January, 1919-July, 1921: Treaty of Versailles Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

While World War I raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson began to articulate the hopes of many people in the United States for a liberal peace. He believed that the victors could not indulge themselves in the luxury of vengeance: Only a just and merciful settlement could ensure a lasting peace. In early 1917, three months before the United States entered the conflict, Wilson called for a “peace without victory,” with no indemnities and annexations to sow the seeds of future wars. Wilson sought more than a just settlement; he wanted to create a new, rational, international order. On January 8, 1918, addressing a joint session of Congress, he outlined his famous Fourteen Points. The first five applied to all nations: open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, removal of barriers to free trade, arms reductions, and impartial adjustments of colonial claims.

While World War I raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson began to articulate the hopes of many people in the United States for a liberal peace. He believed that the victors could not indulge themselves in the luxury of vengeance: Only a just and merciful settlement could ensure a lasting peace. In early 1917, three months before the United States entered the conflict, Wilson called for a “peace without victory,” with no indemnities and annexations to sow the seeds of future wars. Wilson sought more than a just settlement; he wanted to create a new, rational, international order. On January 8, 1918, addressing a joint session of Congress, he outlined his famous Fourteen Points. The first five applied to all nations: open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, removal of barriers to free trade, arms reductions, and impartial adjustments of colonial claims.

The next eight points revolved around the principle of national self-determination, listing the French, Belgian, and Russian territory that Germany must evacuate and promising autonomy to the subject nationalities of Eastern Europe. The capstone was Wilson’s fourteenth point: the creation of an international League of Nations. Wilson envisioned, above all, the United States playing a permanent role in world affairs through membership in a collective security organization. Great Britain and France had already made secret treaties that violated several of Wilson’s points, but on November 11, 1918, representatives of Germany, the United States, and the Allies, meeting in a railroad car in the Compiègne Forest, signed an armistice based substantially on Wilson’s program. The Great War was over.

The Peace Conference

Two months later, on January 18, 1919, the peace conference convened at Paris amid an atmosphere of crisis. The war had left Europe in confusion. A half dozen small wars still raged. As the Bolsheviks tightened their hold on Russia, communist hysteria swept through Eastern Europe. The conference, although sensing the need for haste, had to consider calmly the fate of much of the world. Thirty-two nations sent delegations, but the actual decision making devolved on the Big Four: Great Britain’s David Lloyd George, France’s Georges Clemenceau, Italy’s Vittorio Orlando, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States.

Clemenceau, the cynical French “Tiger,” was suspicious of Wilsonian idealism. “God gave us the Ten Commandments, and we broke them,” he said. “Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.” The Big Four approved the demilitarization of Germany, Allied occupation of the Rhineland, the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, and an Anglo-French-U.S. mutual defense pact. These provisions, if maintained, would guarantee French security. Italy received Southern Tyrol, a region populated by some two hundred thousand Austrians.

The conference also redrew the map of Eastern Europe. A series of new, independent nations sprang to life: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Austria, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland. The boundary areas of Poland and Czechoslovakia included large populations of German-speaking people. In the Far East, Japan took over German economic rights in the Chinese province of Shantun, while Great Britain and France divided up the other German colonies in the Pacific and Africa. The conference forced Germany not only to take full responsibility for causing the war but also to provide a “blank check” for reparations, including damages to civilian properties and future pensions. The Germans signed the treaty on June 28. They would later learn that they owed thirty-three billion dollars.

While the Treaty of Versailles did not live up to Wilson’s ideas of self-determination, it left a smaller proportion than ever of European people living under foreign governments. Nor was it a peace without victory. Wilson did win acceptance for the League of Nations, however, with the League Covenant being incorporated into the treaty itself. The League, he hoped, would later correct any imperfections in the work of the conference.

American Reactions to the Treaty

When Wilson returned to the United States from Paris, public opinion favored ratification of the treaty and membership in the League of Nations, but the Senate had the final decision. In March, 1919, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had ominously secured a “round robin” resolution with the signatures of thirty-seven senators—more than enough to kill the treaty—announcing their opposition to the League Covenant in its current form. Wilson could count on the support of most of the Senate Democrats, but he could not meet the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification without a large block of Republican votes. A dozen or so Republican senators had mild reservations about the League; another group had strong reservations. These latter opposed Article 10 of the League Covenant, a provision binding nations to preserve the territorial integrity and independence of all League members against aggression. Senator William E. Borah was the leader of the “irreconcilables,” who unconditionally opposed the treaty.

British prime minister David Lloyd George (left), Italian premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, French premier Georges Clemenceau, and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson in Paris in May, 1919. (Library of Congress)

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Lodge played a crucial role in the fight over the League of Nations. Unlike the irreconcilables, he was no isolationist. He claimed to favor the League but with strong reservations. Yet Lodge possessed an intense personal dislike for Wilson and a distrust of his leadership. For two weeks, Lodge stalled for time by reading aloud the text of the treaty, all 268 pages of it. Then he held six weeks of hearings, calling witnesses who opposed ratification. At last, he drew up a list of fourteen reservations, as if to ridicule Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Gradually, the mood of the country shifted against the treaty.

Wilson, overworked and ill, decided to go to the people in a whirlwind speaking tour. In three weeks, he traveled eight thousand miles and delivered thirty-six major speeches, typing them out himself on his portable typewriter. On the night of September 25, he fell ill in Pueblo, Colorado. The presidential train rushed him back to Washington. On October 20, in the White House, he collapsed: He had suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. For the next six weeks, the country was virtually without a president, and Wilson never fully recovered. When the treaty came to a vote, he passed word for Democrats to vote against the treaty with the Lodge reservations. On November 19, 1919, and in a second vote on March 19, 1920, a coalition of Democrats and irreconcilables sent the treaty to defeat.

A Crippled League

The failure of Wilson’s efforts to win support for unqualified U.S. participation in the League of Nations ultimately reduced the League’s effective operation. As for the peace itself, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution formally bringing hostilities to an end on July 2, 1921. Despite the isolationist mood of the country, the United States eventually participated in a number of League activities, although never as a formal member. The absence of the United States from the League Council hampered its peacemaking capacity. More deadly to the League’s future, however, were the growing nationalism throughout Europe, the deep resentment among the Germans with regard to what they viewed as unfair Versailles Treaty provisions, and the lack of consensus about how to deal with violations of League Covenant provisions.

Like many of Wilson’s idealized Fourteen Points, the League of Nations was a noble experiment that foundered on political realities. The world was not ready for a global collective security organization, but the League’s work in a number of economic and humanitarian areas did substantially advance international cooperation. These efforts, coupled with greater realism about power politics and keeping international peace, led to more realistic structures in the League’s successor, the United Nations. U.S. policymakers played the lead role in fashioning the new organization, as Wilson had with the League, but they were more careful to build bipartisan domestic support for the United Nations as they seized, rather than spurned, global leadership.

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