By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The "Tragedy of
the Peace Messiah"
Progressives and the Versailles Treaty
II. A Human Failure
"It was commonly believed at the commencement of the Paris Conference that the President had thought out, with the aid of a large body of advisers, a comprehensive scheme not only for the League of Nations but for the embodiment of the Fourteen Points in an actual Treaty of Peace. But in fact the President had thought out nothing; when it came to practice, his ideas were nebulous and incomplete. He had no plan, no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House. He could have preached a sermon on any of them or have addressed a stately prayer to the Almighty for their fulfillment; but he could not frame their concrete application to the actual state of Europe."1"He not only had no proposals in detail," continued Keynes in exasperation, "but he was in many respects, perhaps inevitably, ill informed as to European conditions. And not only was he ill informed…but his mind was slow and inadaptable." Indeed, Keynes concluded of Wilson, "[t]here can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent than the President in the agilities of the Council Chambers…His mind was too slow and unresourceful to be ready with any alternatives. The President was capable of digging his toes in and refusing to budge…But he had no other mode of defense."2
The reason for this fundamental defect, thought Keynes, lay in the cast of Wilson's mind. "The President was a nonconformist minister, perhaps a Presbyterian. His thought and his temperament were essentially theological not intellectual, with all the strength and the weakness of that manner of thought, feeling, and expression." The president's rivals at Versailles evidently concurred with this assessment of Wilson as evangelistic dupe. "I've never knew anyone to talk more like Jesus Christ, and act more like Lloyd George," quipped Clemenceau of Wilson. "God gave us the Ten Commandments, and we broke them," the Tiger remarked early in the negotiations. "Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see." And Wilson himself added fuel to this fire, purportedly telling one aide that "If I didn't feel that I was the personal instrument of God, I couldn't carry on."3
In the months and years that followed, several progressive writers, many of whom had originally deeply admired the President, would also try to make sense of Wilson's baffling performance at the Paris Peace Conference. To Walter Weyl, who wrote on the catastrophe at Versailles just before his untimely death from throat cancer in November 1919, Wilson's failure was also rooted in his nature. "Mr. Wilson's failure was a poignant moral failure involving everything in the man that held our respect:
[Wilson was] overconfident - too sure of his ability to match his mind against the best minds of Europe. He was ill-prepared and ill-informed. He grew confused and lost perception of what could, and could not be done. He was stubborn when he should have been open-minded, vacillating when he should have been decisive...Mr. Wilson went to Paris like some medieval Doctor of Theology, with his theses written down on stiff parchment, ready to meet the other good doctors in fair and leisurely argument. Instead of Doctors of Divinity it was hand-to-mouth diplomats whom he met - men no worse than their calling - who greeted him kindly and then reverently laid his neat theses under the map of Europe which was being sliced up. These diplomats, though smaller, were cleverer than the President, and they were playing their own game with their own cards."4As a former political science professor happiest in the realm of abstraction, Wilson, thought Weyl, had no talent for the gritty realpolitik inherent to Old World diplomacy, perhaps best typified by English Prime Minister David Lloyd George's rumored quip to a Conference aide, "Please refresh my memory. Is it Upper or Lower Silesia we're giving away?" In a damning summation of the inherent flaws in Wilsonism (and, by extension, a certain cast of progressive mind), Weyl argued:
The simple faith of Mr. Wilson in his Fourteen Points, unexplained and unelaborated, was due, I believe, to the invincible abstractedness of his mind. He seems to see the world in abstractions. To him railroad cars are not railroad cars but a gray, general thing called Transportation; people are not men and women, corporeal, gross, very human beings, but Humanity - Humanity very much in the abstract. In his political thinking and propaganda Mr. Wilson cuts away all the complex qualities which things possess in real life in order to fasten upon one single characteristic and thus he creates a clear but over-simple and unreal formula. As a consequence he is tempted to fall into inelastic categories; to see things black and white; to believe that similar things are identical and dissimilar things opposite…In sum, Weyl concluded, Wilson ventured into the diplomatic thicket of Versailles "with a map of the world but without a compass." And yet, perhaps recognizing the implications such a critique would have on the larger progressive project, Weyl ultimately rejected his own argument, and backed away from blaming Wilson's idealism for the failure at Versailles. "Those who despise all idealism in politics will exult over this new Don Quixote overthrown and bespattered, this new saint seduced," he wrote. "They will wish to revert to the old time diplomatist, the dollar and steel and sausage diplomatist, who has as few ideals as may be but has his broad feet flat on the ground. They will call for an end of prophets and idealists." Having sensed the danger, Weyl honed his critique. "It was not Woodrow Wilson, the prophet and idealist, who was overturned at Paris," he concluded:
