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39.11 President Wilson and the problems of Versailles

Figure 1066

Figure 1066: President Wilson

We have dealt with the social and economic disorder of the European communities, and the rapid return of the «class-war» to the foreground of attention, before giving any account of the work of world settlement that centered on the Peace Conference at Paris, because the worried and preoccupied state of everyone concerned with private problems of income, prices, employment, and the like goes far to explain the jaded atmosphere in which -that Conference addressed itself to the vast task before it.

The story of the Conference turns very largely upon the adventure of one particular man, one of those men whom accident or personal quality picks, out as a type to lighten the task of the historian. We have in the course of this history found it very helpful at times to focus our attention upon some individual, Buddha, Alexander the Great, Yuan Chwang, the Emperor Frederick II and Charles V and Napoleon I for example, and to let him by reflection illuminate the period in which he lived. The conclusion of the Great War can be seen most easily as the rise of the American President, President Wilson, to predominant importance in the world’s hopes and attention, and his failure to justify that predominance.

President Wilson (born 1856) had previously been a prominent student and teacher of history, constitutional law, and the political sciences generally. He had held various professorial chairs, and had been President of Princeton University (New Jersey). There is a long list of books to his credit, and they show a mind rather exclusively directed to American history and American politics. He was mentally the new thing in history, negligent of and rather ignorant of the older things out of which his new world had arisen. He retired from academic life, and was elected Democratic Governor of New Jersey in 1910. In 1913 he became the Democratic presidential candidate, and as a consequence of a violent quarrel between ex-President Roosevelt and President Taft, which split the dominant Republican party he became President of the United States.

The events of August 1914, seem to have taken President Wilson, like the rest of his fellow-countrymen, by surprise. We find him cabling an offer of his services as a mediator on August 3rd. Then, for a time, he and America watched the conflict, at first neither the American people nor their President seem to have had a very clear or profound understanding of that long-gathered catastrophe. Their tradition for a century had been to disregard the problems of the Old World, and it was not to be lightly changed. The imperialistic arrogance of the German Court and the stupid inclination of the German military authorities towards melodramatic «frightfulness», their invasion of Belgium, their cruelties there, their use of poison gas, and the nuisance of their submarine campaign, created a deepening hostility to Germany in the United States as the war proceeded; but the tradition of political abstinence and the deep-rooted persuasion that America possessed a political morality altogether superior to European conflicts, restrained the President from active intervention. He adopted a lofty tone. He professed to be unable to judge the causes and justice of the Great War. It was largely his high pacific attitude that secured his re-election as President for a second term. But the world is not to be mended by merely regarding evildoers with an expression of rather undiscriminating disapproval. By the end of 1916 the Germans had been encouraged to ‘believe that under no circumstances whatever would the United States fight, and in 1917 they began their unrestricted submarine warfare and the sinking of American ships without notice. President Wilson and the American people were dragged into the war by this, supreme folly. And also they were dragged into a reluctant attempt to define their relations to Old World politics in some other terms than those of mere aloofness. Their thoughts and temper changed very rapidly. They came into the war side by side with the Allies, but not in any pact with the Allies. They came into the war, in the name of their own modern civilization, to punish and end an intolerable political and military situation.

Slow and belated judgments are sometimes the best judgments. In a series of «notes», too long and various for detailed treatment in this Outline, thinking aloud, as it were, in the hearing of all mankind, President Wilson sought to state the essential differences of the American State from the Great Powers of the Old World. We have been at some pains in this history to make plain the development of these differences. He unfolded a conception of international relationships that came like a gospel, like the hope of a better world, to the whole eastern hemisphere. Secret agreements were to cease, «nations» were to determine their own destinies, and militarist aggression was to cease the seaways were to be free to all mankind. These commonplaces of American thought, these secret desires of every sane man, came like a great light upon the darkness of anger and conflict in Europe. At last, men felt, the ranks of diplomacy were broken the veils of Great Power «policy» were rent in twain. Here with authority, with the strength of a powerful new nation behind it, was the desire of the common man throughout the world, plainly said.

