The Peace and President Wilson




William Allen White describes the challenges faced by President Woodrow Wilson during negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I.


Cary T. Grayson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Staunton, Virginia




IT WILL take time—perhaps years, more likely decades—to estimate justly what happened at Paris during the Peace Conference of 1919. But one thing may be set down now for all time: Whatever part America played in the diplomacy of the Peace Conference President Wilson played that part of his own motion, largely upon his own counsel, chiefly in his own person—and so played a lone hand. He carried with him to the conference a shipload of experts. “Show me what is right,” quoth he to them on shipboard going over to Europe in December, 1918, “and I will fight for it.”

But after all the experts furnished him only with facts. He interpreted the facts. He took no counsel of them and often disagreed with their judgments. Indeed no one was so unhappy about the treaty of peace as it came from the conference to the Germans in May as was a group of his most dependable experts. Several of them were so deeply grieved at the treaty in early May that they held a meeting and seriously threatened a public statement of their fundamental disagreement with the President.

Closer to him physically than the experts came certain heads of important commissions and committees in the Allied organizations; but these men also many times found their wisdom unheeded by the President. Still closer to him were his fellow peace commissioners. But even they were not always in his confidence, and each of them has pointed out to his friends important features in the treaty which are there because the President acted in disagreement with the judgment of even his fellow commissioners.

One may go further in pointing out the isolation of the President and recall how his very decision to leave America and participate in the conference came as a shock to the American people. He did not have even their approval in his decision to go to Europe. He started on the enterprise alone in a crowded ship; he went alone among the clamoring multitudes of Europe. Alone amid the confusion and bickering and greed and grab of the conference he worked out his own purposes, made his own mistakes, thought out his own compromises; and alone he is entitled to credit for whatever success he has gained. Now the reader must not mistake the figure here. President Wilson was not a Jack the Giant-killer in Europe—far from it. He was a most human person—anything but a hero—who, working along the lines of his own temperament, and alas greatly handicapped by it, really has achieved about a seventy per cent success in the realization of his ideals, high as they were. And the purpose of this article will be to set down rather simply the story of his adventure with the American idea in Europe.

An Appeal to the Masses

FIRST let us consider the background into which he took the American idea. The thing we Americans commonly know as Europe is a geographical location. Europe is vastly more than a place on the map. It is a plane of thought, a spiritual attitude, a civilization profoundly different from our civilization and in many ways utterly at variance with it. Thousands of years of tradition are woven into the consciousness of the European mind. The European begins his mental process with almost a different premise from our premise. Long bitter experience has taught Europe distrust. Europe looks for motives, suspects all things, fears all things, covets all things, takes all things not nailed down or red-hot! To Europe America was—and still is—the dollar worshiper.

It was not clear to Europe why Americans came into this war; but Europe knew well when we came that there was an ulterior motive. Perhaps it was to grab colonies. No? Well, then, to protect our credits. No? Well, surely to sit in the seats of the mighty. No? But we must not pretend that we came over as a fairy prince to help the oppressed. Europe long since has known about fairy princes: “Put not your trust in princes.” And anyway Europe does not believe in fairies. So Europe greeted President Wilson with a leering and suspicious eye when he crossed the sea to sit in the Peace Conference. At least the ruling classes of Europe, those in the actual governments of Europe, mistrusted him. Of the negligible masses we must speak later.

For just here it is necessary to define the American idea which President Wilson brought with him. For after all our President is not important as a man but as a representative of an ideal in connection with the story of the Peace Conference. As a man he was always remote, sometimes vague and never very interesting in Paris. But the ideal he brought there was dynamic, and he cherished it and impersonated it well. It was the ideal of faith: faith in humanity, faith in the moral government of the universe, faith in the power of the spiritual forces of life to triumph over the material powers of life.

And in presenting that ideal to Europe with its age-long habit of doubt, doubt grounded in cynicism, it was as though grown men should suddenly turn up in a solemn conclave telling fairy tales! Europe could hardly keep its face straight. M. Clémenceau chortled in his glee. “God,” said Clémenceau, gave us his Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gave us his Fourteen Points—we shall see.” And again: “My friend President Wilson is a man of noble candeur”—noble candeur meaning stupid simplicity!

The Italians gave the signal for a demonstration to the President almost bacchanalian in its fervor! And winking a merry eye at him pointed to Fiume! But President Wilson ignored these covert affronts if he saw them, and went about telling his gorgeous fairy story about the goodness of men and the powers of God.

