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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Lecture LO IV

Learning Objective IV

Discuss President Woodrow Wilson's role in the peace settlement after WWI. .

Wilson Presents His Plan

Rejection was probably the last thing Wilson expected when he arrived in Europe. Everywhere he went, people gave him a hero’s welcome. Italians displayed his picture in their windows; Parisians strewed the street with flowers. Representatives of one group after another, including Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles, appealed to him for help in setting up independent nations for themselves.

Fourteen Points

Even before the war was over, Wilson presented his plan for world peace. On January 18, 1918, he delivered his now famous Fourteen Points speech before Congress. The points were divided into three groups. The first five points were issues that Wilson believed had to be addressed to prevent another war:


1. There should be no secret treaties among nations.


2. Freedom of the seas should be maintained for all.


3. Tariffs and other economic barriers among nations should be lowered or abolished in order to foster free trade.


4. Arms should be reduced “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety, thus lessening the possibility of military responses” during diplomatic crises.


5. Colonial policies should consider the interests of the colonial peoples as well as the interests of the imperialist powers. The next eight points dealt with boundary changes.


Nearly all of Wilson's points dealt with political, military, or territorial issues. The only economic proposal in the whole list was the vague statement on the removal of trade barriers. This lack of consideration for the economic problems which plagued Europe after the war is considered to be the major weakness of Wilson's fourteen points and the Peace of Paris


Wilson based these provisions on the principle of self-determination “along historically established lines of nationality.” In other words, groups that claimed distinct ethnic identities were to form their own nation-states or decide for themselves to what nations they would belong. The fourteenth point called for the creation of an international organization to address diplomatic crises like those that had sparked the war. This League of Nations would provide a forum for nations to discuss and settle their grievances without having to resort to war.



Wilson’s naiveté about the political aspects of securing a peace treaty showed itself in his failure to grasp the anger felt by the Allied leaders. The French premier, Georges Clemenceau (klDmQEn-sIP), had lived through two German invasions of France and was determined to prevent future invasions. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, had just won reelection on the slogan “Make Germany Pay.” The Italian prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, wanted control of Austrian-held territory.


Contrary to custom, the peace conference did not include the defeated Central Powers. Nor did it include Russia, which was now under the control of a Communist government, or the smaller Allied nations. Instead, the “Big Four”—Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando—worked out the treaty’s details among themselves. Wilson conceded on most of his Fourteen Points in return for the establishment of the League of Nations.

Debating the Treaty of Versailles

On June 28, 1919, the Big Four and the leaders of the defeated nations gathered in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles to sign the peace treaty. After four years of devastating warfare, everyone hoped that the treaty would create stability for a rebuilt Europe. Instead, anger held sway.



The Treaty of Versailles (vEr-sFT) established nine new nations—including Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia—and shifted the boundaries of other nations. It carved five areas out of the Ottoman Empire and gave them to France and Great Britain as mandates, or temporary colonies. Those two Allies were to administer their respective mandates until the areas were ready for self-rule and then independence. The treaty barred Germany from maintaining an army. It also required Germany to return the region of Alsace-Lorraine to France and to pay reparations, or war damages, amounting to $33 billion to the Allies.




This treatment of Germany weakened the ability of the Treaty of Versailles to provide a lasting peace in Europe. Several basic flaws in the treaty sowed the seeds of postwar international problems that eventually would lead to the Second World War. First, the treaty humiliated Germany. It contained a war-guilt clause forcing Germany to admit sole responsibility for starting World War I. Although German militarism had played a major role in igniting the war, other European nations had been guilty of provoking diplomatic crises before the war. Furthermore, there was no way Germany could pay the huge financial reparations. Germany was stripped of its colonial possessions in the Pacific, which might have helped it pay its reparations bill.



Wilson unwisely ignored the Republican majority in the Senate when he chose the members of the American delegation. If he had been more willing to accept a compromise on the League, it would have been more likely that the Senate would have approved the treaty. Wilson, however, was exhausted from his efforts at Versailles. Despite ill health, Wilson set out in September 1919 on an 8,000-mile tour.


He delivered 34 speeches in about 3 weeks, explaining why the United States should join the League of Nations. On October 2, Wilson suffered a stroke (a ruptured blood vessel to the brain) and lay partially paralyzed for more than two months, unable to even meet with his cabinet. His once-powerful voice was no more than a thick whisper. When the treaty came up for a vote in the Senate in November 1919, Senator Lodge introduced a number of amendments, the most important of which qualified the terms under which the United States would enter the League of Nations. It was feared that U.S. membership in the League would force the United States to form its foreign policy in accord with the League. Although the Senate rejected the amendments, it also failed to ratify the treaty. Wilson refused to compromise. “I will not play for position,” he proclaimed. “This is not a time for tactics. It is a time to stand square. I can stand defeat; I cannot stand retreat from conscientious duty.” The treaty again came up for a vote in March 1920.


The Senate again rejected the Lodge amendments—and again failed to muster enough votes for ratification. The United States finally signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921, after Wilson was no longer president. The United States never joined the League of Nations, but it maintained an unofficial observer at League meetings

The Legacy of the War


When World War I ended, many Americans looked forward to a return of what Warren G. Harding called “normalcy.” However, both the United States and the rest of the world had been utterly transformed by the war. At home, World War I had strengthened both the U.S. military and the power of government. It had also accelerated social change, especially for African Americans and women.

In addition, the propaganda campaign had provoked powerful fears and antagonisms that were left unchanneled when the war finally came to an end. In Europe the destruction and massive loss of life severely damaged social and political systems. In many countries the war created political instability and violence that persisted for decades. During the war years, the first Communist state was established in Russia, while after the war, militant fascist organizations seized control in Italy, Spain, and Germany.


Appalled by the scale of destruction, Americans began to call World War I “the war to end all wars,” in the hope that humanity would never again be willing to fight such a war. However, unresolved issues in Europe would eventually drag America into an even wider war. The Treaty of Versailles had settled nothing. In fact, some Europeans longed to resume the fight. The ominous shape of things to come emerged in the writings of an Austrian named Adolf Hitler, an angry veteran of World War I: “It cannot be that two million [Germans] should have fallen in vain. . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance!”


Two decades after the end of the Great War, Adolf Hitler’s desire for vengeance would plunge the world into an even greater war, in which the United States would play a leading role.