How Did America React to the end of World War I?


What did isolationism mean in practice?


Under the US Constitution, peace treaties have to be agreed by the Senate -- one of the elected houses of the US Congress (Parliament).   The Senate was isolationist and would not agree to the Treaty of Versailles because it involved joining the League of Nations.   The Treaty, into which Wilson had out so much, was rejected.   The USA never joined the League of Nations.

Allan Todd, Collins Total Revision (2002)




There is a traditional explanation of this, that America didn't join the League of Nations because it was 'isolationist'.   This is the simplistic view that you will find in most textbooks.


You can add to this more specific knowledge about the political battle between Wilson and his opponents, which ended in the rejection of the Treaty by the Senate.


You also need to know, however, that this is a very old-fashioned view of events, and the modern view of historians say that neither Americans not the Senate were really isolationist AT ALL, and that the Treaty was lost rather by Wilson's stupidity.






Basic narrative account

A brilliant explanation by Ben Walsh of why America refused to join

Sources showing why America refused to join


  Speeches by American politicians




- Giles Hill's podcast on American isolationism



1The Traditional Explanation

The American people had not wanted to go into World War One - America did not join in until 1917 - and when the war ended they rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.   This is called 'isolationism' - the desire to keep out of foreign affairs.


American people were isolationist because [IMAGE]:


a.  Isolationism:

America regarded itself as the 'New World' and did not want anything to do with the 'Old World', which they saw as being corrupt, old-fashioned and full of dangerous ideas like Communism.   When Wilson went to the Versailles Conference, he was the first US President EVER to visit Europe.   Most Americans liked the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, that America should stay out of Europe's affairs, and Europe should stay out of America's.


b.  Money:

American businessmen were worried about the COST of the League - paying taxes to pay for its organisation, and losing trade if it decided to impose sanctions.


c.  American soldiers:

100,000 soldiers had died in the First World War, and many Americans couldn't see why American soldiers should die keeping peace elsewhere in the world.


d.  German immigrants:

Many Americans were immigrants from Europe and they still had ties there.   So German immigrants HATED the Treaty of Versailles just as much as the Germans in Germany.   (Also, many Irish immigrants HATED Britain so much they didn't want to have anything to do with a League of Nations with the British in it).


e.  Empires:

The American colonies had once been part of an empire, but the American revolution was about freedom from empire.   The Treaty of Versailles hadn't abolished the British Empires (indeed, it had added Mandates to them), and many Americans did not want to be part of a Treaty or a League with upheld the British Empire.



Source A

We are not internationalists, we are American nationalists.

Theodore Roosevelt, speaking in 1919

Roosevelt was a former President of the US.


Source B

Senator Borah's speech

We have entangled ourselves with all European concerns … dabbling in their affairs.   In other words, we have surrendered, once and for all, the great policy of "no entangling alliances" upon which this Republic has been founded for 150 years.


[Acting according to the decisions of a League] is in conflict with the right of our people to govern themselves free from all restraint of foreign powers....


A real republic can not commingle with the discordant and destructive forces of the Old World.   You can not yoke a government of liberty to a government whose first law is that of force.  India, sweltering in ignorance and burdened with inhuman taxes after more than one hundred years of dominant rule; Egypt, trapped and robbed of her birthright; Ireland, with 700 years of sacrifice for independence – this is the atmosphere in and under which we are to keep alive our belief in democracy.   

Senator Borah (19 November 1919).

Borah, a Republican Senator and isolationist, was speaking in the Senate debate abut  the Treaty.   India, Egypt and Ireland were in the British Empire



Isolationism/ Money/ American soldiers/ German immigrants/ Empire - can you see any of these prejudices influencing Senator Borah's speech in Source B?


2.  The Political Battle

  • America was a democracy - Wilson could not sign the peace himself, but had to ask Congress to agree to the Treaty of Versailles he had negotiated.

  • However, in the 1918 Elections the Republican Party had won a majority in the Senate, and Wilson was a Democrat.

  • The Republican opposition to Wilson was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge - he and Wilson hated each other.

  • Wilson set off on a nation-wide tour to drum up support for the Treaty (see his speech at Pueblo in favour of the League, September 1919), but the overwork caused a stroke and he had to stop.

  • He went to Congress - the first American president to do for 130 years - but could not read his speech properly.

  • The Treaty was defeated in Congress in November 1919.

  • James Cox (Wilson's successor as leader of the Democrats) campaigned for the Treaty in the 1919 election, but his Republican opponent Warren Harding fought under the slogan ‘return to normalcy’ and won the election.

  • The Treaty of Versailles was finally rejected by the Senate in March 1920.



Source C

The stage is set, the destiny disclosed.   It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God.   We cannot turn back.   The light streams on the path ahead, and nowhere else.

Wilson's speech to Congress (10 July 1919)


Source D

Contemptible, narrow, selfish, poor little minds that never get anywhere but run around in a circle and think they are going somewhere.

Woodrow Wilson, speaking in 1919

Wilson was describing what he thought about those people who wanted to stay out of world affairs.


3.  The Modern View

Modern historians deny that America rejected the Treaty because of isolationism.

They point out that:

  • Americans were NOT isolationist - opinion polls at the time showed that more than 80% of Americans supported the idea of a league of nations.

  • Only a dozen Senators were out-and-out isolationists like Senator Borah.

  • Lodge was NOT an isolationist.   He believed in a league of nations and he wanted to build up an overseas US empire.   What he and the Republicans wanted were 14 changes in the Treaty (the '14 reservations').

  • Many Democrats could have accepted the 14 changes.


So why then did the Treaty fail - simply, say modern historians, because of Wilson stupidity.

  • He WOULD not compromise

  • He would not accept ANY change.

  • And in the end - rather than accept the 14 Reservations - Wilson's 23 supporters voted AGAINST the Treaty and destroyed it!


Two modern historians argue that Wilson, not isolationism, killed the Treaty.