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Versailles in Perspective

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

“We are the executors of Metternich.” The phrase ran up and down the corridors of the Quai d’Orsay during the last Peace Conference. It was generally attributed to Balfour and had in it sufficient wit to make such parenthood possible. Moreover, as in the case of all true wit, the phrase expressed a good deal of truth, although by no means the whole of it. Whether from necessity or temperamental inclination, the European leaders of the Peace Conference looked to the past rather than to the future; their main interest lay in the reparation of previous mistakes, the restoration of the more benevolent of nineteenth-century conditions purged of the factors that had led to war and revolution.

Such a backward-looking tendency, which to Clemenceau seemed merely a recognition of the importance of historical experience, was natural and perhaps inevitable. A Peace Conference representing a generation that has lived through a long and costly war is in search of something solid upon which to base its hope of security; the past offers known facts as a guide, the future is uncertain. Thus the Congress of Vienna adopted Talleyrand’s motto of “Legitimacy” as its basic principle and inaugurated a period of “Restoration.” The Tsar Alexander was not very slow to apostatize from his mystic dreams and ended by accepting with a whole heart the reactionary philosophy of Metternich. In the ime sense, and in response to the mood of the age, President Harding called for a “return to normalcy.” It would appear that in the wake of modern warfare the haze of unrealistic nostalgia distorts in a favorable sense the conditions of the pre-war period, emphasizes the perils of experiment.

The mood results not merely from a longing for something solid; it is also a reaction against the exaggerated dreams of idealism that accompany the moment of victory after a long war, before the hard problems of existing fact are clearly faced. The advent of the Congress of Vienna was heralded with phrases announcing the birth of a new world: “the reconstruction of the moral order”; “the regeneration of the political system of Europe”; “an enduring peace founded upon a just redistribution of political forces.” Such idealism was rapidly transformed into Metternich’s interpretation of the Holy Alliance. In 1919 hope of establishing a permanent system of international justice and peace, which would discard all the factors of evil that had brought on the holocaust of war, was even more widespread and certainly more sincere. Harold Nicolson has recorded his frame of mind on leaving for the Peace Conference, typical of most of the younger British and Americans: “We were journeying to Paris, not merely to liquidate the war, but to found a new order in Europe. We were preparing not Peace only, but Eternal Peace. There was about us the halo of some divine mission. We must be stern, righteous and ascetic. Por we were bent on doing great, permanent and noble things.”


The prophet of the new order, Woodrow Wilson himself, was emphatic in his determination that the Conference should embark upon a new path and should build for the future. In a small conference on December 10, 1918, he told a group of advisers on the George Washington that if the Conference did not succeed in writing the Fourteen Points into the peace, he would be ashamed to go back to Washington, “would look around for an out-of-the-way spot, Guam, perhaps, to retire to.” Admitting the difficulties of establishing the new order because of the temperament of Conference leaders, he insisted “If it won’t work, it must be made to work, because the world is faced by a task of terrible proportions and only the adoption of a cleansing process would recreate or regenerate the world.”

The history of the Conference belied such hopes and Wilson’s fervid determination. The statement does not imply any concession to those critics who have made of the Versailles Treaty the root of all international evil. As we look back at it, with the advantage of twenty-five years’ perspective, it is clear that most of the diatribes against the injustice and unwisdom of that treaty and the others which formed the settlement of 1919 have small foundation in fact; on the contrary, the treaties created ample opportunity to accomplish recovery in the economic sense and maintain peace in the political, if only those who followed had been able to capitalize it. But even so, the Versailles Treaty cannot be regarded, as Wilson once insisted, as attaining ninety per cent of his expressed aspirations. The comparison of what was accomplished with what had been hoped brought to many a sense of almost complete failure. Even those who, like Colonel House, saw the situation with clear eyes, appreciating both the need of a fresh approach to international organization and the difficulties of discovering it, confessed their disappointment. On the day after the signing of the Versailles Treaty, House set forth his regrets in his diary: “There seemed to be no full realization of the conditions which had to be met. An effort was made to enact a peace upon the usual lines. This should never have been attempted. The greater part of civilization had been shattered and history could guide us but little in the making of this peace. How splendid it would have been if we had blazed a new and better trail I However, it is to be doubted whether this could have been done, even if those in authority had so decreed, for the peoples back of them had to be reckoned with . . . We have had to deal with a situation pregnant with difficulties and one which could be met only by an idealistic and unselfish spirit, which was almost wholly absent and which was too much to expect of men come together at such a time and for such a purpose. And yet I wish we had taken the other road, even if it were less smooth, both now and afterward, than the one we took. We would at least have gone in the right direction and if those who follow us had made it impossible to go the full length of the journey planned, the responsibility would have rested with them and not with us.”

