Modern history

PART ON

GETTING READY FOR PEACE

1

Woodrow Wilson Comes to Europe

ON DECEMBER 4, 1918, the George Washington sailed out of New York with the American delegation to the Peace Conference on board. Guns fired salutes, crowds along the waterfront cheered, tugboats hooted and Army planes and dirigibles circled overhead. Robert Lansing, the American secretary of state, released carrier pigeons with messages to his relatives about his deep hope for a lasting peace. The ship, a former German passenger liner, slid out past the Statue of Liberty to the Atlantic, where an escort of destroyers and battleships stood by to accompany it and its cargo of heavy expectations to Europe.1

On board were the best available experts, combed out of the universities and the government; crates of reference materials and special studies; the French and Italian ambassadors to the United States; and Woodrow Wilson. No other American president had ever gone to Europe while in office. His opponents accused him of breaking the Constitution; even his supporters felt he might be unwise. Would he lose his great moral authority by getting down to the hurly-burly of negotiations? Wilson’s own view was clear: the making of the peace was as important as the winning of the war. He owed it to the peoples of Europe, who were crying out for a better world. He owed it to the American servicemen. “It is now my duty,” he told a pensive Congress just before he left, “to play my full part in making good what they gave their life’s blood to obtain.” A British diplomat was more cynical; Wilson, he said, was drawn to Paris “as a debutante is entranced by the prospect of her first ball.”2

Wilson expected, he wrote to his great friend Edward House, who was already in Europe, that he would stay only to arrange the main outlines of the peace settlements. It was not likely that he would remain for the formal Peace Conference with the enemy.3 He was wrong. The preliminary conference turned, without anyone’s intending it, into the final one, and Wilson stayed for most of the crucial six months between January and June 1919. The question of whether or not he should have gone to Paris, which exercised so many of his contemporaries, now seems unimportant. From Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton at Camp David, American presidents have sat down to draw borders and hammer out peace agreements. Wilson had set the conditions for the armistices which ended the Great War. Why should he not make the peace as well?

Although he had not started out in 1912 as a foreign policy president, circumstances and his own progressive political principles had drawn him outward. Like many of his compatriots, he had come to see the Great War as a struggle between the forces of democracy, however imperfectly represented by Britain and France, and those of reaction and militarism, represented all too well by Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany’s sack of Belgium, its unrestricted submarine warfare and its audacity in attempting to entice Mexico into waging war on the United States had pushed Wilson and American public opinion toward the Allies. When Russia had a democratic revolution in February 1917, one of the last reservations—that the Allies included an autocracy—vanished. Although he had campaigned in 1916 on a platform of keeping the country neutral, Wilson brought the United States into the war in April 1917. He was convinced that he was doing the right thing. This was important to the son of a Presbyterian minister, who shared his father’s deep religious conviction, if not his calling.

Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856, just before the Civil War. Although he remained a Southerner in some ways all his life—in his insistence on honor and his paternalistic attitudes toward women and blacks—he also accepted the war’s outcome. Abraham Lincoln was one of his great heroes, along with Edmund Burke and William Gladstone.4 The young Wilson was at once highly idealistic and intensely ambitious. After four very happy years at Princeton and an unhappy stint as a lawyer, he found his first career in teaching and writing. By 1890 he was back at Princeton, a star member of the faculty. In 1902 he became its president, supported virtually unanimously by the trustees, faculty and students.

In the next eight years Wilson transformed Princeton from a sleepy college for gentlemen into a great university. He reworked the curriculum, raised significant amounts of money and brought into the faculty the brightest and the best young men from across the country. By 1910, he was a national figure and the Democratic party in New Jersey, under the control of conservative bosses, invited him to run for governor. Wilson agreed, but insisted on running on a progressive platform of controlling big business and extending democracy. He swept the state and by 1911 “Wilson for President” clubs were springing up. He spoke for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and all those who had been left behind by the rapid economic growth of the late nineteenth century. In 1912, at a long and hard-fought convention, Wilson got the Democratic nomination for president. That November, with the Republicans split by Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to run as a progressive against William Howard Taft, Wilson was elected. In 1916, he was reelected, with an even greater share of the popular vote.

