Wilson’s costly misjudgment in post-First World War vision

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Wilson’s costly misjudgment in post-First World War vision

Now that we have finished marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice, it is time to consider the peace negotiations that followed the Great War. The Treaty of Versailles was the eventual outcome of the Paris Peace Conference that involved delegates from peoples and countries around the world. The treaty was so instrumental that it was the basis for much of the geopolitical landscape we experience today.

Despite the fact that the US never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, its president, Woodrow Wilson, was the most influential force behind the document. Wilson played such a critical role in composing the peace that followed the First World War because the US troops that he sent to Europe were the vital element that turned the tide against Germany. As a result, he was able to twist the arms of Britain and France to accept his vision of the post-war world.

What did that vision look like? Wilson saw the war in moral terms. He believed Americans were fighting to end all war and that meant bringing an end to autocracy, empire, and secret treaties. He advocated in favor of open diplomacy in the form of a League of Nations and for the democratization of European political institutions. Wilson wanted to redraw the map of Europe according to the principles of national self-determination. His focus was on fixing the international system that he saw as broken.

Wilson succeeded in forcing other nations to accept his vision. Yet he failed spectacularly in his duties as president of the US. He failed to understand that he, like any world leader, would have to prioritize his country’s needs and ideals. 

Wilson’s advisers cautioned him against attending the Paris Peace Conference, but he refused to listen. He left them in the US and traveled to Europe to preside over the post-war adjustment. In fact, Wilson was the first sitting US president to visit Europe. He arrived in Paris in December 1918 to great adulation and proceeded to tour various cities before the conference even began. Europeans saw him as a hero coming from the “New World” to rescue them from evil. 

Wilson succeeded in forcing other nations to accept his vision. Yet he failed spectacularly in his duties as president of the US.

Ellen R. Wald

Americans had a very different perspective, but Wilson was probably unaware as he was isolated from American public opinion. He did not even consider the opinions of most other world leaders. Even though delegations descended on Paris from around the world, Wilson and the leaders of Britain, France and Italy conducted the negotiations in secret.

While in Paris, Wilson ignored what was happening back in the US. He was busy redrawing the map of Europe, crafting the League of Nations and establishing the mandate system that would impact millions across the Middle East and Africa. Just before his trip to Europe, the US midterm elections had returned a Republican majority to the Senate, in opposition to Wilson. Nevertheless, Wilson failed to consult with any senators before setting sail for Europe, even though Senate approval would be necessary for any American decisions in Paris. 

Wilson needed a two-thirds majority in the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, but his globalist focus and time away from the US had burned bridges with the Republicans and turned American sentiment against him. By the time Wilson returned in 1919 with a treaty for the US to participate in his League of Nations, it was too late.

The Senate refused to ratify the treaty, arguing that the League of Nations threatened American sovereignty, particularly in the Western Hemisphere and Latin America. In Paris, Wilson had not realized that his goals were not in line with American priorities and ideals. In the autumn of 1919, Wilson traveled the US, hoping to appeal to the American people to pressure their senators to support the Treaty of Versailles.

It was too little, too late and Wilson failed. He collapsed in Colorado and suffered a stroke that incapacitated him. The Senate then rejected the Treaty of Versailles, and the US did not join the League of Nations or participate in the oversight of post-war Germany. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year because the world appreciated him. However, in his desire to craft a new international order, Wilson forgot to consider the unique needs and perspective of his own people. Today, Wilson has a mostly negative reputation in the US (his policies favoring racial segregation have not helped).

Wilson misjudged the sentiment of his countrymen and forgot that he was elected, first and foremost, to work for them. Over the last 100 years, it has been incumbent on presidents to remember his lesson: People want their leaders to champion their needs and their dreams. Especially in a democracy, in which politicians are chosen by the people, the citizenry expects to be the priority. Today, some critics call President Donald Trump a populist because he advocates ideas that appeal to the proverbial common man, but he would say he is simply putting America first.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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