By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The "Tragedy of the Peace Messiah"
Progressives and the Versailles Treaty
I. An American in Paris
"The reforming spirit of the pre-war brand led most of its paladins to Versailles. After that debacle of superficial moral zeal, destitute of adequate social intelligence, why should we ask 'where are the pre-war reformers or their successors?'- Norman Thomas, 19262
"Paris was like a session of Congress…The effort at negotiation and settlement sort of became a rout, any old thing to close up shop. One came to Paris when hope was riding high, and day by day you could see these hopes just - well, you soon detected that it was a great enormous balloon and gradually all the air was coming out of it. It soon settled into a kind of sordid play of selfish and ignorant and impatient forces." - Felix Frankfurter, 19603
Prominent progressives had split on the issue of America's entry into the Great War. Many, such as officials in the Wilson administration, the editors of The New Republic and, perhaps most memorably, philosopher John Dewey, saw vast opportunities for progressivism both home and abroad in the president's call to arms in 1917. But others, such as Jane Addams, Robert La Follette, and Oswald Villard of The Nation, believed entering the war represented both a betrayal of and a great step backward for the progressive impulse.
If progressives had been divided on the question of entry into the conflict, however, they were virtually unanimous in their dismay over the Great War's conclusion at the Paris Peace Conference. Progressives of all stripes -pragmatists and pacifists alike - came to see the Versailles conference and President Wilson's role therein as a disastrous turn of events for the nation and for progressivism. Although disenchantment with both idealism and the Wilson government had already been set in motion by the experience of the war itself, the seemingly complete failure of the peace only exacerbated the widespread sense of disillusionment. And, while many progressives laid the blame for Versailles solely on Wilson, others extrapolated from the experience to detect inherent problems with progressivism as then constituted.
An American in Paris
After four unimaginably destructive, soul-crushing years, the Great War at last ended in armistice in November 1918, and an exhausted world rejoiced as best it could. But President Woodrow Wilson, believing his most crucial task had only just begun, spent little time resting on the laurels of Allied victory. Rather, he committed himself immediately to securing the world "made safe for democracy" that he had promised would result from the conflict.
Wilson believed that only a peace that followed his Fourteen Points could legitimate the bloody sacrifice and horrible devastation endured by the world, and he told America he would settle for nothing less. "We are about to give order and organization to this peace not only for ourselves but for the other peoples of the world as well, so far as they will suffer us to serve them," he told Congress in December of 1918. "It is international justice that we seek, not domestic safety merely… The gallant men of our armed forces on land and sea have consciously fought for the ideals which they knew to be the ideals of their country; I have sought to express those ideals; they have accepted my statements of them as the substance of their own thought and purpose, as the associated governments have accepted them; I owe it to them to see to it, so far as in me lies, that no false or mistaken interpretation is put upon them, and no possible effort omitted to realize them."4
As such, Wilson explained, he must now go to Paris himself, the first time in American history that a president had ventured across the Atlantic while in office, to ensure that the peace was won. "It is now my duty to play my full part in making good what they offered their life's blood to obtain. I can think of no call to service which could transcend this...I am the servant of the nation. I can have no private thought or purpose of my own in performing such an errand. I go to give the best that is in me[.]"5
For Wilson, this planned trip to Versailles was a culmination not only of the war but of his entire public life, for he had envisioned such a role in his destiny from a very early age. "If God will give me the grace I will try to serve him to perfection," he had written in his journal as a young man, just before graduating from Princeton in 1879. On his thirty-third birthday, he asked himself, "Why may not the present generation write, through me, its political autobiography?" And, while courting his fiancée in 1885, Wilson had written to her of his most noble dream. "I have a passion for interpreting great thoughts to the world," he told her. "I should be complete if I could inspire a great movement of opinion, if I could read the experiences of the past into the practical life of the men of to-day and so communicate the thought to the minds of the great mass of the people as to impel them to great political achievements."6
During the Presidential campaign of 1912, it seemed to Wilson that destiny had finally called. "Remember that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States," he told a staffer. "Neither you nor any mortal could have prevented that." And now, with the Great War over and the world looking to Wilson to bring forth a new era of peace, it seemed his long-held ambitions had finally become manifest.7