Wilson’s career was a series of triumphs, but there were darker moments, both personal and political, fits of depression and sudden and baffling illnesses. Moreover, he had left behind him a trail of enemies, many of them former friends. “An ingrate and a liar,” said a Democratic boss in New Jersey in a toast. Wilson never forgave those who disagreed with him. “He is a good hater,” said his press officer and devoted admirer Ray Stannard Baker.5 He was also stubborn. As House said, with admiration: “Whenever a question is presented he keeps an absolutely open mind and welcomes all suggestion or advice which will lead to a correct decision. But he is receptive only during the period that he is weighing the question and preparing to make his decision. Once the decision is made it is final and there is an absolute end to all advice and suggestion. There is no moving him after that.” What was admirable to some was a dangerous egotism to others. The French ambassador in Washington saw “a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant in the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong.”6

This side of Wilson’s character was in evidence when he chose his fellow commissioners—or plenipotentiaries, as the chief delegates were known—to the Peace Conference. He was himself one. House, “my alter ego,” as he was fond of saying, was another. Reluctantly he selected Lansing, his secretary of state, as a third, mainly because it would have been awkward to leave him behind. Where Wilson had once rather admired Lansing’s vast store of knowledge, his meticulous legal mind and his apparent readiness to take a back seat, by 1919 that early liking had turned to irritation and contempt. Lansing, it turned out, did have views, often strong ones which contradicted the president’s. “He has,” Wilson complained to House, who noted it down with delight, “no imagination, no constructive ability, and but little real ability of any kind.” The fourth plenipotentiary, General Tasker Bliss, was already in France as the American military representative on the Supreme War Council. A thoughtful and intelligent man who loved to lie in bed with a hip flask reading Thucydides in the original Greek, he was also, many of the junior members of the American delegation believed, well past his prime. Since Wilson was to speak to him on only five occasions during the Peace Conference, perhaps that did not matter.

The president’s final selection, Henry White, was a charming, affable retired diplomat, the high point of whose career had been well before the war. Mrs. Wilson was to find him useful in Paris on questions of etiquette. 7

Wilson’s selection caused an uproar in the United States at the time and has caused controversy ever since. “A lot of cheapskates,” said William Taft. “I would swear if it would do any good.” Wilson had deliberately slighted the Republicans, most of whom had supported the war enthusiastically and many of whom now shared his vision of a League of Nations. “I tell you what,” the humorist Will Rogers had him saying to the Republicans, “we will split 50–50—I will go and you fellows can stay.” Even his most partisan supporters had urged him to appoint men such as Taft or the senior Republican senator on the important Committee on Foreign Relations, Henry Cabot Lodge. Wilson refused, with a variety of unconvincing excuses. The real reason was that he did not like or trust Republicans. His decision was costly, because it undercut his position in Paris and damaged his dream of a new world order with the United States at its heart.8

Wilson remains puzzling in a way that Lloyd George and Clemenceau, his close colleagues in Paris, do not. What is one to make of a leader who drew on the most noble language of the Bible yet was so ruthless with those who crossed him? Who loved democracy but despised most of his fellow politicians? Who wanted to serve humanity but had so few personal relationships? Was he, as Teddy Roosevelt thought, “as insincere and cold-blooded an opportunist as we have ever had in the Presidency”? Or was he, as Baker believed, one of those rare idealists like Calvin or Cromwell, “who from time to time have appeared upon the earth & for a moment, in burst of strange power, have temporarily lifted erring mankind to a higher pitch of contentment than it was quite equal to”?9

Wilson wanted power and he wanted to do great works. What brought the two sides of his character together was his ability, self-deception perhaps, to frame his decisions so that they became not merely necessary, but morally right. Just as American neutrality in the first years of the war had been right for Americans, and indeed for humanity, so the United States’ eventual entry into the war became a crusade, against human greed and folly, against Germany and for justice, peace and civilization. This conviction, however, without which he could never have attempted what he did in Paris, made Wilson intolerant of differences and blind to the legitimate concerns of others. Those who opposed him were not just wrong but wicked.