In his later years Colonel House laid a good deal more emphasis upon the positive accomplishments of the Peace Conference than he did upon its failures, and he stressed the difficulties which attended the effort to blaze “a new and better trail.” Not many weeks before his death in 1938, when the clouds of another World War were gathering, be reiterated the eternal truth that treaties do not create conditions, they reflect them. It could not reasonably be expected that an “idealistic” peace should emerge from the confusion of passionate hatred that persisted long after the enemy had laid down arms. In such a climate and at the very moment of making peace, the seeds of the next war easily take root. Sir Arthur Salter has quoted, in this connection, the inversion of the old Latin phrase to read, si w bellum para pacem: “if you want a war, call a peace conference.” He goes on very justly to point out that there would be less wit but more truth in the recognition that war by its very nature cannot serve as a healthy preparation for peace; indeed, it breeds factors violently hostile to peace which are not eliminated by the signing of a document called a treaty. These factors can only be conquered over the years by developing more powerful factors that make for conditions of tranquility.

There is another aspect of House’s expression of regret at the course taken by the Peace Conference which deserves emphasis; namely, his doubt whether its leaders, even had they wished, would have been able to set out on the “new trail,” for the peoples back of them “had to be reckoned with.” It was the paradox of a war waged, if not to make the world safe for democracy, at least to protect the democracies from future aggression, that by reason of democratic control the political leaders were forced to decisions that later stimulated the defeated enemy to renewed aggression. Popular ignorance and prejudice could not be denied their seats at the peace table.

Wilson went to the Conference as the apostle of the wisdom of the common man, convinced that the European governments did not represent their peoples, equally convinced that his own program voiced a popular feeling which would be irresistible if the people were not throttled. On the George Washington he expressed himself explicitly in this sense:

“We would be the only disinterested people at the Peace Conference and the men with whom we were about to deal did not represent their own people . . . Unless the Conference was prepared to follow the opinions of mankind and to express the will of the people rather than that of their leaders at the Conference, we should soon be involved in another breakup of the world and when such a breakup came it would not be a war but a cataclysm.”

The self-deception of the President in this regard, despite the enthusiasm of the first greeting given to him .by the peoples of Europe, is an unavoidable fact. When, in the controversy over Fiume, Wilson followed the method he had tried on various occasions in his university and political career, that of the direct appeal to popular feeling, he was roughly disabused. The burst of indignation that followed his Fiume manifesto made clear that the Italian people were even more selfishly nationalistic than their leaders. The European governments, had they been free, would have framed wiser provisions than were actually inserted in the treaties. The chief of each of the delegations was invariably hampered in every case by his responsibility to the people at home. Popular opinion forced upon Clemenceau the inclusion of the guilt clause and prevented the writing in of a reasonable sum of reparations. His resistance to the demands of Foch and Poincare for the dismemberment of Germany cost him his election to the Presidency of France, Whenever Lloyd George suggested more moderate treatment of Germany, the Northcliff e press howled for his head, Orlando’s willingness to compromise Adriatic controversies led to his overthrow. The American voters of 1920 repudiated Wilsonism largely because it seemed to them to imply surrender of our national interest for the benefit of foreigners or in behalf of vague international Utopias. The power of an ill-educated, democratic nationalism always threatened. We may ask whether at the end of this war our democracies at home and abroad will be better educated or less nationalistic.

