- - Wednesday, July 8, 2015


It looks as though President Obama won’t get an agreement with Iran by Thursday, one day before the time for Congress to review the controversial deal is extended from 30 to 60 days. The historic irony in this development is that on July 10, 1919, another president, Woodrow Wilson, was also determined to get a Capitol Hill approval on an equally controversial document, the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, so much so that he personally appeared before the entire Senate.

No chief executive in American history had ever done that to get a treaty ratified, but Wilson was cocksure that the strategy would work. Returning from Paris only two days before after weeks of negotiation and recognizing Republican opposition, the president thought his impassioned rhetoric would carry the day. So with the Capitol Police and Secret Service cordoning off the Senate chamber, Wilson walked to the podium carrying the massive 264-page document under his arm, no matter that he was fatigued and ill, presumably the victim sometime earlier of a slight stroke.

For 40 minutes the president spoke, using small note cards that he had difficulty reading. On occasion, he repeated himself and stopped to rethink what he had said, although the official records of the presentation are flawless. “The treaty,” he began, “constitutes nothing less than a world settlement. It would not be possible for me either to summarize or to construe its manifold provisions in an address which must of necessity be something less than a treatise.”

But there was much complicated minutiae that followed in terms of various issues and countries, except for the provision of the treaty creating an international body that was conspicuous for its unquestionable clarity: “The League of Nations,” according to Wilson, “was not merely an instrument to adjust and remedy old wrongs under a new treaty of peace; it was the only hope for mankind.”

As for the entire package, Wilson said in conclusion, “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world? The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving but by the hand of God who led us into this way.” The Senate was scarcely moved, however, rendering only polite applause.

On Aug. 19, the president even appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to make his case, but it was clear that Wilson’s belief that the treaty was God-given was flawed. On the one hand, the treaty was based on two conflicting foundations, a harsh treatment of Germany and Wilson’s highfalutin Fourteen Points that emphasized unrealistic goals, such as freedom of the seas, abolition of secret treaties and self-determination of nations. On the latter point, Wilson even reneged, allowing millions of Chinese to be controlled by Japan so as to get Japan’s support for the treaty. But he insisted on no compromising by the Senate on Article 10 regarding the league that would have mandated that members defend one another’s territory against aggression (Congress wanted to have the final word on such matters).

Rebuffed by the Senate, Wilson went on a nationwide speaking tour, hoping to change minds. But the campaign was exhausting. In Colorado, Wilson collapsed and suffered a stroke a few days later. He remained ill and partially paralyzed for the rest of his presidency. Twice the treaty came up for a vote before the Senate but never received the requisite support necessary for ratification.

Georges Clemenceau, prime minister of France, recognized early on in the negotiations that Wilson’s effort was, like his professorial background, really academic, and that nations would do what they wanted when it came to their own self-interest. He purportedly concluded, “God gave us Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gave us Fourteen Points. We shall see.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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