Like the Germans. The decision to go to war had been agony for Wilson. He had worked for a peace of compromise between the Allies and the Central Powers. Even when they had rejected his offer to mediate, when German submarines had sunk American ships, when opponents such as Roosevelt had attacked his cowardice and when his own cabinet had been unanimous for war, he had waited. In the end he decided to intervene because, as he saw it, Germany left him no alternative. “It is a fearful thing,” he told Congress in April 1917, when he went before it to ask for a declaration of war, “to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.” 10 In Wilson’s view Germany, or at the very least its leaders, bore a heavy burden of guilt. The Germans might be redeemed, but they also must be chastised.

The photographs taken in 1919 make him look like an undertaker, but in the flesh Wilson was a handsome man, with fine, straight features and a spare, upright frame. In his manner he had something of the preacher and of the university professor. He placed great faith in reason and facts, but he saw it as auspicious that he landed in Europe on Friday, December 13. Thirteen was his lucky number. A deeply emotional man, he mistrusted emotion in others. It was good when it brought people to desire the best, dangerous when, like nationalism, it intoxicated them. Lloyd George, who never entirely got his measure, listed his good qualities to a friend— “kindly, sincere, straightforward”—and then added in the next breath “tactless, obstinate and vain.”11

In public, Wilson was stiff and formal, but with his intimates he was charming and even playful. He was particularly at ease with women. He was usually in perfect control of himself, but during the Peace Conference he frequently lost his temper. (It is possible he suffered a stroke while he was in Paris.) He loved puns and limericks and he liked to illustrate his points with folksy stories. He enjoyed doing accents: Scottish or Irish, like his ancestors, or Southern black, like the people who worked for him in Washington. He was abstemious in his habits; at most he would drink a small glass of whisky in an evening. He loved gadgets and liked the new moving pictures. On the voyage to Europe he generally went to the after-dinner picture shows. To general consternation the feature one evening was a melodrama called The Second Wife.12

Wilson’s relations with women had always caused a certain amount of gossip. During his first marriage he had close, possibly even romantic, friendships with several women. His first wife, whom he had loved deeply if not passionately, had died in 1914; by the end of 1915, he was married again, to a wealthy Washington widow some seventeen years his junior. That this caused gossip bewildered and infuriated him. He never forgave a British diplomat for a joke that went around Washington: “What did the new Mrs. Wilson do when the President proposed? She fell out of bed with surprise.” Wilson’s own family and friends were more charitable. “Isn’t it wonderful to see Father so happy,” exclaimed a daughter. House, who was later to become Mrs. Wilson’s bitter enemy, wrote in his diary that it was a relief that Wilson had someone to share his burdens: “his loneliness is pathetic.”13

Edith Bolling, the new Mrs. Wilson, accompanied the president to Europe, a privilege not allowed lesser wives. She was warm and lively and laughed a great deal. She loved golf, shopping, orchids and parties. She had, everyone agreed, wonderful eyes, but some found her a bit plump and her mouth too large. She wore, they thought in Paris, her clothes a little too tight, the necks too low, the skirts too short. Wilson thought she was beautiful. Like him, she came from the South. She did not want to spoil her maid by taking her to London, she told a fellow American, because the British treated blacks too well. Although she had the easy flirtatious ways of a Southern woman, she was a shrewd businesswoman. After her first husband’s death she had run the family jewelry store. When she married Wilson, he made it clear that he expected her to share his work. She took up the offer with enthusiasm. No intellectual, she was quick and determined. She was also ferociously loyal to her new husband. Wilson adored her.14

