To understand the individual American’s hesitation regarding the Treaty of Versailles one should remember the warning voiced by George Washington in his farewell address to the nation, ”The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible”. Though few Americans’ took umbrage with Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, many felt joining the League of Nations would encourage an already interventionist attitude toward European politics.
America’s response to the Treaty of Versailles was one that triggered significant strife within the political arena of the United States Government and its citizens. The treaty was perceived by Americans and Europeans to be the end of World War I; however, this treaty caused a great deal of animosity amongst the European nations paving a path to hell culminating in World War II. I shall analyze the American attitude toward the Treaty of Versailles and how this treaty created an antagonism and animosity between the President, the Senate, and the people of the United States.
I will discuss how the American public perceived the ongoing Peace Conference and America’s inability to sign the treaty that would include United States involvement into the League of Nations. Just as cartoons, news paper articles, legal documents, and film footage of events created the atmosphere of patriotic necessity to join in the Great War; these same tools were used in America to diffuse support for the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Picture shows were a new form of technology permitting the mass population access to visual media which greatly influenced American understanding of current events.
A newsreel from 1919 shows the original footage of the first day of the Peace Conference at Versailles, France. It shows the Allied delegates arriving in their impressive cars, driving up to the main entrance of the palace on a beautiful day. The footage then shows the German delegates entering from a darken hallway, making their way to the Hall of Mirrors. Due to the camera angle shadows are effectively used making the Germans appear as an ominous presence. The facial expressions on the Germans’ escort’s faces give the audience the impression of distrust toward the Germans.
This film never shows any of the German delegation interacting with the other delegates. The film reflects Germany’s isolation. Whereas the other thirty two nations involved in the Peace Conference are seen in pure daylight, working arduously toward the completion of the Treaty (which was concluded on June 28, 1919). After viewing this news reel, Americans were left with no doubt that it was Germany, alone, that engineered the Great War. However, this was not sufficient to convince the American people to support the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1919 newspapers were the primary source of information for Americans. Beyond relating the news of the day, obits, social gatherings, and editorials, newspapers printed cartoons. Cartoons were a great favorite amongst the general readership and always reflected the political attitude and party membership of the paper’s owner. While in Paris to oversee the execution of his Fourteen Points and the establishment of the League of Nations, President Wilson’s actions were reported by every major American newspaper.
Woodrow Wilson was an armchair statesman hindered by his cold and impersonal personality. He was so convinced by the validity of his own ideas he either ignored or dismissed the merit of other diplomats’ ideas. The League of Nations, as Wilson called it, was an idea that he put forth stating representatives from each nation should join the League giving each nation the opportunity to address grievances before all the members of the League, finding diplomatic solutions before the grievances could result in war.
Wilson sold this idea to Europe; he forgot, however, to sell this idea to the American people. Jay Ding’s cartoon, “The Doorknob Has Hatched” from the New York Tribune in January 1919, addresses Wilson’s “League of Nations” as a hen, named “Peace Conference”. Peace Conference informs her farmer she needs something difficult to hatch as a doorknob that she supposedly laid has now hatched. The excited chic popping up with the wording “League of Nations” across its chest follows its mother. Ding is making the statement that a hen cannot lay doorknob and if the public believed so they were mad. The chick or baby of the Peace conference would have to be a product of an unnatural occurrence by political standards and shows Ding’s opinion in the hopelessness of having the United States government ratify the treaty, thus influencing the public opinion against the League of Nations.
Another newspaper cartoon by Nelson Harding shows the disapproval the America public felt towards the ratification of this treaty. One can see this bias within Harding’s cartoon, “Well, I’m Thankful I Have My Health!. The cartoonist wishes to show the public Uncle Sam sitting in a chair, sick, and in poor health. One arm is bandaged and reads “Cost of Living” while the other arm states “Prohibition. ” One foot is named “Strikes, Bolshevism,” and the other foot is soaking in a tub labeled “Treaty Complications. ” The people of America had a plethora of concerns as represented in this cartoon; they saw the Treaty’s ratification as one more issue they wanted nothing to do with. As if the American citizenry were living Washington’s warning the nation wanted to deal with Europe in trade matters only.
Irish and German Americans, which comprised a large percentage of the Democratic Party, were adamantly opposed to the Treaty of Versailles and President Wilson for considering it. The nation was quickly changing its attitudes from non-interventionists, into activists and participants, evolving into adamant isolationists and the cartoons of the time reflected this mood and attitude of America. The cartoon was used to show the views of Americans’ perspective on how the treaty was a hindrance to the economic and political health of the nation.
Another cartoon by Kirby, Refusing to Give the Lady a Seat, depicted America’s Senate blocking the acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles by depicting a beautiful young woman from having a seat in a train car. This was the only form of pro treaty signing cartoon found within this project. The artist is warning Americans not to become isolationists. This cartoon subtly asks the America public to realize the importance of this treaty; if it is not to be ratified then America has given up on all hope for future peace. The artist requests Americans join the League of Nations as proposed by Wilson.
One of the most iconic cartoons from the Peace Conference is, “Curious! I seem to hear a child weeping! ” by Will Dyson published in May of 1919. 7 Dyson seems to be able to view the future as a child crying in the corner which is labeled “Class 1940”, an older gentleman is looking at the child with no concern what-so-ever for its welfare. Simply, the child will become an adult and in 1940 and the armistice will expire and war will commence once more due to the continuation of the failures of the Treaty of Versailles. After the election of 1918, the Senate was controlled by the Republican Party led by Henry Cabot Lodge.
The Senate was so factionalized concerning the Treaty of Versailles it could not muster the two-thirds vote required to pass a treaty. The Republicans placed amendments and reservations on the Treaty infuriating President Wilson. The President launched a nationwide speaking tour which terminated in his having a stroke. For Wilson it was all or nothing. He refused to accept the watered-down version of the League Covenant insisted upon by the isolationist faction of the Senate.
Wilson directed twenty of his supporters in the Senate to vote against the treaty. It was defeated. Propaganda plays both ways and in this circumstance propaganda against the Treaty won out. Over the span of one year, the public opinion of the Treaty of Versailles was viewed as too problematic and undesirable. The diverse ethnic groups within America could not see the validity of the Treaty. On March 19, 1919 the Senate struck the ratification of the treaty, including the League of Nations acceptance, down. The New York Times reported Senator Lodge’s comment, “I would think that after a year of debate we might ask for an end of this sort of thing”, displaying his and the nation’s want of being done with this topic once and for all. 10 Americans wished to get on with their lives’ and viewed the war as “over there” and not here as reflected in the Senate’s vote.
On August 19, 1919, President Wilson asked key Senate members to the White House to readdress the treaty of peace with Germany and hopefully give new life to the League of Nations proposal of America’s entrance. 1 The meeting was disappointing for Wilson because he could only speculate what the peace treaty would entail. The Versailles Treaty would be the basis of all other treaties with other nations and without knowing all aspects, the Senate was reluctant to revisit the ratification of the peace treaty. 12 The meeting was adjourned and all were dissatisfied with the outcome as well as the American public who wanted more than anything to have this behind them.
In conclusion, the American public never came to accept the Treaty of Versailles as long as it was attached to the creation of the League of Nations. It was the media that created the attitude for war and it was the media that discouraged the Treaty’s ratification in America. Americans were given the negatives about the Treaty and the League of Nations but not the positives. Wilson never understood the importance of explaining either the Treaty or the League of Nations to the American people; this act of hubris proved to be fatal for his dreams of a world at peace.