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The Myth of American Conciliation at the Treaty of Versailles

Updated on February 4, 2018
Woodrow Wilson, the American President at the Treaty of Versailles
Woodrow Wilson, the American President at the Treaty of Versailles

Myth: Woodrow Wilson was a peace-maker who tried to create a lenient peace for Germany, but was sabotaged by French Prime Minister Clemenceau.

The memory of Versailles revolves around three men : Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France. Popular memory remembers them, incorrectly, as Clemenceau as a devil filled with hatred for Germany, David Lloyd George as a neutral arbitrer, and Woodrow Wilson as a kind man interested in peace and a form of justice that would treat Germany leniently. Wilson was interested in justice and peace, but his version of justice was an intensely moralizing one which called for heavy punishments on Germany. The 14 points married themselves to a stern biblical and moralistic outlook, which required punishment for the guilty to show them the error of their crimes.

The 14 points were Wilson's idea, but Wilson was a much more complex man than just them alone.
The 14 points were Wilson's idea, but Wilson was a much more complex man than just them alone.

On issue after issue at the Paris Peace Conference, the United States was as bellicose as its allies. The US was generous towards Poland in the revision of the Polish eastern frontier. It advocated reparation numbers similar to the French number, and close to the ultimate sum derived - $30 billion and $33 billion respectively. It supported a German army of 100,000 men and German general disarmament. It was the United States, not France, which penned Article 231, which Germany interpreted as the "war guilt clause" assigning them guilt. The United States was many things : merciful did not rank as one of them.

It is perhaps, a myth which dates from the famous caricature of the British economist Maynard Keynes at the conference. Keynes, who attended the conference and wrote the highly influential book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, had a rosy view of the American president Wilson, while simultaneously denigrating his French counterpart Clemenceau. His description of Wilson ran as follows :

When President Wilson left Washington he enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history. His bold and measured words carried to the peoples of Europe above and beyond the voices of their own politicians. The enemy peoples trusted him to carry out the compact he had made with them; and the Allied peoples acknowledged him not as a victor only but almost as a prophet. In addition to this moral influence the realities of power were in his hands. The American armies were at the height of their numbers, discipline, and equipment. Europe was in complete dependence on the food supplies of the United States; and financially she was even more absolutely at their mercy. Europe not only already owed the United States more than she could pay; but only a large measure of further assistance could save her from starvation and bankruptcy. Never had a philosopher held such weapons wherewith to bind the princes of this world. How the crowds of the European capitals pressed about the carriage of the President! With what curiosity, anxiety, and hope we sought a glimpse of the features and bearing of the man of destiny who, coming from the West, was to bring healing to the wounds of the ancient parent of his civilisation and lay for us the foundations of the future.

Unfortunately for Mr. Keyne's view, while Wilson had his idealistic side, this idealistic side also in no way implied his leniency towards Germany. Perhaps the most evident singular quotation from the American president Wilson in April 1919 was that "The treaty which ends so terrible a war, must unavoidably seem harsh towards the outlaw who started the war." He joined this in speaking about the Versailles treaty and saying that it "seeks to punish one of the greatest wrongs ever done in history, the wrong which Germany sought to do to the world and to civilization; and there ought to be no weak purpose with regard to the application of the punishment. She attempted an intolerable thing, and she must be made to pay for the attempt." American justice, rather than meaning European reconciliation and peace, was instead a moralistic and harsh punishment for Germany for their crimes. Wilson, not Clemenceau, was the man at Versailles in 1919 who carried the most predilection for vengeance, revenge, and an inability to forget the past.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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