Chapter 22 World War I

Section 4 The Peace  

After the armistice of November 1918, Allied leaders faced the task of working out the terms of a permanent settlement. Each understood that the decisions they took would set the future course of world history. “Are we making a good peace? Are we? Are we?,” worried one diplomat involved in the process. All desired a settlement that would prevent another world war, but disagreements developed over how to achieve lasting peace. Some favored a lenient peace, while others favored a harsh peace designed to punish the Central Powers. The final settlement proved harsh but incorporated many ideas proposed by those who favored restraint.

Visions of a New World Order

The conclusion of World War I led many people to expect the creation of a new world order. Allied leaders hoped to reshape the international system, making it more stable and peaceful. Different leaders, however, expressed different visions of what the new world order should look like.

Wilson's Fourteen Points. President Wilson's vision of a new world order set the terms of debate. In January 1918, he advanced his Fourteen Points as the foundation of a lasting peace. Points 6 through 13 addressed the problems of specific countries and regions, including Russia, Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Balkans. Points 1 to 5 and 14 were more general. They called for: (1) no secret treaties; (2) freedom of the seas for all nations; (3) removal of all economic barriers and tariffs; (4) reduction of national armaments; (5) “impartial adjustment of all colonial claims”, considering equally the interests of the colonial powers and their subject peoples; and (14) a “general association of nations” to guarantee the security of “great and small states alike.”

            In his speech, Wilson emphasized two principles in particular. The first was national self-determination, or the right of a people to decide their own political future and to choose their own government.  Theoretically, the right of national self-determination extended to a people sharing such common attributes as language and culture. Wilson specifically hoped to apply the principle in settling the peace in the territories of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, which lay in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He did not, however, believe the principle applied universally. Wilson's view reflected the general attitudes of the age in which he lived. Some peoples, he thought, simply lacked the political sophistication to govern themselves effectively.

            Wilson introduced the second, and most important, principle in the last of his Fourteen Points. This was collective security—a system, usually set up by treaty, in which states pledge to cooperate in their mutual defense. Wilson hoped to replace the prewar system of opposing alliances with a collective security arrangement including all the world's states. He believed that what he called a “community of power” would deter aggression and maintain peace.  Any state contemplating aggression, he reasoned, would have also to contemplate facing the combined response of the international community. Collective security, therefore, would create the foundation on which any future peace would rest. For Wilson, collective security thus took priority over all other objectives.

Other views. Other Allied leaders, however, disagreed with Wilson over how best to maintain the future peace. Significant opposition to his plan developed in the United States itself. Perhaps the most eloquent American opponent was Henry Cabot Lodge, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Wilson's political rival. Lodge worried that a wholesale commitment to collective security would undermine Congress's constitutional responsibility for declaring war. He feared it would allow presidents to take the country to war without properly obtaining the people's consent through their representatives in Congress.

            British and especially French visions of the new world order differed from Wilson's. The differences centered primarily on what to do about Germany. Wilson spoke of “peace without victory”. He hoped for a reasonable settlement, which would restore Germany to the community of nations. Although some in Britain favored Wilson's proposals, many questioned the wisdom of relying on other states for Britain's security. These skeptics especially wanted to insure that Germany would never again be able to threaten the peace of Europe. The French view on maintaining peace contrasted even more sharply with Wilson's ideas.

Wilson encountered in Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, a staunch and articulate opponent. Born in 1841, Clemenceau had studied medicine and worked for several years as a journalist in the United States. After returning home, he entered politics in 1870, the same year Prussia defeated France. Throughout Clemenceau's career, Germany would remain the principal threat to France. Only ix years after entering politics, Clemenceau won election to the National Chamber of Deputies. His ruthless and stubborn manner led his fellow legislators to dub him “The Tiger”.

            During World War I, Clemenceau became an outspoken critic of military incompetence, which he associated with a defeatist outlook. In November 1917, “The Tiger” became France's Prime Minister. Clemenceau's leadership held France together through Germany's spring offensive of 1918 and saw it through to victory in the fall. For nearly half a century, Clemenceau had lived in the face of a German danger. Now, with his enemies defeated, he saw a chance to destroy the German threat once and for all.

            Above all, Clemenceau wanted the peace treaty to ensure the permanence of France's victory over Germany. Wilson's proposals seemed to him hardly adequate guarantees of security. “Hopes without certainty,” Clemenceau said, “cannot suffice to those who suffered the aggression of 1914.”  He thought Wilson a noble but naive visionary. 

“Mr. Wilson has lived in a world that has been fairly safe for Democracy. I have lived in a world where it was good form to shoot a Democrat.” 

Clemenceau had little patience for “peace without victory”. He favored an imposed rather than a negotiated peace. Germany, he argued, should be dismembered and its key regions occupied. Only then, he believed, would France and the peace be truly secure.

The Versailles Settlement

In January 1919, a conference convened at Versailles, outside Paris, to work out the terms of a permanent peace. Each of victorious Allied nations sent delegates. One participant in the proceedings recorded the mindset that prevailed at Versailles.           

“We were preparing not Peace only, but Eternal Peace. There was about us the halo of some divine mission.... For we were bent on doing great, permanent, and noble things.” 

