Lecture Six:  The Paris Peace Conference

big four
The Big Four

harry truman
Capt. Harry S. Truman
129th Field Artillery

The signing of the Versailles Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors

cabot lodge
Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge

wilson and edith
Woodrow and Edith Wilson

Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris in January of 1919 to a hero's welcome.  Tens of thousands of jubilant Frenchmen thronged the streets to greet Wilson' car as it paraded by.  A beaming Wilson waved his top hat to the multitudes, buoyed by the knowledge that they were cheering for him, for America, and for the promise of freedom embodied in his Fourteen Points.

Actually, very few "men on the street" knew or cared about Wilson's Fourteen Points.  More ominously, the other representatives of the victorious nations cast a skeptical eye on the moralistic Wilson's prescription for the future.  Georges Clemenceau, premier of France and nicknamed "The Tiger," was a wily veteran of the frequently opaque and byzantine brand of European politics.  "God gave us ten commandments, and look what we've done with them," he mused.  "Wilson has given us fourteen.  We shall see."

The Paris Peace Talks were dominated by a Council of Ten, representing the victors, and within that council, the "Big Four"--the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy (who had joined the allied cause in 1915)--held the greatest power.  Here, Wilson was the outsider.  David Lloyd-George, prime minister of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, and the dapper Vittorio Orlando of Italy represented nations whose sacrifice of millions of their best young men (click here for list of casualties) made the losses of the United States (just over 200,000) pale by comparison.  They had no interest in making the world safe for democracy, or freedom of the seas, of guaranteeing self-determination of minorities.  They wanted revenge.   They wanted compensation for their losses, in the form of the territories of the conquered nations and future cash payments from the vanquished--namely, Germany. 

Although Austria-Hungary had been the first nation to declare war, the Germans' prosecution of the war on the Western Front against Britain, France, and the United States made them the main target of the Allied nations' wrath.  The Germans had fought ruthlessly, even when their cause seemed lost. 
Early German atrocities in Belgium helped fueled the wartime propaganda campaign, which had painted the German soldier as a barbaric "Hun" and the Kaiser as the quintessence of evil.  One incident described in David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman relates the feelings of the soldiers towards the Germans.  Harry Truman, who would later serve as President of the United States, had served as a captain in the Missouri National Guard and commanded an artillery battery in the Meuse-Ardennes campaign.  Members of Truman's company recalled marching to the front and passing the bodies of dead Americans on the way--the first dead comrades they had seen in the campaign--all shot in the back by Germans who had hid behind dead bodies as they retreated and then shot advancing Americans.  "Now you sonsabitches," growled the first sergeant, "you'll know you're in a war."

The Europeans, who had faced the German "menace" for four full years, were thus in no mood to treat the "Hun" kindly.  They had territorial claims as well as other demands based on secret pre-war agreements.  For his part, Wilson refused to accept these latter claims, but the other nations refused to budge. 

In the end, the conference produced five major treaties ending the First World War, but the primary one dealt with Germany:  the Treaty of Versailles (named after the chateau in the Parisian suburb of Versailles where the conferees met).  The treaty blamed Germany and Germany alone for the war, and demanded it pay reparations amounting to more than $33 billion.  The territories of Alsace and Lorraine, taken by Germany as spoils after the Franco-Prussian War, were restored to France.  German colonies in Africa and the Pacific were divided up among the victors as "mandates."  Parts of Germany (West Prussia) were taken to form parts of new nations (Poland) or given to existing ones (Belgium and Denmark).  France took possession of the rich Saar area of Germany for a period of 15 years, and the Allied nations were to occupy the Rhineland for an equal amount of time and the right bank of the Rhine River was to be permanently demilitarized.  The treaty reduced the German army to a maximum of 100,000 men, gutted its navy, and forbade the existence of an air force. 

The treaty was presented to a shocked German delegation on June 28, 1919.  The Germans signed, but protested what they felt were the unfair terms of the treaty.  They felt they were unfairly blamed for starting the war, and certainly unfairly burdened with paying for the costs of that war.  The $33 billion in reparations represented an impossible sum, and the loss of some of its richest and most productive territories (Silesia, the Saarland) insured it would place an enormous burden on Germany.  Their protests came to naught, and so the treaty became effective in January of 1920.

Wilson had been forced to sacrifice most of his Fourteen Points, but his desire for self-determination of minorities was reflected in part in the creation of a number of new nations carved out of the former Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires.  Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia became nations as a result of the treaties signed in Paris.  (Other nations would eventually be carved out of the former Ottoman Empire.)  Wilson's greatest achievement came with Article XX of the Versailles Treaty, which created an international organization of states:  the League of Nations.  He hoped that the existence of the League would help prevent the outbreak of future wars and give nations an alternative to armed conflict.

