Making Peace
Making Peace
Even before the armistice (or truce) in November 1918, complex negotiations for peace had begun. Achieving international peace was an arduous and complex process.
Wilson’s Fourteen Points
From the beginning of World War I, Wilson had hoped for a peace settlement promoting America’s democratic ideals. He saw the Allied victory as a victory over autocratic government (Germany was an autocracy), and therefore as an opportunity to advance democracy and liberalism worldwide. In a 1918 speech to Congress, Wilson summarized American goals for the terms of peace after the war in what became known as the Fourteen Points:
  • Eight points dealt with the territorial reorganization of Europe, aimed at granting self-determination to nations formerly under the control of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
  • One point advocated the settlement of colonial disputes with due consideration given to the colonized peoples, as well as to the colonial powers.
  • Five points broadly laid out Wilson’s plan for a new world order. Wilson proposed unrestricted sea travel, free trade, arms reductions, an end to secret treaties, and, most importantly, “a general association of nations” to protect peace and resolve conflicts.
Republicans in Congress opposed the plan, and no Allies fully endorsed it—some lent cautious support, others opposed it outright. Many Americans, however, agreed with Wilson, and the Fourteen Points became a rallying issue for the U.S. war effort.
Wilson’s Fourteen Points, enumerated in January 1918, set forth U.S. aims in World War I. The most important point called for “a general association of nations” to preserve international peace.
The Treaty of Versailles
Wilson decided to head the negotiation team himself at the Versailles Peace Conference, and offended Republicans by appointing just one Republican to the peace commission. The commission arrived in Europe in 1918 full of optimism, but this optimism faded quickly after the conference began. The delegates from the Allied Powers (France, Britain, and Italy) fiercely resisted Wilson’s attempts at a liberal settlement. They represented bitter, war-torn nations bent on retribution. Instead of negotiating a peace with the Central Powers, they aimed to impose penalties, and made vindictive demands.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, required Germany to disarm, admit sole blame for the war, and pay massive reparations to the Allies. Land reorganization ceded one-eighth of Germany’s territory to other nations, and set the stage for French occupation of the west bank of the Rhine (which lasted 15 years). Wilson did succeed in achieving autonomy for Poland, the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but overall did little to salvage his liberal aims. The harsh terms of the treaty made many Germans resentful, feelings which would resurface and play a part in World War II. The treaty also offended Russia, since portions were clearly designed to weaken Russian influence.
Wilson’s one clear victory at Versailles was the acceptance of his plan for a League of Nations. The League of Nations was the embodiment of Wilson’s dream of a supra-national organization whose purpose was to preserve peace and resolve conflicts. It soon became clear, however, that though the League was the brainchild of the U.S. president, even U.S. membership in the League was uncertain.
Major elements of the Treaty of Versailles: Germany assumed blame for war, required to pay massive reparations; German territory distributed; League of Nations formed.
Battle over the League of Nations
In 1919, Wilson presented the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate for ratification. Wilson had already alienated many in the predominantly Republican Senate by failing to take a leading Republican with him on his negotiation team to Versailles. Given this political antagonism, the Senate opposed many of Wilson’s peace efforts. Thirty-nine senators signed a letter rejecting the League of Nations, primarily because of its requirement that members protect the “territorial integrity” and “political independence” of other member states. Ten to fifteen senators, known as “irreconcilables,” refused to consider joining the League altogether, while a group of about thirty-five “reservationists,” led by Henry Cabot Lodge, pledged to ratify the treaty only with major revisions. Wilson, however, refused to compromise, and the treaty was rejected. The U.S. would not enter the League of Nations.
The opposition of “irreconcilables” to joining the League of Nations and Wilson and the Democrats’ refusal to compromise with “reservationists” ensured that the Treaty of Versailles would not be ratified and the U.S. would not join the League of Nations.
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