The United States at the Paris Peace Conference
The First World War had lasting effects on almost every aspect of our society. Empires and monarchies collapsed, democracy began to rise, capitalism was affected, and inflation resulted from the cost of war. It became apparent that an agreement must be reached which would clearly outline the steps necessary to repair the damages done by the war. Even more importantly, a method must be devised which would, in theory, prevent such a horrific war from occurring ever again. The Paris Peace Conference was held in the winter of 1919, predominantly at the infamous Palace of Versailles, and was intended to realize these goals.
Twenty-seven nations were present at the Conference, although only four of these countries had a true voice in the matter at hand. These four countries, the Great Powers, were Italy, France, England, and the United States. Represented by Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson, respectively, these men held the vast majority of power and influence present at the Conference. President Wilson represented the United States at Versailles. He believed that World War I should end in a treaty based on democracy rather than on politics of power, and he was present to see to it that the Treaty of Versailles was written accordingly. Wilson embodied the success of the democratic, liberal, progressive and nationalistic movements of the past century, and represented what society wished for the future.
His idealistic views and goals for the reparation of society were made evident through his presence at the Conference, as well as
through the plans that he brought with him. In a talk with newspaperman R.J. Bender of the United Press, Wilson states what is basically his attitude towards the entire conference: ?A statement that I once made that this should be a peace without victory holds more strongly today than ever. The peace that we make must be one in which justice alone is the determining factor.?
Wilson demonstrates the visionary approach with which he viewed the Peace Conference precisely in this remark.
President Wilson’s presence at the conference has been debated from many angles. It was possible, was he not present at the conference, that the Allies would insist on a resolution rooted in force and vengeance between the European countries. Wilson felt that this method would be ineffective in the long run. He believed that only on a peace reached through justice could a stable society be rebuilt.
Wilson personally felt that the best way to attain a genuine peace among all countries would be to create a bond of nations that had entered into an agreement to prevent the reoccurrence of such a Great War, although he recognized the likeliness of opposition to his plan. He predicted correctly that there would be a demand for immediate peace terms and a postponement on an association of nations. Because Wilson felt so strongly that his plan was the most sensible and definite way in which to proceed with the Peace Conferences, he felt obligated to be present in Paris. This enabled him to defend his views and thus protect what he felt was in the best interest of the United States. It has been argued that this was not a wise choice for the President. Many say that had he remained in Washington and carried on negotiations through his Commissioners, he would have retained his place as superior and powerful. This would have allowed him to dictate the terms of the treaty as he wished. The fact that he attended the conference resulted in the loss
of the position of power that he held. This forced Wilson to submit to the wills of the European countries, many of which harbored feelings of hostility towards the conquered countries. While it seems apparent that the most beneficial move the President could have taken was to remain in the United States, his idealistic belief in the promise of the bond of nations led him to disregard advice and sail to France to secure the Treaty of Versailles.
Wilson had extremely specific goals in mind when he departed for France. The 14 Points, which he had written the previous year, were what Wilson referred to as ?principles upon which to build peace.? These points included open covenants and agreements, freedom of the seas, removal of economic barriers, reduction of resistance by all Powers, and evacuation of occupied territory. Also included in these goals were colonial claims readjustments, self- determination of nationalities, redrawing of European boundaries along national lines, and lastly, several goals stating what was to happen to each country as far as it’s boundaries, frontiers and occupation by other countries
. Wilson’s most important goal was, however, his idea for a League of Nations. He felt that the existence of such a group would be the source of world peace for all time to come. This League was to be an organization in which it would be possible for countries to get together and talk amongst themselves, ideally with the ability to prevent their differences from escalating into war. Wilson felt that this would be more productive than the idea of balance of power, in that it would be a more organized forum for everyone to express their opinions and have equal opportunity to do so. Each country that had a grievance towards another would submit the dispute to arbitration and would be required to respect the decision reached. Should they not
do so, the other countries would take economic or military measure to enforce order.