“And the common people heard him gladly.” So he appealed to the common people of Europe over their actual governments. During December and early January he went about Europe through England, France and Italy speaking most directly and most simply, but withal not quite candidly, about the things which America hoped for as the outcome of the war. His uncandor lay in the fact that he did not tell the people what dangerous ideals he was preaching, how revolutionary was his plain language of high aspiration, and how utterly it was at variance with the ideals of Europe, with the plans of the governments of Europe. Perhaps he did not really know what heresy he was spreading; probably not. For though he talked like a revolutionary in December, often circumstances made him act like an orthodox Presbyterian elder in the spring, when he had to compromise himself like a gentleman to win his great point. But he did sow the seeds of spiritual revolution in the hearts of the common people of Europe and there is reason to feel that it fell on good ground.

It was terrific, this creed of the peace from good will as opposed to the peace by force. And that was the essential fairy story that America brought to Europe; that was the American idea. Obviously it is not peculiarly President Wilson’s creed. In America, at the core of our hearts, we all believe in this hope. For we have no traditions back of us to make us doubt: we have only youth with its great faith. We are the new world.

The Presidential Disguise

THERE, then, is the background, and there the figure upon it. We may ask reasonably, Why did he come there? And in answering that question we have the motive of the play. It is only decent to a fellow man to assume that his motives are reasonably honest. Personally President Wilson had much more to lose than to gain by coming, and presumably he knew it. If ambition had governed him he would have stayed at home. If vanity to be part of a gorgeous spectacle, to participate in a great event had moved him he would have acted quite differently when he came. An honest judgment of his motives compels one to give him credit for a deep impulse to serve mankind in coming to Paris. He might well have served himself—and possibly his country—better by staying away. For personally he lost more than he has gained by his trip; and if a policy of isolation and national individualism—a devil-take-the-hindermost policy—so far as the rest of the world goes would have left America stronger than we are left to-day with our fortunes bound up in a sort of potluck with humanity, then indeed considering the situation from purely selfish motives it is evident that President Wilson would have done well to send a strong commission of national individualists from Washington to Paris with instruction to get all possible security from Europe for our loans, and come home with the flag draped about them amid a sense of duty well done.

But he knew what was threatened at the Peace Conference. He knew of the secret treaties with Italy and Japan. He knew something of the spirit that was moving the governments of Europe. And he knew of the tremendous stakes on the board, with one-eighth of the land of the globe in pawn and the future peace of civilization at stake. So he went forth to save the world.

Possibly it was a Quixotic adventure. Certainly it did look amusing to the powers that be. Here was a mild-spoken academic gentleman in glasses, with the odor of the cloister in his conventional black coat with suitable trousers, sallying forth with a few well-chosen remarks on the good of the order to remake the fortunes of mankind. He had something else in his kit and accouterment; something which gave him great power. That was the Yankee of it; we are dreamers but we do not talk in our sleep. We are tremendously practical. The President with his amiable speeches and his noble aspirations had in his portfolio the promissory note of the Allies for eight or ten billion dollars. Also he had the surplus food needed to feed a starving world. All of which made the spectacle more curious and interesting of this elderly professor with his gentle inevitable grin roaming through the forums of Europe, disguised as a philosopher but in effect half green-grocer and half banker! Surely Uncle Sam never before cut so wide a swath!

And he never removed his disguise. Always he desired to appear as a philospher. When he had finished his trip, when he had roused the base desire for higher things in the breasts of the European masses, inspiring a pathetic Messianic hope which –sorry the day!—never could be realized this side of the Jordan, he sat down at the peace-conference table as a philosopher.

And here is what he faced: Four other major Powers instinctively arrayed against him, with only Great Britain’s statesmen—and not all of them—understanding him. In addition to the four major Powers he sat with the little nations, who though they believed in Wilson as Santa Claus were none the less dubious, none the less hungry, always Europeans. This also must not be forgotten—that the President was playing one kind of a game, his Allies another. They desired certain concrete things. Occassionally these concrete things overlapped. But they never differed in kind. Europe sat at the table, for boundaries, for economic advantages, for military guaranties, for balances of power. One must keep that in mind. For the President’s appeal did not reach the men who sat with him in the conference. It reached only public opinion, and though European governments are much more flexible than ours their public opinion does not seem to be so powerful as ours; and the fine phrases of the peripatetic philosopher, with his basketful of groceries and his walletful of I O U’s, did not reach those in the conference—save and except always certain of the English, probably Lord Robert Cecil and Mr. Balfour. But even they did not lessen the British feeling that the Peace Conference was ordained to dole out material rewards for the virtuous act of winning the war. So all the nations, little and big, at the conference desired material things, and America was playing for spiritual things.

