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On This Day: Senate Rejects Treaty of Versailles

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On Nov. 19, 1919, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles based primarily on objections to the League of Nations. The U.S. would never ratify the treaty or join the League of Nations.

The Rejection of the Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was the formal peace treaty that ended World War I between the Allies and Germany, their main enemy during the war. It included a provision, championed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, for the creation of an international body called the League of Nations.

The treaty was signed by representatives of each country in June 1919. For the U.S. to accept its conditions, however, it had to be ratified by Congress. Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican from Massachusetts, opposed the treaty, specifically the section regarding the League of Nations.

Lodge argued that the U.S. was giving up too much power under the League of Nations, so he drafted 14 reservations—to match Wilson’s Fourteen Points—that reduced the control the league would have over the U.S. There was also a faction of the Senate known as the “irreconcilables,” led by William Borah, who opposed the Treaty of Versailles with or without reservations.

On Nov. 19, 1919, the Senate considered the treaty. Borah gave a passionate two-hour speech in which he declared that by agreeing to the treaty, “We have forfeited and surrendered, once and for all, the great policy of ‘no entangling alliances’ upon which the strength of this Republic has been founded for one hundred fifty years.”

The Senate voted on the treaty, first on a version with the 14 Lodge Reservations. Wilson ordered his supporters to vote against that version and, with the irreconcilables also voting against it, it fell short of the two-thirds majority by a 55-39 vote. A second vote on a version without reservations ended in a similar 53-38 vote, this time with the Cabot Republicans and the irreconcilables forming the opposition.

The Senate reconsidered the treaty with reservations on March 19, 1920, but the vote, at 49-35, falling seven votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for approval. The New York Times reported, “After the session ended Senators of both parties united in declaring that in their opinion the treaty was now dead to stay dead.”

In place of the Treaty of Versailles, Congress passed a resolution, known as the Knox–Porter Resolution, in 1921 to formally end the war with Germany.

Background: Treaty of Versailles

Two months after the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers ended fighting in World War I, representatives from more than 20 of the Allies met in Paris for the Paris Peace Conference. The conference would draft four formal peace treaties to supplement the armistices signed by the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

No representatives from the defeated countries were invited to speak for their interests. The treaty with Germany, by far the most important, would be drafted mainly by the “Big Four” Allied leaders: United States President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.

France, which had been invaded by Germany four times since 1814, sought to impose strict penalties on its neighbor to ensure its own safety. Britain took a similar, but softer, stance. The idealistic Wilson pushed for his Fourteen Points, a collection of conditions intended to prevent the outbreak of war.

The treaty contained harsh punitive measures against Germany, forcing it to pay billions of dollars to repair war damage in Europe, give up more than 10 percent of its territory and all its foreign colonies, and accept restrictions on its military. But the most contentious part of the treaty was Article 231, known as the “war guilt clause,” which forced Germany to accept all financial and moral responsibility for the war.

Germany was presented with the treaty in May and given until June 23 to accept it or face the possibility of renewed fighting. Though some in the German government were open to continuing the war, the German military was not prepared for it. The Germans had little choice but to accept to the treaty.

On June 28, 1919, the five-year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, representatives from most of the Allied nations gathered in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The significance of the venue was lost on no one; it was “the same imperial hall where the Germans humbled the French so ignominiously” at the close of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, noted The Associated Press.

First World provides the full text of the Treaty of Versailles.

Historical Context: World War I

World War I, originally known as “The Great War,” began in the spring of 1914 and raged through Europe until November 1918. The war cost 9 million lives and billions of dollars in damages. World War I demonstrated the magnitude and destructive power of modern warfare.

PBS’ “The Great War” and the BBC’s “World War One” describe the battles and events of the war and provide commentary from noted historians.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History gives detailed accounts of the U.S. Army’s action during the war, along with a prologue explaining the war prior to U.S. involvement.

First World provides a battle-by-battle history of the war.

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