But even by his exacting standards, Wilson had set himself a high bar. And, indeed, as he sailed across the Atlantic aboard the George Washington in early December of 1918 with a small army of aides and diplomats in tow, he confided as much to his head of the Committee of Public Information, journalist George Creel.8 "I am wondering whether you have not unconsciously spun a net from which there is no escape," Wilson mused, passing the buck of his lofty promises for a moment onto his minister of propaganda. "What I seem to see -- with all my heart I hope that I am wrong -- is a tragedy of disappointment."9
In this early moment, Wilson was prescient, for "a tragedy of disappointment" encapsulated what the Paris Peace Conference, and Wilson's involvement in it, would come to mean for onlookers the world over. "Mr. Wilson left for Paris with the best wares ever brought to market," The New Republic's Walter Weyl would write afterward, "with economic power, military power, and the prestige of disinterestedness; he comes back with empty pockets and a gross of green spectacles." As English economist John Maynard Keynes put it, "When President Wilson left Washington, he enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history…With what curiosity, anxiety, and hope we sought a glimpse of the features and bearing of the man of destiny, who, coming from the West, was to bring healing to the wounds of the ancient parent of his civilization and lay for us the foundations of the future. The disillusion was so complete that some of those who had trusted most hardly dared speak of it."10
Admittedly, a just and lasting world peace may be considered beyond the powers of any one man to fashion out of whole cloth. But Wilson must nonetheless bear the brunt of much of the ensuing disillusionment among American progressives concerning Versailles. In 1916, he had been re-elected with the enthusiastic support of progressives and even many socialists.11 And in that campaign, Wilson had offered not only a platform of Peace and Preparedness, but tantalizing visions of a new world order to come. "[W]hen the great present war is over," he told an Indianapolis audience in October of 1916, "it will be the duty of America to join with the other nations in some kind of league for the maintenance of peace."12
If he had perhaps promised the world too much, he had also promised to bring the best of him to Paris. But Wilson -- perhaps in part due to medical reasons, be it a bout of his recurring cerebral vascular disease or a case of the same virulent flu epidemic that had felled millions the world over -- brought the worst in him as well: his stern, unbending rectitude and ensuing disinterest for the niceties of diplomacy, his supreme confidence in his own sense of the right, and his unmatched penchant for holding grudges.13
Whatever the reasons, Wilson had already begun the process of sabotaging any possible diplomatic achievements at home by neglecting to name any prominent Republicans to the Versailles delegation. (His unfortunate decision was characterized by humorist Will Rogers as follows: "I'll tell you what, we'll split 50-50 -- I will go and you fellows can stay.") Given that the Republican party had recently retaken both the House and Senate in the midterm elections of 1918 -- an election Wilson had told the public beforehand should be taken as a referendum on his leadership -- it was all the more important for the president to extend an olive branch to the new Republican Congress.14
But, in naming his delegation, Wilson looked over such GOP luminaries as Senate Foreign Relations Chair Henry Cabot Lodge, ex-President and head of the League to Enforce Peace (LEP) William Howard Taft, and Wilson's opponent in 1916, Charles Evans Hughes. (Of the latter, Wilson argued that "there is no room big enough for Hughes & me to stay in.")15
Perhaps most notably, Wilson also looked over longtime internationalist and venerable Republican lawyer Elihu Root, a former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who could have given Wilson's diplomatic efforts an imprimatur of bipartisanship that many conservatives in the GOP would have been bound to respect. But, with no Republican cover, the president ensured his efforts would be construed as solely a Wilsonian peace. And while many Republicans had already suggested during the midterm contests that they would not back Wilson's "socialistic" peace proposals regardless, Wilson's diplomatic snub no doubt poured unnecessary salt into the wound. As former president (and perennial Wilson critic) Theodore Roosevelt, who had lost his son Quentin in the war, angrily put it to a Carnegie Hall crowd in October 1919, "We can pay with the blood of our hearts' dearest, but that is all we are to be allowed."16
Worse, to many observers Wilson seemed to arrive in Paris wholly unprepared for the delicate negotiations that awaited him, and was outflanked in any case by the wily old diplomatic veterans of Europe. For, although he was welcomed in city after city in Europe with remarkable outpourings of adulation, Wilson was a considerably less-beloved figure among the European heads of state, and each had their own axes to grind with the peace as outlined in the Fourteen Points.
With the British Navy still the scourge of the oceans and the cornerstone of the Empire's defense, English Prime Minister David Lloyd George and had little use for freedom of the seas. Nor did Vittorio Orlando of Italy have any real desire for a League of Nations. Rather than a "world made safe for democracy," Orlando was more inclined at Versailles to establish Italian territorial control over former Central Power territories, such as parts of Turkey and the Croat state of Fiume.