Manifestly there was needed some over-riding instrument of government to establish world law and maintain these broad and liberal generalizations upon human intercourse. A number of schemes had floated in men’s minds for the attainment of that end. In particular there was a movement for some sort of world league, a «League of Nations». The American President adopted this phrase and sought to realize it. An essential condition of the peace he sought through the overthrow of German imperialism was, he declared, to be this federal organ. This League of Nations was to be the final court of appeal in international affairs. It was to be the substantial realization of the peace. Here again he awakened a tremendous echo.

President Wilson was the spokesman of a new age. Throughout the war, and for some little time after it had ended, he held, so far as the Old World was concerned, that exalted position. But in America, where they knew him better there were doubts and writing as we do now with the wisdom of subsequent events, we can understand these doubts. America, throughout a century and more of detachment and security, had developed new ideals and formula of political thought, without realizing with any intensity that, under conditions of stress and danger, these ideals and formula, might have to be passionately sustained. To her community many things were platitudes that had to the Old World communities, entangled still in ancient political complications, the quality of a saving gospel. President Wilson was responding to the thought and conditions of his own people and his own country, based on a liberal tradition that had first found its full expression in English speech; but to Europe and Asia he seemed to be thinking and saying, for the first time in history, things hitherto undeveloped and altogether secret. And that misconception he may have shared.

We are dealing here with an able and successful professor of political science, who did not fully realize what he owed to his contemporaries and the literary and political atmosphere he had breathed throughout his life; and who passed very rapidly, after his re-election as President, from the mental attitudes of a, political leader to those of a Messiah. His «notes» are a series of explorations of the elements of the world situation. When at last in his address to Congress of January 8th, 1918, he produced his Fourteen Points as a definite statement of the American peace intentions, they were, as a statement, far better in their spirit than in their arrangement and matter. This document demanded open agreements between nations and an end to secret diplomacy, free navigation of the high seas, free commerce, disarmament, and a number of political readjustment’s upon the lines of national independence. Finally in the Fourteenth Point it required «a general association of nations» to guarantee the peace of the world.

These Fourteen Points had an immense reception throughout the world here at last seemed a peace for reasonable men everywhere, as good and acceptable to honest and decent Germans and Russians, as to honest and decent Frenchmen and Englishmen and Belgians; and for some Months the whole world was lit by faith in Wilson. Could they have been made the basis of a world settlement in 1919, they would forthwith have opened a new and more hopeful era in human affairs.

But, as we must tell, they did not do that. There was about President Wilson a certain egotism; there was in the generation of people in the United States to whom this great occasion came, a generation born in security, reared in plenty and, so far as history goes, in ignorance, a generation remote from the tragic issues that had made Europe grave, a certain superficiality and lightness of mind. It was not that the American people were superficial by nature and necessity, but that they had never been deeply, stirred by the idea of a human community larger than their, own. It was an intellectual but not a moral conviction with them. One had on the one hand these new people of the new world, with their new ideas, their finer and better ideas, of peace and world righteousness and on the other the old, bitter, deeply entangled peoples of the Great Power system; and the former were crude and rather childish in their immense inexperience, and the latter were seasoned and bitter and intricate. The theme of this clash of the raw idealist youthfulness of a new age with the experienced ripeness of the old, was treated years ago by that great novelist, Henry James, in a very typical story called Daisy Miller. It is the pathetic story of a frank, trustful, high-minded, but rather simple-minded American girl, with a real disposition towards righteousness and a great desire for a «good time», and how she came to Europe and was swiftly entangled and put in the wrong, and at last driven to welcome death by the complex tortuousness and obstinate limitations of the older world. There have been a thousand variants of that theme in real life, a thousand such trans-Atlantic tragedies, and the story of President Wilson is one of them. But it is not to be supposed, because the new thing succumbs to the old infections, that is the final condemnation of the new thing.

