One final disappointment awaited Wilson on his return from Europe. He viewed the new League of Nations as the war’s finest legacy. But many Americans feared that membership in the League would commit the United States to an open-ended involvement in the affairs of other countries. Wilson asserted that the United States could not save the world without being continually involved with it. His opponents, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, argued that the League threatened to deprive the country of its freedom of action.

Interrupting the Ceremony, a 1918 cartoon from the Chicago Tribune, depicts Senate opponents of the Versailles Treaty arriving just in time to prevent the United States from becoming permanently ensnared in “foreign entanglements” through the League of Nations.

A considerable majority of senators would have accepted the treaty with “reservations” ensuring that the obligation to assist League members against attack did not supercede the power of Congress to declare war. As governor of New Jersey and as president, Wilson had proved himself to be a skilled politician capable of compromising with opponents. In this case, however, convinced that the treaty reflected “the hand of God,” Wilson refused to negotiate with congressional leaders. In October 1919, in the midst of the League debate, Wilson suffered a serious stroke. Although the extent of his illness was kept secret, he remained incapacitated for the rest of his term. In effect, his wife, Edith, headed the government for the next seventeen months. In November 1919 and again in March 1920, the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty.

American involvement in World War I lasted barely nineteen months, but it cast a long shadow over the following decade—and, indeed, the rest of the century. In its immediate aftermath, the country retreated from international involvements. But in the long run, Wilson’s combination of idealism and power politics had an enduring impact. His appeals to democracy, open markets, and a special American mission to instruct the world in freedom, coupled with a willingness to intervene abroad militarily to promote American interests and values, would create the model for twentieth-century American international relations.

On its own terms, the war to make the world safe for democracy failed. Even great powers cannot always bend the world to their purposes. The war brought neither stability nor democracy to most of the world, and it undermined freedom in the United States. It also led to the eclipse of Progressivism. Republican candidate Warren G. Harding, who had no connection with the party’s Progressive wing, swept to victory in the presidential election of 1920. Harding’s campaign centered on a “return to normalcy” and a repudiation of what he called “Wilsonism.” He received 60 percent of the popular vote. Begun with idealistic goals and grand hopes for social change, American involvement in the Great War laid the foundation for one of the most conservative decades in the nation’s history.


1. Explain the role of the United States in the global economy by 1920.

2. Explain how building the Panama Canal reflected American global expansion as well as U.S. racial attitudes.

3. What did President Wilson mean by “moral imperialism,” and what measures were taken to apply this to Latin America?

4. Describe how World War I was a blow to the ideals of a “superior” Western civilization and to global socialism.

5. Why did Progressives see in the expansion of governmental powers in wartime an opportunity to reform American society?

6. What were the goals and methods of the Committee on Public Information during World War I?

7. Give some wartime examples of coercive patriotism and describe their effects.

8. Identify the goals of those pressing for global change in 1919, and of those who opposed them.

9. What were the major causes—both real and imaginary—of the Red Scare?

10. Describe how World War I and the U.S. failure to join the League of Nations sowed the seeds of future twentieth century wars.


1. Explain how the Committee on Public Information supported the war effort by promoting freedom and democracy abroad while there were restrictions on both in the United States.

2. What were the effects of the war effort on the freedoms of people in the United States?

3. What were the experiences of the following groups during the war: German-Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Asian-Americans, and African Americans?

4. What were the major arguments made by W. E. B. Du Bois in his efforts to expand civil rights in America?

5. Explain how Wilsonian ideals and rhetoric spread around the globe, promoting calls for freedom and independence among colonial peoples.

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