At the end of 1918 the world was poised between the end of the most destructive conflict in history and the beginning of a process designed to bring the war to an official close and lay the foundation for an enduring peace. As national leaders and diplomats gathered in Paris, soldiers returned home to a changed world.
After their triumphal visit to France and Great Britain in December, President and Mrs. Wilson visited Italy, where they were greeted by enthusiastic crowds. The Peace Conference convened at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. After President Poincare's welcoming speech, the conferees chose Premier Clemenceau as permanent chairman. At a preliminary meeting the heads of government of France, Great Britain, Italy and the United States designated a “Supreme Council” or "Council of Ten" (the heads of government of those nations plus Japan and their foreign ministers) as the Conference’s principal decision-making body. Among its first acts was to extend a formal invitation to the warring factions in Russia to attend a conference on the island of Prinkipo in the Sea of Marmara in an attempt to reach “some understanding and agreement by which Russia may work out her own purposes, and happy, cooperative relations be established between her people and the other peoples of the world . . . provided there is in the meantime a truce . . .” In the United States, former President Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep at his home on Long Island. The Eighteenth Amendment, forbidding the importation, manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors, was added to the Constitution, to become effective in a year.
Less than a month after the Peace Conference convened, President and Mrs. Wilson left Paris and returned to the United States so the President could be in Washington for the end of the 65th Congress. Before his departure, in his capacity as chairman of the League of Nations Committee, he submitted a preliminary draft of the League covenant. British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Italian Premier Orlando took advantage of the recess to visit their own capitals. Hoping to lay the groundwork for ratification back home, Wilson sent cablegrams to members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees inviting them to dinner at the White House and asking them to withhold comment on the draft covenant until he had briefed them. He did not follow his own advice, however, but immediately upon his arrival in Boston gave a fiery speech attacking those who opposed the League as “narrow-minded men that have no sweep beyond the day’s horizon.” The dinner at the White House took place, but no minds were changed. In the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a speech in which he objected that the provisions of the proposed covenant “seem to give a rich promise of being fertile in producing controversies and misunderstandings” which would only delay achieving the immediate goal of making peace with Germany. A proposed woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution, already passed by the House of Representatives, came to a vote in the Senate but fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds. Supporters vowed to resubmit it in the next Congress. In New York, African-American troops returning from France paraded up Fifth Avenue from Madison Square to Harlem, cheered by thousands of spectators. A shipyard workers strike in Seattle rapidly expanded into a general strike, which was called off after five days. In Paris, an assassination attempt on Premier Clemenceau failed but left him with a bullet he carried in his body for the rest of his life. In Germany, the National Assembly in Weimar elected Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party, as the nation’s “Provisional State President.” In the Russian civil war the White forces, hopeful of victory over the Bolsheviks, rejected the Allies’ proposal for a conference at Prinkipo.
On the last day of the 65th Congress, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a “round robin” signed by thirty-seven senators, more than enough to defeat ratification, opposing the existing draft of the League of Nations covenant. President Wilson left Washington after Congress adjourned, stopping in New York on his way back to Paris to deliver another speech denouncing senators who criticized the League of Nations. Although Congress had adjourned with unfinished business pending, Wilson refused to call a special session that would have allowed debate on the treaty to continue in the now-Republican Senate. For the first time in its history the Supreme Court addressed the question of First Amendment protections for political speech, affirming the convictions of Charles Schenck, general secretary of the Socialist Party, and Eugene V. Debs, the party’s former presidential candidate, for violating the Espionage Act by printing leaflets and making speeches urging resistance to the draft. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes held that words can be prosecuted when they create a “clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” In Paris the Peace Conference resumed, with the original “Big Four” (Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson and Orlando) now acting as the central decision-making body. At the top of its agenda was the peace treaty with Germany, the principal issues of which were disarmament, territorial adjustments, and reparations. In a further attempt to reach an accommodation regarding Russia’s participation, an American delegation led by William C. Bullitt traveled to Moscow, met with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders, and returned to Paris with a proposal for a truce between the warring factions. The Supreme Council delegated a commission to draw the border between Hungary and Rumania. When the commission awarded part of the disputed territory to Rumania and designated most of the remainder as a neutral zone, Hungarian Prime Minister Michael Karolyi’s government fell and Béla Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Bolsheviks, emerged from prison to take power. Italy, claiming the right to Turkish territory under the terms of its wartime agreements with the Allies, landed troops on the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia.