But our player sat in the game and played a lone hand. He played with no one at his shoulder to check him. Time and again he has come out of the Council of Ten or out of the meeting of the Four or of the Five, realizing afterward and freely admitting in private that he had agreed or disagreed with something too hastily. Yet he is of the temperament that must play a lone hand. His relations with men are cordial but never fraternal; he attracts followers rather than friends; he has experts but he tolerates no partners. He can ask advice, but no one in the sacred circle of his acquaintance has the royal right to call him a fool and live. So he sat and played a lone hand in a game whose cards he knew but slightly; whose rules he did not comprehend; whose players, banded against him, he never could meet as cronies; and whose stakes he despised.

Yet he played a great game, and in the main a successful game.

It was a triumph of mind over matter. If only he could have put heart into the game as well as head he would have swept the table.

Early in the session of the Council of Ten the President saw that valuable time was passing foolishly. In addition to the Ten were their secretaries and experts and assistants. And Lloyd George being an orator could not help assuming the oratorical manner. He talked too much. Everyone talked too much, made speeches instead of getting down to business. The temptation was too great, with thirty-five or forty people sitting round as audience. Hence the Council of Ten was cut down to the Big Five. Then oratory vanished, and the conference speeded up; but also then unfortunately President Wilson met his greatest defeats. In the Council of Ten always someone was near who might possibly warn him if he asked for advice. But sitting in the room with only the four prime ministers the President had to go it absolutely alone. They were four to one. They beat him—sometimes. His great mistake was in not demanding absolute publicity for all meetings. Therein lay safety for the thing he desired. It could stand the light. And the things the others desired, if they were wrong, could not stand the light. But though he believes in the white light of publicity for the other fellow Woodrow Wilson cannot function under it. He goes blind. Again it’s temperamental. He is what he is. The people chose him. He did his best, and his best was worth doing.

To go back and to be concrete about the aspirations of our Allies: It may be well to remember that those aspirations rise chiefly from the geography of the case. England is a fan center, a spider in a web. From her radiate great trade routes, vast commercial enterprises, world-long threads of financial power touching lands a world apart. England demanded two things—territory and ships to reach them. France with forty millions of people and a decreasing birth rate, lying next to Germany with seventy millions of people and an increasing birth rate, requires one thing—safety, a guaranty that she may go on living as a nation. Italy without coal and iron but with man power almost unlimited needs raw materials, trade regulations, eastern harbors, protection against encroachment from the north. Japan expanding in population by the millions with an awakening national consciousness, with a dream of domination in the Pacific, but without raw materials of industry must have sea power—“Shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax . . . cabbages—and kings.” And each of the little nations about the board has its own little material problem, chiefly centered in the right to breathe. Across this tangle of material interests ran the secret treaties of 1915–16 and probably some sort of understanding between the British and the French just before we got into the war, or shortly afterward. Lloyd George seemed to be referring to it in utterances during the conference, and before the conference opened M. Clemenceau spoke confidently about it. Doubtless the President knew of it.

The Mandatory System Won

And that was the thing he faced; there he sat with one great aim in his mind. Almost we may say with one great passion in his heart—but not quite that! If he had had a passion in his heart he would have kicked over the table, failed magnificently for it, and gone home to wait until a mad world got its senses. Then he might have come back to realize his aim, the great aim in his mind, the thing for which he was willing to make any honest sacrifice to achieve—the League of Nations. Now one cannot conceal a great aim; and when the Four who were with him knew that aim they surely knew the President’s measure. They began forcing him to trade.

The President had his way for the most part during the first five weeks of the conference, before he returned to America to settle up the loose ends of Congressional affairs. He was able to introduce the mandatory system of administering the German colonies, against the protest of Australia. He was able to quiet the demands of France for territorial occupation of the Sarre Valley. Fiume he kept off the boards. He fretted a good bit in those days about the interallied commissions arising from the war, and would have abandoned most of them. But gradually he came to see the economic basis of peace rather than the military basis, and wisely changed front on that notion. He and the British led in an attempt to formulate a Russian policy that should be nonmilitary, and which, by the way, the French quietly strangled. And in those days he considered that it might be possible to divide Asia Minor into mandatories which would guarantee gradual self-government to the torn and distraught people of those lands. But chiefly he was interested in his League of Nations.

The Leauge of Nations in the very beginning, before the armistice, as early as 1916, was a British conception. The British put to work upon it a well-known pacifist judge, Lord Parmoor. Lord Robert Cecil wrote to Colonel House about it: the colonel wrote to the President. Each set down his own notion of the thing. They compared notes, locked up their two drafts until after the armistice, and no one knows just what was in the President’s mind when he sailed for Europe in Decemeber, whether he had his ideas clearly thought out or whether—to use a phrase of his own—he was merely “thinking without language.”