Probably no fallible human being manifestly trying to do his best amidst overwhelming circumstances has been subjected to such minute, searching, and pitiless criticism as President Wilson. He is blamed and it would seem that he is rightly blamed, for conducting the war and the ensuing peace negotiations on strictly party lines. He remained the President representing the American Democratic Party, when circumstances conspired to make him the representative of the general interests of mankind. He made no attempt to forget party issues for a time, and to incorporate with himself such great American leader as ex-President, Roosevelt, ex-President Taft, and the like. He did not draw fully upon the moral and intellectual resources of the States; he made the whole issue too personal, and he surrounded himself with merely personal adherents. And a still graver error was his decision to come to the Peace Conference himself. Nearly every experienced critic seems to be of opinion that be should have remained in America, in the role of America, speaking occasionally as if a nation spoke. Throughout the concluding years of the war he had by that method achieved an unexampled position in the world.

Says Dr. Dillon[1] «Europe, when the President touched its shores, was as clay ready for the creative potter.

Never before were the nations so eager to follow a Moses who would take them to the long-promised land where wars are prohibited and blockades unknown. And to their thinking he was that great leader. In France men bowed down before him with awe and affection labour leaders in Paris told me that they shed tears of joy in his presence, and that their comrades would go, through fire and water to help him to realize his noble schemes. To the working classes in Italy his name was a heavenly clarion at the sound of which the earth would be renewed. The Germans regarded him and his humane doctrine as their sheet anchor of safety. The fearless Herr Muehlon said: If President Wilson were to address the Germans, and pronounce a severe sentence upon them, they would accept it with resignation and without a murmur and set to work at once. In German-Austria, his fame was that of a savior, and the mere mention of his name brought calm to the suffering and surcease of sorrow to the afflicted… ».

Such was the overpowering expectation of the audience to which President Wilson prepared to show himself. He reached France on board the George Washington in December 1918.

He brought his wife with him. That seemed no doubt a perfectly natural and proper thing to an American mind. Quite a number of the American representatives brought their wives. Unhappily a social quality, nay, almost a tourist quality, was introduced into the world settlement by these ladies. Transport facilities were limited, and most of them arrived in Europe with a radiant air of privilege. They came as if they came to a treat. They were it was intimated, seeing Europe under exceptional interesting circumstances. They would visit Chester, or Warwick, or Windsor en route-for they might not have a chance of seeing these celebrated places again. Important interviews would be broken off to get in a visit to some «old historical mansion». This may seem a trivial matter to note in a History of Mankind, but it was such small human things as this that threw a miasma of futility over the Peace Conference of 1919. In a little while one discovered that Wilson, the Hope of Mankind, had vanished, and that all the illustrated fashion papers contained pictures of a delighted tourist and his wife, grouped smilingly with crowned beads and such-like enviable company … It is so easy to be wise after the event, and to perceive that he should not have come over.

Figure 1067

Figure 1067: M. Clemenceau

The men he had chiefly to deal with, for example M. Clemenceau (France), Mr. Lloyd George and, Mr. Balfour (Britain), Baron Sonnino and Signor Orlando (Italy), were men of widely dissimilar historical traditions. But in one respect they resembled him and appealed to his sympathies. They, too, were party politicians, who had led their country through the war. Like him they had failed to grasp the necessity of entrusting the work of settlement to more specially qualified men. «They were the merest novices in international affairs. Geography, ethnology, psychology, and, political history were sealed books to them. Like the Rector of Louvain University, who told Oliver Goldsmith that, as he had become the bead of that institution without knowing Greek, he failed to see why it should be taught there, the chiefs of State, having obtained the highest position in their respective countries without more than an inkling of international affairs, were unable to realize the importance of mastering them or the impossibility of repairing the omission as they went along … » [2]

«What they lacked, however, might in some perceptible degree have been supplied by enlisting as their helpers men more happily endowed than themselves. But they deliberately chose mediocrities. It is a mark of genial spirits that they are well served, but the plenipotentiaries of the Conference were not characterized by it. Away in the background some of them, had familiars or casual prompters to whose counsels they were wont to listen, but many of the adjoints, who moved in the limelight of the world-stage were gritless and pith less.