Because the United States was not a party to the 1915 Treaty of London, which promised Italy much of the Dalmatian coast in return for joining the war on the side of the Allies, President Wilson was able to take a firm stand against Italy’s claims on the ground that they violated the principle of self-determination. He also rejected, along with other members of the Supreme Council, Italy’s claim to the port city of Fiume, which was not covered by the Treaty of London, as a spoil of war. When Wilson released a statement rejecting Italy’s claims, Prime Minister Orlando and Foreign Minister Sonnino, under intense domestic political pressure, walked out of the Conference and returned to Italy. The question of Russia’s participation in the conference was effectively resolved when the Allies ignored the Bolshevik proposal Bullitt had brought back from Moscow and allowed the deadline for a response to expire. Fighting broke out between Rumania and Hungary as a peacemaking mission by South African Foreign Minister Jan Smuts failed and the Rumanian Army occupied the area awarded to it by the Supreme Council and invaded the neutral zone as well. The Allies reached substantial agreement among themselves on the terms of the treaty to be presented to Germany. Germany’s armed forces were to be significantly reduced in size and their future expansion severely limited. Germany was to lose all of its colonies, which would be governed as mandates under the League of Nations. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were to be returned to France and a small area adjacent to the Rhineland ceded to Belgium. The Rhineland itself was to be demilitarized. The fate of Schleswig-Holstein, annexed by Bismarck in 1867, would be determined by plebiscite. The Kiel Canal, built by the Kaiser in 1895, would remain in Germany, with a provision guaranteeing free passage for other nations. The island of Heligoland, site of the main base of the German High Seas Fleet during the war, was to remain German but its fortifications and harbors were to be destroyed. On Germany’s eastern border, the provinces of West Prussia, Posen and Upper Silesia were to be severed from Germany and added to the new nation of Poland. Danzig would become a free city to be governed by the League of Nations, and a “corridor” along the Vistula River was to be given to Poland to provide access to the Baltic. The fate of southern portions of East Prussia would be submitted to a plebiscite. The issue of reparations would be submitted to a commission for determination.
The final draft of the treaty, negotiated among the Allies without input from Germany, was presented to the Germans on May 7, “Lusitania Day.” Premier Clemenceau, presenting the treaty, made it clear that it was non-negotiable. He told the German representatives “It is neither the time nor the place for superfluous words. . . . You have asked for peace. We are ready to give you peace. We shall present to you now a book which contains our conditions. . . . You will find us ready to give you any explanation you want, but we must say at the same time that this second Treaty of Versailles has cost us too much not to take on our side all the necessary precautions and guarantees that the peace shall be a lasting one.” He told the Germans “no oral discussion is to take place,” and gave them fifteen days to present a written response. When the head of the German delegation, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, was given the floor, he acknowledged Germany’s defeat and responsibility to make reparations, but rejected the assertion that Germany and its people were the only ones responsible for the war. “Such a confession in my mouth,” he said, “would be a lie.” In its written response, Germany objected to the proposed treaty on the grounds, among others, that it was contrary to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and that the reparations being discussed were far more than Germany would be able to pay. Italian Premier Orlando and Foreign Minister Sonnino, not wishing decisions to be reached without their participation, returned to the Peace Conference. Shortly afterward, Italian troops were put ashore at Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of Turkey. With the encouragement of the other members of the Supreme Council, Greece landed troops to contest the Italian claims. The Curtiss NC-4, a flying boat with a crew of five under the command of Lieutenant Commander Albert Read, completed the world’s first transatlantic flight, flying from New York to England in twenty-three days.