for whatever his defects, his abstractness, his metaphysical idealism, his over-confidence, his vanity, he might always have retrieved himself and gained at least a moral victory by a final refusal. The man who was discomfited was Woodrow Wilson the politician, the man who thought he could play the European game, who was not afraid of the dark, who at times seemed to bargain for his own hand, for his personal prestige and his political party, instead of fighting always and solely, win or lose, for his ideals. A man cannot both be celestial and subterranean.6Writing several years later, in his much-discussed (at the time) 1925 autobiography Confessions of a Reformer, disillusioned progressive Frederic C. Howe concurred with the general contours of Weyl's assessment. "For the first time in his political life," he wrote, "Woodrow Wilson was compelled to do battle with equals, who knew every detail of what was being discussed, but of which he had only the superficial information provided on a sheet of paper. He had expected an afternoon tea; he found a duel. He expected to dictate; he descended to barter." On one hand, thought Howe, Wilson suffered from grievous personal failings, rooted in idealistic "reveries," that undermined his ability to succeed in Paris. "Mr. Wilson could not bear criticism. Criticism brought his reveries of himself under inspection, and he cherished those reveries. He shielded them, nursed them, lived with them. His dreams had to be kept intact. They had to be respected by others."
On the other, Howe believed that Wilson ultimately forsook this cherished idealism at the bargaining table, to disastrous results. "Had the President remained a Messiah, content with approval from himself alone, he might possibly have won. He might have failed, but his failure would have been a Messianic failure in keeping with his vision of himself":
But he chose to barter. When he began to barter, he lost all; he lost his own vision of himself, and he had to keep this vision of himself intact. It and his principles were all that he had brought to Paris. A man less idealistic would have been betrayed as he was betrayed, but he would have been a better bargainer. He would have used America's financial power. He would have brought pressure to bear. He might have threatened. He would have descended more frankly into the world in which he found himself. But the evangelist could do none of these things frankly, and the President was an evangelist.7In sum, Howe concluded, "President Wilson's sense of insecurity, when outside of his study, made him vulnerable. He was unwilling to face defeat. He would not face failure. To escape failure he sacrificed principles…His constant struggle was to preserve the semblance even when the substance was lost." And, when Wilson returned from Versailles to pitch the League of Nations to his countrymen, "the people were ready to accept his failures and understand the cause. It was his assertion that he had brought back the peace he had promised that had turned the tide. The people did not believe what he said. They heckled him in his meetings. They forced him to see himself. It was then that his strength gave way, his health broke. He lost his vision of himself when he discovered that it was no longer held by others. The pinnacle from which he fell was within himself. That was the tragedy of the Peace Messiah."8
The experience at Versailles also disillusioned many of the progressives on Wilson's diplomatic team. "'I took up the work at Paris full of the warmest anticipations of some settlement that would realize liberal ideals," wrote former progressive journalist and then Wilson Press Secretary Ray Stannard Baker. "I saw the reaction…from the War and I realized…the enormous strength of the old imperialistic and military systems." During the peace conference, Baker confided in his journal of Wilson: "He will probably be beaten. He can escape no responsibility & must go to his punishment not only for his own mistakes and weaknesses of temperament but for the greed and selfishness of the world."9
Upon first reading the final version of the treaty, which had been delivered to his hotel room at four in the morning, economic advisor and former head of the food administration Herbert Hoover was so shaken that he went for a walk about Paris to collect his thoughts. He soon happened upon Keynes and Jan Christiaan Smuts of South Africa (one of the main architects of the League), who had disappeared into the night for similar reasons. "It all flashed into our minds why each was walking about at that time of the morning," wrote Hoover. "We agreed that the consequences of many parts of the proposed Treaty would ultimately bring destruction." Nevertheless, Hoover ultimately decided to grit his teeth and back the final product. "With all my forebodings about the Treaty, I decided for myself to support its ratification…as a lesser evil."10
