The vast changes that the First World War was to bring about began to occur even while the war was still going on. In February 1917, the Tsarist Russian state collapsed, and a provisional government was established. But in October, it gave way to the Bolsheviks, led by V. I. Lenin, who promised the Russian masses what they yearned for — peace. In January 1918, Lenin concluded a peace treaty with the Central Powers. The Eastern Front had ceased to exist.
Now, with Russia out of the war, German divisions in the East were shipped to the Western Front in a race with time. The Germans calculated that they had reserves and resources for one last offensive before the Americans began arriving in large enough numbers to decide the outcome of the war. In March 1918, they threw everything they had left into a final attempt to crack the Western Front.
For the first few weeks, it looked as if they might succeed. But those years of fighting the whole world had sapped Germany’s strength, and there were already over a million fresh American troops in France, with thousands more arriving every day. The offensive was halted, the Allied counteroffensive launched, and, in September, the German high command advised the Kaiser to seek an armistice. As Germany’s few allies — Bulgaria, Turkey, and, finally, Austria-Hungary — were knocked out of the war, Berlin announced it was ready to discuss peace terms on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. On November 11, 1918, Germany signed the armistice agreement, and the guns fell silent.
America had won the war for the Allies. Instead of letting the European nations find their own way to a compromise peace, American power had swung the balance decisively in favor of Britain and France. Among the consequences was the fall of the Kaiser and the old Germany, which Wilson, believing his own propaganda, considered the epitome of evil. Yet George Kennan, the diplomat and historian, wrote wryly after the Second World War:
Today if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists — a vigorous Germany, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe, in many ways it would not sound so bad.
The novel regime that Wilson insisted on as a condition of negotiating peace — the Weimar Republic — was to careen from one crisis to another until, finally, in 1933, it succumbed to Adolf Hitler.
In 1919, when Wilson appeared at the Paris Peace Conference, his popularity and prestige eclipsed that of any world leader before him. Now he was ready to create his new world order, his real aim in steering America into war. But, like virtually all American leaders who have dabbled in international politics, he knew practically nothing of the problems of other countries and peoples. What Wilson did possess was a little bundle of abstract principles: democracy, self-determination of nations, and, above all, his cherished dream, the League of Nations. By applying these few principles, he fully intended to solve, once and for all, the colossally complex, age-old problems of Europe, if not of the whole world.
That the Germans had not been invited to participate in framing the treaties already augured ill for any lasting peace. Historically, peace conferences had included, as a matter of course, both the victors and the vanquished — as the Congress of Vienna had included representatives of defeated France after the Napoleonic wars. The purpose of such a conference, it had always been assumed, was to make peace with the defeated nation, with which one would, after all, have to live. But vengeance was the order of the day at Paris in 1919. The treaty would be written by the victors and then imposed on the Germans when the time came.
Very soon it became obvious that the Princeton professor was out of his depth among the seasoned European politicians: Clemenceau of France, Lloyd George of Britain, and the surprisingly greedy Orlando of Italy. During the war the Allies had concluded a series of secret treaties among themselves to divide the spoils once the fighting was over. Wilson had chosen to ignore these agreements, as he pretended to the American people and to himself that the war was being fought for pure and righteous reasons. Now, at Paris, each of the Allies claimed its share of the territorial plunder, mainly in the form of the Arab parts of the Turkish Empire and the German colonies. These — including Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Southwest Africa, Tanganyika, Samoa, etc. — were accordingly parceled out, the victors preserving their pose of virtue by calling them mandates instead of colonies .
To serve the security and economic interests of the victors and their clients, the principle of self-determination was shamelessly flouted. Germans in the Sudetenland, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, the Saar, and Austria were prohibited from joining their fatherland. One quarter of the Hungarians were divided among neighboring countries. Germany itself was reduced to a fifth-rate military power, allowed no tanks, planes, or submarines, and permitted an army of only 100,000 men, in a Europe that remained armed to the teeth. Reparations were not fixed — they were to commence immediately and continue for decades. And in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans were forced to confess that they and their allies were alone responsible for starting the war.