After two weeks of uncertainty and debate among the Allies about how to reply to the Germans’ lengthy objections to the draft Treaty, they chose to leave the Treaty substantially unchanged and gave the Germans a deadline to accept or reject it. Brockdorff-Rantzau urged his government not to sign, but the German National Assembly in Weimar declined to follow his advice and passed a resolution agreeing to the Treaty as written. While the Treaty was under consideration in Weimar, most of the ships of the German High Seas Fleet interned at Scapa Flow were scuttled by their crews. The Treaty ending the war with Germany was signed in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles on June 28, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Germany was represented by its new Foreign Minister Hermann Mueller. After the signing, President Wilson left Paris. In Brest he boarded the U.S.S. George Washington for his return voyage to the United States, where he faced a hostile Congress. British pilot John Alcock and his navigator Arthur Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight, flying a Vickers Vimy bomber from St. John’s, Newfoundland to County Galway, Ireland, in about sixteen hours. Bombs planted by anarchists exploded in cities across the United States, including one at the Washington, D.C. home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
For the first time in history, an American president appeared in person before the Senate to present a treaty for ratification. President Wilson told the Senators that the League of Nations was the “only hope for mankind,” and that if the United States rejected the Treaty of Versailles it would “break the heart of the world.” Former President William Howard Taft, a supporter of the League of Nations and the founder and president of the pro-ratification League to Enforce Peace (LEP), proposed some reservations, as did other prominent Republicans including 1916 presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes, former Secretary of State Elihu Root and Republican National Committee Chairman Will Hays. A few days later, facing criticism from League supporters, Taft supported an LEP resolution in support of unconditional ratification, but a mixed message had been sent. In the Senate, debate on the treaty began with a speech by Senator Claude Swanson (Dem., Va.) in support of ratification, and President Wilson began holding meetings with Republican senators in an effort to persuade them to support the treaty. On the last day of the month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began public hearings. Race riots broke out in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and a rapid increase in the cost of living led to labor unrest. In Toledo, Ohio, Jess Willard, the “great white hope” who had defeated Jack Johnson to win the heavyweight boxing championship in 1915, lost his title to challenger Jack Dempsey when he failed to answer the bell for the fourth round.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Lodge outlined five reservations he considered essential to ratification of the Treaty. Shortly afterward, at Lodge’s request, President Wilson agreed to meet with the Foreign Relations Committee. The meeting took place at the White House, but no progress was made toward agreement. The battle lines were inadvertently hardened the next day when resolutions introduced by Senator Key Pittman (Dem., Nev.) in an attempt to outline mutual understandings that had been reached regarding the “construction and interpretation” of the Treaty were disavowed by the “mild reservationists” who had attended the meeting. The failure to arrive at a satisfactory compromise emboldened the “irreconcilables” opposed to League membership, and a few days later the Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of an amendment to the Treaty that would return Shantung to China. The Committee approved three more amendments, including one to equalize the votes of the United States and the British Empire in the General Assembly. In response, the White House announced that the President would embark on a “swing around the circle,” a cross-country speaking tour to the west coast and back, with speeches planned in fifty cities in thirty days in support of the Treaty. Senator Philander Knox of Pennsylvania, an influential Republican who had served as Secretary of State under President Taft, joined the ranks of the “irreconcilables” opposing American membership in the League of Nations. An actors strike closed plays on Broadway. The territorial conflict between Hungary and Rumania ended in a Rumanian victory when the Rumanian Army occupied Budapest and Béla Kun fled to the Soviet Union.
President Wilson departed on his cross-country speaking tour. His first stop was a luncheon address in Columbus, Ohio, the home of Republican Senator Warren G. Harding, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a treaty opponent. That evening the President spoke in Indianapolis, Indiana, a state represented by two other Republican senators. His next stops were in St. Louis and Kansas City, reflecting the fact that one of Missouri’s senators, James A. Reed, was the most outspoken Democratic opponent of the Treaty. Speeches, sometimes two a day, followed at Des Moines, Omaha, Sioux Falls, Minneapolis and St. Paul. As his train crossed Montana, Wilson learned of William Bullitt’s testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee in which he revealed that Secretary of State Lansing had shared many of his own concerns about the Treaty and the League in a private conversation. Among other things, Lansing had called the League “entirely useless” and designed to serve the interests of England and France. In response to press inquiries, Lansing declined comment, sending a telegram to Wilson that reached him several days later in Los Angeles. He called Bullitt’s conduct “despicable and outrageous” but stopped short of an outright denial. Returning from the west coast, President Wilson issued a statement challenging the Senate to hold an up or down vote on the treaty without amendments or reservations. After struggling through a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, he collapsed from what was described by his physician Admiral Grayson as “nervous exhaustion.” The remainder of his speaking tour was cancelled, and he returned directly to Washington. During his absence, the Foreign Relations Committee forwarded the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate with thirty-eight amendments and four reservations, along with hearing transcripts and a report signed by Senator Lodge on behalf of the Republican majority, which stated that “the committee believes that the League as it stands will breed wars instead of securing peace.” In New York, General Pershing led the First Division in a victory parade on Fifth Avenue. In Boston, police officers went on strike. The mayor fired the police commissioner, but Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge reinstated him and mobilized the State Guard to police the city. A Steelworkers strike shut down steel mills throughout the country.
