Modern history


WITH THE SIGNING of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, the world government in Paris dissolved. Wilson left that night, Lloyd George and what was left of the British empire delegation the following morning in a special train. (The British government later discovered to its annoyance that the French had sent a large bill for the train.) Orlando, whose government had fallen, had already gone. Clemenceau, alone of the Big Four, remained in Paris. He spent the summer shepherding the German treaty through the National Assembly and supervising the preparations for a national day of celebration in July. His only break was a brief visit to the devastated regions in the north. The Paris hotels reopened for normal business as the journalists and delegations went home. The prostitutes complained that business was off. 1 At the end of the summer, the British gave up the Majestic. Two decades later, it became the headquarters of another foreign delegation, this time the German army in occupation in Paris.

The Peace Conference continued until January 1920, but it was like a theatrical production whose stars had gone. The foreign ministers and the diplomats took over again but they never regained their old grip on foreign relations. The important decisions were always referred back to their political superiors in Rome or London or Washington and the difficult issues were hammered out in special conferences, of which Lloyd George alone attended thirty-three between 1919 and 1922.

Between January and June 1919, the peacemakers had accomplished an enormous amount: a League of Nations and an International Labour Organization, mandates handed out, the Germany treaty finished, the treaties with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey nearly done—but there were many loose ends. Russia’s borders were still fluctuating and it was not clear which of its states along the periphery would keep their new independence. Finland? Ukraine? Georgia? Armenia? In the wreckage of empires in the center of Europe the borders were still being disputed. And the decision, taken so lightly, to let the Greeks land in Smyrna had set off a chain of explosions that would not end until 1923.

Moreover, some of the great problems that had faced the peacemakers at the start of the Peace Conference had only been shelved. Russian Bolshevism had been contained, perhaps, but the longer war between the capitalist West and the communist East was only just starting. The German question was still there to trouble Europe. The Allied victory had not been decisive enough and Germany remained too strong.

Nationalism, far from burning itself out, was still gathering momentum. There was much fuel to hand in Central Europe and farther afield, in the Middle East and in Asia. In many cases the peacemakers found themselves dealing with faits accomplis. Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia all existed before the Peace Conference started. The best the peacemakers could do was to try to prevent the decomposition of Europe and the Middle East into further and further subdivisions based on nationality and to draw borders as rational as possible. The demand for nation-states based on single nationalities was not itself rational in the world of 1919. It was not possible, then, to put all the Poles in Europe into Poland and all the Germans into Germany. In Europe alone, 30 million people were left in states where they were an ethnic minority, an object of suspicion at home and of desire from their co-nationals abroad.2

In that grim winter of 1919, a young American diplomat in Vienna received a delegation of gray-bearded men from Slovenia in the northwest of the Balkans. They spoke German. Their whole town of 60,000 people had spoken German for over 700 years. Now Slovenia was to become part of the new state of Yugoslavia. They were reluctant to be ruled by people they felt to be inferior. Would the United States please annex them? Nicholas Roosevelt, a young cousin of the great Teddy, passed the request on to his superiors but received no reply.3 Although neither Roosevelt nor the elderly Germans knew it, their community was fated to disappear, along with many others, when the Germans were forcibly expelled from much of Central Europe after the Second World War.

In 1919 the world still shrank from the expulsion of minorities and frowned on forcible assimilation. That left, it seemed, only toleration, of the minority by the majority, a quality that was in short supply in many countries. The peacemakers did their best to impose obligations on governments to treat their minorities well. The new states and some of the smaller powers in the center of Europe had to sign treaties that bound them to treat their minorities equally, to tolerate their religions and to allow them such rights as using their own languages. Both the Rumanians and the Yugoslavs protested. What about similar provisions for the blacks in the United States or the Irish in Britain?, Queen Marie of Rumania asked Wilson. Why, demanded Brătianu, the Rumanian prime minister, was his country being singled out in this way? Italy had minorities but it was not being asked to sign. East Europeans were different, Clemenceau told him unhelpfully. Although both Rumania and Yugoslavia eventually signed, it was not an auspicious start.4