The fault was not entirely that of the people, who were never authoritatively informed of the primary aims of the Peace Conference. Mr. Walter Lippmann has commented upon the unfortunate effects of American failure to recognize frankly that we had in reality entered the war to protect our own security threatened by a German victory, It resulted that during the Peace Conference the American public did not know whether Wilson’s policy was actually conceived in the interest of the United States or whether we were not indeed yielding that interest to pull the traditional chestnut out of the fire for the British, or serving some distant and evanescent ideal. Such uncertainty interfered with American leadership, since the European chiefs of government were never sure whether Wilson would receive the support of the people back home.

Confusion of purpose was made worse confounded by looseness of phraseology. The Conference was unfortunately dominated by “principles” expressed in very general terms. Perhaps this was a reaction against the attitude of Talleyrand, who is reported to have said: “The best principle is to have none.” Phrases such as “justice,” “viability,” “self-determination,” were freely bandied about without clear definition of their meaning. Inevitably they made for controversy and confusion. They contradicted each other in application and they blurred the real reason for the decision finally taken. Was it “just” to separate East Prussia from Germany by the Polish Corridor, or would it be “just” to exclude Poland from the sea and leave Polish populations under German rule? The principle of viability demanded that Czechoslovakia be allowed to maintain the historic Bohemian frontier; the principle of self-determination demanded with equal force that the frontier be altered so as to throw the anti-Czech, German-speaking Bohemians into the Reich. Abstract principles exercise an emotional attraction, but they provide a wobbly basis for reasoned decisions.

The natural tendency of everyone to rationalize his temperamental proclivities intensified this confusion. Advocates of new methods of international organization appeared at times to rest their case upon the assumption that novelty was in itself desirable or that the methods of the past were inherently vicious. This assumption is implicit in the general criticism of the Peace Conference which alleges that its failure lay in its tendency to look too much to the past. Some of the more eminent figures of the Conference were not innocent of this penchant for rationalizing evil into traditional procedures. Mr. Wilson’s blanket condemnation of the Balance of Power rested upon his assumption that the wars of the past had resulted from the application of this principle and that the peace of the future must be protected from it. He and his adherents made no attempt to analyze the significance of what is, after all, an eternal principle of social organization. We were hypnotized by a phrase. Conversely, those who were temperamentally opposed to change idealized the value of historical experience far above any level that an objective historian could approve. Their recognition of self-interest as a predominant factor in social relations was justified; not so their failure to appreciate the extent of the revolution through which the external world was passing and to which man must adjust his conception of self-interest or perish. This emotional conflict between the advocates of the new and the old confused the real issue that arose in the case of each decision,—what is wise in the circumstances, what is unwise?


These difficulties which the peacemakers confronted and which impeded the road to wise decisions were to a large extent unavoidable. They were inherent in the conditions bequeathed by war and in the nature of the warring peoples and their representatives. If there is any lesson to be drawn from them to serve future peacemakers, it can hardly extend beyond a warning to be on the lookout for similar difficulties and to prepare to meet them intelligently and vigorously. But there were other factors that controlled the conduct of the Peace Conference and its aftermath which, it may be argued, sprang directly from the mistaken policy of the leaders. It is fruitless to blame those leaders for the course they adopted or to ask of them a wisdom of judgment which the passing of years alone confers upon the historian. But it is important to take careful note of those mistakes, if such they were, to serve as a warning post for the future.