Shortly after returning to the White House, President Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke that forced the cancellation of a reception for the visiting King and Queen of Belgium. Admiral Grayson continued to refuse to provide information about the President’s condition beyond the initial announcement that he was suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Senator George Moses (Rep., N.H.) wrote in a letter to a constituent that the President was “a very sick man” who is “unable to undergo any experience which requires concentration of mind.” When Moses’ letter was leaked to the press, Grayson questioned the Senator’s medical qualifications and said he “must have information that I do not possess.” In the Senate several amendments to the Treaty were defeated, including amendments to limit voting by the British Empire and to delete the provision allowing Japanese occupation of Shantung. French President Poincare issued a declaration stating that, because Great Britain, Italy and France had ratified the Treaty of Versailles, France’s state of war with Germany was at an end. Labor unrest spread across multiple industries in the United States. A strike of east coast longshoremen paralyzed transatlantic and coastwise shipping for a week before it was called off following an ultimatum from the War Department. The steel industry strike that began in September led to violent confrontations between striking steelworkers, police and strikebreakers. Martial law was declared in Gary, Indiana and surrounding steel cities, and Army units under the command of General Leonard Wood were sent into the city to maintain order. Following cabinet meetings presided over by Treasury Secretary Carter Glass, a statement issued in the President’s name denounced a threatened coal strike as “calculated to create a disastrous fuel famine.” Attorney General Palmer went to court and obtained an injunction forbidding the United Mine Workers from going ahead with the strike, but when the strike deadline arrived at month’s end the miners walked off the job without further direction from the union’s national officers. The Volstead Act, enforcing nationwide prohibition pursuant to the newly adopted Eighteenth Amendment, was returned to Congress with a veto message objecting that the legislation included provisions, no longer appropriate, to continue enforcement of wartime prohibition. Congress overrode the veto the next day. In another First Amendment challenge to the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the Supreme Court in a 7-2 ruling affirmed the conviction of Russian immigrant and anarchist Jacob Abrams and several of his comrades for distributing leaflets condemning President Wilson for sending troops to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. The lasting impact of the decision, however, was not in the majority ruling but in the dissenting opinion of Justice Holmes, joined by Justice Louis Brandeis, in which he included a ringing affirmation of the bedrock principle of free speech, writing that the First Amendment is based on belief in the “free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” and insisting that “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” The Belgian King and Queen, before leaving the United States at the end of the month, visited the President in his bedroom at the White House. In baseball, the Cincinnati Redlegs defeated the heavily favored Chicago White Sox to win the best-of-nine World Series five games to three. Not long afterward the “Black Sox” scandal surfaced when a grand jury charged that some of the Chicago players had conspired with a gambling syndicate to lose the series intentionally.
