The Paris Peace Conference, 1919, and the Treaty of Versailles
“A Peace to End All Peace”

In the wake of the horrible carnage of World War I—the Great War—the world hoped that the six month long conference in Versailles would guarantee that no such calamity would ever occur again. In fact, historians have concluded that the treaty did anything but accomplish that worthy end. By excluding Germany from the peace negotiations and then delivering the treaty with a “take it or leave it mandate”and 48 hours to decide, the peacemakers guaranteed that Germany would be likely to one day seek revenge. Exactly 20 years later, that is exactly what occurred.

(See David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.)

When the Germans surrendered, President Wilson made a fateful decision—he himself would go to Versailles to help write the terms of peace. (He had earlier declared it unthinkable that America should have no role in that great enterprise.) He wanted a “peace without victory,” a generous peace, but the allied leaders who had suffered so fearfully would have none of it. Wilson’s goals, outlined in his Fourteen Points, called for a lasting peace based on national self-determination among the nations and a League of Nations, and that was partially realized. Wilson was unable, however, to prevent the victors from saddling Germany with enormous reparations and restrictions which in retrospect can be called at best unfair.

After taking months to draft the treaty, the conferees presented the document to the German delegation, who had not been permitted to participate in its creation. Given forty eight hours to accept the treaty under the threat of renewed hostilities, the Germans humbly accepted. The bitterest pill for the Germans was Article 231, which placed all blame for the Great War on Germany’s shoulders. Along with crippling reparations and economic sanctions, the “war guilt clause” added insult to real injury. (Future German dictator Adolf Hitler would later use the harsh provisions of the Versailles “Diktat” to whip the German people into a frenzy of support for his aggressive policies.)

Wilson took no Senators with him to Paris, nor any Republican leaders, a serious flaw in his desire to achieve his goals, as the United States Senate was controlled by the Republican Party and would have to ratify the treaty. Thus while Wilson was in Europe for the best part of six months, having been greeted by the European people as a conquering hero, if not a modern Messiah, Republican leaders in the Senate fretted and stewed and awaited his return with bated breath.

The League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson was nothing if not idealistic. One of his dreams was for an international organization that might serve to maintain international order and keep the peace.  The question in 1919, a question that remains even to this day, especially since the creation of the European Union, is the degree to which nations are willing to sacrifice a significant portion of their sovereignty to a higher body. The chief issue, which was also an issue that faced the United States Constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, was the issue of large states versus small states. In an international context, would the major nations, which at the time included Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France, the United States, and Russia, be willing to concede the right to make decisions of international import to a body which might be dominated by smaller nations with little to lose and much to gain at the expense of the greater powers. That was, to use a British phrase, not bloody likely.

In addition to participating in the demanding work of the negotiations that took place in the great hall of mirrors at Versailles, Wilson spent much of his remaining time drafting the charter of the League of Nations with the assistance of his American advisers. His ideas emanated from the last of his Fourteen Points: “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” Unfortunately, after failing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, a predictable outcome of Wilson's failure to include any Republicans on his team, the United States also refused to join the League. President Wilson won the Nobel Peace in 1919 prize for his efforts, but the League lacked the power to prevent the rise of dictators or to prevent the outbreak of yet another world war. Americans could only stand by and watch as the flames were lit for the next worldwide inferno.

When Wilson presented the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate, they balked. Wilson was tired and in poor health from his exertions in Europe, and was in no mood to compromise. Neither was Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge. It soon became apparent that Wilson would not accept the treaty with the reservations which the Senate proposed, and the Senate would not ratify the treaty as presented to them, and thus a standoff existed. Wilson decided, unwisely as it turned out, to take his show on the road.

The president set off on a train trip around United States designed to take his case to the American people in the hope that they would pressure their senators to accept his treaty without reservations. While on the trip, however, Wilson became ill and was rushed back to Washington, where he suffered a serious stroke. For weeks President Wilson was unable to conduct business, and for several months his wife, Edith Galt Wilson, became for all practical purposes acting president of the United States. She controlled access to her husband, told him what to read and what to sign, and delivered all communications to and from the ailing President.

In the end, the United States never ratified the treaty of Versailles and concluded a separate peace with Germany in 1921.  The fact that the Versailles Treaty turned out to be disastrous in many respects was not Wilson's fault.  He does, however, bear some responsibility for America's withdrawal from the international debate, leaving the European nations to struggle to maintain peace even as they drifted inexorably towards the next world war.

World Power Home | Imperial America | World War I | Updated April 23, 2017