It was a great mistake, it seems to me, for the Peace Conference to attempt to legislate in a single congress a comprehensive world settlement. Success in this attempt would have taxed the capacities of a conference of archangels. We must remember that those who gathered in Paris to draft the treaties found themselves facing a vast variety of immediate problems which had to be met without delay if Europe was not to degenerate into chaos. Social and economic conditions following the fall of the Hapsburgs and the armistice of November 11 were in a state of almost complete disorganization. The return of the demobilized armies further confused the operation of political and industrial agencies. Germany was starving. Bolshevism threatened. The ambitions of the liberated peoples soared into violent competition with each other, so that, as the great war ended, a half-dozen minor wars got under way. Serbs and Italians, Slovenes and German-Austrians, Czechs and Poles, Rumanians and Magyars were less interested in making the peace than in asserting their claims by dint of arms.

The Peace Conference was the only body with authority supported by force sufficient to compose these conflicts, provide for the distribution of food and other supplies, and reorganize industrial activity. During the earlier days of the Conference such administrative functions formed the most important aspect of its work, and long hours were spent by the Supreme Council in the direction of plans for pacification and rehabilitation. Without any formal designation and simply to fill a pressing need, the Council served as an international government for Europe and for many regions outside of Europe. This vital task of supervising and controlling the transition from war back to peace was obviously of surpassing importance. By its nature it was a task demanding qualities different from those essential to laying down the bases of ultimate settlement, and it was carried on under conditions not conducive to wise decisions affecting the peace as a whole. It was asking too much of the peacemakers to serve as an executive committee for the world, at the same time that they deliberated the terms of a comprehensive and permanent peace.

Long previous to the calling of the Peace Conference, when President Wilson and Colonel House first discussed the procedure that ought to be set up following the victory over Germany, the latter suggested that there be two phases in the process of peace-making: the first, in which rapid action must be taken in order to re-establish stable local governments, begin the revival of industrial life in a creative sense, determine frontiers in their main lines; the second, in which there should be leisurely deliberation regarding the larger aspects of international organization both in a political and an economic sense. House advocated calling a peace conference immediately after the armistice, which should conclude its decisions just as soon as disorder had been overcome and conditions no longer demanded international control. The second phase, in House’s mind, would be represented by a later conference or conferences, perhaps postponed until belligerent emotions had subsided to some extent, which could embark upon consideration of the larger problems of world organization without being hurried by the need of hasty decisions. When he came to the armistice conferences in the fall of 1918, House still advocated such procedure.

As we look back, the attractiveness of the proposal is obvious. The first conference would have dealt only with problems of immediate necessity. It might have been convened by November 15, for the Supreme War Council already had at its disposal all necessary administrative agencies. It might have been dissolved or adjourned by February 15, with the essential military and territorial decisions made. But Wilson’s determination to attend the Peace Conference himself compelled postponement until mid-December; political considerations in Great Britain, France, and Italy led to further postponement. Thus the preliminary Conference did not formally convene until January 18, and it undertook so many functions that it dragged along tardily and was in the end unconsciously merged into the final Conference at a date never determined by historians.

It is not true, as so often stated, that Wilson’s insistence upon the League of Nations delayed the signing of the Versailles Treaty. As a matter of fact, the Covenant had been approved before many other provisions of that treaty. But Wilson’s determination that the Covenant should be an integral part of any treaty with Germany, preliminary or final, did break down the distinction between the settlement of immediate problems which demanded prompt action, and the larger problems of world organization. Because of this the latter, in so far as they were decided, reached a conclusion in an atmosphere not favorable to ultimate wisdom. It is, of course, arguable that the time to draft comprehensive plans for international peace is while the realization of the horrors of war is vivid. One heard at Paris many times repeated, “If we don’t get the League now, we never shall have a league.” The answer to this argument, which today is rehearsed in not dissimilar terms, is that no lasting organization can be the product of momentary sentiment; unless it is to be supported by the sober afterthought of those who must make the plans effective, it is futile and dangerous self-deception to launch it upon the froth of emotion.

A second mistake and one that permeated all the discussions of the Conference resulted largely from this attempt to determine large issues in the atmosphere of short-range problems. Economic and social questions of inestimable significance were subordinated to political questions of immediate pertinence. It is true that a great deal of time was given by the Conference to economic and financial issues, engaging some of the best brains in the world. But they became merely the football of politics, as in the case of reparations. To the long-term economic and financial questions involving trade, tariff, shipping, and currency policies from the international point of view, no adequate consideration was given. Nor is it likely that in the time allowed to the peacemakers fruitful conclusions could have been reached.

