Wilson Fails to Bring True Liberalism

Wilson Fails to Bring True Liberalism

The disaster at Versailles is as much President Wilson’s failure as it is any other’s.


Everett CollectionWoodrow Wilson and Raymond Poincaré, then President of France, at the Versailles Peace Conference.

The disaster at Versailles is as much President Wilson’s failure as it is any other’s.

We watched Mr. Wilson’s triumphal entry into Paris. Plain people by hundreds of thousands acclaimed the embodiment of their hope that slavery to arms was at an end, and that a new era, dominated by a new vision, was at hand. Beside that welcome, the pomp and pageantry of thundered salutes or pennoned lancers in escort seemed tawdry and pale. We stood on the portico of the Crillon and said, “God preserve him; there goes the hope of the idealism of the world.” This peace is Mr. Wilson’s act and deed. It was not forced on him after diplomatic battle and defeat. The sins of omission are deliberate; those of commission are in many eases his considered choice. In many instances the men who actually worked with him fought to the end for their idea of the Wilsonian principles, to find their work nullified by the attitude of Mr. Wilson himself. They saw the famous Fourteen Points become stock jests in the Paris music halls. After the treaty was revealed in its full iniquity, some of them resigned; others protested within the American Commission. Three weeks later an opportunity was afforded not merely to correct the more glaring injustices, but to rebuild the structure upon the basis of good faith and fair dealing contemplated when the negotiations began. It was Mr. Wilson’s choice to keep the treaty as it stood. Now it is for him to answer.

Every oppressed nationality found in the American flag a sign of justice. It was to the American Commission that representative after representative came. The Korean delegates, speaking for a country which in the past few months had paid a toll of blood and tears to Japanese tyranny, asked the right to present their case. Their wrongs were manifest and their cause just, yet Mr. Wilson gave them no assistance, and joined in preventing them from having even a day in court. The Egyptian nationalists, entitled in law to a hearing as part of the defunct Ottoman empire, and entitled in right as representing a movement of which even the British Empire could afford to take cognizance, were not even received by him. When they applied to the Americans in the delegation of which Mr. Wilson was head, the matter was taken up again; whereupon Mr. Wilson drew from his desk a secret agreement, made months before with the British Foreign Office, to recognize the British sovereign rights in Egypt, foreclosing in the privacy of the chancelleries the Egyptian right even to plead its cause. The Irish delegates received scant courtesy; it is yet to be learned whether a similar secret agreement had foreclosed their right. When Italy claimed a solid block of German population in the Austrian Tyrol, Mr. Wilson, over the protests of men in his own secretariat, allowed the claim. When German Austria proclaimed its desire to unite with the new Germany—its only opportunity for legitimate independent existence—the right was denied. It remained for Mr. Wilson in his homecoming speech to explain the brutal truth, that the “self-determination” clause was not principle but propaganda, to stir up peoples “hitherto under bondage to the power that victory had shattered.” Even their liberation is not Mr. Wilson’s act; revolution and popular uprising, not the justice of Paris, were the guarantors of their claims.

In certain instances we saw the principle actually perverted. There came the representatives of three Baltic nations, Esthonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who were seeking to clear their borders of Soviet Russia’s armies, to establish their independence of any Russian Government. Their claims to self-determination were recommended to Mr. Wilson. For months they were fed with promises. At the close of the Conference, the famous Kolchak correspondence was initiated, culminating in Kolchak’s cynical offer to work out a relationship between Russia and these small peoples “under the good offices” of the League of Nations, with the string added that the League was not to have any power to decide. A restored Russia was to do that. But in the interim, while the hope of independence could be used as a spur, the principle of self-determination was to encourage these countries to supreme heroic sacrifices in the fight against Bolshevism; when they had succeeded, they were to be handed over to Koichak’s restored Russia. Mr. Wilson’s most terrible surrender may yet force America into the horrors of an Oriental war. By all his principles, the Shantung peninsula should have been cleared of foreigners and returned to China. The various experts in the American Peace Commission so advised him. The world knows now that three of his own commissioners, Henry White, General Bliss, and Robert Lansing, wrote him that Japan’s claim to Shantung must not stand. The British and French had secretly agreed to support Japanese claims as a bribe to induce her to continue her efforts in the war. Both Lloyd George and Clemeneeau put the decision in Mr. Wilson’s hands, with all the facts; and he supported the secret agreement, from which they would gladly have been freed. Hardly a member of the American delegation has any excuse to make for that decision. Had it been left to the delegation without Mr. Wilson, a just result would have been reached. His own defence is as pitiful as the sin: he had previously denied racial equality guarantees in the covenant of the League of Nations, and having committed one injustice, he found himself obliged to conciliate the principal sufferers by committing a second.

Disarmament and the future ordering of public and private life on the theory that peace would endure was perhaps the greatest hope of the warring peoples. To every manchild in Europe it meant freedom from years of military servitude; from every home it meant lifting a burden of taxation and disruption. On the disarming of Germany as aggressor, all Powers could by covenant reduce their armed establishments. The German disarmament was decreed in humiliating detail; we waited in vain for propositions for simultaneous disarmament, in which would be included the protection of the free seas. In the conferences the American representatives stoutly stood for the principle; they had not learned that its real intent was to secure the defenselessness of one group of Powers, while the remainder of Europe and Asia armed against each other and their internal difficulties. Above all we were convinced that America’s role in Europe must be made permanent in a league of honor, in which America, disinterested, untrammelled by old hate or new and secret bonds, should be able to move upon the high plane of idealism. The making of the projected League of Nations was not a creditable spectacle. Colonel House dickered and trafficked for it like any European diplomatic spoilsman. Every Power collected her price— recognition of secret treaty-rights, concessions, compromises. Moreover, the League was so constructed as to be in essence an alliance of five Powers. Clomenceau had stated openly that he had no use for the League and would see to it that France’s interests should be protected by alliance; and the closing act of the Paris drama was Mr. Wilson binding the United States, so far as he could, to defend France. The League itself, whose covenant by Mr. Wilson’s act is linked irrevocably to a treaty which prejudges all the great questions which such a league should regulate, not only is not a partnership of ideals, but effectively prevents it. America is to be tied to this abortion of compromise and hate by the mechanism of the League. No one who followed the sinister and tortuous policy of the Quai d’Orsay, or the equally twisted policy of Downing Street, or the ruthless Prussianism of Tokio will call an obligation to defend their plunder a partnership of honor.

We all knew of repeated protests against the greater iniquities of the treaty. The Paris papers even published the fact that much of the treaty was shown to the American commissioners—aside from Mr. Wilson and Colonel House -at the same time that it was handed to Count von Brockdorff-Rantzau! Then there came a time—it was just after the German counter-proposals had been delivered to the Allies—when every British functionary from Lloyd George down besought Mr. Wilson to modify the treaty, to make it just, to do, in fact, the right he had been proclaiming. The British had seen too late the handwriting upon the wall. But Mr. Wilson, the fearless champion of the liberalism of the world, could save the situation by a ringing declaration or by a resolute stand. The appeal was vain. As between this treaty and one dictated by himself, Mr. Wilson chose this; and in full knowledge pointed the world back to the path of terror and tears. We were faced with the ghastly truth that we had refused to recognize with the tenacious hope born 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. And the idealists throughout the world—who are indeed the plain people throughout the world, who lend a hand to an enemy in distress, and who would willingly beat their spears into pruninghooks—bewildered, defeated, betrayed, shoulder their burdens again. The braver even pluck up courage to seek anew the builder of more stately mansions. May their faith never fail!

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy