts of the vast majority of mankind would beat on strongly
without any quickening if the League were to perish altogether.
The first objection to the League of Nations, urged by Senator Lodge, was
that it involved the surrender of our sovereignty. There is a striking
analogy between the argument of Senator Lodge and those put forth by
gentlemen in Washington's day who feared that the proposed Constitution
which was designed to establish a federal union would mean danger,
oppression, and disaster. Mr. Singletary of Massachusetts, Mr. Lowndes of
South Carolina, Mr. Grayson of Virginia, even Patrick Henry himself,
foresaw the virtual subjugation of the States through a Constitution which
at that time was often called the Treaty between the Thirteen States.
As Senator Brandegee and others contended that the Covenant of the League
of Nations was a "muddy, murky, and muddled document," so Mr. Williams of
New York, in 1788, charged "ambiguity" against the proposed Constitution,
saying that it was "absolutely impossible to know what we give up and what
Mandates and similar bogies had their counterpart in Washington's day.
George Mason, fearful like Senator Sherman of Illinois in a later day,
"apprehended the possibility of Congress calling in the militia of Georgia
to quell disturbances in New Hampshire."
The attitude of George Washington in his day was very similar to that of
Woodrow Wilson. Writing to Knox, on August 19, 1797, he said: "I am fully
persuaded it [meaning the Federal Constitution] is the best that can be
obtained at this time. And, as a constitutional door is open for amendment
hereafter, our adoption of it, under the present circumstances of the
union, is in my opinion desirable." And of the opponents of the proposed
Constitution he said, "The major part of them will, it is to be feared, be
governed by sinister and self-important motives."
The storm centre of the whole fight against the League was the opposition
personally conducted by Senator Lodge and others of the Republican party
against the now famous Article X. The basis of the whole Republican
opposition was their fear that America would have to bear some
responsibility in the affairs of the world, while the strength of Woodrow
Wilson's position was his faith that out of the war, with all its blood
and tears, would come this great consummation.
It was the President's idea that we should go into the League and bear our
responsibilities; that we should enter it as gentlemen, scorning
privilege. He did not wish us to sneak in and enjoy its advantages and
shirk its responsibilities, but he wanted America to enter boldly and not
as a hypocrite.
With reference to the argument made by Senator Lodge against our going
into the League, saying that it would be a surrender of American
sovereignty and a loss of her freedom, the President often asked the
question on his Western trip: How can a nation preserve its freedom except
through concerted action? We surrender part of our freedom in order to
save the rest of it. Discussing this matter one day, he said: "One cannot
have an omelet without breaking eggs. By joining the League of Nations, a
nation loses, not its individual freedom, but its selfish isolation. The
only freedom it loses is the freedom to do wrong. Robinson Crusoe was free
to shoot in any direction on his island until Friday came. Then there was
one direction in which he could not shoot. His freedom ended where
Friday's rights began."
There would have been no Federal Union to-day if the individual states
that went to make up the Federal Union were not willing to surrender the
powers they exercised, to surrender their freedom as it were.
Opponents of the League tried to convey the impression that under Article
X we should be obliged to send our boys across the sea and that in that
event America's voice would not be the determining voice.
Lloyd George answered this argument in a crushing way, when he said:
We cannot, unless we abandon the whole basis of the League of Nations,
disinterest ourselves in an attack upon the existence of a nation
which is a member of that league and whose life is in jeopardy. That
covenant, as I understand it, does not contemplate, necessarily,
military action in support of the imperilled nation. It contemplates
economic pressure; it contemplates support for the struggling people;
and when it is said that if you give any support at all to Poland it
involves a great war, with conscription and with all the mechanism of
war with which we have been so familiar in the last few years, that is
inconsistent with the whole theory of the covenant into which we have
entered. We contemplated other methods of bringing pressure to bear
upon the recalcitrant nation that is guilty of acts of aggression
against other nations and endangering their independence.
The Republicans who attacked the President on Article X had evidently
forgotten what Theodore Roosevelt said about the one effective move for
obtaining peace, when he urged: "The nations should agree on certain
rights that should not be questioned, such as territorial integrity, their
rights to deal with their domestic affairs, and with such matters as whom
they should admit to citizenship." They had, also, evidently forgotten
that Mr. Taft said: "The arguments against Article X which have been most
pressed are those directed to showing that under its obligations the
United States can be forced into many wars and to burdensome expeditionary
forces to protect countries in which it has no legitimate interest. This
objection will not bear examination."
Mr. Taft answered the question of one of the Republican critics if Article
X would not involve us in war, in the following statement:
How much will it involve us in war? Little, if any. In the first place,
the universal boycott, first to be applied, will impose upon most nations
such a withering isolation and starvation that in most cases it will be
effective. In the second place, we'll not be drawn into any war in which
it will not be reasonable and convenient for us to render efficient aid,
because the plan of the Council must be approved by our representatives,
as already explained. In the third place, the threat of the universal
boycott and the union of overwhelming forces of the members of the League,
if need be, will hold every nation from violating Article X, and Articles
XII, XIII, and XV, unless there is a world conspiracy, as in this war, in
which case the earliest we get into the war, the better.
Evidently Mr. Taft did not look upon Article X as the bugaboo that Mr.
Lodge pretended it was, for he said:
Article X covers the Monroe Doctrine and extends it to the world. The
League is not a super-sovereign, but a partnership intended to secure to
us and all nations only the sovereignty we can properly have, i.e.,
sovereignty regulated by the international law and morality consistent
with the same sovereignty of other nations. The United States is not under
this constitution to be forced into actual war against its will. This
League is to be regarded in conflict with the advice of Washington only
from a narrow and reactionary viewpoint.
Mr. Herbert Hoover, now a member of Mr. Harding's Cabinet, in a speech
delivered on October 3, 1919, answering the argument that America would be
compelled to send her boys to the other side, said:
We hear the cry that the League obligates that our sons be sent to
fight in foreign lands. Yet the very intent and structure of the
League is to prevent wars. There is no obligation for the United
States to engage in military operations or to allow any interference
with our internal affairs without the full consent of our
representatives in the League.
And further discussing the revision of the Treaty, Mr. Hoover said:
I am confident that if we attempt now to revise the Treaty we shall
tread on a road through European chaos. Even if we managed to keep our
soldiers out of it we will not escape fearful economic losses. If the
League is to break down we must at once prepare to fight. Few people
seem to realize the desperation to which Europe has been reduced.