The minorities’ treaties remained a feeble gesture in the face of growing national chauvinism. The League gave up trying to supervise them by 1934 and the Great Powers had enough else to worry about besides obscure minorities. There were a few hopeful signs: little Estonia voluntarily gave autonomy to its minorities. The mainly Swedish-speaking Åland islands remained under Finnish rule after 1919, but a special treaty guaranteed both language and culture. The Second World War and its aftermath showed yet another solution—the expulsion and murder of unwanted minorities. Some twelve million Germans went westward and seven million Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians were forced to return to what now became their native lands. Europe was left with only minuscule national minorities, less than 3 percent of its total population. Self-determination, that noble ideal, produced dreadful offspring when it was wedded to ethnic nationalism. 5

The peacemakers in 1919 felt that they had done their best, but they had no illusions that they had solved the world’s problems. As he left Paris on June 28, Wilson said to his wife, “Well, little girl, it is finished, and, as no one is satisfied, it makes me hope we have made a just peace; but it is all in the lap of the gods.”6 It was also in the laps of those who came next to lead the world, some of whom had been in Paris—such as Prince Konoe of Japan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—some of whom had been watching from afar. In Italy, Mussolini was rising fast in nationalist politics, as the old liberal order crumbled under assaults from men such as D’Annunzio. The young Adolf Hitler was in Munich that June, taking congenial courses on the glories of German history and the evils of international Jewish capital. Already he was discovering his own talents as an ideologue and an orator.

Lloyd George had three more years in power. After he was forced to resign in November 1922 he never again held office, although he remained a member of Parliament until his death in 1945. His memoirs of the Peace Conference, published in 1938, are entertaining, frequently inaccurate, and tend to blame the French or the Americans for everything that went wrong. Clemenceau unwisely ran for president of France at the end of 1919. Expecting to be acclaimed, he withdrew in a rage when it became clear that he would face opposition. He left France almost immediately and spent the next years traveling. He continued to write, a huge and almost unreadable two-volume work on philosophy and a short study of the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes, who warned his civilized and comfort-loving fellow citizens that they were in danger from the barbarian Philip of Macedon. He refused to write his memoirs and destroyed most of his papers in 1928. He had made his contribution to history, he told a British journalist, but he disdained all discussion of the past. Stung by the posthumous publication of an attack by Foch, he finally took up his pen and drafted a defense of his work during the war and at the Peace Conference. He died in November 1929, before he could complete it. Whatever secrets he had about the inner workings of the Peace Conference, he took with him.7

Wilson’s end was the saddest. Exhausted by the Peace Conference, he plunged into a wrenching and debilitating fight with the Senate over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and, more specifically, the League of Nations. His supporters and his opponents had both been busy while he was away. The League to Enforce the Peace was energetically lobbying for ratification. Wilson, unfortunately, did not much care for them, dismissing them as “butters-in” and “wool-gatherers.” The League for the Preservation of American Independence, inspired, so it frequently said, by George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s repeated warnings against permanent or entangling alliances, did its best to thwart the president. As for the ninety-six members of the Senate, it became apparent that they were dividing into roughly four groups. At least six Republicans would not have the League in any form—they came to be known as the Irreconcilables. A few Democrat mavericks would probably vote with them. Some nine Republicans were Mild Reservationists who would have accepted the League so long as their reservations to protect American sovereignty were registered. (Reservations were the well-established diplomatic practice of accepting an international agreement with qualifications; so long as all parties to the treaty agreed, the reservations stood.) This left three dozen Republicans who were not yet fully committed. Most Democrats still followed their president, although many privately hoped he would come to terms with the Mild Reservationists. If Wilson did compromise, there was a good chance that there would be enough votes to get the treaty passed. Would the European powers accept reservations? Lloyd George claimed in his memoirs that they had always expected they might have to. But they were never put to the test.8

