April 23, 2014 16:59 UTC

The Making of a Nation

American History: Wilson Urges Support for Idea of League of Nations

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BOB DOUGHTY: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

After the end of World War One, President Woodrow Wilson sought national support for his idea of a League of Nations. He took his appeal directly to the American people in the summer of nineteen nineteen.

This week in our series, Tony Riggs and Frank Oliver continue the story of Wilson's campaign.

TONY RIGGS: The plan for the League of Nations was part of the peace treaty that ended World War One. By law, the United States Senate would have to vote on the treaty. President Wilson believed the Senate would have to approve it if the American people demanded it. So he went to the people for support.

For almost a month, Wilson traveled across America. He stopped in many places to speak about the need for the League of Nations. He said the league was the only hope for world peace. It was the only way to prevent another world war.

Wilson's health grew worse during the long journey across the country. He became increasingly weak and suffered from severe headaches. In Witchita, Kansas, he had a small stroke. A blood vessel burst inside his brain. He was forced to return to Washington.

FRANK OLIVER: For a few days, President Wilson's condition improved. Then, his wife found him lying unconscious on the floor of his bedroom in the White House. Wilson had lost all feeling in the left side of his body. He was near death.

The president's advisers kept his condition secret from almost everyone. They told reporters only that Wilson was suffering from a nervous breakdown.

For the next few days, the medical reports from the White House were always the same. They said Mister Wilson's condition had not changed.

People began to wonder. Were they being told the truth. Some people began to believe that the president was, in fact, dead. Vice President Thomas Marshall was worried. If the president died or could not govern, then he – Marshall -- would become president. But even Vice President Marshall could get no information from Wilson's doctors.

TONY RIGGS:  After several weeks, the president seemed to get a little stronger. He was still very weak. He could not work, except to sign several bills. This simple act took most of his strength.

Wilson's wife Edith guarded her husband closely. She alone decided who could see him. She alone decided what information he could receive. All letters and messages to Woodrow Wilson were given first to Edith Wilson. She decided if they were important enough for him to see. Most, she decided, were not. She also prevented members of the cabinet and other government officials from communicating with him directly.

Mrs. Wilson's actions made many people suspect that she -- not her husband -- was governing the country. Some spoke of her as the nation's first woman president.

Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith
Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith

FRANK OLIVER: There was one issue Mrs. Wilson did discuss with her husband: the League of Nations.

The Senate was completing debate on the Treaty of Versailles. That was the World War One peace agreement that contained Wilson's plan for the league. It seemed clear the Senate would reject the treaty. Too many Senators feared the United States would lose some of its independence and freedom if it joined the league.

The leader of Wilson's political party in the Senate, Gilbert Hitchcock, headed the administration campaign to win support for the treaty. He received Mrs. Wilson's permission to visit her husband.

Hitchcock told the president the situation was hopeless. He said the Senate would not approve the treaty unless several changes were made to protect American independence. If the president accepted the changes, then the treaty might pass.

TONY RIGGS:  Wilson refused. He would accept no compromise. He said the treaty must be approved as written.

Senator Hitchcock made one more attempt to get Wilson to reconsider. On the day the Senate planned to vote on the treaty, he went back to the White House. He told Mrs. Wilson that compromise offered the only hope for success.

Mrs. Wilson went into the president's room while Hitchcock waited. She asked her husband: "Will you not accept the changes and get this thing settled?" He answered: "I cannot. Better a thousand times to go down fighting than to surrender to dishonorable compromise."

FRANK OLIVER: The Senate voted. Hitchcock's fears proved correct. The treaty was defeated. The defeat ended Wilson's dream of American membership in the League of Nations.

Mrs. Wilson gave the news to her husband. He was silent for a long time. Then he said: "I must get well."

Woodrow Wilson was extremely sick. Yet he was not the kind of man who accepted opposition or defeat easily. From his sick bed, he wrote a letter to the other members of the Democratic Party. He urged them to continue debate on the League of Nations. He said a majority of Americans wanted the treaty approved.

Wilson probably was correct about this. Most Americans did approve of membership in the League of Nations. But they also wanted to be sure membership would not restrict American independence.

TONY RIGGS: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to re-open discussion on the treaty. It searched yet again for a compromise. It made new efforts to get Wilson to accept some changes.

But, as before, Wilson refused. He was a proud man. And he thought many of the Senators were evil men trying to destroy his plan for international peace.

Wilson's unwillingness to compromise helped kill the treaty once and for all. The Senate finally voted again, and the treaty was defeated by seven votes. The treaty was dead. The United States would never enter the League of Nations. And one of the most emotional and personal stories in the making of the American nation had ended.

FRANK OLIVER: The long battle over the Treaty of Versailles ended with political defeat for Woodrow Wilson. Yet history would prove him correct.

Wilson had warned time and again during the debate that a terrible war would result if the world did not come together to protect the peace. Twenty years later, war came. The First World War had been called 'the war to end all wars'. But it was not. And the Second World War would be far more destructive than the first.

TONY RIGGS: The debate over the Treaty of Versailles was the central issue in American politics during the end of Woodrow Wilson's administration. It also played a major part in the presidential election of nineteen twenty.

Wilson himself could not be a candidate again. He was much too sick. So the Democratic Party nominated a former governor of Ohio, James Cox. Cox shared Wilson's opinion that the United States should join the League of Nations. He campaigned actively for American membership.

The Republican Party chose Senator Warren Harding as its candidate for president. Harding campaigned by promising a return to what he called 'normal times'. He said it was time for America to stop arguing about international events and start thinking about itself again.

Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding during Harding's inauguration
Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding during Harding's inauguration

FRANK OLIVER: The two presidential candidates gave the American people a clear choice in the election of nineteen twenty.

On one side was Democrat James Cox. He represented the dream of Woodrow Wilson. In this dream, the world would be at peace. And America would be a world leader that would fight for the freedom and human rights of people everywhere.

On the other side was Republican Warren Harding. He represented an inward-looking America. It was an America that felt it had sacrificed enough for other people. Now it would deal with its own problems.

Warren Harding won the election.

TONY RIGGS: The results of the election shocked and hurt Woodrow Wilson. He could not understand why the people had turned from him and his dream of international unity and peace. But the fact was that America was entering a new period in its history. For a long time, it would turn its energy away from the world beyond its borders.

That will be our story next week.

(MUSIC)

BOB DOUGHTY: Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Tony Riggs and Frank Oliver.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and images at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.

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This is program #163

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