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Wilson the Peacemaker

ISSUE:  Spring 1978
America’s Moment: 1918— American Diplomacy at the End of World War I, By Arthur Walworth. Norton. $14.95.

In 1958 Arthur Walworth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography for Woodrow Wilson: American Prophet, an account of Wilson’s life to his early years in the White House. Mr. Walworth followed this by Woodrow Wilson: World Prophet, which covered Wilson’s career from the First World War to the end of his life.America’s Moment: 1918 differs from these earlier studies in brevity of time span and detail of presentation. The heart of the work takes place in the four months from the exchange of notes between the German government and Wilson in October 1918 through the Armistice to the formal opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919. Mr. Walworth is now at work on a book on Wilson’s role at that Conference, which will serve as a sequel to the present study.

Two major tasks are now going forward in scholarship on Wilson. The first is an effort to integrate the enormous bodies of information that bear on Wilson’s career into a coherent narrative sequence. Important progress has been made to this end, with Arthur Link’s massive five-volume study as the most notable instance. Yet Mr. Link’s study ends with America’s entrance into the War—and this highlights the most serious gap that remains in this first area: coverage of the four years between America’s declaration of war and Wilson’s departure from office. It was during these years that Wilson shaped his most important and controversial policies. Mr. Walworth’s book makes a major contribution to the closure of this lamentable gap. The second task involves the effort to gain a truer understanding of the meaning of Wilson’s career, particularly in foreign policy. Mr. Walworth has not set out to write an interpretative book as such and thus his contribution to this effort is indirect. However the painstaking care with which he sets forth his narrative helps undercut interpretations—often based on ignorance—of Wilson as dogmatic idealist and gives us an understanding of Wilson the masterful political practitioner.

The four months from October 1918 to January 1919 were crowded with intense and complex political drama. Wilson’s chief preoccupation, since well before America’s entrance into the War, had been with the bases of a durable peace. He had given two major formulations on this basic question: the great “Peace Without Victory” address of January 1917 and the Fourteen Points address of January 1918. Wilson’s “moment”—and America’s—came on Oct.6, 1918, when he received a note from Berlin asking for “the immediate conclusion of a general armistice.” He seized this unparalleled opportunity at once, without first consulting the Allies, and bent it to his own purposes: he would utilize the processes of war-stopping to set the framework for peace-making.

The vast drama had now begun. At its center was the struggle between Wilson’s determination to shape events to accord with his conception of the bases of a durable peace and the determination of the other major actors—the Allies and Germany in particular—to modify, subvert, or supplant his conceptions with their own. The main lines of struggle turned on divergent reactions to the three questions Wilson had put to Berlin in reply to the note of October sixth: Would Germany agree to base negotiations on his principles? Would Germany consent to withdraw its forces from all invaded territory? Did the Chancellor speak merely for the constituted authorities of the Empire?

Wilson had thought through with great care the means to achieve his goals, as well as the goals themselves. He knew the Allies’ reluctance to acquiesce in his terms was counterbalanced by their desire for peace and by their dependence on America. If they refused to be bound by his principles, he might terminate the talks with Berlin or continue them on his own toward the conclusion of a separate peace or withhold America’s military or economic support in the future. Wilson played his role as balancer among these competing pressures with a skill that would have won Metternich’s admiration. He was, in Mr. Walworth’s apt phrase, “the arbiter of peace.” For Wilson two corollaries followed from this understanding of his role: he must maintain America’s freedom of action and block pressures for the unconditional surrender of Germany. Loss of the first risked subordination of his new diplomacy to the old diplomacy of the Allies; achievement of the second would remove a major counterweight to Allied ambition.

Wilson used many other means to advance his purposes. One was the submission of a vast naval building program to Congress in December 1918, on the very eve of his departure for Europe. This was intended, in good part, to give him a powerful “bargaining chip” to help bring Britain into accord with his understanding of “freedom of the seas” as proclaimed in point two of the 14. Another approach was to mobilize public opinion in other nations to support his program and restrict the leeway of their own governments to oppose it. Wilson’s tours of France, Britain, and Italy, undertaken to test the strength of this instrument, greatly increased his confidence in its effectiveness.

As the exchanges between Wilson and the Germans continued throughout October, the Allies were brought into them. They sought to influence their course through determination of what would constitute a satisfactory response to each of the three questions Wilson had put to the Germans. To Wilson’s contention in his first question that negotiations be based on his principles, the Allies countered with reservations and qualifications. The most difficult of these involved his second point, on freedom of the seas, and his third, on reduction of economic barriers. Resolution of these had to be deferred to the formal peace conference. Wilson’s third question, which pointed toward transformation of the internal political structure of Germany, also led to divergent emphases. The French favored federalist tendencies in Germany, while Wilson supported action of a constituent assembly to form a definite German government.

The Allies found their most powerful channel of influence through the complexities attendant upon implementation of the withdrawal of German troops called for by Wilson’s second question. They insisted these terms could only be established by the closest consultation with their military experts. The drafting of the precise terms of the Armistice took place under the auspices of Marshall Foch. Through his October political initiatives Wilson had put himself in a powerful position to affect military outcomes. Through their military channels the Allies were now in a powerful position to influence decisions of momentous political significance—e.g., the precise status of France’s Rhineland border with Germany, the disposition of the German fleet, the terms under which the British blockade might be modified, and the determination of legitimate claims for reparation.