Wilson could have built his own coalition. The Republicans only had a majority of two in the Senate and he could have won over the moderates among them by accepting some reservations. When Lansing urged him to compromise, the president was unmoved: “His face took on that stubborn and pugnacious expression which comes when anyone tells him a fact which interferes with his plans.” His opponents, Wilson told an intimate, were moved by the basest instincts. “They are going to have the most conspicuously contemptible names in history.”9

The president arrived back in Washington at midnight on July 8, 1919. A crowd of 100,000, enormous for those days, waited at the train station. Two days later he presented the Treaty of Versailles, with the League covenant at its start, to the Senate in person. “Dare we reject it,” he asked them, “and break the heart of the world?” His speech, it was generally agreed, was poor. Unusually, he read parts of it and he lost his thread in places. Washington, and the country, readied themselves for the next step—the Senate’s consideration of the treaty.10

At first Wilson chose to work largely behind the scenes, meeting with Republican senators in an effort to persuade them that American independence was not compromised by membership in the League or by Article X, in particular, which was the heart of collective security. (Signatories promised “to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.”) He was confident, he told a British diplomat, that the treaty would go through the Senate. He was not prepared, he reiterated, to accept any changes; the treaty must be ratified as they had written it in Paris.11

At the end of his first week in Washington, Wilson escaped the summer heat with a cruise on the Potomac on the presidential yacht. He was already looking tired. The impending treaty fight was not the only problem facing his administration that summer. Food prices were going up sharply; racial tensions were exploding into race riots; key unions threatened strikes. The weather broke, with violent thunderstorms, and the president took to his bed for several days. A touch of dysentery, was Admiral Grayson’s explanation. There has been much speculation since that it was in fact a minor stroke. Whatever the case, and we will never know for certain, Wilson was clearly not the man he had been. He was easily confused and forgot things he should have known. He lost his temper frequently, often over small matters. Wilson’s deteriorating mental and physical health contributed, perhaps, to his refusal to face the reality that he did not have the votes to get the treaty as it stood through the Senate and also to making his well-known stubbornness something more like blind obstinacy. Grayson and Mrs. Wilson, loyal and protective to a fault, did their best to persuade him to rest. They also downplayed the problems with his health.12

On July 14 a Democrat who supported the treaty made the first of what were to be five months of speeches in the Senate. On July 31 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Lodge’s chairmanship started six weeks of hearings. Not surprisingly, the questioning from the Republican majority focused on the League’s covenant, especially the by now notorious Article X. On August 19, in an extraordinary breach with convention, Wilson appeared before the committee. He gave no indication that he was prepared to compromise. Four days later, the committee voted on the first of what were to be numerous amendments and reservations to the treaty. The issue they chose was Shantung—to reverse its award to Japan and hand it back to China. An angry Wilson decided the time had come to reach beyond the senators to the American people. 13

On September 2, 1919, he left Washington for a trip across the country. His closest advisers begged him not to go. Wilson was adamant. The treaty must be saved, even if he had to give his life for it. “In the presence of the great tragedy which now faces the world,” he told them, “no decent man can count his personal fortunes in the reckoning.” 14 Grayson heard the decision with dread: “There was nothing I could do except to go with him and take such care of him as I could.” As Wilson boarded his special train, he complained about the dreadful headaches that he had been having. For almost a month Wilson made speech after speech, sometimes two, even three a day. He hammered at the same themes. The treaty was a great document for peace and for humanity, dearly bought with the sacrifice of the young American men who had gone over to fight in Europe. Those who opposed it back in Washington were partisan, shortsighted, selfish, ignorant, perhaps something worse. “When at last in the annals of mankind they are gibbeted, they will regret that the gibbet is so high.” He was glad, he told an audience in St. Louis, that he was away from the capital. “The real voices of the great people of America sometimes sound faint and distant in that strange city!” The crowds grew larger and more enthusiastic as he headed west. Supporters of the treaty grew moderately confident that it might get through if only Wilson would accept some of the milder reservations. 15