On board the George Washington, the Wilsons kept to themselves, eating most of their meals in their stateroom and strolling on the deck arm in arm. The American experts worked away on their maps and their papers, asking each other, with some disquiet, what their country’s policies were to be. Wilson had said much about general principles but had mentioned few specifics. A young man called William Bullitt boldly went up to the president and told him that they were all confused by his silence. Wilson was surprised but agreed pleasantly to meet with a dozen of the leading experts. “It is absolutely the first time,” said one afterward, “the president has let anyone know what his ideas are and what his policy is.” There were to be few other such occasions. The experts left the meeting heartened and impressed. Wilson was informal and friendly. He spoke about the heavy task ahead and how he was going to rely on them to provide him with the best information. They must feel free to come to him at any time. “You tell me what’s right and I’ll fight for it.” He apologized for talking about his own ideas: “they weren’t very good but he thought them better than anything else he had heard.”15

When it came to making peace, Wilson said, their country would rightly hold the position of arbiter. They must live up to the great American traditions of justice and generosity. They would be, after all, “the only disinterested people at the Peace Conference.” What was more, he warned, “the men whom we were about to deal with did not represent their own people.” This was one of Wilson’s deep convictions, curious in a man whose own Congress was now dominated by his political opponents. Throughout the Peace Conference he clung to the belief that he spoke for the masses and that, if only he could reach them—whether French, Italian or even Russian—they would rally to his views.16

He touched on another favorite theme: the United States, he assured his audience, had not entered the war for selfish reasons. In this, as in so much else, it was unlike other nations, for it did not want territory, tribute or even revenge. (As a sign that American participation in the war was different from that of the Europeans, Wilson had always insisted on the United States being an Associate and not an Ally.) The United States generally acted unselfishly, in its occupation of Cuba, for example. “We had gone to war with Spain,” he insisted, “not for annexation but to provide the helpless colony with the opportunity of freedom.” 17

Wilson tended to draw on Latin American examples, since most of his formative experiences in foreign relations had been there. He had recast, at least to his own satisfaction, the Monroe Doctrine, that famous defiance hurled at the Europeans in 1823 to warn them off attempting to colonize the New World again. The doctrine had become a fundamental precept in American foreign policy, a cloak, many said, for U.S. dominance of its neighbors. Wilson saw it rather as the framework within which all the nations of the Americas worked peacefully together, and a model for the warring European nations. Lansing was dubious, as he often was of Wilson’s ideas: “the doctrine is exclusively a national policy of the United States and relates to its national safety and vital interests.”18

Wilson paid little attention to what he regarded as niggling objections from Lansing. He was clear in his own mind that he meant well. When the American troops went to Haiti or Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic, it was to further order and democracy. “I am going to teach,” he had said in his first term as president, “the South American Republics to elect good men!” He rarely mentioned that he was also protecting the Panama Canal and American investments. During Wilson’s presidency, the United States intervened repeatedly in Mexico to try to get the sort of government it wanted. “The purpose of the United States,” Wilson said, “is solely and singly to secure peace and order in Central America by seeing to it that the processes of self-government there are not interrupted or set aside.” He was taken aback when the Mexicans failed to see the landing of American troops, and American threats, in the same light.19

The Mexican adventure also showed Wilson’s propensity, perhaps unconscious, to ignore the truth. When he sent troops to Mexico for the first time, he told Congress that it was in response to repeated provocations and insults to the United States and its citizens from General Victoriano Huerta, the man who started the Mexican Revolution. Huerta in fact had taken great care to avoid provocations. At the Paris Peace Conference Wilson was to claim that he had never seen the secret wartime agreements among the Allies, promising Italy, for example, enemy territory. The British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, had shown them to him in 1917. Lansing said sourly of his president: “Even established facts were ignored if they did not fit in with this intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right.”20

As the Mexican imbroglio demonstrated, Wilson was not afraid to use his country’s considerable power, whether financial or military. And by the end of the Great War the United States was much more powerful than it had been in 1914. Then it had possessed a minuscule army and a middle-sized navy; now it had over a million troops in Europe alone, and a navy that rivaled Britain’s. Indeed, Americans tended to assume that they had won the war for their European allies. The American economy had surged ahead as American farmers and American factories poured out wheat, pork, iron and steel for the Allied war effort. As the American share of world production and trade rose inexorably, that of the European powers stagnated or declined. Most significant of all for their future relations, the United States had become the banker to the Europeans. Together the European allies owed over $7 billion to the American government, and about half as much again to American banks. Wilson assumed, overconfidently as it turned out, that the United States would get its way simply by applying financial pressure. As his legal adviser David Hunter Miller said, “Europe is bankrupt financially and its governments are bankrupt morally. The mere hint of withdrawal by America by reason of opposition to her wishes for justice, for fairness, and for peace would see the fall of every government in Europe without exception, and a revolution in every country in Europe with one possible exception.”21

