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The Peace That Failed

ISSUE:  Winter 1988
Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. By Arthur Walworth. W.W. Norton. $35.00.

Few events of history offer the amalgam of hope and tragedy to be found in the Versailles Conference of 1919. The horrors of the Great War had demonstrated the unacceptable costs of international conflict in the 20th century. The very price of victory weakened ties to a past that had apparently served humankind very badly. Millions who had suffered the destruction and dislocations of war placed on the victors the obligation to refashion the world in the interest of peace and justice. Woodrow Wilson, by assigning the world’s major ills to the enemy governments and the flawed institutions that had spawned them, had transformed the war from a senseless slaughter into the means for creating a new international order. Peacemaking in the past had consisted of balancing strength and interests with the purpose of establishing a new equilibrium among the powers. Traditionally the native aspirations of minority populations remained secondary to the ambitions of the dominant nationalities. The European state system had never recognized the right to self-determination. During 1918, however, Wilson had proclaimed that principle as one that belonged legitimately to all distinct peoples. With the collapse of German, Austrian, Russian, and Turkish power, the nationalities of Eastern and Central Europe declared their independence and established national governments. Western democracies encouraged the process, especially because the disintegrating empires belonged to the defeated. To create a durable peace for a world dominated by nationalist ambitions was the task that Wilson assigned to himself. The vision was glorious; the realities less so.

Arthur Walworth’s long, impressive study of the Versailles Conference follows logically his two previous books on Wilson’s world view: Woodrow Wilson: World Prophet and America’s Moment: 1918. Wilson and His Peacemakers dissects the issues and personalities of the conference to reveal Wilson’s dogged, but ultimately futile, struggle with Europe’s leading spokesmen as well as the interests and ambitions which they represented. The book is less a study of Wilson than of the conference as a whole. Walworth’s scholarship is scrupulous, his detail prodigious. Like detail generally, it often impedes the flow of debate and decision. Still, in a work that seeks to understand and explain everything, detail is essential; it alone can establish validity for summary judgments. Except for its details—some startling, some amusing—the book offers no major surprises. Walworth’s conclusions are scarcely new, but they are exceedingly refined. His contribution to an understanding of the Versailles Conference is considerable. Walworth is critical of both Wilson’s views and his leadership at Versailles, but his criticism is fair and reflects the mountains of evidence that describe Wilson’s relations with others, his conduct in the face of opposition, and his unbending devotion to principles that had little chance of success at Versailles or later.

Wilson approached international relations as an ideologue, and like ideologues generally he had little interest in facts that challenged the validity of his uncluttered assumptions and purposes. It was not strange that the president could establish no rapport with the experts in the American delegation at Versailles. Wilson resided at Murat Palace, guarded by French soldiers; the other members of the American Peace Commission took up residence at the Hotel Grillon. Wilson maintained a liaison only with Colonel Edward M. House, his counselor of eight years. The president seldom attended meetings of the Peace Commission. It mattered little; the deliberations had little effect on his decisions. With the conference going nowhere in January, Secretary of State Robert Lansing asked Wilson to confer with the American Peace Commission, hoping there to offer a proposal to clear the way for a preliminary treaty. Lansing, rebuffed by Wilson, confided to his diary: “He apparently resented my making any suggestions and seeks to belittle their value by flatly turning them down. It is humiliating, and makes it hard for me to keep my temper.” So persistently did Wilson ignore Lansing that the secretary contemplated resigning from the commission and returning to the United States.