The Allies agreed to make separate peace treaties with each of the Central Powers. The most famous was that with Germany, known as the Versailles Treaty. Completed in May 1919, the Versailles Treaty incorporated various elements of the different views expressed by Allied leaders. It imposed severe terms on Germany and laid the foundation for a world order based on collective security. 

The League of Nations. The first issue taken up at the Versailles Conference was that of collective security. The delegates soon agreed to Wilson's Fourteenth Point, which called the formation of a “general association of nations” to settle international disputes without recourse to war. The delegates at Versailles drafted the covenant for such an organization and included it in the final treaty. They called it the League of Nations. Wilson himself outlined its purpose: 

‘[The League] is a definite guaranty of peace. It is a definite guaranty by word against aggression. . . . It is not . . . merely a league to secure the peace of the world. It is a league which can be used for cooperation in any international matter.” 

            According to its covenant, the League of Nations had two main aims: (1) to promote international cooperation; and (2) to maintain peace by settling disputes peacefully and by reducing armaments. The League was to include all independent sovereign nations. Three main agencies--an assembly, a council, and a secretariat--would conduct League business. The League was to work with a related but independent body, the Permanent Court of International Justice, or World Court, located at the Hague in the Netherlands.

            The members of the League of Nations agreed not to resort to war, promising to submit any disputes to the World Court or to specially convened commissions for resolution. In the event that a member nation broke the agreement, the League had the authority to impose penalties, such as breaking diplomatic relations or suspending trade. The League would use military force only as a last resort.

French security and the Rhineland issue. Prime Minister Clemenceau of France hoped that Wilson, having gotten agreement on the League of Nations, would compromise on other issues, especially self-determination. Clemenceau wanted above all security against another German attack, which required, he argued, dismemberment of certain German territories. Clemenceau insisted on the return of Alsace and Lorraine to France. In addition, he demanded that France be given the Rhineland, the territory on the west bank of the Rhine River. He also demanded control of the Saar Valley with its valuable deposits of coal.

            In the final settlement, Clemenceau got most of his demands. The Versailles Treaty compelled Germany to remove all its troops from the Rhineland. It provided for the indefinite occupation of the region by Allied (mainly French) troops. The Saar Valley would fall under the administration of the League of Nations for 15 years. During that time all of the coal mined in the area would go to France. After 15 years, the people of the region would vote on whether to remain under the League, to become part of France, or to rejoin Germany. Ironically, French critics charged Clemenceau, who thought he had struck a fair balance between Wilson's ideals and French interests, with having been too lenient. 

Reparations and War Guilt. Perhaps Wilson's greatest disappointment at Versailles came in the imposition of a punishing peace on Germany. Wilson had hoped to reconcile Germany through a lenient peace. The war, however, had left bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge in Allied countries, making such a settlement very unlikely. Instead, Germany had to accept humiliating peace terms.

            The Versailles Treaty imposed a heavy financial penalty on Germany. The Germans had to agree to a burdensome schedule of reparations--payment for war damages. Eventually, the Allies fixed the total sum owed by Germany at $33 billion. Germany suffered further humiliation in having to accept the so-called “war guilt clause” of the Versailles Treaty. This clause attributed to Germany sole responsibility for “all the loss and damage” sustained by the Allies in the war. 

The Mandate System

As a result of their defeat in the war, the Central Powers were compelled to disgorge their colonial territories. Germany had to surrender several overseas colonies situated in Africa and the Pacific. Turkey lost control of its empire in the Arab lands of the Middle East. The problem of what to do with the former colonial territories of the Central Powers led to the emergence of a new system of colonial rule and to the development of a new rationale for it.

            The League of Nations provided a way to deal with the colonial problems resulting from the war. The League devised a system that represented a compromise between self-determination for colonial peoples and outright annexation of the territories in question. Under this system, the League would assume responsibility for a colonial area until its inhabitants were sufficiently developed for independence. In the meantime, the League would assign the administration of such an area to an advanced nation, such as Britain or France, as a mandate. The administering nation had to pledge to prepare the subject people for self-government and to make regular reports on their progress. The League created three different categories of mandates--designated as class “A”, class “B”, and class “C.”    

            The former Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire were assigned to Britain and France as class “A” mandates. This meant that their peoples could be prepared for self-government in a relatively short time. France took control of Syria and Lebanon. Britain assumed responsibility for Iraq, Trans-Jordan, and Palestine. Palestine presented a unique difficulty. In 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, had issued a statement expressing general sympathy with Jewish aspirations for a “national home” in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration, however, conflicted with other British pledges to protect the interests of the Arab peoples living in the region. Britain tried with little success to balance its conflicting commitments during the period it administered Palestine.

            The two other types of mandates were assigned in Africa and the Pacific. Type “B” mandates included Germany's lost colonies in tropical Africa, and could supposedly be prepared for self-government over several decades. The League gave these to Britain and France. Type “C” mandates included Germany's lost colonies in Southwest Africa and the Pacific. These “primitive” areas would presumably have to remain under the rule of more advanced nations indefinitely. South Africa assumed the mandate in Southwest Africa. In the Pacific, Australia assumed responsibility for New Guinea, and New Zealand received a mandate in Samoa. The League assigned Japan the mandate for Germany's Pacific territories above the equator. The preparation of peoples in mandated areas for self-government accelerated similar policies in areas under British and French rule before World War I.