In that meeting on the George Washington, Wilson also talked briefly about the difficulties that lay ahead with the nations emerging from the wreckage of central Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and many more. They could have whatever form of government they wanted, but they must include in their new states only those who wanted to be there. “Criterion not who are intellectual or social or economic leaders but who form mass of people,” a member of his audience wrote down. “Must have liberty—that is the kind of government they want.”22

Of all the ideas Wilson brought to Europe, this concept of self-determination was, and has remained, one of the most controversial and opaque. During the Peace Conference, the head of the American mission in Vienna sent repeated requests to Paris and Washington for an explanation of the term. No answer ever came. It has never been easy to determine what Wilson meant. “Autonomous development,” “the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments,” “the rights and liberties of small nations,” a world made safe “for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions”: the phrases had poured out from the White House, an inspiration to peoples around the world. But what did they add up to? Did Wilson merely mean, as sometimes appeared, an extension of democratic self-government? Did he really intend that any people who called themselves a nation should have their own state? In a statement he drafted, but never used, to persuade the American people to support the peace settlements, he stated, “We say now that all these people have the right to live their own lives under governments which they themselves choose to set up. That is the American principle.” Yet he had no sympathy for Irish nationalists and their struggle to free themselves from British rule. During the Peace Conference he insisted that the Irish question was a domestic matter for the British. When a delegation of nationalist Irish asked him for support, he felt, he told his legal adviser, like telling them to go to hell. His view was that the Irish lived in a democratic country and they could sort it out through democratic means.23

The more Wilson’s concept of self-determination is examined, the more difficulties appear. Lansing asked himself: “When the President talks of ‘self-determination’ what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” It was a calamity, Lansing thought, that Wilson had ever hit on the phrase. “It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force.” What, as Lansing asked, made a nation? Was it a shared citizenship, as in the United States, or a shared ethnicity, as in Ireland? If a nation was not self-governing, ought it to be? And in that case, how much self-government was enough? Could a nation, however defined, exist happily within a larger multinational state? Sometimes Wilson seemed to think so. He came, after all, from a country that sheltered many different nationalities and which had fought a bitter war, which he remembered well, to stay in one piece.

Initially, he did not want to break up the big multinational empires such as Austria-Hungary and Russia. In February 1918, he had told Congress that “well-defined” national aspirations should be satisfied without, however, “introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe, and consequently of the world.”24

That led to another series of questions. What was a “well-defined” nationalism? Polish? That was an obvious one. But what about Ukrainian? Or Slovak? And what about subdivisions? Ukrainian Catholics, for example, or Protestant Poles? The possibilities for dividing up peoples were unending, especially in central Europe, where history had left a rich mix of religions, languages and cultures. About half the people living there could be counted as members of one national minority or another. How were peoples to be allocated to one country or another when the dividing lines between one nation and another were so unclear?

One solution was to leave it to the experts. Let them study the history, collect the statistics and consult the locals. Another, more apparently democratic solution, which had been floating around in international relations since the French Revolution, was to give the locals a choice through a plebiscite, with a secret vote, administered by some international body. Wilson himself does not seem to have assumed that self-determination implied plebiscites, but by 1918 many people did. Who was to vote? Only men, or women as well? Only residents, or anyone who had been born in the disputed locality? (The French firmly rejected the idea of a plebiscite on their lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine on the grounds that the vote would be unfair because Germany had forced French speakers out and brought in Germans.) And what if the locals did not know which nation they belonged to? In 1920, when an outside investigator asked a peasant in Belarus, on the frontier where Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians all mingled, who he was, the only answer that came back was “I am a Catholic of these parts.” What do you do, asked American experts in Carinthia in the Austrian Alps, when you have people “who do not want to join the nation of their blood-brothers, or else are absolutely indifferent to all national questions”? 25

