America 1919-1941 In this module you will study

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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!


How Did the American Government encourage Isolationism?


Top of Form

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

HL Mencken (1923)

Tariff, noun,

1.  a list or table of duties or customs payable on the importation or export of goods.

2.  a duty on any particular kind of goods.

Hutchinson Educational Encyclopedia Dictionary (2000)


The new government of Warren Harding brought in two developments which are often attributed to 'isolationism' (although they had other causes). The first was to increase tariffs on foreign imports to protect American industry. The second was to restrict immigration.






1.  The Fordney-McCumber Act, 1922

Wilson believed in low tariffs.   He had reduced tariffs in 1913, and refused to increase them.  


Demand was growing, however, for higher tariffs (Source B).   As soon as he became President, Warren Harding passed an Emergency Tariff (May 1921) to increase duties on food imports, and in 1922 Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff.   This had two principles:


a.  'Scientific tariff': this linked tariffs to the wages in the country of export.   If wages in, say Italy, were very low, then Italian goods were given a proportionately higher tariff.   This negated the effect of lower wages in competitor countries.

b.  'American Selling Price': this linked tariffs to the price of American goods, not to the cost of production.   A German company might be able to produce, say, a certain chemical for $60, but if the selling price in America was $80, and the US tariff was 50%, the tariff would be $40.   This meant that foreign imports were ALWAYS more expensive than American-produced goods, however cheaply they had been made.


The Fordney-McCumber Act established the highest tariffs in history, with some duties up to 400% and an average of 40%.


An anti-tariff American cartoon of the time, linking the tariff to isolationism.   The French man is saying: 'But Monsieur, where does it end'.



In the long-run, the Fordney-McCumber Act damaged the American economy, because other countries retaliated by putting up their duties and stopping American exports.   However, for the moment, America was a huge new country, and there was plenty of demand at home.

Source A

If ever there was a time when Americans had anything to fear from foreign competition, that time has passed. If we wish to have Europe settle her debts, governmental or commercial, we must be prepared to buy from her.

Woodrow Wilson, speaking in March 1921

Wilson had just vetoed the Emergency Tariff Bill, just before he handed over the Presidency to Harding.

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