Wilson felt that the only way to ensure even the possibility of world peace was to interweave the ideals of his 14 Points with the concept for a League of Nations. ??I want to save the whole world from repetitions of such disasters as the world has experienced during the last four years. I know that you men are going the wrong way about it, and I know that I am right, because I know human nature and the processes of war.?
Wilson faced much opposition to his plan. Two such instances include France, under Clemenceau, ordering the Germans to pay for the damage they had caused during the war. Also, Britain was opposed to the freedom of the seas, as they had fought so valiantly against Germany to be in command, and thus wished to eliminate that from the 14 Points. And yet, so firmly did Wilson stand behind his belief in the League that his desire to see it realized began to take over the Conference.
Various interests were at stake throughout the duration of the peace proceedings. When the question arose of what Germany would pay for war damages, concession was necessary. While France and England proposed to demand Germany pay the total expenses incurred during the war, Wilson was forced to take into consideration the outcome of such a charge. Where else but through German export could Germany produce enough money to pay for total damages? Wilson recognized that this would only further conflict with the Allies own economic interests. In an effort to appease both France and England, however, the treaty required that Germany surrender much of its merchant marine, make coal deliveries, and give up all property privately owned by German citizens abroad. In addition, the ?war guilt? clause was written into the treaty, forcing Germany to formally accept responsibility for the war. Wilson also put what he felt to be the best interest of the United States at heart
when he made concessions to Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando, and the Japanese. With these compromises in place, it was agreed that the League of Nations would be included in the treaty. Wilson in exchange conceded to modify his 14 Points from the original ideals that they maintained.
Wilson, representing the United States, pushed hard for his League Covenant. This was a modified version of his original League of Nations, and had been revised by the League of Nations Commission, which Wilson himself headed. These modifications discussed religious equality, minority rights, the mandate system, and the organization of a League of Nations to monitor these and other aspects of the covenant. Wilson presented this to a plenary session of the conference. His idea was not greeted with the reception he had expected, however, and many were opposed to the covenant as part of the treaty. Wilson found the same feeling in the United States, and received a letter signed by 1/3 of the senators, saying that they would not approve the treaty as it was. To this Wilson responded: ?When the treaty comes back? will find the Covenant not only in it, but so many threads of the treaty tied to the Covenant that you cannot dissect the Covenant from the treaty without destroying the whole vital structure.?
While this occurred at home, back overseas a new situation had arisen. With Colonel House acting in Wilson’s place, the American delegates had split on the issue of how to treat Germany. Delegates Lansing, Bliss, and White maintained Wilson’s original view that Germany ought to be reintegrated into Europe in peace. House, however, took a more punitive approach and favored compromise with the British and French. This
serves to illustrate the lack of communication that took place between President Wilson and his delegates. Messages were garbled, orders were never specifically set, and too much was open to individual interpretation.
This resulted in many problems arising due to simple lack of understanding. Similar problems arose when Colonel House began to agree with the other Allies that a peace settlement was necessary first, and that it would be possible to separate the League Covenant from the peace treaty. This was a dramatic split from the view maintained by Wilson. Because Wilson was in the United States when these proposals were initially discussed, he found himself faced with issues that substantially altered his program. Wilson reacted to this by issuing a statement on March 15 which said that he would not approve the separation of the League of Nations from the peace treaty and he made it absolutely clear to the Allied leaders that he would not consent to a treaty on House’s terms.
March 1919 turned out to be the most difficult month of the conference for Wilson, whose power was at its weakest. He faced great opposition from every side, and was regarded by the other Great Power leaders as being egotistic. Clemenceau, of France, stated the following: ?Wilson thought himself another Jesus Christ come upon the earth to reform men.
As Wilson neared desperation, the deadlock that had been intact began to break. He conceded to compensations for France, and was persuaded to include pensions in reparations after receiving a letter that described that England would not receive its fair
share in comparison to the other countries. While it seems simple enough that Wilson should have become more agreeable, many attribute the sudden change to the viral infection that he had come down with. This illness resulted in severe changes in his mind and on both America’s policy and position. These changes eventually reduced the possibility that the peace treaty would bring into effect entirely new international relations.