At the end of 1919, a chastened Wilson told Congress, “When I gave utterance to those words [that ‘all nations had a right to selfdetermination’], I said them without the knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day.” He was not responsible for the spread of national movements looking for their own states—that had been going on since the end of the eighteenth century—but, as Sidney Sonnino, the Italian foreign minister, put it, “the War undoubtedly had had the effect of over-exciting the feeling of nationality. . . . Perhaps America fostered it by putting the principles so clearly.”26

Wilson spent most of his time in the meeting with his experts on the matter closest to his heart: the need to find a new way of managing international relations. This did not come as a surprise to his audience. In his famous Fourteen Points of January 1918, and in subsequent speeches, he had sketched out his ideas. The balance of power, he told the U.S. Congress in his “Four Principles” speech of February 1918, was forever discredited as a way to keep peace. There would be no more secret diplomacy of the sort that had led Europe into calculating deals, rash promises and entangling alliances, and so on down the slope to war. The peace settlements must not leave the way open to future wars. There must be no retribution, no unjust claims and no huge fines—indemnities—paid by the losers to the winners. That was what had been wrong after Prussia defeated France in 1870. The French had never forgiven Germany for the monies paid over and for the loss of their provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. War itself must become more difficult. There must be controls on armaments— general disarmament, even. Ships must sail freely across the world’s seas. (That meant, as the British well knew, the end of their traditional weapon of strangling enemy economies by blockading their ports and seizing their shipping; it had brought Napoleon down, and, so they thought, hastened the Allied victory over Germany.) Trade barriers must be lowered so the nations of the world would become more interdependent.

At the heart of Wilson’s vision was a League of Nations to provide the collective security that, in a well-run civil society, was provided by the government, its laws, its courts and its police. “Old system of powers, balance of powers, had failed too often,” one expert jotted down, as the president spoke. The League was to have a council that could “butt in” in case of disputes. “If unsuccessful the offending nation to be outlawed—‘And outlaws are not popular now.’ ”27

Wilson’s was a liberal and a Christian vision. It challenged the view that the best way to preserve the peace was to balance nations against each other, through alliances if necessary, and that strength, not collective security, was the way to deter attack. Wilson was also offering a riposte to the alternative being put out by the Russian Bolsheviks, that revolution would bring one world, where conflict would no longer exist. He believed in separate nations and in democracy, both as the best form of government and as a force for good in the world. When governments were chosen by their people, they would not, indeed they could not, fight each other. “These are American principles,” he told the Senate in 1917. “We could stand for no others. And they are also the principles and policies of forward looking men and women everywhere, of every modern nation, of every enlightened community. They are the principles of mankind and they must prevail.” He was speaking, he thought, for humanity. Americans tended to see their values as universal ones, and their government and society as a model for all others. The United States, after all, had been founded by those who wanted to leave an old world behind, and its revolution was, in part, about creating a new one. American democracy, the American constitution, even American ways of doing business, were examples that others should follow for their own good. As one of the younger Americans said in Paris: “Before we get through with these fellows over here we will teach them how to do things and how to do them quickly.”28

The Americans had a complicated attitude toward the Europeans: a mixture of admiration for their past accomplishments, a conviction that the Allies would have been lost without the United States and a suspicion that, if the Americans were not careful, the wily Europeans would pull them into their toils again. As they prepared for the Peace Conference, the American delegates suspected that the French and the British were already preparing their traps. Perhaps the offer of an African colony, or a protectorate over Armenia or Palestine, would tempt the United States—and then suddenly it would be too late. The Americans would find themselves touching pitch while the Europeans looked on with delight.29

