History 2340: US Diplomatic History
May 8, 2012
The world that emerged following World War I and the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles had changed dramatically from the world before the war. Remarkably, this world was not the one that President Woodrow Wilson envisioned. Enjoying unprecedented international acclaim and traveling to France himself, Wilson returned to the United States with a treaty that lacked many of the key provisions for which he had hoped. Wilson had only been able to successfully negotiate the formation of the League of Nations. Unfortunately for Wilson, that would be irrelevant because the Senate never ratified the treaty and the United States never joined the League of Nations. Two more years passed until Germany and the United States signed a peace agreement under President Warren G. Harding. These series of events are quite shocking because Wilson was unable to end the “war to end wars” as he had hoped. Many wonder about Wilson’s inability to have a peace based on the fourteen points he outlined during the war. Though there are many different aspects, American domestic politics and Wilson’s religious zeal for the League of Nations were the deciding factors that denied Wilson his long lasting peace.
To understand the dynamics of the peace settlement, it is first necessary to understand what transpired during the course of the war. War broke out on the European continent in July of 1914 shortly after Serbian separatists assassinated the archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary responded by invading Serbia, which brought in major powers like France, Germany, and Russia because of alliances. Hoping to defeat France quickly, Germany violated Belgium neutrality and that brought the United Kingdom into the conflict. The war on the western front was quickly bogged down in a virtual stalemate fought in trenches. The conflict soon spread into Africa and Asia as countries sought to conquer the colonies of their enemies. In 1917, Lenin and communists would take power and signed a treaty with Germany that removed Russia from the war. Meanwhile, Germany had implemented a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that sunk both allied and neutral countries shipping in an effort to remove Britain from the war. This policy was a major reason the United States under Wilson entered the conflict in 1917 against Germany. After exhausting fighting and high casualties on both sides, Germany and her allies capitulated and signed an armistice in 1918 and the victorious Allies met in Paris to negotiate a peace treaty.
Wilson expressed his desired peace plan quite clearly in a speech he gave before Congress in which he outlined his Fourteen Points. Wilson thought these points would restore order across the globe and secure peace. Wilson proposed many ideas to secure this peace. Among them were the end of secret alliances, freedom of the seas, a general reduction of arms by all countries, and a responsible adjustment of borders and formation of states. However, the most important of all these points was point XIV. Point XIV stated the necessity of “a general association of nations [to] be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike”. This idea resulted in the formation of the League of Nations and Wilson thought its formation was imperative as forum where nations could address any and all issues. Ultimately, it would be one of the reasons the Senate would never ratify the treaty.
Despite Wilson’s best efforts, the Treaty of Versailles only included the creation of the League of Nations and lacked many of the other recommendations Wilson had articulated in his speech. French premier Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George were able to dictate much of the terms at Versailles. Pursuant to the...