- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

By John Milton Cooper Jr.
Cambridge University Press, $34.95, 454 pages, illus.

In the wake of the unprecedented upheaval wrought by the World War I, American foreign policy makers found themselves embroiled in a debate that would largely define the position of the United States in the international scene for the next generation, and, indeed, bear considerable influence throughout the 20th century. This debate was over the American membership in the League of Nations, and, more broadly, the Wilsonian vision of international order.
John Milton Cooper, Jr.'s new book, "Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations," offers an engaging and comprehensive examination of this unique chapter in American history. Mr. Cooper, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and established Wilsonian scholar, has drawn on an exhaustive array of manuscript collections from major and minor figures in the League fight, as well as an impressive synthesis of the substantial body of secondary material that has been produced on the subject.
Woodrow Wilson returned from Paris in February of 1919 charged with the daunting task of selling a hostile congress and an uncertain populace on the concept of an international peacekeeping force. By making every effort to keep power in his own hands, Wilson had alienated the powerful Republican leadership in the Senate. In selecting the delegation that would accompany him to the peace negotiations, Wilson ignored obvious choices such as Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and former secretary of war and state Elihu Root, both of whom could have bridged the partisan gap, but instead became the chief voices of opposition to Wilson in the League fight. Instead, Wilson selected a group of lesser known but closely allied figures who were derided as glorified yes-men, cronies who provided perfunctory support while Wilson steered the course of negotiations in accordance with his own, uncompromising vision.
Central to this vision was Article X of the Draft Covenant, the term given to the proposal for the League. Article X was at once the singularly Wilsonian element of the Draft Covenant and the most intractable obstacle to its ratification. By vaguely guaranteeing the independence and territorial integrity of nations, Article X called for a new system of international enforcement that would commit the United States to foreign obligations and constitute a radical departure from its traditional position of isolationism. Opponents to that controversial clause, and there were many, found precedent in George Washington's farewell address and the Monroe Doctrine, both untouchable staples of American foreign policy that had mapped out its isolationist course.
Mr. Cooper has written a lucid and eminently readable account of the intricate machinations undertaken by the principal actors in the League fight. Through endless debate that fell along essentially partisan lines, the chief opposition faction emerged with a series of reservations to the League as Wilson presented it. The Reservationists, led by Lodge and Root, raised numerous objections to the Draft Covenant, the most important being that which arose over Article X. Arrived at through tortured compromise among reservationist leaders of different stripes, their objection completely undermined Wilson's signature stamp on the treaty by stating in no uncertain terms that "The United States assumes no obligation under the provisions of Article X to preserve the territorial integrity or political independence of any other country."
This sort of intransigence cut right to the heart of the League fight "the conundrum that would dog every effort at compromise on Article X ." Mr. Cooper argues that this power struggle between the executive and legislative branches so characteristic of the League fight was a matter of constitutional inevitability.
For by vesting each with jurisdiction in foreign policy, the framers "had laid out a field for unending contention ."
That the League became an essentially partisan issue didn't help matters any. To his credit, however, Mr. Cooper distances himself from other, more simplistic interpretations of the League fight that have decried the partisan nature of the conflict as a central weakness of it principal actors. A realist to the last, the author acknowledges that bipartisanship is uncharacteristic of great debate, and that it typically entails one side throwing in the towel. Those scholars who have focused on the partisan aspects of the conflict, what Mr. Cooper calls the circumstantial argument, have overlooked the "essentially adversarial nature of the American two-party system," and have tautologically blamed partisans for acting like partisans, a charge he maintains makes no more sense than blaming the weather.
Most of the circumstantialists have also not paid adequate attention to Wilson's physical condition. On Oct. 2, 1919, shortly after having completed a major speaking tour to educate and sell the public on the League of Nations, Wilson suffered a major stroke. For all of the individualism and secrecy he had exhibited in the League fight to that point, the possibility for compromise grew ever more remote as these personality traits were exacerbated.
Mr. Cooper contends that rather than the egocentric messianism with which Wilson has been charged, the tangible result of the stroke was a strengthening of his promethean vision. The analogy is an apt one, and it also betrays Mr. Copper's sympathy for his subject. Like Prometheus, Wilson struggled nobly to bring to earth what was well beyond his province. While his fight resulted in a stalemate that he could have broken at almost any point by opening himself to compromise, Wilson as Prometheus was fundamentally unable to make even the most minor concession. This promethean dimension, for which Wilson has been much maligned, Mr. Cooper reminds us, was integral to his personality throughout his scholarly and political career, and was only exaggerated by the stroke.
However, the author does concede that as a man of compromised faculties, for Wilson to assume the promethean charge of personally reshaping the international political landscape, massively and permanently overhauling America's role within that landscape and inventing a formula for lasting peace and ensuring its enforcement was a trifle unwise.
Mr. Cooper has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of Woodrow Wilson, both as man and myth, and has thoroughly fleshed out a political and diplomatic narrative that will not be easily or soon surpassed. If any charge can be leveled against him, it may be that he has erred on the side of caution by refusing to step onto the murky ledge of theoretical history. But his conclusion that Wilson's defeat in the League fight did, in fact, break the heart of the world, is not rooted in hypotheticals. While he briefly synopsizes three alternative scenarios based on semi-probable contingencies, Mr. Cooper wisely avoids the trap of self-indulgent speculation to produce a work of substantial merit.

Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer living in Virginia.

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