«As the heads of the principal Governments implicitly claimed to be the authorized spokesmen of the human race, and endowed with unlimited powers, it is worth noting that this claim was boldly challenged by the people’s organs in the Press. Nearly all the journals read by the masses objected from the first to the dictatorship of the group of Premiers, Mr. Wilson being excepted … »[3]

Figure 1068

Figure 1068: Mr. Lloyd George

The restriction upon our space in this Outline will not allow us to tell here how the Peace Conference shrank from a Council of Ten to a Council of Four (Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando), and how it became a conference less and less like a frank and open discussion of the future of mankind, and more and more like some old-fashioned diplomatic conspiracy. Great and wonderful had been the hopes that had gathered to Paris. «The Paris of the Conference», says Dr. Dillon, «ceased to be the capital of France. It became a vast cosmopolitan caravanserai teeming with unwanted aspects of life and turmoil, filled with curious samples of the races, tribes, and tongues of four continents that came to watch and wait for the mysterious tomorrow.

«An Arabian Nights’ touch was imparted to the dissolving panorama by strange visitants from Tartary and Kurdistan, Korea and Aderbeijan, Armenia, Persia, and the Hedjazmen with patriarchal beards and scimitar-shaped noses, and others from desert and oasis, from Samarkand and Bokhara. Turbans and fezes, sugar-loaf hats and head-gear resembling episcopal mitres, old military uniforms devised for the embryonic armies of new states on the eve of perpetual peace, snowywhite burnouses, flowing mantles, and graceful garments like the Roman toga, contributed to create an atmosphere of dreamy unreality in the city where the grimmest of realities were being faced and coped with.

«Then came the men of Wealth, of intellect, of industrial enterprise, and the seed-bearers of the ethical new ordering, members of economic committees from the United States, Britain, Italy, Poland, Russia, India, and Japan, representatives of naphtha industries and far-off coal mines, pilgrims, fanatics and charlatans from all climes, priests of all religions, preachers of every doctrine, who mingled with princes, field marshals, statesmen, anarchists, builders-up and pullers-down. All of them burned with desire to be near to the crucible in which the political and social systems of the world were to be melted and recast. Every day, in my walks, in my apartment, or at restaurants, I met emissaries from lands and peoples whose very names had seldom been heard of before in the West. A delegation from the Pont-Euxine Greeks called on me, and discoursed of their ancient cities of Trebizond, Samsoun, Tripoli, Kerassund, in which I resided many years ago, and informed me that they, too, desired to become welded into an independent Greek Republic, and had come to have their claims allowed. The Albanians were represented by my old friend Turkhan Pasha, on the one hand, and by my friend Essad Pasha on the other-the former desirous of Italy’s protection, the latter demanding complete independence. Chinamen, Japanese, Koreans, Hindus, Kirghizes, Lesghieus, Cireassians, Mingrelians, Buryats, Malays, and «Negroes and Negroids from Africa and America were among the tribes and tongues foregathered in Paris to watch the rebuilding of the political world system and to see where they ‘came in.’ . . ».

To this thronging, amazing Paris, agape for a new world, came President Wilson, and found its gathering forces dominated by a personality narrower, in every way more limited and beyond comparison more forcible than himself: the French Premier, M. Clemenceau. At the instance of President Wilson, M. Clemenceau was elected President of the Conference. «It was», said President Wilson, «a special tribute to the sufferings and sacrifices of France». And that, unhappily, sounded the keynote of the Conference, whose sole business should have been with the future of mankind.

