Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Senate Battle That Wasn't

One of my favorite examples of Presidential leadership, which I have used as an anecdote in many conversations but never written about here, is the story of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's navigation of the United Nations Charter through the United States Senate.

Now you may have never heard this story. After all, the Charter, which under the Constitution needed a 2/3 vote in the Senate to be ratified as a treaty, was approved by the Senate on a landslide vote of 89 to 2. What's incredible about that vote is not it's count but its context--just twenty-five years earlier the Senate had rejected President Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations after a long drawn-out legislative battle between the President and the Senate. In contrast, by the time the United Nations Charter came to a vote, it was a mere formality. While cultural and attitude changes can be partly attributed to the change, a lot of the credit belongs to the leadership of President Roosevelt.

But first, we need to examine the Senate's consideration of the League of Nations. The popular story is that the isolationists in the Senate blocked the treaty. And while this is not false, it is not entirely true either. Yes, there was a group of isolationist Senators (known as the "Irreconcilables") who were dead set against joining the League of Nations. However, they only could count between fourteen and sixteen Senators in their group, which was far below the thirty-two "no" votes needed to block the treaty. Even more startling is the fact that the remaining Senators all supported the League of Nations in some form--more than enough to ratify the Treaty. However, this support was also split into two groups, those who supported Wilson's version of the treaty as submitted to the Senate (which I shall call the Advocates) and a more cautions group, known as the Reservationists, who supported the Treaty in principle but wanted to ensure that the United States' sovereignty would be protected.

So what happened? President Wilson negotiated the Treaty without Senate involvement and then submitted it to the Senate for ratification. The Reservationists and Irreconcilables combined their votes in the Senate and attached a list of reservations to the Treaty. When the Treaty with the reservations was voted on, it failed by 39-55. Then a motion to consider the Treaty without reservations was voted on, which also failed by a vote of 38-53.

Although at first glance the two votes look almost identical, they could hardly be more different. On the vote of the Treaty with reservations, the Reservationists voted in support while the Irreconcilables and Advocates voted against (the Advocates were instructed by Wilson to oppose the Treaty with reservations). Then, on the Treaty without reservations, the Advocates voted in support while the Reservationists and Irreconcilables voted against. The result was that while the necessary two-thirds of Senators did support the general concept of the Treaty, at no time did more than one-third support a specific version. As the former Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations describes, “The thirty-five whose vote kept the Untied States out of the League included twenty-three of its most convinced supporters, acting in loyal obedience to the bidding of their President.” Wilson took an all-or-nothing approach to Senate ratification, and received nothing.

That backdrop is significant to the story of the United Nations Charter. President Roosevelt took specific steps to avoid Wilson's mistakes, and as a result, the Charter was ratified on a 89 to 2 Senate vote. Here is what Roosevelt did differently.

Instead of handing a pre-written treaty to the Senate, Roosevelt included Senators in the Charter drafting and negotiation process. But even more striking was how Roosevelt did this. At the time, the leading Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee was Senator Arthur Vandenberg. As a newspaper editor, Vandenberg had written against the League of Nations, and he was a strong isolationist when he joined the Senate. However, he had been wavering somewhat in that stance during World War II. All the same, Roosevelt knew that Vandenberg could make Senate ratification very difficult.

So Roosevelt selected Vandenberg to be on the delegation to San Francisco to draft and negotiate the Charter. That would be similar to President Obama asking Rep. Paul Ryan to be his budget czar or (even more aptly) selecting Sen. Rand Paul as a delegate to a United Nations meeting.

Senator Vandenberg was naturally suspicious of the offer. He told Roosevelt that he could accept only if it were understood that he was not committed to supporting the finished product in the Senate--a condition Roosevelt agreed to.

At the Conference, Vandenberg threw himself entirely into the writing of the Charter. However, he maintained his independence and at least once even used the threat of his Senate veto to influence the negotiation and drafting. The result was a Charter that he could and did support, an endorsement that neutralized the Senate opposition and made ratification a formality. And in a particularly ironic twist, the approved United Nations Charter looked an awful lot like the League of Nations Treaty with the proposed reservations.

This contrast between Wilson and Roosevelt illustrates effective leadership traits. Wilson thought he could simply hand the Senate a finished product and railroad it through ignoring sympathetic criticism. His inability to either consider his opponents motivation or compromise drove away those who supported the fundamental concept, resulting in defeat.

In contrast, Roosevelt neutralized his potential chief opponent, not by pushing him aside but by including him in the finished product. Roosevelt was able to take those on the fence, include and consider their concerns, and ultimately turn them into supporters. That this tactic worked is demonstrated by the lack of Senate resistance to the Charter's ratification. President Roosevelt's ability to concede small issues and incorporate his opposition meant that no fight was necessary.


Dana Fleming, The Role of the Senate in Treaty-Making: A Survey of Four Decades, The American Political Science Review 28, no. 4: 583-598 (1934).

James Gazell, Arthur H. Vandenberg, Internationalism, and the United Nations, Political Science Quarterly 88, no. 3: 375-394 (1973).

Leo Goss, The Charter of the United Nations and the Lodge Reservations, The American Journal of International Law 41, no. 3: 531-554 (1947).

W. Stull Holt, Treaties Defeated by the Senate: A Study of the Struggle between President and Senate over the Conduct of Foreign Relations (1933).

Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. (1997).

F.P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (1952).
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...