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On December 13, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson arrives in France to take part in World War I peace negotiations and to promote his plan for a League of Nations, an international organization for resolving conflicts between nations.
Wilson had initially tried to keep America out of the war by claiming neutrality in 1914, when hostilities broke out in Europe. The 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger ship carrying American citizens, and Germany’s expansion of submarine warfare into the Atlantic, fueled increasing U.S. anger toward Germany. However, it wasn’t until March 1917, when a telegram from Germany to Mexico proposing an alliance between the two countries was made public that Wilson decided to ask Congress to declare war on Germany, which he did in early April. American troops later joined their British and French allies in fighting the Central Powers until an armistice was reached in November 1918.
The war, in which approximately 320,000 American soldiers died, grimly illustrated to Wilson the unavoidable relationship between international stability and American national security. In January 1918, Wilson outlined a plan for a League of Nations, which he hoped would peacefully arbitrate international conflicts and prevent another war like the one just ended. Wilson took this plan with him to France in December 1918 and reiterated what he had told Americans in a January speech: “the world [must] be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.”
Wilson’s treaty negotiations in Europe set the tone for post-war American foreign diplomacy, which emphasized intervention over isolation, and introduced the idea of a multi-national peace organization. The League of Nations failed, largely as a result of the fact that the U.S. decided not to join, but it was the precursor to the United Nations, which was established in the wake of the Second World War.
Gauge the moods of the European people and statesmen as Woodrow Wilson arrived to forge an end to World War I
NARRATOR: Wilson arrived in France in December, 1918. There he was besieged by the people, whose hearts he had stirred.
WILSON: There is a great tide running in the hearts of men. The hearts of men have never beaten so singularly in unison before . . . Men have never been so conscious of their brotherhood.
NARRATOR: Before the peace conference, Wilson visited England and Italy. Everywhere he was hailed by vast crowds. He, and the democracy of which he was president, had become a symbol of hope to Europe's people. A ground-swell rose among the people of the world, as the leaders of the great powers gathered at Versailles for the peace conference. With his capacity to interpret the aspirations of people throughout the world, Wilson was the acknowledged leader of this conference. Its working chairman was the French statesman, Clemenceau.
The main responsibility for setting the terms of the peace was borne by the Council of Four. Here, next to Wilson, stands Clemenceau. Beside him is Orlando of Italy and next to him the British war leader, David Lloyd George. These three men had spent their lives dealing with the kinds of pressures and interests that had brought on the war, and they were not ready to accept the views of Woodrow Wilson, president of a nation with no territorial ambitions.
WILSON: We are here to see that the very foundations of this war are swept away. Those foundations were the private choice of a small coterie of civil rulers and military staffs . . . the aggression of great powers upon the small . . . the holding together of empires of unwilling subjects by the duress of arms . . .
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Joseph Tumulty, Wilson’s private secretary, proposed that Wilson take along Elihu Root, a Republican secretary of War under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and later Roosevelt’s secretary of State.
At first, Wilson “appeared to be delighted with this suggestion,” Tumulty reported in his 1921 biography. However, after Robert Lansing, Wilson’s secretary of State, was consulted, the president apparently changed his mind, telling Tumulty that Root “had gained [a reputation] of being conservative, if not reactionary, which would work a prejudice toward [the talks] at the outset.”
At Versailles, the leaders of the victorious Allied Powers opposed Wilson’s concept of a “just and stable peace.” The final treaty called for stiff war reparations from the former Central Powers, who did not participate in the negotiations. Wilson found that “rivalries and conflicting claims previously submerged” made it difficult — if not impossible — for the French and British delegations to accept his Fourteen Points, the basis on which the armistice was struck which ended the war.
The French and the British sought to appease Wilson by consenting to the establishment of a League of Nations. However, in the face of domestic isolationist sentiment and because some of the articles in the League's charter seemingly conflicted with the U.S. Constitution, the Senate never ratified the Treaty of Versailles.
SOURCE: “This Day in Presidential History,” by Paul Brandus (2018)
President Wilson departs for France: Dec. 4, 1918
On this day in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson departed from Washington to embark on the first European trip by an American chief executive.
After nine days at sea aboard the S.S. George Washington, a German-built passenger liner interned in New York at the start of World War I, Wilson arrived in Brest, France, and traveled to Paris. There, at the Palace of Versailles, a magnificent chateau 12 miles southwest of the French capital, Wilson headed the American delegation at a peace conference charged with drafting a comprehensive treaty that would mark the end of the war.