Outside the five-man Peace Commission, the huge American delegation at Paris comprised career State Department and embassy personnel, some War Cabinet bureaucrats, noted American students of European affairs, and military officers. To members of the Peace Commission, the American delegation seemed excessive in size. At the core of the delegation was the Inquiry, a select body of experts that had advised Wilson since 1917. Each group in the delegation remained a separate entity, without direct access to the president. John Foster Dulles complained early that it was “practically impossible for anyone to get to see him or for him to give time to purely American conferences.” At Versailles Wilson did not welcome advice from either the diplomatic service or the academic scholars. Those he appointed to staff positions at Paris were as inexperienced as he in the ways of diplomacy; they were amateurs in a world of professionals. At no time did Wilson establish contact with the spokesmen of labor, women’s rights, racial minorities, or other groups that his promises of social justice had aroused to action. He ignored the newsmen who swarmed around the periphery of the conference. Yet through them alone could he appeal to the European and American publics. Wilson, convinced of the Tightness of his cause, sought his own counsel, protecting himself from unwanted complications.

Ultimately Wilson’s goals, the adoption of both a league of nations and the principle of self-determination by the Versailles Conference, would run the gauntlet of big power interests. From the outset the Supreme Council assumed control of the conference; those who had managed the war would dictate the peace. Within the Supreme Council Wilson faced Europe’s official spokesmen—David Lloyd George of Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy—from an initial position of strength. Unlike the countries of Europe, the United States emerged from the war untouched by its physical disasters. Wilson’s promise of a new order of peace and justice carried authority. If his known views were incompatible with those of European leaders, countless Europeans still looked to him for salvation, not only from war but also from the full spectrum of social ills facing Europe. Unfortunately, Wilson’s public stature gave him little leverage at Versailles. If the president could exorcise his country’s memory of the past in his design for a new world order, European statesmen could discover no alternative to their long reliance on the traditional use of diplomacy and power. The heavy price their countries had paid for victory over Germany confirmed their determination to exploit their immediate political advantages. They would not, in their negotiations with Wilson, compromise the secret treaties, promising compensations, whereby their governments had brought one another into the war. At the initial meetings of the Supreme Council Wilson proved to be a good listener, but observers found him quaint and inflexible, lacking the mental agility required of a good diplomat. He appeared too enthusiastic in agreement, too dour in opposition. Europeans found him difficult and tiresome in his repeated claims for his country’s higher moral standards in its relations with others.

In his chronological account of the Versailles Conference, Walworth focuses early on the league issue. While crossing the Atlantic Wilson announced that he would insist that the League of Nations be embodied in the treaty itself. When the conference opened, Wilson quickly gained the appointment of a commission to draft a constitution for a league. France argued for a strong organization, backed by Britain and the United States, as a guarantee of French security. Wilson opposed any outright grant of coercive power to the league; for him the moral force of public opinion would remain the league’s chief sanction. Wilson managed to eliminate the French demand for a military staff. On February 14, a general session of the Versailles Conference adopted the League of Nations Covenant. While the President lauded the new League as the guarantor of peace and dismissed unpleasant facts as mere irrelevancies, Europeans wondered about the meaning of his words. Jules Cambon, the noted French diplomat, questioned the league’s effectiveness. “France,” he wrote, “would have time to be swallowed up before it was even decided whether the league of nations would act, if action is not automatic and the question is submitted to parliaments.” Cambon observed that peace, in the future as in the past, depended not on leagues but on the quality of diplomacy. Paul Cambon, his brother, wrote on February 10: “Wilson . . .continues to play a disintegrating role. His society of nations which doesn’t even exist seems to him to be equal to everything.” Paul Cambon, conscious of the trouble Wilson’s league faced in the United States, proposed that French newspapers ignore the plight of the American prophet. “The less we concern ourselves with President Wilson,” he wrote on February 19, “the more the opposition that he arouses at home will avail. . . . It is of the highest importance to let the position of Wilson break up of itself.”