It is possible that this over-emphasis upon the political aspects of the peace was what Colonel House had in mind in voicing his regret that “an effort was made to enact a peace upon the usual lines.” The international problems characteristic of the revolution through which the world was proceeding, but which went largely unheeded, far transcended the political relations of peoples with each other. The fixing of political frontiers was of small importance compared with the determination of their economic significance. President Wilson appreciated the vital nature of this question when he included the “lowering of trade barriers” in his Fourteen Points. But that point was not pursued by the Peace Conference. Thereby, and because of the attitude of the political leaders who followed the Con- I ference, the world lapsed into a neo-mercantilism already under way before the World War, which led to the disasters of the later twenties and thirties.

This apparent faith in political formulae and political controls as the keys to peace was closely related to the third great mistake of the Conference, which I conceive to have been the attempt to give political coercive powers to the League of Nations. It has taken the perspective of twenty-five years to show that this was a mistake. I do not know how anyone could foretell in 1919 that the skeptics were right and that the Powers composing the League would prove unwilling to operate this international institution as they had agreed. Such, however, proved to be the case. The peoples simply did not wish to abide by an international constitution with political and coercive commitments.

Professor Alfred Zimmern, a determined and sagacious protagonist of international co-operation, has pointed out that an institution, if it is to prosper, must be the outward and visible expression of a corporate sentiment. “The ideology of the League of Nations,” he wrote in the early thirties, “has been based upon the assumption that there exists today an international community the members of which are linked together by a common consciousness, a corporate tie, comparable to that upon which national institutions depend for their successful working. And this initial confusion of thought, or deliberate make-believe to which statesmen and peoples have found themselves committed, has vitiated first the intellectual and then the moral atmosphere until the hiatus between appearance and reality has become visible to all the world.”

The political functions of the League were furthermore directed, at least in the public mind, primarily toward a negative purpose—the prevention of war—rather than toward the positive end of removing the causes of war. The hiatus between appearance and reality was thereby widened, since the mere prevention of war has never been and probably never will be the primary purpose of any national policy. Where the clear interest of the nation demands the use of force, war will continue as an instrument of policy until some preferable substitute for attaining or compromising that interest can be made acceptable. The development of such a substitute as a means of settling disputes in a world community depends upon a sense of the general corporate interest, which was lacking in 1919 and the yeais that followed.


In certain respects, accordingly, it would appear that the Peace Conference instead of merely looking backwards, attempted too much and in too short a time. In other respects, notably in its over-emphasis upon political factors, it was guilty of a reactionary myopia. Let us note, furthermore, that the positive and valuable achievements of the Conference resulted in part from traditional and in part from progressive tendencies.

The Versailles system, whatever its defects, did respond to the overwhelming demand of the moment: it did provide a security which gave opportunity for recovery and which might have been maintained over a much longer period if it had not been for the moral weakness of the victor nations. This security did not proceed from the League of Nations. It was based upon military control of strategic areas, an old principle, with no relation to “national justice,” and by many regarded as vicious. But it offered security against a rearmed and revengeful Germany. So long as the Rhine-lands were disarmed and the western flank of Germany lay open to invasion, while at the same time the Czechs occupied the bastion of Bohemia, the general peace of Europe was safe. It was only after 1936 when the French and British permitted the destruction of the Locarno Pacts and the rearmament of the Rhinelands that Hitler was able to concentrate upon Bohemia and establish his control of central Europe. The failure of this system of security, temporary but effective while it was maintained, was the fault not of the Peace Conference but of those who followed.