Wilson returned to America in 1919 with the Versailles Treaty in hand, but he faced a tough problem, partly of his own making.  According to the Constitution, the Senate had to ratify any treaty by a two-thirds vote, which meant that the Republicans would have to support the treaty.  Most of the Republicans were isolationists who balked at surrendering any part of national sovereignty to an international group.  Wilson should have anticipated this resistance, but instead of trying to woo the Republicans to his side, he seemed to go out of his way to antagonize them.  Before he even set out for Paris, Wilson snubbed the Republicans by refusing to include a single member of the GOP in the American peace delegation.  Then, on his return voyage, Wilson snubbed the leading Senate Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, by refusing to dine with him.

When the Treaty came before the Senate for consideration, the Republicans set their sites on the League Covenant, offering amendments (the Lodge Reservations) that removed any U. S. commitment to the League.  Wilson was furious.  He ordered Senate Democrats to reject any version of the treaty that did not include the League Covenant.  The treaty thus failed to achieve the requisite two-thirds vote on its first presentation.  The treaty went back to committee, and again the Republicans insisted on removing the League Covenant, and again Wilson instructed the Democrats to vote against the amended treaty.

Having failed twice to get a favorable vote in the Senate, Wilson, in his eternal self-righteousness, decided that if he only took his case to the people, they would pressure their senators to vote in favor of the League.  So Wilson set out on a cross-nation tour to speak to the people and convince them of the value of U. S. membership in the League.  However, the years of war and subsequent difficulties of the peace conference had taken their toll on Wilson's health.  At a stop in Pueblo, Colorado, Wilson suffered a stroke that nearly ended his life.  It left him paralyzed on one side and unable to speak clearly.  Thus, the League's greatest champion was felled at a critical moment for the survival of American internationalism.

Wilson's incapacity left him unfit to carry out the duties of the presidency, but his wife, Edith, and his doctors, conspired to keep the true nature of his illness from outsiders, who could only communicate with him through Edith.  And so it was through Edith that Wilson made it known that he would not support a third attempt by the Senate to pass an amended version of the Versailles Treaty.

Having failed three times to get an affirmative vote on the Versailles Treaty containing the League Covenant, Wilson still refused to give up.  Unable to run for a third term because of his health, he nevertheless communicated to the public that they had one last resort.  Convinced that the people were with him, he asked the people to show their approval of the League by voting for the Democratic candidate in 1920.  The Democrats nominated Ohio governor James Cox for president, with Franklin D. Roosevelt of new York as his running mate.  They lost handily to the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding. 

The League was dead.  America never ratified the Versailles Treaty.  Americans felt betrayed.  They had been promised the moon and the stars:  a world safe for democracy, a war to end all wars; instead, they saw the same age-old hatreds played out at Paris and evidenced in the Versailles Treaty, which engendered resentments that virtually guaranteed another war in the not-too-distant future.  They were tired of reform, tired of the Progressive movement's "preachiness."  They had tried to teach the corrupt Europeans they ways of democracy and failed, so now they wanted to turn their backs on Europe.  They wanted to let loose and live, have a good time--and this is what Warren G. Harding promised them:  a return to "normalcy."

The Last Hurrah
Before Wilson left office, Congress passed, and two-thirds of the states ratified, two new amendments to the Constitution.  The first, the 18th Amendment, established Prohibition--i.e., it forbade the manufacture or sale of alcohol.  This had long been a cause among many Progressives, who had tried (with limited success) to engender voluntary abstention from drinking--"taking the pledge."  However, the war experience had taught the Progressive how much easier it was to simply pass a law that forced people to do the "right thing."  And so it was that Prohibition became the "last hurrah" for the Progressive movement--in its own war, every bit as useless a panacea for reform as free silver had been for the Populists.  The second amendment approved was the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.  Women had formed a vital part of the Progressive movement, and many argued that in their role as moral arbiters of society, their votes would keep the nation strong (especially in view of the growing numbers of "foreigners" who were gaining the franchise).  In return for their service and support during the war, Wilson changed his stance on the issue of woman's suffrage and came out in support of the 19th amendment.  It went into effect in 1920, making that the first national election in which women voted...and the Republicans still won!


"Election of 1920,"

"Versailles, Treaty of," The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition,

David McCullough, Truman (2002).

This page last updated September 26, 2005

© Kahne Parsons 2006