Main content

A Plea to the Senate - 15 October 1999

There was a very touching article in our leading newspaper the other day, a remarkable piece, possibly unique, which grew remarkable as the day of reckoning approached - that's to say the issue which the Senate of the United States was about to face.

The piece was more of a plea than an article, a begging letter from the Honourables Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair. The first time that anyone - any historian or politician could remember - when the three leading heads of government in Europe begged something of the United States Senate.

The burden of their sad song was really just urging the Senate to say yes to a treaty which its proponents believe to be crucial to the physical safety of the world. Just as the sponsors of the Versailles Treaty 80 years ago believed that that treaty, ending the First World War and setting up a League of Nations, would greatly help preserve the peace of Europe.

When, in 1919, President Wilson sailed back home after his triumphant progress throughout Europe, he was the virtual author of the peace treaty. When the three government leaders - Lloyd George, Signor Orlando, Georges Clemenceau - saw him off they mimicked the joy and grief of disciples parting from an holy man.

By the way - and it's important to the developing plot - none of them liked him. But they all knew that the success of the infant League of Nations would depend a great deal on its care and feeding by the United States. They were confident, as Wilson was, that the Treaty would pass the United States Senate.

A little detail to which Europeans didn't pay much attention at the time, namely a firm clause in the constitution of the United States, ratified in 1787. It laid down in article two, which is about the powers of the president - "He shall have power by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senate present concur."

Well President Wilson assured his fellow leaders it was bound to happen.

In New York he received a robust welcome but once he introduced the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate he was shocked to find himself reviled as a leader about to trade American sovereignty to an international body that might well include the detested new Bolshevik government of Europe.

Moreover President Wilson, though worshipped by the people of Europe, was, as I hinted, secretly disliked by its leaders.

Lloyd George privately said - "We had looked for a statesman and were landed with a clergyman."

John Maynard Keynes called him a blind and deaf Don Quixote.

Much worse for him and for the fate of the League of Nations, President Wilson was openly detested by the man who, in this cause, carried most weight in the Congress - the chairman of the senate foreign relations committee - who would have and has today really the last word about whether to provide the necessary Senate consent to any foreign treaty.

He was a cultivated and imperious descendant of Boston's oldest families - Senate Henry Cabot Lodge. When it became clear that Lodge was moving the Senate toward rejecting the treaty and taking the country along with him, Wilson took a train tour of the nation to spout his cause and begged to have the treaty ratified.

Steaming away in the Rockies he suffered a massive cerebral thrombosis and for the better part of two years he lay in the White House a shadow of the sick saviour of Europe.

The Senate roundly condemned the Treaty of Versailles and checked out of the League of Nations before it was on its feet.

Ever since, disillusioned Europeans have put down the failure of the League of Nations to the absence of the United States. It's a very dubious argument, knowing how the United States has been at all times to get involved in any more wars in Europe, not to mention the great reluctance of both Britain and France to fight Mussolini for grabbing Ethiopia and even to fight Hitler until he'd broken four treaties and taken over most of Europe.

So today the appeals of Chirac, Schröder and Blair were to beg the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Now there've been nuclear testing treaties for more than 40 years.

The first, proposed on the initiative of President Eisenhower, was to ban all nuclear tests and put a moratorium on testing in the atmosphere.

After that came one between the United States and the Soviet Union to prohibit all above-ground nuclear testing.

And since the 50s there has been continuous negotiation to limit intercontinental missiles, to halve each other's inventory, to reduce warheads - in Iceland President Reagan was ready to ban all nuclear weapons and to programme their gradual destruction.

But the Soviets, then represented by Mr Gorbechev, wouldn't play unless the United States would abandon the idea of a vast strategic defence cushion in outer space - which the Soviets incidentally had been working on for nine years.

Well this present treaty has been signed by 154 countries, though only 51 have ratified it - that is to say feel bound to obey it.

This present treaty would ban all nuclear testing in the atmosphere, above ground, below ground, and reveals that we - presumably the United Nations - have the ability to detect violations with a proposed 321 detection stations planted in 90 countries.

It also provides for on-site inspection. Critics immediately reminded us how stupendously ineffective on-site inspection has been on the lands of Saddam Hussein.

The treaty has the backing, in this country, of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and four of his predecessors, including most notably the Republican General Colin Powell. Most of the Democrats in the Senate are for it, most of the Republicans are against it.

Their main point is that all previous agreements to limit nuclear arms, to abolish testing, have been flouted but even if everybody obeyed it, this new one, the United States would be all the more open to the threat of nuclear attack by rogue states and by great powers who are, on past performance, very unlikely to keep faith with the treaty.

It is a fact that one has to be a true believer to suppose that China, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea would chivalrously abide by any treaty banning testing.

There's also the news we've just heard that the Russians are far along in developing small tactical, what are called 'field' nuclear weapons, so low grade that their testing can evade any known detection system.

These arguments were drummed into the Senate this week and its very brief debate on the comprehensive treaty. It was foredoomed to defeat and the appeal of the three European leaders fell on determinedly deaf ears.

Don't be fooled by the figures, by the vote - 51 against 48.

That's a more devastating defeat than President Clinton had feared in his worst nightmare, for you'll remember a majority vote does not apply. The Constitution, remember, says a two thirds vote in favour is required to ratify any treaty the president puts up and it's very rare indeed for the Senate to turn down a treaty.

In foreign affairs the Senate usually gives the president his head. But this time, as in 1919, no. This time too the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee has been waiting patiently to punish the president.

His name is Senator Jesse Helms and he has never recovered from the squalid Lewinsky affair. He it was, this week, who made the defeat so large, so humiliating. Senator Helms not Mr Clinton or the leaders of Europe will watch over our nuclear future.

Of the many other government institutions that keep watch over us, to protect us from our domestic exploiters is one with the admirable title - the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission.

It's just put out an official warning to parents about the personal hazards of having children sleep with their parents. To be exact it doesn't say that, it talks about the hazards of children "co-sleeping with their parents".

I meditated over this. The Commission must be sticklers for the truth, there must be some fine legal distinction between sleeping and co-sleeping - the Philistines' prosecutor must have said - "I put it to you frankly your honour" - remember Samson was a judge - "I put it to you frankly did you or did you not co-sleep with Delilah?"

If he was as smart as a more recent chief executive on trial he could have replied - "Well it's a question of what you mean by sleeping rather than co-sleeping and possibly not sleeping at all." Alas there is no record of Samson's reply.

The vice chairman of the Consumer Safety Commission has publicly protested about this warning of her colleagues.

She says - "No consumer product is involved." And she wants the Commission to withdraw the warning.

Well if that's all she wants I think we're lucky that some parent hasn't made a federal case of claiming the protection of the First Amendment which adds to the right of free speech the right "peaceably to assemble", in this case with mom and pop.

And if you think I'm being cute or far-fetched let me warn Mr Blair, who wants to have a British Bill of Rights, that half the cases which eventually get to the United States Supreme Court are about the First Amendment which is the first item of the Bill of Rights and the right of free speech has been stretched in our time to cover everything from the right of compensation for a stolen credit card to close-up motion pictures in beautiful colour of copulating couples and trios shown over 200 television stations.


Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.