March 2018 Print

Destined Manifestation: World War I, Wilson, and Versailles

by John Dredger

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, officially bringing America into World War I. President Woodrow Wilson stated in his April 2 speech to Congress that the U.S. congressmen should vote for war against the German Empire for several reasons. The President first raised the issue of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare policy. In February 1917, the Imperial Government had instituted this policy to combat the British blockade of the Central Powers, which had reduced the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples to starvation. Wilson described unrestricted submarine warfare as a violation of not only American rights, but also of human rights, and a challenge to all mankind.

Making the World Safe for Democracy

Using the Germany policy as a segue to his main point, the U.S. President reached the primary reason why he desired war with the Central Powers: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The alignment of the opposing sides in the Great War made the U.S. choice of supporting the Entente powers obvious. The Entente, composed of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, had no powerful monarchies by April 1917. The communist revolution in Russia had overthrown the Tsarist rule in March, the month before U.S. entry into WWI. The monarchs of Britain and Italy held little control over their representative governments, which the prime ministers dominated. The Third Republic had ruled France since 1870. On the other side, the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire all had monarchies with more prominent figures. These countries, however, also had well-established elected assemblies with ministers who controlled policy as much or more than the monarchs. The age of absolute kings and emperors had long disappeared from European politics.

Wilson, ignoring these facts, depicted the German government as the enemy of all free peoples. “Our object now is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles. Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its people, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.”

The U.S. Senate voted 82-6 to declare war on Germany, and the House of Representatives endorsed the declaration by a vote of 373-50. The majority of congressmen clearly agreed with Wilson. Another consideration that affected the U.S. decision to support the Allied powers against Germany came from American economics. During the years preceding the U.S. entrance into World War I, American trade with France and Great Britain had tripled while U.S. trade with Germany had fallen by 90% because of the British blockade. In 1916, the Entente powers had bought $500 million of American munitions. In addition, private U.S. businessmen had loaned enormous sums to the Allies; the banker J.P. Morgan loaned $2.3 billion on his own. Both economically and politically, the United States felt much closer ties to the Entente than the Central Powers.

Wilson himself felt the desire to wage this war to make the world “safe for democracy” and “to end war,” borrowing the latter phrase from H.G. Wells’ book The War That Will End War. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson had lived during the latter half of the 19th century, a time when the idea of Manifest Destiny prevailed in American domestic and foreign policy. Manifest Destiny contained the belief that the United States had a mission from God to spread its democracy, freedom, and culture to other peoples because of the superiority of American virtue and institutions, and thus redeem and remake the rest of the world in the image of the United States. Wilson took this idea, originally stemming from the Puritan/Calvinist sense of elitism, to mean that he should apply Manifest Destiny to Europe. In his 1920 message to Congress, Wilson said: “I think we all realize that the day has come when Democracy is being put upon its final test. The Old World is just now suffering from a wanton rejection of the principle of democracy and a substitution of the principle of autocracy as asserted in the name, but without the authority and sanction, of the multitude. This is the time of all others when Democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.” Thus, Manifest Destiny coincided perfectly with Wilson’s desire to make the world safe for democracy and end all wars.

The End of the War and its Aftermath

After the United States helped to bring about the Allied victory in 1918, the practical problem remained of how to bring about an everlasting peace. The removal of monarchs, including Wilhelm II of Germany and Blessed Karl of Austria-Hungary, did not simply result in the establishment of a world without war. Realizing that peace needed a system to preserve it, Wilson drew up his Fourteen Points on which to base the Treaty of Versailles, which officially brought the Great War to a close for most belligerents.

Wilson presented the Fourteen Points to the U.S. Congress on January 8, 1918. In his speech the President described the foundation for peace that he and his advisors had planned, and which he considered the only means to prevent future wars. The first five points addressed the removal of what Wilson saw as the main causes of World War I: 1) abolition of secret diplomacy, 2) complete freedom of the seas, 3) elimination of economic barriers to free trade, 4) reduction of armaments, and 5) impartial adjustment of colonial claims. According to Wilson, if the major powers could agree to these points, no conflicts would take place. Points six through thirteen consisted of territorial adjustments for Europe based on the principles of self-determination, autonomous development, and nationality. For the last point, the President envisioned a League of Nations that would guarantee independence and territorial integrity to all nations. This league would serve as the primary means to ensure a lasting peace because all the nations belonging to the league would cooperate for their mutual benefit and the avoidance of future wars.

