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The Challenges America Faced at Versailles in 1919 Are the Same the U.S. Faces Today

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One hundred years ago Friday, the representatives of 27 nations gathered in the French foreign ministry to open the Paris Peace Conference. The date — January 18 — was pointedly chosen by French president Raymond Poincaré, for it was on this day in 1871 that the Germans had magnified France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War by unifying the confederated states of Germany not in Berlin, the new German capital, but in the château of Versailles, outside Paris. There, French monarchs had long dictated the fate of Germany’s weak, divided states, and there the treaty dealing with the defeated Germany of 1919 would now be hammered out, in the very Hall of Mirrors where Bismarck and King Wilhelm I of Prussia had proclaimed the German Empire 48 years earlier.

“You hold in your hands the future of the world,” President Poincaré told the assembled delegates on Jan. 18, 1919, and indeed they did. The Allied offensives that had defeated the Germans two months earlier had shattered an army and a world. Warfare, diplomacy and politics were fundamentally changed by the grinding combat of 1914-18, which created a world far more like the one we inhabit today than had existed before the war. The technological innovation spurred by the war was the seed of postwar improvements in tanks, aircraft and doctrine that determined the trajectory of World War II, and indeed the design of professional militaries ever since. The destruction of four empires in the war — the Russian, German, Austrian and Ottoman — spawned global instability and demanded leadership by a world power like the United States.

The high cost of World War I — over 40 million killed and wounded and $200 billion spent ($5 trillion in 2019 dollars) — launched a rueful new era in politics that was strident, populist, hypocritical and effective. It sought for scapegoats not solutions, and its bitter taste is with us still.

Diplomatically, America exerted little influence in 1914, when the world had balanced between two great blocs: the Anglo-French-Russian Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. In Asia, those contending alliance partners and a new great power, Japan, colonized territory from India to Korea and paid lip service to Washington’s insistence on an “Open Door” in China. The United States had defeated Spain and annexed its colonies in 1898, defended Chinese sovereignty in 1899, mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and opened the Panama Canal in 1914, but the other great powers knew, until 1918, that America was insular and totally reliant on its navy for the national defense. The U.S. Army before World War I had been so pitifully small — 150,000 men — that it had failed even to capture Pancho Villa after he raided New Mexico in 1916 and killed 23 Americans.

All of that abruptly changed in 1918, when the U.S. deployed 2 million troops to France, rescued the faltering British and French, broke the back of the German army and, as a senior British official put it, “built a bridge for the Allies to pass over,” from likely defeat to certain victory.

That victory of 1918 gave the United States new clout on the world stage and in the peacemaking of 1919, but also shined a light on deep fissures in the American outlook: one between idealists and realists, another between globalists and isolationists.

President Woodrow Wilson argued that the war had been fought to “slay the beast of Prussian militarism” — which he clearly saw as an analogue for any expansionist power in the future — but he arrived in Paris with a cure for the disease of war that was fanciful: a League of Nations that would pool the militaries of the great powers to strike down would-be aggressors. For such an idea he was certain to get a measure of buy-in from Britain and France — if only to appease Wilson’s notorious vanity — but Wilson would need U.S. Senate approval of any war-ending treaty that included the League. The omens in January 1919 were not favorable, and were made even less favorable by Wilson’s failure to include any Republicans in his peacemaking delegation. The chair of the Republican caucus in the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, spoke for his colleagues and much of America when he judged the Democratic president’s League proposal “murky,” and declared: “I have always loved one flag and cannot share that devotion with a mongrel banner created for a League.”

One had only to look at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the debates it triggered to see how controversial the American way forward would be.

In the Senate, where Republicans had only a two-seat majority, there were a dozen Republican senators who called themselves “Irreconcilables.” They were proud isolationists who rejected the League out of hand as certain to entangle America in other peoples’ wars. Three dozen Republican “Reservationists” followed Senator Lodge, who was prepared to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and even the League of Nations, subject to key “reservations,” such as carve-outs for the Monroe Doctrine and Congressional war powers. Wilson, so reluctant to enter the conflict — he had campaigned for president on the slogan “America First” and laid his head on the cabinet table and wept after asking Congress for a declaration of war in 1917 — was now willing to end it on none but the most globalist terms: the Fourteen Points and a world rendered safe for peace, democracy, free trade and nations big and small by an organized “new diplomacy” centered on the League of Nations and a multinational fleet and army.