For his part, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau -- a man with vivid memories of the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 -- was most concerned with preserving the security of his homeland. With the threat of nearby Germany a centuries-old thorn in the side of France, the man known as "the Tiger" had more faith in the long-standing system of alliances that had prevailed in Europe for centuries than he did Wilson's seemingly naïve Fourteen Points. And, after the millions of lives lost -- forty-seven times more than the casualties suffered by the United States -- and the untold destruction experienced in the Great War, no Allied power really shared Wilson's professed desire for a "peace without victory," or for the realization of "self-determination" for the former territorial holdings of the German empire. To the contrary, it was time for payback.17
And so, bit by bit, Wilson's grand millennial vision died the death of a thousand cuts in Paris, until it was almost completely subsumed by the vagaries of Old World realpolitik. Beginning with a heated discussion over the mandate system, it became clear to all that the powers of Europe aimed to -- and would quickly succeed in -- divvying up the territories of the former German empire among them. "At this and subsequent critical junctures," observed historian Thomas Knock, Wilson "found himself in an absolute minority of one." From this fight over mandates, which for all intent and purposes papered over the Allied powers' land grabs with the lofty rhetoric of the League, the wily masters of Europe soon discovered they could extract virtually any concession from Wilson they desired, so long as they paid lip service to his professed ideals and promised to grant him his beloved League of Nations.18
And after the Republicans, left behind in Washington, illustrated to the world over that Wilson's League faced some not-inconsiderable opposition at home, the other leaders at Versailles saw their chance to strike. As William Hughes, the Prime Minister of Australia had already figured out, the League of Nations was to Wilson "what a toy was to a child -- he would not be happy till he got it." And so, in exchange for concessions on the League aimed solely at keeping the United States Senate happy (such as a clause recognizing the primacy of the Monroe Doctrine), Wilson gave away the store.19 France obtained military control over the Rhineland, England received promises of a future US naval conference, Italy (after a walkout) got the territory they were looking for in Eastern Europe, and - in a move that would particularly startle progressives - even the delegation from Japan saw their control over the historic and strategically vital Chinese province of Shantung reaffirmed.20 (When told that the world would not look kindly on this last concession, Wilson voiced frustration about his diplomatic predicament. "I know that too," he told press secretary Ray Stannard Baker, "but if Italy remains away & Japan goes home, what becomes of the League of Nations?") Soon thereafter, the European powers were able to convince the increasingly exhausted Wilson to open the door for the large and punitive reparations that are most often associated with the Versailles treaty.21
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Norman Thomas, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals," The Survey, February 1, 1926, 563.
3. Harlan B. Phillips, ed., Felix Frankfurter Reminisces (New York: Reynal, 1960), 162.
4. Woodrow Wilson, "Sixth Annual Message to Congress," Dec. 2, 1919. Reprinted at American Presidency.Org (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=29559)
6. Thomas Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 5, 13.
7. David Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents (Philadelphia, Perseus, 2007), 17.
8. The depth and grandeur of Wilson's entourage earned derisive comment from some progressives, who believed that Wilson should've made a virtue of republican thrift. "While his fellow citizens were sacrificing in every possible way," wrote Nebraska Senator George Norris, Wilson "used the money that came from honest toilers in a display of wealth and pomp never equaled by any king, monarch, or a potentate…he ought to have given to the suffering beaten world an illustration of democracy's simplicity." Of the size of the Wilson delegation, Norris wrote: "There are thousands of lesser lights who are now there and have been there, and more to follow…and the poor taxpayer, overburdened with toil and sacrifice, is beginning to realize that all of this wild and mad extravagance must be paid." George Norris, Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris (New York: Collier, 1961), 207.
9. Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2002), 15. Smith, 43. In his 1921 book Woodrow Wilson as I Knew Him, Wilson's private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, claimed Wilson offered a similarly prescient bon mot on the way to Versailles, which historian Thomas Knock has argued may be apocryphal. "This trip," said Wilson to Tumulty, "will either be the greatest success or the supremest tragedy in all history." Knock, 192.
10. Walter Weyl, Tired Radicals and Other Papers (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1921), 86. John Maynard Keynes. "When the Big Four Met," The New Republic, December 24, 1919, 105.
11. According to estimates, Wilson picked up 20 percent of the 1912 Progressive vote for Roosevelt and 33 percent of the 1912 Socialist vote for Debs. [In 1916] "Walter Weyl…Amos Pinchot and Rabbi Wise of the American Union of Militarism presented the President with a resolution (signed also by John Dewey, Ray Stannard Baker, and Walter Lippmann) expressing their regret for having earlier opposed him…Paul Kellogg and Lillian Wald organized 'Social Workers for Wilson'…the Democratic National Committee proudly announced that Jane Addams planned to vote for Wilson." Herbert Croly also officially brought TNR along to Wilson. Among the Socialists who voted Wilson in 1916 were John Reed, Jack London, Charles Edward Russell, Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, John Spargo, William English Walling, Florence Kelley, Algie M. Simons, Gus Myers, and Max Eastman. Knock, 94, 100.
12. Knock, 96. According to Knock, the "point has never been established either in biographies or in more specialized studies of Wilson's foreign policy. But Wilson made American membership in a league of nations one of the themes of his  campaign." Knock, 95.