Clearly Wilson’s idealism permeated the Fourteen Points. The expectation that the major powers would act in concert, putting aside their own individual agendas for the good of all nations both large and small, represented an unrealistic approach to international politics. Great Britain and France, allies of the United States, had differing ideas for the basis of peace. Another problem stemmed from the fact that the peoples of Europe did not necessarily know what kind of government they wanted, and in addition no definite lines divided the different nationalities from one another. Instead, many people had been mixed together for centuries, living in the same boundaries, but hating one another and their neighbors. Thus, carving up the former German and Austro-Hungarian empires into small, independent states composed solely of one nationality each became an impossible task. Nevertheless, Wilson insisted that his Fourteen Points be the basis for the Treaty of Versailles.

The negotiations for the treaty lasted from January 1919 to June 1919. The discussions took place among the “Big Four”: Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and President Wilson. The Allies did not allow any of the Central Powers to participate in the negotiations but merely presented the treaty to Germany to sign. Although publicly most nations lauded the Fourteen Points, the leaders of Britain, France, and Italy had their own ideas for the treaty. Lloyd George did not agree with Wilson’s point on freedom of the seas as it would mean the loss of British naval predominance. Clemenceau desired to punish and cripple Germany so severely that it would never be able to rival France as the greatest industrial nation of Europe. Orlando wanted to take large pieces of the former Austro-Hungarian empire for Italy without any regard to self-determination or autonomous development of the various nationalities.

The Treaty of Versailles

With these conflicting ideas, the negotiations dragged on for months and resulted in the Treaty of Versailles, a document which has sparked controversy for almost one hundred years. Article 231 declared Germany and its allies responsible for the war and all ensuing damages. Therefore, the Allies required Germany to pay $5 billion by May 1921, as part of a total of $27 billion. The losing nation had to give up its overseas possessions, large pieces of territory with natural resources, its entire merchant marine, and allow its army to be reduced to a mere 100,000 men with restrictions on the manufacture of weapons and ships. Certainly, the treaty crippled Germany, though Clemenceau remained dissatisfied.

Wilson also expressed dissatisfaction with the treaty, but for the opposite reason. He had not wanted such harsh punishment for Germany, though later he expressed approval for it. However, he agreed to the peace terms that he did not like primarily because the other nations accepted his idea of the League of Nations. This agreement did not extend to the U.S. Senate, though, which refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles precisely because of the inclusion of the League of Nations. While travelling the country in an attempt to convince the American people to support the ratification of the treaty, Wilson underwent a series of strokes that rendered him incapable of performing his presidential duties for the rest of his term.

As for the Treaty of Versailles establishing an everlasting peace, the document did nothing to alleviate the economic depression following the Great War. On the contrary, the crippling of Germany only added to the privation caused by the British blockade and the expense of fighting such an immense war on multiple fronts. With the loss of its merchant marine, overseas possessions, and a large part of its natural resources, Germany found it impossible to pay the war indemnity, while falling into an economic situation in which hyperinflation ran rampant. The exchange rate for German marks to buy one U.S. dollar rose from 48 in late 1919 to 4,210,500,000,000 by late 1923. The severity of this situation and the inability of the republican Weimar government of Germany to solve it became one of the primary reasons for the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, who promised a solution for the dire monetary problems.

With Germany incapable of paying the war indemnity, the Allies also could not pay off their debts to the U.S. as the war had taken an immense economic toll on all nations involved. In addition, the remapping of Europe and the Middle East after World War I created more disputes than had existed previously, while none of the countries viewed the Treaty of Versailles as a positive answer for their desires. The combination of political and economic strife resulting from the treaty did not make the Great War “the war to end war,” but in the words of British field marshal Archibald Wavell, the “peace to end peace.”