When the president left Paris on February 14 to return briefly to the United States, his star was at its zenith. By postponing the divisive questions relating to self-determination, Wilson had managed to command the conference. He had gained his League of Nations. During subsequent weeks, especially after his return in mid-March, Wilson and the conference faced the trying issues posed by the principle of self-determination for Eastern and Central Europe. All the new states of Eastern Europe sent spokesmen to Versailles to establish their independence and ample boundaries, warning that any defiance of their claims might send them into the Bolshevik camp. France wanted a strong Poland and Czechoslovakia as political allies against German and Russian expansionism. With French support, Poland and Czechoslovakia seemed to win their contests over boundaries with their neighbors, but the two countries threatened war against each other over Teschen, which lay between them. Hungarians, Rumanians, and Czechs fought over territories that had once been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the big powers could not stop them. Czechoslovakia demanded and received the Sudetenland, largely German, on the west, and a southern boundary that included 750,000 Hungarians. Rumania emerged as the special defender of East-Central Europe against the expansion of Bolshevism and appeared to merit special treatment. Thus favored, Rumania enlarged its boundaries at the expense of Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians. In the clash of claims from Poland to Yugoslavia, self-determination became the victim. James Shotwell of Columbia University declared that Wilson’s assumption of easily-distinguishable boundaries proved to be an illusion.

For weeks after his return to Paris in March, Wilson faced the most divisive question of all, the future of Germany. So profound were his disagreements with Clemenceau that he threatened, on occasion, to break up the conference. During his absence, House made compromises that Wilson regarded as infringements on his principles. Soon the relations between the two men reached the breaking point. French leaders were terrified at the thought of a rearmed Germany seeking revenge for its recent defeat. The recovery of Alsace and Lorraine seemed little compensation for the human and physical price that France had paid for victory. France needed more, much more from the peace. Clemenceau demanded not only a disarmed Germany and a buffer state along the Rhine but also reparations to pay for all the damage inflicted on the French people, French mining, and French industrial resources. Wilson refused to support France’s security demands, especially the creation of an independent German republic west of the Rhine in defiance of the principle of self-determination. Wilson promised Clemenceau a guaranty treaty in exchange for French concessions. Eventually Wilson accepted stringent military clauses for Germany, heavy reparations, and the inclusion of Articles 231 and 232 whereby Germany, under duress, accepted full responsibility for the war and its damage to civilization. To the end the Big Four avoided any direct negotiations with Germany. On April 29 the German delegation arrived at Versailles, not to negotiate, but to receive the treaty. Brockdorff-Rantzau, heading the German delegation, responded with a defiant speech but took the treaty. Although the final treaty did not conform to Wilson’s promises to Germany, the president, supported by Clemenceau, refused to accept any alterations. The Germans signed the treaty on June 28 at Versailles.

Those who conferred at Paris did so under the presumption that they held the world’s future in their hands. Actually the absence of delegations from Germany and Russia, potentially Europe’s two dominant powers, cast doubt, as Walworth suggests, on the whole endeavor. The makers of the Versailles Treaty could not command the future; British and French leadership in Europe was already an illusion. The conference attempted, but failed, to come to terms with Russia’s Bolshevik leaders. At the end nothing in the treaty could protect the edifice it created from the dangers of a revived, vengeful Germany or an isolated, subversive Russia. Both Wilson and Clemenceau, in their deep antagonism, failed to design an adequate defense for the Versailles structure. For Wilson and his followers the guarantee of peace lay, not in diplomacy and power, but in the League of Nations. They erred in attributing the collapse of Europe’s peace in 1914 to the structural defects of the modern state system rather than its misuse, forgetting that for centuries the reliance on power politics had enabled sovereign nations to prosper in a fundamentally anarchical world. The established procedures in international relations, whatever their faults, embodied the realities of a competitive world more effectively than any available substitute. Clemenceau, in the older tradition, favored the concentration of postwar strength in the hands of the Western democracies. In practice the president’s trust in peaceful procedure through international agencies had no chance against the actualities of aggression, but that trust, in its encouragement of national irresponsibility and inaction, could demolish the influence of those who recognized the inescapable need of confronting would-be aggressors with hard diplomacy and countering force.


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