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Sunday, March 1, 1987

A Reviewers Notebook: Wilson and His Peacemakers


Arthur Walworth, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Woodrow Wilson, is not an economist by profession. But in his new book, Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 (New York: W. W. Norton, 618 pp., $35.00) he leaves no doubt that the economic decisions of those who were more concerned with punishing Germany than in establishing a workable world led directly to World War II.

This conclusion, of course, was established some time ago by John Maynard Keynes, whose Economic Consequences of the Peace benefited from Keynes’ ringside seat at Versailles. Bernard Baruch concurred with the Keynesian analysis. But it has remained for Walworth to check out the infinitely harrowing details of Woodrow Wilson’s failure to make it a just peace in the first six months of 1919.

Walworth sums things up pithily by saying that “the withdrawal of the United States” in 1919 from active peacemaking decisions “left many of the expectations raised by its president unfulfilled. German Social Democrats, striving to operate a new government, were disappointed in their over-optimistic hopes. Contrary to the doctrine of self-determination, they found their population and that of Austria diminished by hundreds of thousands of people of their blood. Instead of sharing in the political reconstruction of the world’s society that Wilson had advocated under economic arrangements that would make it possible to engage in productive industry and profitable trade, Germany could look forward only to inflation and bankruptcy.”

Wilson went to Paris with high hopes that he could put some meaning into his rhetoric about making the world safe for democracy. He had enlisted scholars to redraw the map of Europe and to indicate possible mandates for both the Middle East and the colonial preserves of Africa. Ethnic lines and language groupings would be respected. The word, stressed over and over again, was “self-determination.” But there were brute facts of geography to be reckoned with, and the disposition of raw materials was not always convenient. Then there were the secret understandings among the European nations that antedated America’s entry into the War.

Unable to cope with the wiliness of Britain’s Lloyd George and the intense nationalism and Germanophobia of Clemenceau, the “Tiger of France,” Wilson put his remaining trust in the League of Nations. The League would do what the Treaty of Versailles had left undone. But Wilson sadly underestimated the fact that Europe remained a prey to disruptive forces that were deeply rooted in history. The Czechs were quarreling with the Poles over coal mines at Teschen. The Sudeten Germans, living on a strip of territory that had been awarded to Czechoslovakia for reasons of military safety, were hard to conciliate. In the South Tyrol hundreds of thousands of Germans and Austrians were consumed with acute distaste for the Italian government that had insisted on annexing them. Poland had to deal with Ukrainians in territory that was supposed to protect East Galicia. The Croats and the Slovenes, shoved together in the New Yugoslavia, were in a perpetual state of friction. Bulgaria and Hungary had lost large portions of their native populations. Instead of democracy, dictatorship was to be the lot of many of the small East European countries.

What was important about all this was that it set up a hundred excuses for an Adolf Hitler to build his case against Versailles. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge the Elder could not foresee Hitler. And he knew little about economics. But he knew that the American people had not really been weaned away from a traditional isolationism tempered by the continentalism of the Monroe Doctrine. It did not bother him that, when Wilson left Europe, we were tentatively committed to an active role throughout the world. Our troops were policing the eastern shores of the Adriatic. We had regiments on the Rhine. We had subsidized equipment for the White Russian armies. Herbert Hoover was committed to feeding east central Europe, and Washington had supplied the credits to move the food. All of this compounded the tremendous letdown in Europe when Lodge prevailed upon his fellow Republicans to reject the League of Nations and to refuse to sign the German peace.

It could be accounted a strange thing that Wilson, who had written on constitutional government in a federated system, missed the point that in a world of differing local traditions and languages, to say nothing of religious commitments, federalism is the only possible free unifying force. Clarence Streit, the New York Times correspondent at Geneva, the home of the League, caught on to this in the twenties. The contrast between the League and its host government of Switzerland was too striking to be ignored. Beyond the question of a federalism that might have provided the Paris peacemakers with a better model for the Western democracies, Wilson underestimated the portent of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A free Germany was needed as a bulwark against the spread of Leninist doctrine.

But Wilson was right on the central issue: a vindictive peace would prove to be no peace at all. The peacemakers of 1815 did not hold a defeated France responsible for Napoleon’s wars, with the result that Europe was able to live for 99 years without a major war. The history of the 19th century might have been repeated if there had been more willingness on the part of Lloyd George and Clemenceau to let Social Democratic Germany live. It was the German inflation forced on a truncated country by wholly unrealistic reparations that prepared the soil for the Nazis.

The organization of the United Nations, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be much better than the League. But at least the U.S., in making peace in 1945, had benefited by the lesson of Versailles. In letting Germany and Japan live without crippling encumbrances, the era of civil wars in the West was brought to a close. The Soviet face-off is another matter.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.