American exceptionalism has always had two sides: the one eager to set the world to rights, the other ready to turn its back with contempt if its message should be ignored. The peace settlement, Wilson told his fellow passengers, must be based on the new principles: “If it doesn’t work right, the world will raise hell.” He himself, he added half-jokingly, would go somewhere to “hide my head, perhaps to Guam.” Faith in their own exceptionalism has sometimes led to a certain obtuseness on the part of Americans, a tendency to preach at other nations rather than listen to them, a tendency as well to assume that American motives are pure where those of others are not. And Wilson was very American. He came to the Peace Conference, said Lloyd George, like a missionary to rescue the heathen Europeans, with his “little sermonettes” full of rather obvious remarks. 30

It was easy to mock Wilson, and many did. It is also easy to forget how important his principles were in 1919 and how many people, and not just in the United States, wanted to believe in his great dream of a better world. They had, after all, a terrible reference point in the ruin left by the Great War. Wilson kept alive the hope that human society, despite the evidence, was getting better, that nations would one day live in harmony. In 1919, before disillusionment had set in, the world was more than ready to listen to him.

What Wilson had to say struck a chord, not just with liberals or pacifists but also among Europe’s political and diplomatic élites. Sir Maurice Hankey, secretary to the British War Cabinet and then the Peace Conference itself, always carried a copy of the Fourteen Points in the box he kept for crucial reference material. They were, he said, the “moral background.” Across Europe there were squares, streets, railway stations and parks bearing Wilson’s name. Wall posters cried, “We Want a Wilson Peace.” In Italy, soldiers knelt in front of his picture; in France, the left-wing paper L’Humanité brought out a special issue in which the leading lights of the French left vied with each other to praise Wilson’s name. The leaders of the Arab revolt in the desert, Polish nationalists in Warsaw, rebels in the Greek islands, students in Peking, Koreans trying to shake off Japan’s control, all took the Fourteen Points as their inspiration. Wilson himself found it exhilarating but also terrifying. “I am wondering,” he said to George Creel, his brilliant propaganda chief, who was on board the George Washington, “whether you have not unconsciously spun a net for me from which there is no escape.” The whole world was turning to the United States but, he went on, they both knew that such great problems could not be fixed at once. “What I seem to see—with all my heart I hope that I am wrong—is a tragedy of disappointment.” 31

The George Washington reached the French port of Brest on December 13, 1918. The war had been over for just a month. While the president stood on the bridge, his ship steamed slowly in through a great avenue of battleships from the British, French and American navies. For the first time in days, the sun was shining. The streets were lined with laurel wreaths and flags. On the walls, posters paid tribute to Wilson, those from right-wingers for saving them from Germany and those from the left for the new world he promised. Huge numbers of people, many resplendent in their traditional Breton costumes, covered every inch of pavement, every roof, every tree. Even the lampposts were taken. The air filled with the skirl of Breton bagpipes and repeated shouts of “Vive l’Amérique! Vive Wilson!” The French foreign minister, Stéphen Pichon, welcomed him, saying, “We are so thankful that you have come over to give us the right kind of peace.” Wilson made a noncommittal reply and the American party boarded the night train for Paris. At three in the morning, Wilson’s doctor happened to look out the window of his compartment. “I saw not only men and women but little children standing with uncovered head to cheer the passage of the special train.”32

Wilson’s reception in Paris was an even greater triumph, with even greater crowds: “the most remarkable demonstration,” said an American who lived in Paris, “of enthusiasm and affection on the part of the Parisians that I have ever heard of, let alone seen.” His train pulled into the Luxembourg station, which had been festooned with bunting and flags and filled with great masses of flowers. Clemenceau, the French prime minister, was there with his government and his longtime antagonist, the president Raymond Poincaré. As guns boomed across Paris to announce Wilson’s arrival, the crowds started to press against the soldiers who lined the route. The president and his wife drove in an open carriage through the Place de la Concorde and on up the Champs-Elysées to their residence, to the sound of wild cheers. That night, at a quiet family dinner, Wilson said he was very pleased with his reception. “He had carefully watched the attitude of the crowd,” he reportedly told the table, “and he was satisfied that they were most friendly.”33

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