Was the Treaty of Versailles a Victory for Democracy?

President Woodrow Wilson, in Paris for the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images
President Woodrow Wilson, in Paris for the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images

June 28, 1919, dawned as a beautiful day; fair, with moderate winds, according to The New York Times. It was a perfect day to see a baseball game, and 28,000 did, going to the Polo Grounds to watch the Yankees and Red Sox split a doubleheader. New Yorkers could only envy the Red Sox, who had won the last World Series, and seemed poised to win many more, since they boasted “the mighty Babe Ruth, Boston’s swatting all-around player.”

It was hard to believe on this sunny day, but it had been precisely five years since World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Since then, nearly 20 million had died, and entire empires, including Franz Ferdinand’s, had vanished. But those painful memories were softened by the knowledge that nothing so terrible could ever happen again. Because June 28 was the day that a new history would begin.

Across the Atlantic, outside Paris, another huge crowd thronged the old royal seat of Versailles, where a peace treaty awaited signature. It was the culmination of months of work, led by the American president, Woodrow Wilson, who had promised to make the world safe for democracy.

The immense chateau was an unlikely backdrop for a democratic pageant. But like a versatile actress, it was ready to play this demanding new part. Auspiciously, the treaties that recognized the United States were signed here in 1783, validating the idea that one people, at least, might dare to govern itself. Less auspiciously, democracy had surged out of control during the French Revolution, when the proud buildings were stripped of their furnishings. But these were obscure footnotes on what was sure to be a great day. News cameras were on site, ready to record every detail for a voracious public.

Wilson had been waiting a long time for the new era. Few presidents ever came into office with a deeper grasp of the nuts and bolts of democracy. As a young academic, he had written ponderous tomes, examining the way that checks and balances worked between the three branches. Through hard work and genuine charisma, the professor had become a college president, a governor and then president, after the Republicans split in two in 1912.

Wilson expected to focus on domestic affairs, but the war had disrupted those plans. Americans played a pivotal role in the victory, and an even larger role in the peace deliberations that followed. With Europe shattered, the United States was suddenly in the ascendant, a genuine world power. Wilson tantalized millions with his vision of a better future, in which a League of Nations would prevent future wars, and democracies would allow people to select their most talented leaders. As Voltaire might have said, lounging at Versailles in an earlier century, it would be the best of all possible worlds.

To reshape the earth in America’s image was an old desire, one that had animated American diplomats since the days of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, whose idea of a “model treaty” had sketched a way for a new diplomacy, less secretive. They too had seen Versailles. But Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, brought a new level of sophistication as he evangelized for the new heaven he wanted to see on earth. Americans enjoyed his mesmerizing speeches, which placed America’s story at the center of human history, much as Ronald Reagan’s later did.

In the spring of 1919, with the fighting finished, the victors gathered in Paris to sort through the details of the peace. The American delegation was superbly prepared. In 1917, Wilson had commissioned a study group called the Inquiry to prepare for the postwar. An eclectic group of historians, librarians and cartographers, the Inquiry prepared gorgeous maps and reports, on the assumption that any government of the people ought to know who, exactly, the people were. But that was not always easy to determine in Europe’s dark vales, where people of different ethnicities had coexisted uneasily for as long as anyone could remember. The Inquiry hoped to change that.

Working out of makeshift offices in the New York Public Library, and in another office close to the Polo Grounds, the Inquiry clarified every possible question related to who lived where. That would help when it came time to create a more logical set of new countries from the goulash of the late Austro-Hungarian empire. For Wilson was determined to offer “self-determination,” a pleasingly American term that he had begun to use in early 1918.

At the head of the American delegation was Wilson himself, enjoying a luminous celebrity during two long visits to Paris. But an unexpected problem began to surface as the treaty was stitched together that spring. The adulation of the people deepened Wilson’s certainty that he was right on every issue, which made his conversation more brittle, less open to compromise; in a word, less democratic. Convinced that he alone knew what was right, he began to alienate other diplomats. The economist John Maynard Keynes complained that it was “practically impossible for anyone to get to see him.”

Other problems also bedeviled Wilson, including the vexing difficulty of determining who, exactly, deserved self-determination. Despite the precision of his maps, it was difficult to come up with clean new boundaries without stirring a hornet’s nest of ethnic rivalries. A young English diplomat, Harold Nicolson, once came across the president on his knees before a large map, as if in prayer.

Exercising the right of self-determination, representatives of the world’s peoples flooded into Paris, hoping to stake a claim in the new order. Many succeeded, as new countries were created out of whole cloth in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. But others were disappointed, especially in Asia and Africa, where the British and French were in no mood to slough off their colonial possessions, especially since Germany’s colonies were now low-hanging fruit.

The Middle East was also up for grabs after Ottoman defeats left a power vacuum. Far from being united in peace, the French and British were already competing for these broad domains, in a way that had little to do with Wilson’s impressionist canvas, and much more to do with naked power. Nicolson was appalled to stumble into a meeting in which the plenipotentiaries were “cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.” So unpredictable were the shifting dynamics that the Ottoman sultan expressed his hope for an American mandate, which would have put the nominal head of Islam under the sway of the United States.

Asia was just as volatile, and hope often turned to fury when the new maps were unveiled. After a disputed peninsula was lopped off from China and given to Japan, the Chinese delegation refused to sign the treaty. Tumultuous riots soon engulfed Chinese cities. Other Asians tried and failed to build support for their causes. The story has often been told of a young Vietnamese patriot, Nguyen Tat Tanh, who came to Paris to plead for his country, to no avail. Decades later, as Ho Chi Minh, he would remember how undemocratic it had felt to be in Paris in 1919.