The League of Nations was helpless, in the circumstances, to prove of any assistance in the maintenance of political security. But it achieved outstanding success in its development of international organization and activity in non-political fields; and therein the criticism of the backward tendencies of the Peace Conference is belied. In a great variety of such fields Geneva was given a creative purpose which it carried forward effectively to serve the interests of individuals and international groups. The League was responsible for setting up and operating through its Secretariat instruments of co-operative research and action to meet problems of finance and trade; of control of drugs; studies in nutrition and public sanitation; through its International Labor Organization it provided a basis for the attempt to elevate labor standards as well as to protect nations with existing high standards from unfair competition. Of great importance, although rarely appreciated, was the success of the League in the administration of Class B Mandates, where the attitude of the Mandatory was affected by economic rather than political factors, and from which valuable lessons may be drawn in future efforts to organize international control of dependent areas.

Thus in contrast to the failure of the League to control political nationalism was its success in sublimating national feeling to a higher internationalism in such non-political activities. Secretary of State Hull has declared that the League “has been responsible for the development of mutual exchange and discussion of ideas and methods to a greater extent and in more fields of humanitarian and scientific endeavor than any other organization in history.” Beyond its practical accomplishments it furnished the example of the natural development of an institution when it is truly representative of a corporate spirit. By its actual practice in the workings of internationalism it enriched what President Wriston has called the “subsoil of peace.” It is such a subsoil that produces the common consciousness of an international community which, as Zimmern asserts, is a condition precedent to the success of any political league or federation.


The wiser historians are usually cautious in attempting to draw specific lessons from the past; even when they do so, public opinion and its leaders are not apt to pay very strict attention. But it would be foolish of those who guide the policy of the United Nations not to take careful account of the experience of the past Peace Conference. And it would be of tremendous advantage if public opinion could be educated as to what might reasonably be expected of the next Peace Conference.

Clearly, it ought not to expect too much. The difficulties of 1919 which sprang from the disasters of a four years’ war and from the spirit of democratic nationalism will be no less at the end of this war. If we promise ourselves any ready-made solutions to the problems that must be confronted, we run the danger of another period of cynical disillusionment.

We shall gain much if the conference which must meet to work some order out of the chaos that will follow the war be convened promptly after the armistice. Such a conference might usefully be set up even before the end of hostilities, ready and accustomed to utilize the international agencies already developed during the war.

It should be sharply differentiated from the organization responsible for laying permanent foundations for the peaceful welfare of the world. The latter organization, indeed, might not take the form of the traditional peace conference. It might rather consist of a number of conferences to consider the larger problems of the peace as the time became more propitious for approaching this or that. Inevitably and properly, these conferences will be primarily concerned with economic and social problems rather than with political. A revived League of Nations at Geneva, deprived of political coercive functions and not directly responsible for the prevention of war would be, in my opinion, of the utmost service.

There must, of course, be a political basis for any system of international organization. But the experience of the past twenty-five years indicates that a political league or federation of nations, created with a formal constitution, and broad commitments depending upon wishfulness rather than existing facts and tendencies, offers the probability of renewed failure. Whatever the nature of any future international organization, its success will depend to a large degree upon its simplicity of mechanism. There is eternal wisdom in a letter of Lord Clancarty to Castlereagh, written in 1818: “The more simple and less multiplied the means by which the great Powers are kept together for mutual defense and the preservation of peace, the less likelihood there will be of interruption to their union.”

The aftermath of Versailles reinforces a reasoned conviction of the necessity of developing international institutions; but it also points to the danger of creating them before public opinion is ready to operate them, or beyond the limits set by the true interests of the individual nation. There is no indication that national feeling has lost any of its intensity. It is probably the strongest spiritual force in the world today; any attempt to suppress it would be futile and criminal. It must be channeled into international operation, but these channels can be cut only by the popular will as it becomes educated to their value. Salvador de Mada-riaga has given wise counsel: “Our eyes must be idealistic and our feet realistic. We must walk in the right direction but we must walk step by step. Our tasks are: to define what is desirable; to define what is possible at any time within the scheme of what is desirable; to carry out what is possible in the spirit of what is desirable.”


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