Woodrow Wilson chose to head the U.S. delegation to the peace conference in Paris at the end of World War I and in doing so became the first president to visit Europe during his term in office. He was accompanied by Secretary of State Robert Lansing and his closest personal advisor, Colonel Edward House, as well as Henry White, a respected career diplomat and Republican, and General Tasker Bliss. The American delegation was supplemented by a huge throng of advisors — including experts on European economics, geography and ethnicity — that had been carefully assembled by Colonel House. Despite its size and unquestioned expertise, Wilson’s selection of the membership of the delegation may have assured future criticism and turmoil. His failure to include any senators or current Republican leaders in the group clearly undercut support for the venture. His thinking on this matter is hard to fathom, especially in light of the outcome of the congressional elections in November 1918. The Republicans had gained a narrow majority in the Senate and Wilson would need the support of his political opponents in order to achieve the necessary two-thirds vote of that body for ratification of a treaty.
The president was also criticized for choosing to leave the country at a time when many thought the most important task was the restoration of the nation’s economy, not the establishment of peace in Europe. It was argued that Wilson could effectively monitor the negotiations in Paris by means of the transatlantic cable, while devoting his main efforts to restore peacetime prosperity. Questioning Wilson’s actions was not without partisan purpose. Republicans were well aware of the president’s growing international stature and were fearful that he might choose to run for a third term.
Nevertheless, the American mission sailed for Europe aboard the George Washington on December 4, 1918, a number of weeks prior to the opening of the conference. Wilson conducted a quick tour of the major European capitals — Paris, London and Rome — where he was hailed as a savior by adoring masses; European political leaders, however, displayed considerably less enthusiasm for the prickly and idealistic American president.
The conference convened in Paris on January 18, 1919 and during its course 32 nations attended — Germany was not among them. Sessions were held in secret, despite Wilson's opposition. The major decisions were made by the Big Four — David Lloyd George of Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Wilson. Tension was evident among the leaders from the beginning. Wilson took every opportunity to advance his Fourteen Points, in particular his cherished proposal for an association of nations. The others held greater concern for their nations’ security in the future than for Wilson’s idealism.
Competing with Wilson’s vision for the postwar world was a variety of national or regional issues rooted in earlier secret treaties, not in the Fourteen Points:
Left out of the scramble were the Russians. Their long-held dream of gaining Constantinople was dismissed by the other powers as a consequence of the Bolshevik government having concluded a separate peace with Germany.
- The British opposed any move toward freedom of the seas, sought primacy in the Middle East and hoped to take control of a number of German colonies
- France made no secret of its commitment to regain Alsace and Lorraine
Italian nationalists raised the cry of “Italia Irredenta” (Italy Redeemed) as the slogan for their drive for primacy in the Adriatic
- The Japanese wanted German holdings in the Shantung Peninsula of China as well as a number of German islands
Wilson stoutly insisted that the League of Nations be made a part of the peace treaty and overcame the opposition of the other leaders. A draft of the League’s constitution, or “covenant” as Presbyterian Wilson preferred to call it, was rushed to completion by mid-February. The president returned to the United States at that time to sign pending legislation and drum up support for the emerging treaty.
With typical bluntness and lack of concern for senatorial sensibilities, Wilson had sent word ahead that he did not want the debate on the League to begin until he arrived and had the opportunity to present his case. His request was not honored by several Republican senators. The scope of mounting opposition to the president’s plan became clear in early March when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts revealed a Republican “round robin” that effectively declared the anticipated treaty dead on arrival. Undeterred, Wilson pledged to forge ahead and returned to Paris, where he faced major challenges from the territorial aspirations of the major powers and his own declining popularity.
NOTE: The Paris Peace Conference was not confined to negotiating with Germany alone; treaties were concluded with the other Central Powers later in 1919 and in early 1920.
See also Wilson's Search for Peace.
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