Not all of Wilson's diplomats in Paris followed Hoover in toeing the line. William Bullitt, a recent Yale graduate who had been sent to broker a cease-fire with the Bolshevik government in Russia (a cease-fire which was ultimately ignored by Wilson in Paris), was beside himself about the final treaty. "I am sorry that you did not fight our fight to the finish," Bullitt angrily wrote to Wilson, "and that you had so little faith in the millions of men, like myself, in every nation who had faith in you…Our government has consented now to deliver the suffering peoples of the world to new oppressions, subjections, and dismemberments - a new century of war." He led a group of young diplomats in tendering their resignations from Wilson's staff, telling the press, "I am going to lie in the sands of the French Riviera, and watch the world go to hell." (Bullitt would later take a break from his self-imposed vacation to testify against the League of Nations in Congress.) 11
Diplomat Adolf A. Berle shared Bullitt's disgust and was among those who tendered his resignation upon completion of the treaty. Writing in The Nation a few months later, he deemed the treaty a perversion of the principles - self-determination, open covenants, disarmament, and the like - for which the war had been fought. Worse, Berle and his fellow progressives "were faced with the ghastly truth that we had refused to recognize with the tenacious hope borne of faith: the master was himself the traitor. The power and splendor of Mr. Wilson's thought, the faith reposed in him by the plain people, the burning hopes and the new vision which he aroused deepen the tragedy." As a result of Wilson's performance, Berle thought "the idealists throughout the world" were now "bewildered, defeated, betrayed."12
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Keynes, 106-107. Secretary of State Robert Lansing may have expected this sort of failure on Wilson's part when he told Colonel House that Wilson was "making one of the greatest mistakes of his career and imperiling his reputation" by going to Versailles. Rather, Wilson should have cultivated "the very mystery and uncertainty that attach to him while he remains in Washington," and let his diplomatic subordinates plea his case. Knock, 190.
3. Keynes, 106. Pietrusza, 27. Thomas Knock. "Woodrow Wilson," in Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer, ed., The American Presidency (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 308. Miller,23. Phillips,161.
4. Weyl, 84-85.
5. Courtesy: Eigen's Political & Historical Quotations. (http://www.politicalquotes.org/Quotedisplay.aspx?DocID=26331) Weyl, 187-188. This was a common complaint about Wilson among progressives. As Robert La Follette wrote his sons of Wilson in 1919, "I sometimes think the man has no sense of things that penetrates below the surface. With him the rhetoric of a thing is the thing itself. He is either wanting in understanding or conviction or both. Words - phrases, felicity of expression and a blind egotism has been his stock in trade." And reminiscing years down the road, Felix Frankfurter remembered of Wilson: "He believed in democracy in the abstract, but didn't care for people. That's true! And he'd cut off their heads with equanimity." One can also find evidence of this "invincible abstractness" in Wilson's thought in the wooing of his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson. When discussing the "compact" of their marriage in 1885, Wilson suggested that she consider it "an Interstate Love League (of two members only that it may be of manageable size.)…we can make bylaws at our leisure as they become necessary." Belle Case La Follette and Fola La Follette, Robert M. La Follette (New York: MacMillan Company, 1953). 966. Frankfurter, 78. Knock, 4.
6. Weyl, 100-101.
7. Frederic C. Howe, The Confessions of a Reformer (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1988), 312-313.
8. Howe, 316.
9. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 187-190. Knock, 246.
10. Pietrusza, 111. Hoover also thought Wilson had inadvertently sabotaged the peace by pushing himself too hard. The president was "drawn, exhausted, and haggard," he wrote. "He sometimes groped for ideas…I found that we had to push against an unwilling mind." Pietrusza, 33.
11. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 14. MacMillan, 78-80. Walter LaFeber et al, The American Century: A History of the United States since the 1890s (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 167. Bullitt would also go on to pen arguably the strangest book about Wilson ever written: Thomas Woodrow Wilson, ostensibly co-authored (and definitely introduced) by Sigmund Freud. Written in the early 1930's and finally published in 1966, it concluded that "Little Tommy" Wilson was obsessed with his father, thought of his father as God, and thus, by the transitive property, thought of himself as Christ. As a result, Wilson "left facts and reality behind for the land in which facts are merely the embodiment of wishes." Writing of Wilson's eventually disastrous nationwide speaking tour, it argues: "One may be sure that in his unconscious, when he boarded the train he was mounting an ass to ride into Jerusalem." A 1967 TIME review of the book found it "embarrassingly simplistic" and noted that Wilson's diaries and correspondence were not consulted in its writing. William Bullitt and Sigmund Freud, Thomas Woodrow Wilson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.) "Books : Games Some People Play," TIME, Jan. 27, 1967.
12. Adolf A. Berle, "The Betrayal at Paris." The Nation, August 9, 1919. Vol. CIX, No. 2823, p. 171.
If you found this dissertation useful or entertaining, please consider contributing to the tip fund.
Alas, history isn't the wildly remunerative discipline it used to be.