Wilson continued to emphasize the sacrifice of immediate self-interest for the good of the world. He spoke to the Italian people directly on April 23 after an unresolved conflict with Orlando left him to appeal to the public over the heads of their leaders. He spoke of the need to sacrifice self-interest now to ?the right of the world to peace and to such settlements of interest as shall make peace secure.?
His appeal was refused and demonstrated the lack of truth behind his belief that he represented the silent belief of the people. The issue was never resolved, and it is believed that Wilson’s illness accounted for a good deal of his actions at this time.
In an entirely different manner, Wilson dealt with the demands of the Japanese. They wanted both racial equality and confirmation of their economic interests, although in the end they consented to solely the confirmation of interests. In a total turnaround from his policy during the incident with Italy, Wilson seemed to support the Japanese desire for self- determination. He used the same plea for both countries, however, by trying to appeal directly to the conscience of the people. He stated that the world would
never achieve peace if nations were always thinking more of their rights than of their duties.
Once an agreement had been reached as to the demands of the Japanese, the major issues of the negotiations were settled. On May 7, the Germans received their first look at the treaty. More disagreements arose from the possibility that the Germans would not sign and the question of what the Allies would do in response. Fortunately, this question answered itself, when the German government fell and was replaced by one that would cooperate. On June 27th, German representatives arrived at Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors to sign the treaty. The crowds gathered outside the palace were so euphoric at the idea of peace that few stopped to consider the ability of the treaty to endure, or the effects that its existence would produce.
Although aspects of the Treaty of Versailles were positive, the treaty as a whole was a failure. Many factors contributed to the overall regard of the treaty as such. After years of war, each country felt it was entitled to great compensation, and thus Wilson’s vision that each country should sacrifice its own desires for the good of the whole was never realized. His faith in the common man was shattered when his direct appeals resulted in backlash and no positive results. Every country demonstrated extreme national self-interest, and this led to severe differences of opinion at the Conference, and concurrently, in the provisions of the treaty itself.
Uncertainty of purpose undoubtedly contributed to the failure of the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson’s vague description of his 14 Points terminology to his American
representatives resulted in unclear principles. With the goals of the Conference so unclear, it is no surprise that they were never attained. How, after all, can one strive for a goal that he is unclear on? ?Democracy?, ?Viability?, and ?Self- Determination? were tossed about with such casualty that a suspicion arose as to the lack of principle that Wilson maintained. This dealt a lasting blow to Wilson’s regard, from which he never entirely recovered.
Wilson never made pretenses as to his desire for a League of Nations. He wanted one, very badly, and he allowed all other countries to know it. With this as a key bargaining tool, European countries used it to their full advantage. They would agree to include the League of Nations in the treaty if Wilson would understand and support the individual problems that each country faced. With several countries using this against him, it was impossible for Wilson to truly back each of their beliefs, as, more often than not, they conflicted with each other.
Several other factors contributed to the failure of the Conference. Wilson did irreversible damage to the outcome of the treaty by his insistence on excessive time being spent on the League of Nations concept. This loss of time caused delays in the proceedings and prevented a swift restoration of peace. Wilson’s demand that a complete and detailed plan for the League, as well as for the Covenant, be drawn up in Paris left no possibility for a preliminary treaty to be signed. His own perseverance of the League of Nations eventually led to the inability of the League to be of any effectiveness. Wilson
had, in a sense, murdered his own plan, and had thus also ridded the Conference of any ability to prevent a Second World War.
The Treaty of Versailles was, inarguably, not a success for the United States. We had won the war, certainly, but would not ratify the treaty that we ourselves had contributed to making. Wilson’s ultimate goal, it has been said, was to get the treaty ratified, and in this he failed. He instead gave orders to have the treaty killed in the Senate, and that was where it died.
The treaty was filled with American doubt from the start, and this led the Senate to simply repudiate Wilson’s work. While World War One was, in itself, a success for democracy and thus for the United States, the Conference that ensued was clearly a failure from the start.