A month before, the Republicans had scored major gains in the midterm congressional elections, returning the Senate to GOP control. Nevertheless, Wilson left behind Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Lodge subsequently became Wilson’s chief nemesis when the president asked the Senate to ratify the League of Nations, a new international organization that Wilson had largely conceived with the aim of avoiding future conflicts through diplomacy and sanctions.
Joseph Tumulty, Wilson’s private secretary, also proposed that Wilson take along Elihu Root, a Republican secretary of war under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and, later, Roosevelt’s secretary of state.
At first, Wilson “appeared to be delighted with this suggestion,” Tumulty reported in his 1921 biography. However, after Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, was consulted, the president apparently changed his mind, telling Tumulty that Root “had gained [a reputation] of being conservative, if not reactionary, which would work a prejudice toward [the talks] at the outset.”
At Versailles, the leaders of the victorious Allied Powers opposed Wilson’s concept of a “just and stable peace.” The final treaty called for stiff war reparations from the former Central Powers, who did not participate in the negotiations.
Wilson found that “rivalries and conflicting claims previously submerged” made it difficult — if not impossible — for the French and British delegations to accept his Fourteen Points, the basis on which the armistice was struck that ended the war.
The French and the British sought to appease Wilson by consenting to support his most cherished idea — the establishment of his League of Nations. However, in the face of strong domestic isolationist sentiment and because some of the articles in the league's charter seemingly conflicted with the U.S. Constitution, the United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles nor joined the League of Nations.
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In 1921, under President Warren Harding the United States signed separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary.
For his efforts, Wilson won the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize while the defeated Germans viewed the outcome with rising bitterness, sowing the seeds of World War II.
SOURCE: “WILSON AND HIS PEACEMAKERS: AMERICAN DIPLOMACY AT THE PARIS PEACE CONFERENCE, 1919” BY ARTHUR WALWORTH (1986)
This article tagged under:
- Nobel Peace Prize
- World War I
- Woodrow Wilson
- This Day In Politics
- William McKinley
- Teddy Roosevelt
- Warren Harding
- Henry Cabot Lodge
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THE FOURTEEN POINTS ›
Those in Paris not only had to determine the articles of peace for the former Central Powers but also faced countless demands from people throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia. They also needed to consider the demands of their own countries, who, in the case of Great Britain and France specifically, sought physical and material compensation for the losses they suffered during four years of war.
Signing the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors.
Though certainly not perfect, the settlements they reached were nonetheless an earnest attempt at bringing lasting peace to a world wracked by war and, in the context of the period, offered hope for a better world than that which existed prior to 1914.
1. We spread lies about how bad it was and where it came from.
Remember this next time you hear a talking head on cable news bloviating about how the disease caused by the new coronavirus, or, officially, COVID-19, came from bat soup in China: We've had over a century to try to figure out where and how the 1918 flu started, and we're still arguing about it. But theories that it began in Vietnam or China in 1915 or 1916 lost ground in recent years to a theory that it began in. the very middle of America.
A January 1918 doctor's report to the government from Haskell County, Kansas, stands as the first testament to any unusual flu activity in the world that year. Remember, this reporting wasn't required, so it had to be a big deal. Haskell had many migratory birds and hog farms we now know that bird and human viruses like to meet and mutate inside the cells of pigs. And Haskell men visited nearby Camp Funston, which reported the first of 24 U.S. Army outbreaks in March 1918. The doughboys then took the virus to Europe.
One place we can be sure the virus didn't come from is Spain. So why did countries around the world immediately start calling it "Spainish Flu" or "The Spanish Lady?" For the simple reason that Spain was neutral in World War I. It had no reason to censor its press, whereas newspapers in the U.S. and Europe were prevented by their governments from printing anything that might lower morale for the war effort.
That, publishers thought, included flu outbreaks. Even when U.S. newspapers started paying attention to the epidemic by listing numbers of new cases, they often put a positive or admonishing spin on their stories. "Worry is useless," advised the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Talk of cheerful things instead." One columnist in another paper took to task "nervous and excited people who think every pain is a symptom of the flu."
So irresponsible rumors crept into the gaps left by official reports, as they always do. When the deadly fall wave of mutated flu began in Boston, wild (and false) stories spread that it was a germ warfare attack by Germany. Or that agents of the Kaiser had somehow embedded the sickness in aspirin tablets, made by German company Bayer. Which was, ironically, about the only thing people could take at the time to reduce fever.
And what did Spain get for sounding the alarm and reporting accurately? It got saddled with the supposed origin and the very name of the disease for a century or more. No good deed goes unpunished.
Lost chances and dark outcomes
Wilson wasn’t the same man. He tired easily and quickly lost focus and patience. He seemed paranoid, worried about being spied upon by housemaids. He achieved some of his specific goals but was unable or unwilling to articulate a broader vision for a better world.
In other words, he acted like a man with residual neurological problems stemming from a recent bout of Spanish flu.
Over the next crucial weeks, Wilson lost his best chance to win the peace by agreeing in principle to draconian terms favoured by France. The final settlement punished Germany with a formal admission of guilt, enormous reparations and the loss of about 10 per cent of its territory.
The stunned Germans had little choice but to sign on June 28, 1919.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson arrived in France to take part in peace negotiations and to promote his plan for a League of Nations, an international organization for resolving conflicts between nations. CC BY
Back in the U.S. that fall, Wilson suffered a major stroke just as opposition to the treaty by isolationist senators gained steam. He died four years later, his vision of a strong League of Nations hampered by the absence of his own country.
The Empire of Japan sent a large delegation headed by former Prime Minister, Marquess Saionji Kinmochi. It was originally one of the “big five” but relinquished that role because of its slight interest in European affairs. Instead it focused on two demands: the inclusion of their racial equality proposal in the League’s Covenant and Japanese territorial claims with respect to former German colonies, namely Shantung (including Kiaochow) and the Pacific islands north of the Equator (the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, the Mariana Islands, and the Carolines). The Japanese delegation became unhappy after receiving only half of the rights of Germany, and walked out of the conference.
Tombstones at the World War One Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial near Verdun, France. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
T he First World War ended 100 years ago this month on November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. Nearly 20 million people had perished since the war began on July 28, 1914.
In early 1918, it looked as if the Central Powers — Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire — would win.
Czarist Russia gave up in December 1917. Tens of thousands of German and Austrian soldiers were freed to redeploy to the Western Front and finish off the exhausted French and British armies.
The late-entering United States did not declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary until April 1917. Six months later, America had still not begun to deploy troops in any great number.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. By summer 1918, hordes of American soldiers began arriving in France in unimaginable numbers of up to 10,000 doughboys a day. Anglo-American convoys began devastating German submarines. The German high command’s tactical blunders stalled the German offensives of spring 1918 — the last chance before growing Allied numbers overran German lines.
Nonetheless, World War I strangely ended with an armistice — with German troops still well inside France and Belgium. Revolution was brewing in German cities back home.
The three major Allied victors squabbled over peace terms. America’s idealist president, Woodrow Wilson, opposed an Allied invasion of Germany and Austria to occupy both countries and enforce their surrenders.
By the time the formal Versailles Peace Conference began in January 1919, millions of soldiers had gone home. German politicians and veterans were already blaming their capitulation on “stab-in-the-back” traitors and spreading the lie that their armies lost only because they ran out of supplies while on the verge of victory in enemy territory.
The Allied victors were in disarray. Wilson was idolized when he arrived in France for peace talks in December 1918 — and was hated for being self-righteous when he left six months later.
The Treaty of Versailles proved a disaster, at once too harsh and too soft. Its terms were far less punitive than those the victorious Allies would dictate to Germany after World War II. Earlier, Germany itself had demanded tougher concessions from a defeated France in 1871 and Russia in 1918.
In the end, the Allies proved unforgiving to a defeated Germany in the abstract, but not tough enough in the concrete.
One ironic result was that the victorious but exhausted Allies announced to the world that they never wished to go to war again. Meanwhile, the defeated and humiliated Germans seemed all too eager to fight again soon to overturn the verdict of 1918.
The consequence was a far bloodier war that followed just two decades later. Eventually, “the war to end all wars” was rebranded “World War I” after World War II engulfed the planet and wiped out some 60 million lives.
What can we learn from the failed armistice of 1918?
Keeping the peace is sometimes even more difficult than winning a war.
For an enemy to accept defeat, it must be forced to understand why it lost, suffer the consequences of its aggressions — and only then be shown magnanimity and given help to rebuild.
Losers of a war cannot pick and choose when to quit fighting in enemy territory.
Had the Allies continued their offensives in the fall of 1918 and invaded Germany, the peace that followed might have more closely resembled the unconditional surrender and agreements that ended WWII, leading to far more than just 20 years of subsequent European calm.
Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 because it was convinced that Britain would not send enough troops to aid its overwhelmed ally, France. Germany also assumed that isolationist America would not intervene.
Unfortunately, the Allies of 1939 later repeated the errors of 1914, and the result was WWII.
Germany currently dominates Europe, just as it did in 1871, 1914, and 1939. European peace is maintained only when Germany channels its enormous energy and talents into economic, not military, dominance. Yet even today, on matters such as illegal immigration, overdue loans, Brexit, and trade surpluses, Germany tends to agitate its allies.
It is also always unwise to underestimate a peaceful America. The U.S. possesses an uncanny ability to mobilize, arm, and deploy. By the time America’s brief 19-month foray into war ended in November 1918, it had sent two million soldiers to Europe.
Had the armistice of November 1918 and the ensuing peace worked, perhaps we would still refer to a single “Great War” that put an end to world wars.
But because the peace failed, we now use Roman numerals to count world wars. And few believe that when the shooting stops, the war is necessarily over.
Woodrow Wilson arrives in France for peace talks - HISTORY
The peace of Versailles bore little resemblance to Wilson's Fourteen Points. Wilson was committed to a relatively mild agreement, but Britain-- and even more so, France under Clemenseau-- demanded the harsh terms that were imposed on Germany.
The fighting had come to an end. The Germans had accepted an armistice, envisioning a peace treaty that would reflect Wilson's 14 points. The British and French, who suffered much more than the United States, demanded a much harsher peace agreement.
United States President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Europe at the end of December. Wilsons visit was the first visit to Europe by a sitting US President. He was greeted as a conquering hero in Great Britain, which held its first Royal Dinner since the beginning of the war. Wilson went to Scotland to the church that his grandfather had once preached at, and before going to Paris to start the peace talks, he crossed into Italy, where he was wildly cheered by the troops.
The Versaille Peace Conference, which officially opened on January 19, 1919, was attended by representatives of 27 nations, and 70 delegations took part in all. However, most of the crucial decisions were made by the Big Four made up of French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and United States President Woodrow Wilson. They met for the first time on January 12, 1919. They decided not to invite the Germans to participate and instead to eventually present them with an agreement that they would have no choice but to accept. Wilson was not happy with this but agreed to go along.
The Big Four met in 145 closed sessions to negotiate the significant issues in the agreement. Once a week, a plenary session was held in which all the delegates received updates. In addition, the plenary established several sub-committee that made recommendations that made there way into the final document.
At times, the meetings of the Big Four were contentious with the French on whose territory the war on the Western Front was fought. The French wanted to move the Germany border to the Rhine, fearing another war. Clemenceau told Wilson, "America is far away, protected by the ocean. Not even Napoleon himself could touch England. You are both sheltered we are not".
The others did not accept the French demand, but France was mollified by a British promise of a defense treaty if Germany attacked again. Wilson pledged to try to do the same. French financial demands for reparations were, however, largely accepted.
Under the treaty, Germany gave up all of its overseas territories. It also was forced to transfer Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium. Alsace Lorraine was returned to France the Saar region would remain under the League of Nations' control until 1935 when a plebiscite would be held. In the meantime, all of the coal production in the region would belong to France. There were to be plebiscites in Northern and Southern Schleswig. The North voted to reunite with Denmark while the South voted to stay apart of Germany. In the East, the Germans were forced to give up the Polish corridor that ran from East Prussia to Pomerania. It also had to give up the province of Posen to Poland. Plebiscites were to be held in Western Upper Silesia, which voted to remain in Germany, and Eastern Upper Silesia, which voted to become part of Poland. Danzig was made a free city under the League of Nations. The sovereignty of part of southern East Prussia was to be decided via plebiscite. Simultaneously, the East Prussian Soldau area, which was astride the rail line between Warsaw and Danzig, was transferred to Poland.
Furthermore , under the terms of the treaty, the Rhineland was to be permanently demilitarized. The German Navy was forbidden from building submarines or having an airforce.
The most controversial part of the treaty was article 234, which became known as the guilt clause. Under it, Germany accepted total responsibility for the start of the war. As a result of the war guilt, the German agreed to pay reparations for all of the civilian populations' resulting damage. The amount of the reparations was to be determined by a commission that Germany would not partake in.
The Germans agreed to all the terms but the war guilt clause. Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, the senior German delegate, stated: "We are required to admit that we alone are war guilty. Such an admission would be a lie." On June 22, the Allies demanded that the Germans sign all the clauses of the treaty. The Germans initially refused and requested 48 hours. The allies gave them 24 hours. The German government resigned, a resignation that the German President, who was told that the German army was powerless to stop the Allies from occupying the country, refused to accept. The German signed the treaty with four hours remaining before the Allied ultimatum sign, or we will occupy you.
What Happened When Woodrow Wilson Came Down With the 1918 Flu?
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide—including some 675,000 Americans—in just 15 months. But Woodrow Wilson’s White House largely ignored the global health crisis, focusing instead on the Great War enveloping Europe and offering “no leadership or guidance of any kind,” as historian John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, recently told Time’s Melissa August.
“Wilson wanted the focus to remain on the war effort,” Barry explained. “Anything negative was viewed as hurting morale.”
In private, the president acknowledged the threat posed by the virus, which struck a number of people in his inner circle, including his personal secretary, his oldest daughter and multiple Secret Service members. Even the White House sheep came down with the flu, reports Michael S. Rosenwald for the Washington Post.
Wilson himself contracted the disease shortly after arriving in Paris in April 1919 for peace talks aimed at determining the direction of a post-World War I Europe. As White House doctor Cary T. Grayson wrote in a letter to a friend, the diagnosis arrived at a decidedly inopportune moment: “The president was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance.”
Grayson and the rest of Wilson’s staff downplayed the president’s illness, telling reporters that overwork and Paris’ “chilly and rainy weather” had sparked a cold and fever. On April 5, the Associated Press reported that Wilson was “not stricken with influenza.”
Woodrow Wilson (far right) contracted the flu while attending peace talks in Paris in April 1919. (Public domain via Wikipedia Commons)
Behind the scenes, the president was suffering the full force of the virus’ effects. Unable to sit up in bed, he experienced coughing fits, gastrointestinal symptoms and a 103-degree fever.
Then, says biographer A. Scott Berg, the “generally predictable” Wilson started blurting out “unexpected orders”—on two separate occasions, he “created a scene over pieces of furniture that had suddenly disappeared,” despite the fact that nothing had been moved—and exhibiting other signs of severe disorientation. At one point, the president became convinced that he was surrounded by French spies.
“[W]e could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind,” Chief Usher Irwin Hoover later recalled. “One thing was certain: [H]e was never the same after this little spell of sickness.”
Wilson’s bout of influenza “weaken[ed] him physically … at the most crucial point of negotiations,” writes Barry in The Great Influenza. As Steve Coll explained for the New Yorker earlier this year, the president had originally argued that the Allies “should go easy” on Germany to facilitate the success of his pet project, the League of Nations. But French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, whose country had endured much devastation during the four-year conflict, wanted to take a tougher stance days after coming down with the flu, an exhausted Wilson conceded to the other world leaders’ demands, setting the stage for what Coll describes as “a settlement so harsh and onerous to Germans that it became a provocative cause of revived German nationalism … and, eventually, a rallying cause of Adolf Hitler.”
Whether Wilson would have pushed harder for more equitable terms if he hadn’t come down with the flu is, of course, impossible to discern. According to Barry, the illness certainly drained his stamina and impeded his concentration, in addition to affecting “his mind in other, deeper ways.”
Wilson's second wife, Edith, essentially served as commander-in-chief following her husband's debilitating October 1919 stroke. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Despite his personal experience with the pandemic, the president never publicly acknowledged the disease wreaking havoc on the world. And though Wilson recovered from the virus, contemporaries and historians alike argue that he was never quite the same.
Six months after he came down with the flu, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side and partially blind. Instead of disclosing her husband’s stroke, First Lady Edith Wilson hid his life-threatening condition from politicians, the press and the public, embarking on a self-described “stewardship” that Howard Markel of “PBS Newshour” more accurately defines as a secret presidency.
The first lady was able to assume such broad power due to a lack of constitutional clarity regarding the circumstances under which a president is considered incapacitated. A clearer protocol was only established with the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967.
As Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote for the Washington Post in 2016, Edith’s “control of the flow of information did not go unnoticed by an increasingly skeptical Congress.” At one point, Senator Albert Fall even declared, “We have a petticoat government! Wilson is not acting! Mrs. Wilson is President!”
Though Wilson’s condition improved marginally in the final years of his presidency, Edith continued, for all intents and purposes, to serve as the nation’s chief executive until her husband left office in March 1921. The weakened president died three years later, on February 3, 1924.