Wilson’s headaches grew worse and he looked more and more exhausted. Bad news came in from Washington. Sentiment was growing in favor of reservations. William Bullitt, still smarting from the repudiation of his trip to Russia, now took his revenge, making a dramatic appearance before the Senate hearings to paint a picture of one blunder after another in Paris. Worse, he said that Lansing, the secretary of state, shared his criticisms. Lansing issued an unconvincing denial. “My God!” exclaimed Wilson. “I did not think it was possible for Lansing to act in this way.” Grayson noticed with alarm that the president turned pale and saliva appeared in the corners of his mouth. In San Francisco, Wilson told an old friend, a woman whom he had once been close to, that the attacks on the treaty were simply personal. “If I had nothing to do with the League of Nations, it would go through just like that!”16

On September 25 Wilson was in Colorado. By now he was having repeated coughing attacks which Grayson attributed to asthma. He had to sit propped up at nights and could not sleep for more than two hours at a time. He spoke in Pueblo that afternoon, his fortieth speech in twenty-one days. “Disloyalty,” he said of the League’s opponents. There would be no compromise with them, no reservations to the covenant: “We have got to adopt it or reject it.”17

Wilson never spoke in public again. At two the next morning, Mrs. Wilson woke Grayson. He found the president in a pitiable state, ill, gasping for air, the muscles in his face twitching. Wilson feebly insisted that he must carry on. His wife and doctor overruled him. “The doctor is right,” Wilson told his secretary with tears in his eyes. “I have never been in a condition like this, and I just feel as if I am going to pieces.” The president was suffering, Grayson said in a public statement, from physical exhaustion and a nervous reaction affecting his stomach. The rest of the tour was canceled and the president’s train headed back to Washington.18

On October 2, at the White House, Wilson had a massive stroke that left him partly paralyzed on his left side. Although he would make a limited recovery over time, he was not physically or mentally the man he had been. He never effectively functioned as president again, although he continued to influence the battle over the treaty from his sickroom. Mrs. Wilson and Grayson took it upon themselves to conceal the full extent of his illness and to carry out his wishes. In the first weeks after the stroke, when it was not clear that Wilson would survive, they kept everyone except Wilson’s daughters and the essential nurses and doctors from seeing the president. The leader of the Senate Democrats, Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska, was shocked when he finally saw Wilson on November 7. “As he lay in bed slightly propped up by pillows with the useless arm concealed beneath the covers I beheld an emaciated old man with a thin white beard which had been permitted to grow.”19

The treaty continued to make its way through the Senate for the rest of October and part of November 1919. Amendments, twelve in all, were defeated by a combination of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Lodge managed, however, to hold most of the Republicans together, and their votes, along with those of the few Democrats who crossed party lines, were sufficient to attach a number of reservations to the treaty. The most crucial reservation involved Article X; the United States would not act to protect the territorial integrity or independence of any League member unless Congress approved. Lodge put forward a motion of ratification incorporating the reservation. When Hitchcock went to Wilson’s bedside for a second time on November 17 to discuss this, he found the president significantly more alert—but also more determined than ever. Wilson adamantly opposed the reservation in any form. “That cuts the very heart out of the treaty.” He told Hitchcock to let the Republicans take the responsibility for defeating the treaty; they would have to answer to the people of the United States. The following day Mrs. Wilson sent Hitchcock a letter she had written at her husband’s dictation. The reservations of Senator Lodge and his cronies amounted to a nullification of the treaty. “I sincerely hope,” Wilson said unequivocally, “that the friends and supporters of the League will vote against the Lodge resolution of ratification.” The next day the Senate voted on Lodge’s motion. It was defeated by a combination of those Democrats, the majority, who still followed Wilson’s bidding and Republican Irreconcilables. Four weeks later, Wilson learned that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.20

