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26 June, 2013
Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XLIII - Reservations
by Tumulty, Joseph P.


On June 25, 1919, I received from President Wilson the following cabled message:
My clear conviction is that the adoption of the treaty by the Senate with reservations will put the United States as clearly out of the concert of nations as a rejection. We ought either to go in or stay out. To stay out would be fatal to the influence and even to the commercial prospects of the United States, and to go in would give her a leading place in the affairs of the world. Reservations would either mean nothing or postpone the conclusion of peace, so far as America is concerned, until every other principal nation concerned in the treaty had found out by negotiation what the reservations practically meant and whether they could associate themselves with the United States on the terms of the reservations or not.

WOODROW WILSON.
The President consistently held to the principle involved in this statement. To his mind the reservations offered by Senator Lodge constituted a virtual nullification on the part of the United States of a treaty which was a contract, and which should be amended through free discussion among all the contracting parties. He did not argue or assume that the Covenant was a perfected document, but he believed that, like our American Constitution, it should be adopted and subsequently submitted to necessary amendment through the constitutional processes of debate. He was unalterably opposed to having the United States put in the position of seeking exemptions and special privileges under an agreement which he believed was in the interest of the entire world, including our own country. Furthermore, he believed that the advocacy for reservations in the Senate proceeded from partisan motives and that in so far as there was a strong popular opinion in the country in favour of reservations it proceeded from the same sources from which had come the pro-German propaganda. Before the war pro-German agitation had sought to keep us out of the conflict, and after the war it sought to separate us in interest and purpose from other governments with which we were associated.

By his opposition to reservations the President was seeking to prevent Germany from taking through diplomacy what she had been unable to get by her armies.

The President was so confident of the essential rightness of the League and the Covenant and of the inherent right-mindedness of the American people, that he could not believe that the people would sanction either rejection or emasculation of the Treaty if they could be made to see the issue in all the sincerity of its motives and purposes, if partisan attack could be met with plain truth-speaking. It was to present the case of the people in what he considered its true light that he undertook the Western tour, and it was while thus engaged that his health broke. Had he kept well and been able to lead in person the struggle for ratification, he might have won, as he had previously by his determination and conviction broken down stubborn opposition to the Federal Reserve system.

So strong was his faith in his cause and the people that even after he fell ill he could not believe that ratification would fail. What his enemies called stubbornness was his firm faith in the righteousness of the treaty and in the reasonableness of the proposition that the time to make amendments was not prior to the adoption of the Treaty and by one nation, but after all the nations had agreed and had met together for sober, unpartisan consideration of alterations in the interest of all the contracting parties and the peace and welfare of the world.

Even when he lay seriously ill, he insisted upon being taken in his invalid chair along the White House portico to the window of my outer office each day during the controversy in the Senate over the Treaty. There day after day in the coldest possible weather I conferred with him and discussed every phase of the fight on the Hill. He would sit in his chair, wrapped in blankets, and though hardly able, because of his physical condition, to discuss these matters with me, he evidenced in every way a tremendous interest in everything that was happening in the Capitol that had to do with the Treaty. Although I was warned by Doctor Grayson and Mrs. Wilson not to alarm him unduly by bringing pessimistic reports, I sought, in the most delicate and tactful way I could, to bring the atmosphere of the Hill to him. Whenever there was an indication of the slightest rise in the tide for the League of Nations a smile would pass over the President's face, and weak and broken though he was, he evidenced his great pleasure at the news. Time and time again during the critical days of the Treaty fight the President would appear outside my office, seated in the old wheel chair, and make inquiry regarding the progress of the Treaty fight on Capitol Hill.

One of the peculiar things about the illness from which the President suffered was the deep emotion which would stir him when word was brought to him that this senator or that senator on the Hill had said some kind thing about him or had gone to his defense when some political enemy was engaged in bitterly assailing his attitude in the Treaty fight. Never would there come from him any censure or bitter criticism of those who were opposing him in the fight. For Senator Borah, the leader of the opposition, he had high respect, and felt that he was actuated only by sincere motives.

I recall how deeply depressed he was when word was carried to him that the defeat of the Treaty was inevitable. On this day he was looking more weary than at any time during his illness. After I had read to him a memorandum that I had prepared, containing a report on the situation in the Senate, I drew away from his wheel chair and said to him: "Governor, you are looking very well to-day." He shook his head in a pathetic way and said: "I am very well for a man who awaits disaster," and bowing his head he gave way to the deep emotion he felt.

A few days later I called to notify him of the defeat of the Treaty. His only comment was, "They have shamed us in the eyes of the world." Endeavouring to keep my good-nature steady in the midst of a trying situation, I smiled and said: "But, Governor, only the Senate has defeated you. The People will vindicate your course. You may rely upon that." "Ah, but our enemies have poisoned the wells of public opinion," he said. "They have made the people believe that the League of Nations is a great Juggernaut, the object of which is to bring war and not peace to the world. If I only could have remained well long enough to have convinced the people that the League of Nations was their real hope, their last chance, perhaps, to save civilization!"

I said, by way of trying to strengthen and encourage him at this, one of the critical moments of his life--a moment that I knew was one of despair for him--"Governor, I want to read a chapter from the third volume of your 'History of the American People,' if it will not tire you." He graciously gave his assent and I took from under my arm the volume containing an account of the famous John Jay treaty, in the defense of which Alexander Hamilton was stoned while he stood defending it on the steps of the New York City Hall. There was, indeed, a remarkable similarity between the fight over the John Jay treaty and the Versailles Treaty. I read an entire chapter of Woodrow Wilson's "History of the American People," including the passage:
Slowly the storm blew off. The country had obviously gained more than it had conceded, and tardily saw the debt it owed Mr. Jay and to the administration, whose firmness and prudence had made his mission possible. But in the meantime things had been said which could not be forgotten. Washington had been assailed with unbridled license, as an enemy and a traitor to the country; had even been charged with embezzling public moneys during the Revolution; was madly threatened with impeachment, and even with assassination; and had cried amidst the bitterness of it all that "he would rather be in his grave than in the presidency."

The country knew its real mind about him once again when the end of his term came and it was about to lose him. He refused to stand for another election. His farewell address, with its unmistakable tone of majesty and its solemn force of affection and admonition, seemed an epitome of the man's character and achievements, and every man's heart smote him to think that Washington was actually gone from the nation's counsels.
When I concluded reading this chapter, the President's comment was, "It is mighty generous of you to compare my disappointment over the Treaty with that of Washington's. You have placed me in mighty good company."

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