The Senate would ultimately reject the Treaty of Versailles, and the United States would never join the League of Nations. And yet Wilson’s quixotic idealism cloaked something tough and powerful, something that Wilson recognized and that his successors, starting with FDR, applied: that American values — the rule of law, democracy, a free press, free trade, freedom of the seas, anti-corruption policies and human rights — undergirded America’s bid for global leadership. Like communism or fascism, American values are an argument to lead and prosper, and, unlike their grim competitors, they offer malice toward none. American values as a policy are universal, and can compete on superior terms with any political adversary. If they fail, Lodge said in 1919, “the best hopes of mankind fail with them.”

American values as policy are also practical. Wilson knew this, and so have wise presidents ever since. Because America is rich, populous and influential — possessed of economies of scale, secure borders, a strong dollar, a superior military, and the leading voice in an English-speaking world — it stands to dominate a democratic, free-trading, free-navigating globe. Japan in 1919 regarded America’s values-based policy not as a mushy liberal doctrine, but as something hard and immensely threatening: “moralistic aggression,” a Japanese minister called the Fourteen Points and Wilson’s globalist stance in Paris, “a great hypocritical monster clothed in justice and humanity.”

But at least U.S. policy was clothed in justice and humanity — values fascism, communism and their authoritarian offshoots did not even pretend to value.

Though the Treaty of Versailles often bears the blame for the rise of those oppressive movements, it was not the harsh treaty that launched Hitler’s Nazi Party. Rather, it was the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. The Nazis had been perishing as a party when the world economy fell off a cliff in 1929. The strictures of the Versailles treaty — German war guilt, reparations, territorial losses, limits on sovereignty — were being moderated by the United States and the Allies when the Depression set in, making further amelioration impossible, and thus providing Hitler with nasty new talking points and, shortly, 230 seats in the Reichstag.

The German leader had only to look to fascist Italy for inspiration. Mussolini had taken power by constitutional means ten years before Hitler — in 1922 — by stigmatizing the Italian establishment, promising to drain the swamp, branding Bolshevism an existential threat and demanding a trincerocrazia — a “trenchocracy” — that would unite veterans (like Mussolini and Hitler) and other worthy “producers” in a new politics of resentment against “takers” and elites that found fertile soil in damaged post-war economies. What most obtrudes about this new politics of fascism in Italy and Germany was its hypocrisy. It pretended to serve the interests of the “forgotten man” while colluding behind the scenes with big business and landowners to guarantee their property and profits.

The Nazis and the fascists were entirely creations of World War I. Both movements found their “storm troopers” — the phrase itself had a Great War provenance — in the crowds of bitter, jobless veterans loitering in post-war Europe. Their uniforms derived from the Great War. Mussolini’s blackshirts dressed in the uniform of the arditi, the shock troops of the Italian army; Hitler’s brownshirts wore the surplus uniforms of the discarded German overseas empire. The success of the populist fascist movements spread not only into the new states of East Central Europe — the authoritarian Poland and Hungary of the 1930s is precisely what the current leaders of those two nations seek to recreate today — but even into cradles of democracy like France, where the center-left establishment parties, dabbling in “non-intervention” and disarmament to pay for urgent social programs, looked flaccid compared to the French communists and fascists, whose expansive visions and battles passed from the newspapers and into the streets.

The United States would play the same part in the Second World War as in the first, intervening decisively to shore up flagging allies and deliver massive combat power to the battlefield. America’s policy between the wars of isolation and blasé indifference to regimes abroad — clearly a loser in every respect — hatched a new determination in Washington to foster an environment conducive to Western democratic prosperity with a policy based on American values. Fascism was destroyed — for a time — and communism contained and finally exhausted. But new “revisionist” powers have emerged to challenge the American values first flourished by Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference 100 years ago. If 1919 taught nothing else, it is that those challengers must be answered with Western firmness, solidarity and “the best hopes of mankind.”

Geoffrey Wawro is director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas and the author of Sons of Freedom: The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I.

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