13. Historian Robert Crunden, among others, has speculated that Wilson's illness, which would become manifest to all with his later strokes, crucially affected his ability to negotiate in Paris. ""Much of this material remains hypothetical, since adequate records do not survive, and physicians then and later have reached no definitive diagnosis. But…Wilson's disease(s) at Versailles weakened his ability to negotiate…Suspicion became paranoia; lack of patience became irascibility; custom became rigid habit; and set ideas, such as that of the League of Nations, became obsessions that could not be questioned or negotiated. Because of illness, Wilson slowly froze into positions that represented caricatures of progressivism." And historian Jon M. Barry makes a persuasive case that the disease at work on Wilson was the dreaded influenza: After what appears to be a severe case of it contracted in Paris in April 1919, Wilson subsequently abandoned most of his demands in Paris and began displaying worrying signs of mental breakdown. Influenza, Barry argues, citing a 2004 epidemological study, can also leads to strokes not unlike the one Wilson would suffer later in the year.
Whether his ailments explain the president's behavior or not, Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919 offers a worthy compendium of quotes concerning Wilson's character failings. The French ambassador deemed Wilson "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," and even devoted Wilsonian progressive Ray Stannard Baker was forced to concede that the president was "a good hater." Offered Colonel House, a man who arguably knew him better than anyone else: "Never begin by arguing [with Wilson] Discover a common hate, exploit it, get the president warmed up, and then start your business." Looking back late in life, Justice Felix Frankfurter saw both character and illness at work in Wilson's fall "[Wilson] was cold, dogmatic," he remembered. "I had seen something of him before he became President, and all the qualities that came out so strikingly in the tragic year of 1919 and earlier, but particularly 1919. Old age and sickness bring out the essential characteristics of a man…when we haven't got as much energy, the native qualities break forth. He was dogmatic, intolerant; fundamentally didn't like his kind." [Crunden, 1982 #82 @254} MacMillan, 5. Pietrusza,16. Frankfurter, 78.
14. MacMillan, 6. Of that midterm election, Thomas Knock concluded that the Republican Party, following a strategy devised by Lodge, former president Theodore Roosevelt, and party chairman Will Hays, "had virtually written a textbook on how a political party might, with penetrating effect, brand liberals as incipient socialists, whether they were or not. One might even conclude that they cut the pattern for Republican campaigns for the rest of the century." Knock, 188.
15. Knock, 189. Wilson later exacerbated his Republican problem by deeming his opponents, most notably Henry Cabot Lodge, "pygmy minds" who should be "hanged on gibbets high as heaven, but pointing in the opposite direction." Pietrusza, 39. Wrote William Howard Taft to Republican Party Chairman Will Hays in July 1919, "The [Republican] attitude of hostility towards the President has aroused criticism and opposition which might have been avoided had he taken with him such a man as Mr. Root and two representatives of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate." "Taft's Move Conciliatory," New York Times, July 24, 1919.
16. Nathan Miller, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America (New York: Scribner, 2003), 17. Among the observers who found Wilson's partisan strategy puzzling was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt. "This business of the President and the Secretary of State negotiating and signing a treaty, and then handing it cold to the Senate is all wrong," he wrote his wife Eleanor. "If I were doing it, I'd take the Senate, and maybe the House, into my confidence as far as I could. I'd get them committed to a principle and then work out the details in negotiations In that way the thing could be secured." Pietrusza, 39.
17. Knock, 182, 184, 197-199. As Clemenceau said to Wilson during the negotiations, "Please do not misunderstand me. We too came into the world with the noble instincts and the lofty inspirations which you express so eloquently. We have become what we are because we have been shaped by the rough hand of the world in which we have to live[,] and we have survived only because we are a tough bunch." Pietrusza, 30.
18. Knock, 213. One notable observer who had expected as much from the start was T.E. Lawrence, the British diplomat and adventurer whose story was immortalized in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. "Yes, when we read those speeches," he told one of Wilson's aides about the Fourteen Points, "we chuckled in the desert." Ibid.
19. Knock, 200. To be fair, some of these concessions were also paved by Colonel House, in order to keep negotiations moving along while Woodrow Wilson was back in Washington from mid-February to mid-March, 1919. "House has given away everything I won before we left Paris," the president grimaced to his wife. "[H]e has compromised on every side, and so I have to start all over again." Knock, 246. McMillan, 175. Pietrusza, 30.
20. The Monroe Doctrine clause, added to the very controversial Article X, read: "Nothing in this Covenant shall be deemed to affect the validity of…regional understandings like the Monroe Doctrine for securing the maintenance of peace." Suffice to say, this would not be enough to forestall the concerns of many in the United States. Knock, 248.
21. MacMillan, 338.
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