Skip to main content

The Peacemakers

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

Memoirs of the Peace Conference, By David Lloyd George. Two volumes. New Haven: Yale University Press. $10.00. My Memoir. By Edith Boiling Wilson, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Mcrrill Compaivy. $3.50. Woodrow Wilson. By Ray Stannard Baker. Volume VIII. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

Of these three books incomparably the most important is that of David Lloyd George. His “Memoirs of the Peace Conference” is not only the record of one of the principal actors in a great drama; it is also an extraordinary piece of self-revelation, combined with the most intriguing, if not always the kindest, judgments on others. At seventy-six, with the world in what even this ebullient Welshman avows to be a good deal of a mess, Lloyd George apparently has practically no regrets as to anything he did or said in 1919. For a man to arrive at such an advanced age with a complacency so completely unshaken is a remarkable achievement, one might almost say a remarkable phenomenon. One would hardly have believed it possible.

The central thesis which nourishes and sustains the former Prime Minister’s self-esteem is a simple one. The peace treaties were, in the main, admirable documents; but they were “never given a chance by the miscellaneous and unimpressive array of second-rate statesmen who have handled them for the past fifteen years.” (The date, one suspects, is meant to coincide with Lloyd George’s retirement from office.) “There has been,” so his argument runs, “no will power or steady resolve behind their execution,” and “all the democratic countries were equally to blame for this exhibition of ineptitude and nervelessness.” There is certainly something to be said for this point of view. A more tragic catalogue of errors could hardly be compiled than that of the post-War era. As Lloyd George points out, the failure of the United States to ratify the treaty of Versailles had unfortunate consequences of a very practical nature. Whatever might have been American influence on the early development of the League, and here we are in the realm of hypothesis, the action taken at Washington deprived this country of a vote on the Reparations Commission, and contributed to the French occupation of the Ruhr, with its disastrous consequences. A major error, in Lloyd George’s judgment, was the French failure to disarm in the middle ‘twenties. But the successors of the signers of the peace treaties “dishonored the pledge given in the name and on behalf of the victorious nations.” To these indictments it would be easy to add others of one’s own. The French opposition to an Austro-German customs union in the time of Briining was another major error. So, too, was the tardy failure to recognize the break-down of reparations. And since the Nazis have come into power in Germany, diplomatic blundering has continued. Surely Lloyd George is right in blaming the confused state of affairs today, in large measure at any rate, on the statesmen who came after him.

One cannot, however, quite take at Lloyd George’s own valuation his account of his almost saintly role in the preparation of the peace treaties. He anxiously claims credit for almost everything that is creditable. He will not concede that Woodrow Wilson was in any important measure responsible for the Covenant of the League of Nations, and he seeks to show that Wilson really had no ideas on the subject. It is true, as the last volume of Mr. Baker’s biography reveals, that Wilson steadfastly refused, before his arrival in Paris, to devote more than a small part of his attention to the details of the League constitution. But it is also true that the dynamic for the League idea was more largely supplied by him than by any other one of the great leaders. And, as a code telegram from Colonel House suggests (and here again I cite Mr. Baker), both Lloyd George and Clemenceau were not at all reluctant to leave the League question for “after consideration,” rather than treat it as part and parcel of the peace conference, To speak of them as opposed to an international association of nations would be a misrepresentation, but the great ideal sought after at Paris will always be primarily associated with the name of Woodrow Wilson.

There were certainly some questions on which Lloyd George was by no means uncivilized. He declares that he opposed any long-term occupation of German territory, and that this part of the treaty was a deal between Clemenceau and Wilson put over on his guileless self while he was in London. (Very discreditably, and with very doubtful accuracy, he seeks to show that the quid pro quo exacted by Wilson was the cessation of the venomous attacks upon him in the Parisian press.) He opposed, as did Wilson, the separation of the Rhineland from the rest of the Reich. We know that it was upon his urging, after the Germans had come to Versailles, that provision was made to hold plebiscites for Silesia and for East and West Prussia. But one cannot be enthusiastic over his role in connection with reparations.

We find him in the same chapter declaring that he was always completely honest with the British people as to the difficulties of large payments, and then citing verbatim his famous preelection speech at Bristol, with its pledge that Germany should be made to pay the whole cost of the war. That the leading financiers and industrialists in Great Britain had the most extravagant views on the subject of what could be gotten from the defeated foe is no excuse. Indeed, Lloyd George himself excoriates these men, and pithily declaims against “the infallibility of business men in business matters which go beyond their day-to-day transactions.” At the Peace Conference, it is true, the little Welshman was more moderate than he was at Bristol. But the inclusion of pensions in the reparations account was a strained construction of the armistice agreement, and the levy of no less than a billion pounds on Germany forthwith, before May 1, 1921, was not an act of the highest statesmanship.

One could continue to suggest that there was now and then an error in the peace terms. Even Lloyd George does this, though never in terms that suggest that he was personally responsible. Perhaps the most suggestive criticism of the treaties in the entire two volumes lies in the chapter on Czecho-Slovakia. According to the narrative, Dr. Benes promised “an extremely liberal regime, which will very much resembJ0 that of Switzerland.” If this promise was made, it was certainly not kept to the letter. Mr. Lloyd George’s judgment on the peace treaties is invariably interesting and provocative, however far from finality. It is the same with his view of persons. It is clear that the man he really liked was the old Tiger, the cynical but honorable Clemenceau. Wilson he professes to like, but there is surely some jealousy in his analysis. To the Welshman the American’s was “an ecclesiastical rather than a political type of mind.” And Wilson’s partisanship, a partisanship which his most devoted admirer must recognize as a hampering factor in his statesmanship, comes in for severe blame.

After David Lloyd George, vital, almost incomparably vital, at seventy-six, the final volume of Ray Stannard Baker’s biography of Woodrow Wilson seems anything but exciting. Having forsaken interpretation, the author can only compose a chronicle, and much of that chronicle is taken from other sources, already published. What is new neither changes essentially the story of the second of Wilson’s War years, nor sheds much additional light on the character and purpose of the subject. Nor is Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s “My Memoir” a document of historical importance. As a collection of episodes it is delightful, particularly for the period of the peace conference; its major significance lies in the account of the President’s illness. Mrs. Wilson suggested to the President’s doctor that Mr. Wilson resign; it was on medical advice that another course was followed, and that for the most part he was isolated, and shown only such documents as came to him through his devoted wife. Out of touch with the currents of opinion, it is not strange that he closed his mind to every thought of compromise. What the history of the following years would have been like had the treaty been ratified with reservations, no man can say. Yet one can have but an uneasy feeling about the intransigence which the great and stricken leader then displayed. One may, if one will, console oneself with Lloyd George’s form of consolation: the second-rate statesmen who followed would have muddled things, anyway.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading