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
- One point advocated the settlement of colonial disputes
due consideration given to the colonized peoples, as well as to
- 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
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.