Why did the United States reject the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 but accept Bretton Woods, the United Nations Organisation and NATO in 1944-9?

The United States’ traditional engagement with the world, since before Washington’s farewell address, was one of trade and self-interest, rather than isolationism properly speaking. This was consonant with its existence as a country tied into foreign trade, with a government funded by a tariff (which required rather than discouraged trade and the reinvestment of profits) but no large Navy. From the late nineteenth century, this had begun to change, and the parallel development of the Great White Fleet and a style of hemispheric engagement that blended the Monroe Doctrine with the Roosevelt Corollary encouraged America to begin to integrate with the world. This integration involved a failed attempt at Imperialism; the development of dollar diplomacy; mediation in the Russo-Japanese war; and Taft’s attempt to mediate in Balkan and East European disputes before 1914.

It is not therefore surprising that the US rejected Versailles. The odd thing, given its history, is the acceptance of Bretton Woods and NATO. However, an argument can be made that the rejection of Versailles was a near-run and contingent matter, and that by the twentieth century the US could easily have joined with organisations like the League as part of the transition from British to US world leadership. The League of Nations was, for instance, based on the fourteen points of Woodrow Wilson and followed naturally from Moral Diplomacy and the Alabama Claims. It represented an attempt to create a law-governed set of global institutions that would have been recognised by Immanuel Kant and Alfred Tennyson as a blend of Anglo-Saxonist ideas of common law in the world, and the commitment of American elites to German liberal philosophies. In addition, in 1914, William Jennings Bryan had called for a third Hague Conference to have been held in 1915 to set international law. Colonel House was in Europe trying to suggest an American-brokered and American–monitored peace deal. The USA was supporting the regular meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Carnegie was funding European and American peace movements based on cooperation. This was no isolationist power. American economic power depended upon robust systems of land ownership, contract law, and international arbitration between New York, London and Liverpool over trade. These led successful Americans naturally to the idea of international law and the resolution of disputes, though not necessarily to the idea of giving up sovereignty.

However, there was in the USA a very powerful peace party that, for various reasons, did not wish to be associated with European concerns. A large number of Americans, many German, Italian, and Irish, had emigrated or been pushed out from Europe and had no wish to be entangled with it again. In the Prohibition and female suffrage movements, there was a large bloc of peace campaigners. Opinion polls were not taken in 1916, but the presidential election of that year might be taken as instructive on war policies. Woodrow Wilson achieved 49% of the vote on an anti-war slogan, up from just under 42% in 1912; Theodore Roosevelt, who was the most pro-war candidate, declined to run as a Progressive, and the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, avoided any mention of War except to suggest that Wilson had been ‘too interventionist’ in Mexico. The minor parties, who garnered just under 4.5%, (Socialists, Prohibitionists and Socialist Labor) were also anti-war. In the midst of European crisis, even those who believed with TR that the US was being bullied and should intervene kept silent because of the unpopularity of that message. In this context, the mid-term elections of 1918, which followed on America’s intervention, can be seen as having strengthened an essentially anti-war country by rejecting Wilson’s about face at the first turn and delivering a switch from Democrats to Republicans in the House and a strengthened Republican bloc in the Senate.

The ratification of the Versailles Treaty, which would have entangled the US in world concerns, was also a contingent matter. The 1918 Senate, as elected, would not have supported Article X of the League of Nations in any circumstances. This article compromised national sovereignty. It is not impossible to imagine a variable geometry in which the US relationship with the League diverged on this point so that the USA was associated but not incorporated. A more flexible leader, such as vice-president Marshall, instructed by Colonel House, may in fact have delivered just such an outcome. Wilson’s inability to win over Senators Lodge and Borah, and his partisan appeal over their heads in the 1918 elections, is instructive in this regard. In 1944, Roosevelt got a united administration to promote a World Bank led by an American, an IMF mostly owned by the USA, and a general agreement on tariffs and trade that supported American business, all based on the dollar. The Bretton Woods regime paved the way for the UN, which although planned in London, was associated with Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Truman made sure that the signing ceremony was in San Francisco, and that the UNO would eventually be based in New York. Truman did not rush into a military Treaty, and in fact waited upon Europeans until signing the NATO agreement in 1949, and as late as 1952 was still devoting time to stopping the anti-treaty campaigns of Frank Holman and John Bricker. It took Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and President Eisenhower and a determined coordinated bipartisan effort to stop the Bricker amendment to the constitution, which would have institutionalised non-intervention.  Wilson rushed Versailles; he antagonised and isolated Senate Leaders; he removed himself from the country but left Lodge in Washington; and he bundled military and economic commitments in one treaty, for which he demanded clean passage from an hostile Congress. The contrast with FDR, Truman and Eisenhower, could not be greater. Had Wilson, or Marshall if one of Wilson’s strokes had proven worse, divided the anti-Versailles party into its natural split of irreconcilables and reservationists and embraced the latter, there would have been a solid majority for a 1919 Treaty with reservations, rather than no Treaty at all.

Other American fears about Versailles were not to be repeated in 1945. For example, there were genuine fears in 1919 that the internationalisation of world authorities would mean the end of the Monroe Doctrine and European or Japanese interference in the Western Hemisphere. Such worries were a nonsense given the USA’s dominance and 12-year commitment to the Good Neighbor policy by 1945. Post-war disillusion with war, which was exceptionally sharp after World War One ended as a stalemate, was not repeated in 1945. In 1919, there were few or no Cord Meyers, Allan Dulles, or other idealistic CIA men determined to create a liberal world order and flushed with absolute victory against totalitarian states. The America First Committee, and isolationism in general, had been undermined by Pearl Harbor and by the sheer untrustiworthiness of the Axis regimes in a way that non-militarists had not been by the Kaiser’s Reich. The 1944-56 settlement (because it took that long) was not on the Western side punitive, whilst it was in 1919.
It is also not enough to suggest that the USA was embroiled in Cold War from 1944-5 onwards, and therefore had a more united regime both at the level of ordinary voters and at that of elites in that year than in 1919. There was a red scare in 1919. It did not involve the creation of a permanent set of security institutions like the CIA, DoD and NSC in 1947—in fact Congress cut back the central government—but it was as fervent in its anticommunism in 1919 as during the time of McCarthy. A more skilful, or less ill, or more flexible president like Thomas Marshall, for instance, might have used such a scare to push the USA into global institutions to contain communism just as Truman did.

Ultimately, the US accepted the new world order in 1945-56, however, because it ran most of it. In 1919, the European Empires were still viable, and the pound sterling was still the global currency, though a gradual shift to the dollar as a world reserve would begin under Andrew Mellon in 1924. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1920, which is powerful evidence that the US did not wish to withdraw from the world after rejecting Versailles, was predicated upon the continued existence of Great Britain and other Europeans as Great Powers. Pershing had not been allowed, as Eisenhower and Stalin had contrived, to gain absolute victory in Europe. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that in 1919, the USA rejected Versailles, and yet accepted the UN, Bretton Woods, and NATO after 1944-5.


Gerald said…
Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.
Martin Meenagh said…
Thank you, I appreciate your taking the time to read it.