Why Didn’t the United States Sign the Treaty of Versailles?

The United States did not sign the Treaty of Versailles because groups of senators opposed some of the treaty’s conditions. As a result, the Senate did not have the two-thirds vote necessary to accept it.

From 1914 until 1918, most of Europe engaged in World War I, a conflict that started with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia. The war resulted in the deaths of 16 million people and the destruction of buildings and land across Europe due to technological advancements of the machine gun, poisonous gas and airplanes. By the time the Germans surrendered on November 11, 1918, world leaders wanted to implement policies designed to prevent this type of conflict from happening again. They met to discuss this plan at the Paris Peace Conference.

The Paris Peace Conference In January 1919, twenty-seven countries met in Versailles to negotiate peace terms in the wake of World War I. The result was the Treaty of Versailles, a document that officially ended the conflict between the Allies and Central Powers. United States President Woodrow Wilson attended the conference as one of the “Big Four” leaders, and he argued for an end to secret diplomacy and the formation of the League of Nations to settle international disputes. The other members of the “Big Four:” Great Britain, France and Italy instead wanted Germany to pay reparations and wanted to divide Germany’s colonies among themselves.

Opposition in the Senate Although the other leaders largely ignored Wilson’s Fourteen Points and left his ideas out of the final version of the treaty, Wilson did present it to the U.S. Senate for ratification. There he encountered opposition from two groups of senators. The Reservationists led by Henry Cabot Lodge agreed to approve the treaty under certain conditions, especially the removal of Article X. This gave the League of Nations the power to declare war, which would circumvent one of the powers explicitly given to Congress under the U.S. Constitution. Senator Lodge further argued that Article X may force the United States to impose an economic embargo or to sever diplomatic relations with other countries should the League of Nations decide to do so. The Irreconcilables rejected the entire treaty and refused to agree to it.

Wilson, suffering from a debilitating stroke and failing health, chose not to debate with the Senate. As a result, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles by a vote of 39 to 55, marking the first time in U.S. history that the Senate rejected a peace treaty. The United States also never joined the League of Nations, despite the fact that it was the president’s idea. In August 1921, the United States signed a separate peace treaty with Germany, formally ending hostilities with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian government.

Public Perception of the Treaty of Versailles The American public also had divided opinions about the Treaty of Versailles. German Americans felt the treaty punished Germany harshly. In addition to giving up land and paying reparations, Germany had to restrict its military by reducing it to 100,000 men. The country also had to stop production of armored vehicles, chemical weapons, submarines and airplanes. Similarly, Italian Americans thought Italy should receive the territory promised to the country at the Secret Treaty of London.