Moderate Republicans and Democrats made a last-ditch effort to find a compromise. From the White House an embittered Wilson did his best to block them. Even so the moderates came close; when the Senate voted for the final time on March 19, 1920, on a fresh resolution to ratify the treaty, with slightly modified reservations, the new resolution passed. Twenty-three Democrats defied their president to vote in favor. The necessary two-thirds majority, however, remained just out of reach so the Senate failed to give its consent to the treaty. “Doctor,” Wilson said to Grayson that night, “the devil is a busy man.”21

He never changed his view that he had been right to reject compromise. The United States later signed separate treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary, but it never joined the League. Wilson, who had briefly contemplated running for president again, lingered on until 1924. Mrs. Wilson survived to go to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

Wilson’s efforts, and those of the many other peacemakers who shared his ideals, were not completely wasted. The Treaty of Versailles, and the other treaties with the defeated that used it as a model, certainly contained provisions about territory and reparations that could have been written in earlier centuries, but they were also imbued with a new spirit. The covenant of the League came at the start, not as an afterthought, and the League itself was woven into the later clauses, supervising the plebiscites, governing the Saar and Danzig, and monitoring the mandates. The provisions for an International Labour Organization, for treaties to protect minorities, to set up a permanent court of justice or to try men such as the kaiser for offenses against international morality, underlined the idea that there were certain things that all humanity had in common and that there could be international standards beyond those of mere national interest. And when those treaties were attacked in the interwar years it was generally because they had failed to match those standards.

Later it became commonplace to blame everything that went wrong in the 1920s and 1930s on the peacemakers and the settlements they made in Paris in 1919, just as it became easy to despair of democracy. Pointing the finger and shrugging helplessly are effective ways of avoiding responsibility. Eighty years later the old charges about the Paris Peace Conference still have a wide circulation. “The final crime,” declared The Economist in its special millennium issue, was “the Treaty of Versailles, whose harsh terms would ensure a second war.”22 That is to ignore the actions of everyone— political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters—for twenty years between 1919 and 1939.

Hitler did not wage war because of the Treaty of Versailles, although he found its existence a godsend for his propaganda. Even if Germany had been left with its old borders, even if it had been allowed whatever military forces it wanted, even if it had been permitted to join with Austria, he still would have wanted more: the destruction of Poland, control of Czechoslovakia, above all the conquest of the Soviet Union. He would have demanded room for the German people to expand and the destruction of their enemies, whether Jews or Bolsheviks. There was nothing in the Treaty of Versailles about that.

The peacemakers of 1919 made mistakes, of course. By their offhand treatment of the non-European world, they stirred up resentments for which the West is still paying today. They took pains over the borders in Europe, even if they did not draw them to everyone’s satisfaction, but in Africa they carried on the old practice of handing out territory to suit the imperialist powers. In the Middle East, they threw together peoples, in Iraq most notably, who still have not managed to cohere into a civil society. If they could have done better, they certainly could have done much worse. They tried, even cynical old Clemenceau, to build a better order. They could not foresee the future and they certainly could not control it. That was up to their successors. When war came in 1939, it was a result of twenty years of decisions taken or not taken, not of arrangements made in 1919.

Of course things might have been different if Germany had been more thoroughly defeated. Or if the United States had been as powerful after the First World War as it was after the Second—and had been willing to use that power. If Britain and France had not been weakened by the war—or if they had been so weakened that the United States had felt obliged to step in. If Austria-Hungary had not disappeared. If its successor states had not quarreled with each other. If China had not been so weak. If Japan had been more sure of itself. If states had accepted a League of Nations with real powers. If the world had been so thoroughly devastated by war that it was willing to contemplate a new way of managing international relations. The peacemakers, however, had to deal with reality, not what might have been. They grappled with huge and difficult questions. How can the irrational passions of nationalism or religion be contained before they do more damage? How can we outlaw war? We are still asking those questions.

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