The French had their draft and their conception of a League of Nations when the President arrived. Their conception was that the league should be a superstate with a superarmy and a superstaff which should always be ready to scare the superdaylights out of Germany if she began mobilizing on the French frontier. The British draft was read to the newspaper correspondents early in January. Its chief feature was that of progressive disarmament. Italy had a draft, but it never figured in publicity.

The Presidential Imperative

And in the meantime no one knew that America wanted in the way of a League of Nations. No American peace commissioner could remotely guess. Then the President sat down at his typewriter and pounded out a draft. He passed it round to a few friends, to a few foreign statesmen; and the work of drafting the league covenant began. It began in Colonel House’s room, 315, at the Hotel Crillon. The President and Colonel House represented America in the drafting committee, with a few experts always at hand to guide them. Lord Robert Cecil and Mr. Balfour took more interest than any other British statesmen in the work of the draft, and M. Leon Bourgeois—not a member of the French peace commission—was delegated to represent France.

These were the citizens in carriages; the others were citizens on foot. The Japs modestly asked for race equality; and were gently refused, and sweetly acquiesced, biding their time. The Italians also passed. Thirty hours at different times of day and night for three or four weeks were consumed in forming that first draft. Ten hours were taken to add the amendments. But when the first draft of the covenant was completed and was adopted the President, feeling that much had been accomplished, sailed away home.

Then his troubles began. The others about the board with him had his cards on the table. They knew his hand, understood his game, valued his stakes. In his absence they began trading amongst themselves. They decided to break the treaty into two parts—the peace terms with Germany and the League of Nations. The American peace commissioners agreed to this. The Allies decided to establish a neutral republic in West Prussia, and they decided to give the Sarre Valley outright to France. Fiume also was to go to Italy.

Joseph’s coat was fairly well divided among the brethren when the President returned from America. And then he witnessed a curious thing. During January the French press had sneered so openly at the President’s aspirations that his friends wished to move the conference from Paris, and when the President returned in March the French press covered him with encomiums. No adjective was too saccharine for their uses. Evidently the powers that controlled the French press thought they had President Wilson’s game beaten, so far as it affected Europe, and that he would take the League of Nations and they would get their boundaries, and all would live happily ever after.

Then the President began to fight. He made alliance with the British and secured the League of Nations as a part of the treaty. He restricted French territorial aspirations in the Sarre. He overturned the sterilized republic along the west bank of the Rhine, and did things to the arrangements about Dantzic. He changed his mood from the academic subjunctive to the presidential imperative. His disguise almost fell off. He nearly showed his groceries and his promissory notes. Then the French press became silent. And one fine morning in the meeting of the Big Five just as the President was prepared to introduce an amendment to the covenant of the League of Nations affecting the Monroe Doctrine he discovered that it would not pass. He fumbled, withdrew his motion, and began to consider many things. They had him. He realized that unless he could amend the league covenant it would be rejected in the United States Senate. Also our beloved Allies realized quite the same things. That was the trouble.

He came to the parting of the ways. He could fight or trade. He could go home passionate with indignation, or he could stay and get the best possible bargain out of the Allies. It was inevitable that Woodrow Wilson would stay and try to patch up the situation. He is not a revolutionist. He would have to come into the open and make his fight before all the world. He is as honest as daylight; but he just can't bear daylight. So he sat him down wearily to the long miserable task of trading the substance of European demands for the shadow of American ideals. He was just as much of a hero there in the room of the Council of Five with the cards fairly well stacked against him and luck running away from him, patiently plodding hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, plodding tediously through details of things which he loathed to get the thing he hoped for-he was indeed as much of a hero as he would have been if he had sailed home with a gesture of defiance and scorn at the whole outfit, and had brought them to time by clapping down the lid of the grocery box and calling in the outstanding notes.

For a long time he sat patiently in the game, and saw the conference going round in circles, arriving nowhere. One day he would convince Clemenceau about the justice of a certain course in the Sarre Valley, only to find that the next day it had to be done all over again. So he called for his good ship the Washington and made a feint of starting home.

Then the conference speeded up and came to the Italian deadlock. There really balked. Moreover, he had the support of Lloyd George and Clemenceau. There is no doubt whatever that they read his Fiume note and approved it. Very likely they did not know the hour it was to appear. As a matter of fact the President heard that Baron Sonnino was about to leave and issue a note, and the President issued his note first. And for a few days there was a fine tempest in a teapot.

