1919 Woodrow Wilson - Peacemaking
Wilson now faced the awesome problems of peace-making and the reconstruction of the world order. Yet, even before the guns were silent on the western front, he had gravely impaired his standing by appealing for the election of a Democratic Congress in the off-year election of 1918, on the ground that the return of a Republican majority to either house of Congress would be interpreted in Europe as a repudiation of his leadership. The voters, on 6 November, elected a Congress with slight Republican majorities in both houses. Whether repudiated or not, Wilson proceeded with his own plans for the peace conference without seeking Republican cooperation and support. On 18 November he announced that he would go to the peace conference, scheduled to meet in Paris in January 1919, as the head of an American delegation that was not to contain a single prominent Republican.
Wilson went to Paris in December 1918 determined to achieve a just and lasting peace based upon principles of justice, humanity, and self-determination and upon an effective world organization. All the Allied leaders at Paris were motivated by particular selfish interests. The French wanted large reparations from Germany and a settlement that would remove forever the threat of German militarism from Europe. The British wanted to exact huge payments from Germany, to annex former German colonies, and to destroy the German navy but not destroy the balance of power on the Continent entirely. The Italians had their eyes on former Austrian territory in the Tyrol and along the Adriatic coast. The Japanese demanded former German colonies in the Pacific and the former German concession in the Chinese province of Shantung.
By all accounts, Wilson was the only disinterested principal leader at the peace conference. He wanted nothing for the United States except a just peace that would endure and a world organization that could maintain peace in the future. Wilson fought as hard as any person could to achieve these objectives. With British support, he was able to prevent the dismemberment of Germany in the west, which the French demanded, and vetoed French plans for a "great crusade" to crush the Bolshevik regime. With British and French support, Wilson successfully resisted Italian demands for territory along the Adriatic coast that was essential to the new state of Yugoslavia.
Since Wilson had only one vote in the councils at Paris, his one alternative to yielding or to compromising when the British and French ganged up against him was to withdraw from the conference and make a separate peace with Germany. During the direst controversy with the French, Wilson threatened to leave the conference. But, as Wilson knew, the cure in this case was worse than the disease. His withdrawal would wreck his plans for a postwar world organization and result in a Carthaginian peace imposed by the French.
Thus, Wilson yielded on the key question of reparations (the British and French were permitted to demand potentially astronomical payments from Germany) and compromised on the equally important question of French control of the coal-rich Saar Valley of Germany. Moreover, the conferees at Paris said nothing about disarmament. Even so, Wilson was able to vindicate most of his Fourteen Points. Belgium, brutally overrun and occupied by Germany in 1914, was restored. An independent Poland with access to the sea came back into the family of nations. The claims of the Central European peoples to self-determination were satisfied. Alsace-Lorraine was restored to France.
Wilson's most important achievement at Paris was the creation of the League of Nations and the inclusion of its covenant in the Treaty of Versailles between the United States and the former Allies and Germany. The covenant created elaborate machinery for the settlement of international disputes and for united action against aggressors. Moreover, the League was designated as the instrument to carry out the Versailles and other treaties concluded at Paris.