In other ways, as well, Wilson’s understanding of democracy could be selective. An uncomfortable moment in the peace talks came when the Japanese delegation proposed a clause proposing that racial equality should be a guiding principle of the new League of Nations. Wilson dismissed the new wording through a parliamentary procedure.

The more messianic Wilson acted, the more his aura shrank, especially as word trickled back from Washington that he faced rising opposition in Congress. By ignoring all of the small attentions that lubricate the work of democracy, he created a significant obstacle for the necessary work of securing Senate approval when he finally returned with the treaty in hand.

Wilson glided serenely over these contradictions for a long time, repeating his magical incantations. But as the calendar ticked down to June 28, his new order seemed less new and less orderly with every passing day. That feeling deepened with the signing ceremony, held in the cavernous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the Germans had imposed a humiliating surrender upon the French in 1871. Now, history acted as a mirror of its own, as the French settled the score, beneath ceiling frescoes that celebrated even older wars. It would have been difficult to find a room less likely to inspire confidence in the future.

The signing ceremony took all of 37 minutes. Exhilarated, Wilson took a train to the seaport of Brest, and promptly sailed for America. Before leaving, he declared that his “new order” had begun. But already, there were troubling signs. Wilson’s adviser, “Colonel” Edward M. House, wrote in his diary, “My last conversation with the president was not reassuring.” House reminded him that the best parts of American history were built on compromise, and urged him to work with the Senate. Wilson scoffed, then sailed off.

It would turn out to be a long summer for democracy. Wilson returned to find a Republican Senate impatient with a president who had been gone for months. A few modifications to the treaty might have brought approval, but Wilson refused to alter “a single period,” and grew angry at the legislators, as if he alone understood the needs of the people. “The Senate must take its medicine,” he said, as if talking to a 5-year-old.

Instead, he tried to go over their heads, speaking in an increasingly erratic manner, at public rallies, far from Washington. The effort nearly killed him. After hundreds of speeches, he would finally collapse in Colorado, disabled for the rest of his presidency. In November, the Senate rejected the treaty. As a result, the United States never joined the League of Nations that it had done so much to create.

In other ways, too, Americans struggled to get right with democracy. For African-Americans, it was strange to hear Wilson’s sermonettes, when it was clear that the world was not safe at all for millions living in their own country. The day before the peace treaty was signed, The New York Times reported on a horrific story from Ellisville, Miss., where a local African-American, John Hatfield, was hanged from a gum tree, shot full of bullets, then burned to ashes. Local authorities assured the press that it had been “orderly.”

The problem was especially acute for African-American veterans, who were often singled out for punishment. Having survived the trenches of France, they now ran a gantlet of terror in their hometowns. Details remain difficult to come by, but a 2015 report identified many cases of violence against black veterans from 1919. A Louisiana newspaper, ironically titled The True Democrat, published an editorial denouncing African-American veterans for having “more exalted ideas of their station in life than really exists” and urged, “this is the right time to show them what will and will not be permitted.”

Democracy survived the challenges of 1919, and in many ways it deepened over the course of the 20th century. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy, came to Paris in 1919, and learned a great deal from Wilson’s mistakes. When he was creating the United Nations, he took care to consult Congress, and the result was a far more enduring success.

But the Treaty of Versailles, unveiled with such fanfare, failed in its central purpose, to build a durable peace. So unpopular was the treaty in Germany that it probably hastened the Second World War. The United States was largely on the sidelines, powerless and unrepresented in the League of Nations. For much of the century, the maps had to be redrawn, at great expense, in places ranging from Vietnam to the Balkans.

It would be easy to find fault with Woodrow Wilson for all the ways he failed to avert that outcome. With his refusal to compromise, his contempt for Congress and his casual racism, he was a very flawed messenger for the democratic era that he welcomed at every juncture.

At the same time, he was not wrong to argue that unbridled nationalism was a recipe for disaster. Or that the world was stronger with America in it. Wilson’s flaw was not that he was too bold; it was that he was not democratic enough. If he had stayed true to his original vision, expressed powerfully in the waning months of the war, we might be celebrating a very different centennial.

The word pictures that Wilson painted in 1919 remain beguiling, in spite of their overreach. Perhaps it is because the world’s leaders have become so inarticulate, at a time when we could use some new faith in democracy. In 2019, it is difficult to imagine the United States leading any meaningful treaty effort. This June 28, the centennial will present the confusing spectacle of a president antagonizing democratic allies, while cajoling adversaries who make no secret of their contempt for democracy and human rights.

Harold Nicolson cautioned, “people who study the past under the conviction that they themselves would automatically behave better in the present are adopting a dangerous habit of mind.” Perhaps it is better to retrieve what was valuable in 1919 — when America briefly stood for a higher standard — while taking care to avoid the obvious mistakes of a group of politicians who failed to rise above their circumstances. Who knows how future historians will judge us, as the world slides toward a new era that feels palpably less democratic?

Sources: David A. Andelman, “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today”; Lawrence E. Gelfand, “The Inquiry: American Preparations for Peace, 1917-1919”; Edward Mandell House and Charles Seymour, eds., “What Really Happened at Paris: The Story of the Peace Conference, 1918-1919”; Margaret MacMillan, “Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World”; Erez Manela: “The Wilsonian Moment; Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism”; Harold Nicolson, “Peacemaking 1919”; Susan Schulten, “Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America."

Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and a fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

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