For much of November the Senate was occupied debating and voting on a series of proposed amendments and reservations to the proposed Treaty of Versailles. A cloture rule, adopted after the Armed Ships Bill filibuster in 1917 but applied now for the first time, limited each senator’s time to speak, but there was no limit to the number of senators who could have their say. All the proposed amendments were defeated, as were most of the reservations other than fourteen proposed by the Foreign Relations Committee, referred to as the “Lodge reservations.” The LEP continued to send a mixed message, generally supporting the Treaty but voting down a resolution to oppose the Lodge Reservations. In doing so it followed the lead of two of its most prominent members, former President Taft and Harvard President Lawrence Lowell, who argued that some reservations might be necessary to get the Treaty ratified. After two meetings with the President, Senator Gilbert Hitchcock, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, summarized the President’s views in a draft letter, which he gave to Mrs. Wilson. She read it to the President, revised it as he directed, and returned it to Senator Hitchcock, who shared it with his fellow Democrats. Promptly leaked to the press, it said that in the President’s opinion “the resolution [for ratification with the Lodge reservations] does not provide for ratification, but rather for nullification of the treaty,” and that he “hope[s] the friends and supporters of the treaty will vote against the Lodge resolution of ratification.” The President’s firm rejection led to the Treaty’s defeat. Three final votes on consent to the Treaty were taken, two with the “Lodge reservations” attached and one with no reservations. All three failed to pass, and the Senate adjourned. President Wilson declined to make any statement in response to the Senate’s action, and refused even to see Senator Hitchcock when he called at the White House. Hitchcock and other treaty supporters resolved to bring the treaty before the Senate again in the next session of Congress which (as the Constitution provided prior to the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933) would begin the first Monday in December. The war on radicals continued as Attorney General Palmer, using authority given by the Espionage Act, ordered raids on the headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Seattle Union Record, organized labor’s newspaper voice in the Pacific Northwest. In Great Britain, Lady Astor became the first woman elected to the House of Commons. Born Nancy Langhorne in Virginia, she was the wife of William Waldorf Astor, a wealthy American who had moved to England where he became a British subject and member of the House of Lords. The Prince of Wales visited the United States and Canada, calling on President Wilson in the White House and touring New York City and the Military Academy at West Point, where he was greeted by the new superintendent, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur. The next week at the Polo Grounds, the Army-Navy football rivalry resumed after a two-year hiatus due to the war. Navy won 6-0.
As was the custom, President Wilson delivered the annual State of the Union message on the first day of the new session of Congress. For the first time in his presidency, he delivered the address in writing, his physical condition making it impossible for him to appear in person. Despite its importance, the message did not mention the Treaty of Versailles or the controversy over its ratification. This, in addition to the President’s refusal to see Senator Hitchcock a week earlier, increased concern in Congress about his ability to perform the duties of his office. When an American citizen was seized in Mexico, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appointed a subcommittee of two (Senator Hitchcock and Republican Senator Albert Fall) to visit the White House and discuss the matter with the President in person. After the meeting both senators judged him “perfectly capable of handling the situation,” a conclusion perhaps aided by the dim light in the President’s bedroom, by the artful arrangement of the bedclothes, and most importantly by the announcement during the meeting that the American citizen had been released. In the Senate, efforts to reach an accommodation regarding acceptable reservations continued until mid-December, when the White House issued a statement that seemed to foreclose any hope that the President might be willing to compromise. It said “the hope of the Republican leaders of the Senate that the President would presently make some move which will relieve the situation with regard to the treaty is entirely without foundation,” and insisted that the President has “no compromise or concession of any kind in mind,” but intends “that the Republican leaders of the Senate shall continue to bear the undivided responsibility for the fate of the treaty and the present condition of the world in consequence of that fate.” Still hoping to find an acceptable formula, Senator Hitchcock said he agreed with the President that concession or compromise is for the Senate, not the President, and that Senate supporters of the Treaty “will continue to seek a compromise between the Lodge reservations and those I offered last November.” Senator Lodge, the Republican leader, blocked a proposal by Senator Oscar Underwood (Dem., Ala.) to establish a conciliation committee of ten senators to reach a compromise. On the day before Christmas the White House announced that the nation’s railroads would be returned to private ownership on March 1. A Christmas Day parade on Fifth Avenue in support of amnesty for political prisoners was broken up by police. At the end of the month the President’s secretary Joseph Tumulty met separately with the President and Senator Hitchcock, leading to speculation that the new year might see the President become more involved in the ratification debate. General Leonard Wood gave permission for his name to be entered in the South Dakota Republican Presidential Primary. Viscount French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and former commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, escaped an assassination attempt by members of the Irish Republican Army as he was being driven through Phoenix Park in Dublin on his way to the Viceregal Lodge. One of the attackers was shot dead and two policemen were injured. In Paris, Premier Clemenceau won a strong vote of confidence after a speech outlining France’s foreign policy. He expressed his satisfaction with the military guarantees from Great Britain and the United States, predicted a solution to the disagreement with Italy about Fiume, and declared France’s firm opposition to the Soviet government in Russia, promising that “we will be the allies of all peoples attacked by Bolshevism.”