Wilson soon realized that the promise he had held out-of a peace with “no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages” — had been betrayed. Occasionally, he raised a feeble voice of protest. But Clemenceau and the others quickly whipped him into line by simply hinting that they might not go along with his beloved League of Nations. Finally, it was too much for Wilson. He had an emotional and physical breakdown and left the conference.
By the time he returned, Wilson had convinced himself that as long as the League came into being, it did not matter what injustices he agreed to. When presented with the Treaty of Versailles, the German delegates at first refused to sign. They were threatened with a resumption of the war. Since they were now totally disarmed, having put their faith in Wilson’s promises, the Germans had no choice but to acquiesce. They insisted that this was no true peace treaty but a Diktat — a dictated peace. Many of the veteran diplomats present understood and were filled with foreboding: Germany would abide by the treaty until the day it became strong enough to tear it up.
Wilson signed the Treaty of Versailles, including the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the treaties with the other defeated nations, on behalf of the United States. Now he had to submit them to the U.S. Senate, controlled by the Republicans. Led by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, they were even more interventionist than Wilson, well aware that Wall Street strongly favored the League. But they attached a few innocuous amendments to the treaty, to make political hay. Wilson was outraged at such presumption and ordered Senate Democrats to vote against the Republican version, which they did. Republicans voted against Wilson’s unadulterated treaty, so neither version could gain the two-thirds majority needed. Thus, the United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles — a few years later, under President Harding, we simply declared the war with Germany ended — and never joined the League.
Generations of school children have been taught that it was the dreadful “isolationists” who torpedoed Wilson’s project of a league to outlaw war and who thus paved the road to World War II. In fact, it was Wilson himself who started the world on the road to another war by helping to cobble together a vindictive and unworkable peace. As for the League, its real purpose was to lock in the borders of 1919 — to preserve forever the balance of power at the point where Germany and Russia did not count and British and French imperialism were triumphant across the globe. It is not surprising that most patriotic Americans wanted their country to have nothing to do with the League of Nations.
In 1920, the American people showed their hatred for the whole rotten Wilsonian system of economic control, the military draft, the Espionage Act, and war and meddling abroad. A pleasant nonentity named Warren Harding achieved the greatest landslide in any presidential election to that time by simply promising a return to “normalcy.” But this primordial surge of desire — to go back, to recapture the Republic that had been — was ill-fated. Too many institutions had changed, too many venerable taboos had been broken, too many special interests had been awakened to the scent of wealth and power at the taxpayers’ expense.
Robert Higgs, in his indispensable work, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government , writes of the aftermath of the First World War:
Legacies of wartime collectivism abounded: the corporatism of massive governmental collusion with organized special-interest groups; the de facto nationalization of the ocean shipping and railroad industries; the increased federal intrusion in labor markets, capital markets, communications, and agriculture; and enduring changes in constitutional doctrines regarding conscription and governmental suppression of free speech.
“Looming over everything was the ideological legacy,” Higgs concludes — the change in fundamental ideas. Americans might despise him as a self-deceiving fraud, but Woodrow Wilson had changed their country permanently. When the next crises came — the Depression and another European war — Wilson’s methods would be resurrected and vastly amplified by a president who had served as assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration.
Between 1898 and 1919, a certain idea of America was let go and another put in its place. The older idea was of a nation dedicated to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of the people who comprise it. Crucial to this image of America was our traditional foreign policy: its aim and limit was to keep America strong enough to prevent attacks from abroad, or, if they occurred, to fend them off, so that the people could return to their peaceful pursuits. It was a foreign policy custom-made for the American Republic.
The new idea of America, nurtured by McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and brought to fruition by Woodrow Wilson, was of a nation made immensely powerful by its free institutions and dedicated to projecting its might in order to achieve freedom throughout the world. In this conception, we would be perpetually entangled everywhere on earth where we could do good. The American people would not be allowed to return to the peaceful enjoyment of their own rights until the whole world was at last free. This was — and is — the foreign policy of America as Empire, the negation of Republic. At the end of the twentieth century, it is not clear that the American people still have the power to choose between the two.