Italy's Feint

But at the very moment when the Italians were fuming most gorgeously they had on the President's desk for his approval a request for a loan of fifty million dollars with which to buy coal for their furnaces. Without the money they could not get the coal, and without the coal Italy might be in a revolution in a week. And Sonnino and Orland knew and everyone in Paris knew that the Italian journey to Rome was a mere ten days' leave. The Italian members of the peace conference committees-the member of the economic council, for instance-attended meetings, arranged for Italy's coal and food supply and functioned blithely while their superiors were gone.

There can be no doubt that the President's blast against the Fiume annexation afforded him satisfaction. For weeks he had been edging along, giving something every day, and getting precious little back. The Fiume protest released much steam. But the Italian protest made the Japanese compromise inevitable. And that broke the President's heart. The Japanese played their cards well. They knew-what everyone knew about the conference-that President Wilson would not give in to Orlando in the Italian demands for Fiume; the Japanese knew that they Italians would leave the conference with a potential threat, a threat which would be important only if some other nation left the conference. So most deliberately and with Oriental calm Japan made it obvious that she would go if her aspirations in China were denied. There was the same basis for denying the Japanese aspirations that underlay the Italian denial. But to deny Japan would take her from the League of Nations and make it worh while for Italy really to stay out. With Japan and Italy out the League of Nations would fail. The President evidently felt that if the League of Nations failed there was no hope for the peace of the world and that our men had died in vain. It was plain that if the League of Nations were formed and if it became a vital force in could protect the rights of China which Japan insisted upon taking from her. Following the grant of Shantung privileges to Japan financial arrangements were made under joint international control which seemed to take the material edge off the Japanese grant; but the thing was a moral surrender, and no one felt it more keenly than President Wilson. 

For nearly five months he had been struggling with all his might for the league. He had indeed faced the beasts at Ephesus; not that our noble Allies in the persons of their accredited representatives were wicked; they were Europeans. Their ways were not our ways; their ideals not ours. To them we seemed mad; to us they seemed greedy. If ever an American statesman had a hard time in a valiant struggle for the ideals of his people it was Woodrow Wilson at Paris in the spring of 1919. No Jact the Giant-killer was he indeed; raterh he was a lonely figure, made lonely largely because of his temperamental lack of broad emotional and dramatic appeal to his fellos; but still lonely. And in his isolation he seemed more like Prometheus bound to the rock with the vultures gnawing at his vitals the the hero of the beanstalk.

The Fight for the League

He fought on after the Chinese surrender, knowing that public sentiment at home was hardening against him, but confident that he had chosen wisely between the evils; never regretting his choice, but greatly saddened at the need for such a choice.

When the treaty finally was ready with its provision for years of vassalage for Germany and with the broad gesture of humiliation for the vanquished which France needed to wipe out the stain of 1870, no one so surely knew as the American President that it was weighted with severity and that it might not carry its own weight. But it did hold the League of Nations within it, and for that he and thousands like him among the Allies accepted it. They realized full well that the severity in it might breed wars; but they hoped strongly that the malice might be purged from the treaty by the League of Nations, and so let it pass on faith.

This is not a heroic attitude. It was indeed a sad anticlimax to the high emprise which carried us into the war; yet it was the only result that a man of Wilson's reserve, of his hermit habit could bring out of the clash between the ideals of the old world and the new. Another man, deeply emotional, capable of dramatizing a situation, of illuminating the dark tragedy of the struggle with a lively and lovable personality, perhaps might have done better; certainly he would have done differently. But history has no if's. The record is the record.

Yet this also should be in the record, and Americans always must read with pride that their President more than any other man in the world is responsible for giving the world its first draft of a real League of Nations. If he had not come to Europe the idea would have been abandonned. Clemenceau publicly declared in January that he was for the old-fashioned idea of the balance of power. The British understanding to which he referred seemed to imply that Great Britain also favored a balance of power. Italy and Japan had no other thought. The League of Nations before President Wilson came to Europe was a pacifist's deram - iridescent but also evanescent. He made it real. For it he gave everything - even his good name. He sacrificed profoundly for the idea, and saved it to the world. He could not have done this by delegating his power. His influence from Washington would have been negligible. But in Paris-grotesque figure though he was in European eyes-he was powerful. HIS words had weight. They prevailed. They have made a world league for peace and not for war one of the inevitable things which humanity will bring into being by the very act of longing for it.

It matters little what happens right now to the idea of the League of Nations. Time is long, and the deep aspirations of men will wait. But our American democracy may be honestly proud that it has raised up one who put into the hearts of all the world because we sat him high where he could speak to all the world, the aspiration of our hearts for the coming of a peace of good Will among men of good will.



William Allen White, “The Peace and President Wilson,” 1919 August 16, WWP15830, Cary T. Grayson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.