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We the Teachers

The League of Nations Begins, the United States Abstaining

January 14, 2020

by Jennifer D. Keene

Frank Graham Cootes, Official Presidential Portrait of Woodrow Wilson, 1913. Wikimedia Commons.

One hundred years ago this month, forty-one nations became founding members of the League of Nations. The United States was not among them, even though U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was the League’s biggest champion. Senate Republicans opposed to the League had argued persuasively that membership would permanently entangle the United States in Europe’s squabbles and threaten the nation’s unilateral control of its own foreign policy. The United States never joined the League of Nations.

Wilson had fought strenuously for a different result. In the fall of 1919, Wilson traveled around the country trying to rally public support for the League of Nations. The League was the best hope for future world peace, Wilson maintained, dismissing Republican “propaganda” as fear-mongering.

During World War II, many Americans regretted the nation’s decision to spurn the League. The United States subsequently took a leading role in creating the United Nations, which formally replaced the League of Nations in 1946.

The 100th anniversary of the League’s founding presents an apt moment to take a closer look at Wilson’s defense of the League and the principle of collective security. This September 25, 1919 speech in Pueblo, Colorado was the last public address Wilson delivered before suffering from a stroke that left him ill and out of the public eye for the rest of his presidency.


. . . But, you say, “We have heard that we might be at a disadvantage in the League of Nations.” Well, whoever told you that either was deliberately falsifying or he had not read the Covenant of the League of Nations. I leave him the choice. I want to give you a very simple account of the organization of the League of Nations and let you judge for yourselves. It is a very simple organization. The power of the League, or rather the activities of the league, lie in two bodies. There is the council, which consists of one representative from each of the principal allied and associated powers-that is to say, the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, along with four other representatives of smaller powers chosen out of the general body of the membership of the League. The council is the source of every active policy of the League, and no active policy of the League can be adopted without a unanimous vote of the council. That is explicitly stated in the Covenant itself. Does it not evidently follow that the League of Nations can adopt no policy whatever without the consent of the United States? . . .

Read more of Wilson’s speech here.

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