Germany, the third major actor in the drama, also sought to shape events in accord with her interests. Berlin’s very opening to Washington in October had been with the hope to achieve terms of settlement in accord with Wilson’s relatively lenient pronouncements. The Germans saw two other tendencies they might harness to their purposes. The first was Allied awareness that, if they sought terms too severe, the Germans might reject them, and there would be no peace. The second was mounting Allied anxiety over developments in Russia.

Mr. Walworth traces with meticulous precision the early stages of that interplay between Germany and Communist Russia which was to have consequences of incalculable importance for the subsequent history of international politics. From the time of the Russian revolutions on through the punitive terms of Brest-Litovsk and its aftermath, it had been a major preoccupation of Wilson—and the Allies—to keep Russia from becoming the prey of Germany. Although this concern did not—and with reason—wholly subside with the signing of the Armistice, the emphasis now shifted. The greater fear became that Germany—in her situation of military weakness and internal upheaval—would become the prey of revolutionary Russia.(As Western fear of Russia mounted, the parallel with 1814—1815 was too close for German statesmen to miss. Might not Foreign Secretary Solf now play Talleyrand to the western Metternichs assembled at Paris?) The Allies now faced two massive threats, not one. The vagueness of the terms of Foch’s armistice on the disposition of German forces on the Eastern Front gave one evidence of the resultant uncertainty. If the Allies practiced unlimited severity toward the Germans, they risked driving them into Lenin’s arms. The entrance of a fourth protagonist played havoc with the calculations of the peacemakers. The statesmen of Paris had to grope their way forward on terrain none had foreseen.

For Wilson, of course, the game was not pursued for its own sake but only for what he saw as the highest of stakes. He had led America into a costly war with the promise to shape its outcome to avoid its recurrence. For the peace to be true, it must strike at the roots of war. For Wilson, these roots were found in the old balance of power politics. Thus he could only honor his commitment through the establishment of a new system for the management of power—collective security through the League of Nations. As Inis L. Claude, Jr.demonstrated some years ago in his pioneering work, Power and International Relations, Wilson’s conception of collective security differed radically from counterbalancing alliances, with which it is repeatedly confused. Wilson viewed each of the major problems of peacemaking in terms of its impact on the effort to implement his coherent conception for the new management of power.

At this point, the two tasks of current Wilsonian scholarship intersect: understanding of Wilson’s approach to specific problems cannot be wholly separated from assessment of their bearing on what he insisted was the fundamental problem. Mr. Walworth suggests that “Had the recommendations of the American generals for unconditional surrender been accepted it is possible that the peacemakers could have avoided a succession of crises that arose in the ensuing months when the armistice terms had to be renewed . . . .” This is a most “un-Wilsonian” judgment; Wilson’s policies spanned a far larger arc than those of Bliss or Pershing. While unconditional surrender might have served the immediate needs of technical convenience, it might also have done irreparable damage to Wilson’s attempt to achieve a new management of the security problem, Wilson looked to a future where Germany would share in maintenance of the responsibilities for collective security, which involved a common concern with aggression, not a specific alignment against a specific power. If Germany were to be a partner in the maintenance of the new order, she must be a participant in the shaping of it. Imposition of terms of unconditional surrender would vastly reduce the likelihood Germans could see the settlement as legitimate. By an inseparable logic collective security was linked to peace without victory.

In his discussion of Wilson’s policy toward the Communist movement in Russia, Mr. Walworth says that the “prime duty” of the peacemakers at Paris “in light of the subsequent history of the century was to attempt to establish some sort of understanding with the distrusted and unrecognized regime at Moscow.” Wilson did, of course, take major initiatives to this end, but no common accord could be reached among the Communists and the many other groups vying for political power in Russia, To suggest the peacemakers should have gone beyond this is to make another basically un-Wilsonian judgment. For Wilson, if peace were to be durable, it must be legitimate; to be legitimate it must rest on an authentic expression of the popular will. Time and again the Communists had undercut any claim they might make to be the authentic voice of that will, most notoriously when they dismissed the popularly-elected Constituent Assembly upon their failure to win a majority in it. Wilson knew that to recognize a new tyranny in Moscow far more repressive than the old in Berlin would make largely meaningless the purposes for which the war had been fought.

In America’s Moment: 1918, Arthur Walworth gives his readers an invaluable insight into the complexities of the first stage of peace-making at the end of the Great War. The outstanding marks of his craftsmanship are rigor and lucidity. He is determined to leave as few stones as possible unturned, as few facts as possible disjoined. Where his meticulous researches cross the interpretive line of Wilsonian scholarship his judgments are, on occasion, somewhat less sure. But the great interpretive questions about Wilson cannot, in any case, be resolved without the contributions of such scholars as Arthur Walworth. One must await with impatient anticipation the sequel he has promised us, and wish him Godspeed in his eminent effort.


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