Georges Benjamin Clemenceau was an old journalist politician, a great denouncer of abuses, a great up setter of governments, a doctor who had, while a municipal councilor, kept a free clinic, and a fierce, experienced duelist. None of his duels ended fatally, but he faced them with great intrepidity. He had passed from the medical school to republican journalism in the days of the Empire. In those days he was an extremist of the left. He was for a time a teacher in America, and he married and divorced an American wife. He was thirty in the eventful year 1871. He returned to France after Sedan, and flung himself into the stormy politics of the defeated nation with great fire and vigor. Thereafter France was his world, the France of vigorous journalism, high-spirited personal quarrels challenges, confrontations, scenes, dramatic effects, and witticisms at any cost. He was what people call «fierce stuff», he was nicknamed the «Tiger», and he seems to have been rather proud of his nickname. Professional patriot rather than statesman and thinker, this was the man whom the war had flung up to misrepresent the fine mind and the generous spirit of France. His limitations had a profound effect upon the conference, which was further colored by the dramatic resort for the purpose of signature to the very Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in which Germany had triumphed and proclaimed her unity. There the Germans were to sign. To M. Clemenceau, and to France, in that atmosphere, the war ceased to seem a world war; it was merely the sequel of the previous conflict of the Terrible Year, the downfall and punishment of offending Germany. «The world had to be made safe for democracy», said President Wilson. That from M. Clemenceau’s expressed point of view was «talking like Jesus Christ». The world had to be made safe for Paris «Talking like Jesus Christ» seemed a very ridiculous thing to many of those brilliant rather than sound diplomatists and politicians who made the year 1919 supreme in the history of human insufficiency.

(Another flash of the «Tiger’s» wit, it may be noted, was that President Wilson with his fourteen points, was «worse» than God Almighty. «Le bon Dieu» only had ten …) M. Clemenceau sat with Signor Orlando in the more central chairs of a semicircle of four in front of the fire, says Keynes. He wore a black frock-coat and gray suede gloves, which he never removed during these sessions. He was, it is to be ‘noted, the only one of these four reconstructors of the world who could understand and speak both French and English.

The aims of M. Clemenceau were simple and in a manner attainable. He wanted all the settlement of 1871 undone. He wanted Germany punished as though she was a uniquely sinful nation and France a sinless martyr land. He wanted Germany so crippled and devastated as never more to be able to stand up to France. He wanted to hurt and humiliate Germany more than France had been hurt and humiliated in 1871. He did not care if in breaking Germany Europe was broken; his mind did not go far enough beyond the Rhine to understand that possibility. He accepted President Wilson’s League of Nations as an excellent proposal if it would guarantee the security of France whatever she did, but he preferred a binding alliance of the United States and England to maintain, uphold, and glorify France under practically any circumstances. He wanted wider opportunities for the exploitation of Syria, North Africa, and so forth by Parisian financial groups. He wanted indemnities to recuperate France, loans, gifts, and tributes to France, glory and homage to France. France had suffered, and France had to be rewarded. Belgium, Russia, Serbia, Poland, Armenia, Britain, Germany, and Austria had all suffered too, all mankind had suffered, but what would you? That was not his affair. These were the supers of a drama in which France was for him the star … In much the same spirit Signor Orlando seems to have sought the welfare of Italy.

Mr. Lloyd George brought to the Council of Four the subtlety of a Welshman, the intricacy of a European, and an urgent necessity for respecting the nationalist egotism of the British imperialists and capitalists who had returned him to power. Into the secrecy of that council went President Wilson with the very noblest aims for his newly discovered American world policy, his rather hastily compiled Fourteen Points, and a project rather than a scheme for a League of Nations.

«There can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent than the President in the agilities of the Council Chamber». From the whispering dark nesses and fireside disputes of that council, and after various comings and goings we cannot here describe, he emerged at last with his Fourteen Points pitifully torn and disheveled, but with a little puling infant of a League of Nations, which might die or which might live and grow-no one could tell. This history cannot tell. We are at the end of our term. But that much, at least, he had saved …

[1]In his book, The Peace Conference.
[3]Dillon. And see his The Peace Conference, chapter iii, for instances of the amazing ignorance of the various delegates.

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