“The peace to end all peace.” – A British officer describing the Versailles Peace Treaty
This week (June 28) in 1919, in Versailles, France, after six months of acrimonious negotiations, the leaders of the four victorious Allied powers signed the Versailles Peace Treaty, ending World War I. Those leaders were British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
To put it mildly, the four leaders had different views on what the final treaty should contain. Wilson had previously announced his “Fourteen Points” for achieving peace, which energized the world almost as much as it annoyed his three negotiating partners at Versailles. Not only had Wilson neglected to consult them before announcing his 14 points, but many of his proposals contrasted sharply with their own priorities.
In a nutshell, Wilson’s proposals called for a post-war world in which colonial empires disappeared, freedom of the seas was guaranteed, all peoples had the right to self-determination, diplomacy was transparent, and — his highest priority — an international organization was established to resolve peacefully all future disputes among nations. In addition, Wilson proposed that Germany, the chief adversary during the war, be treated generously in any peace settlement.
Which was easy for Wilson to say, given that his country had been untouched by the war and was situated an ocean away from Europe. Alas, Britain, Italy, and especially France, weren’t so lucky, nor were their leaders feeling so generous. Clemenceau in particular, noting that the war’s devastation had actually hit France harder than Germany — and emphatically noting that France shared a long border with Germany — wanted Germany to pay steep war reparations as well as give up significant territory, especially territory that bordered France.
Lloyd George also wanted Germany to pay stiff war reparations, but his chief objection was to Wilson’s talk of freedom of the seas and nations giving up empires. The British Empire, still the pride of every Englishman in 1919, depended on mastery of the seas.
As for Italy’s Orlando, he demanded territorial reparations so much greater than Italy’s actual contribution to the war that he was ignored by the other three, and angrily left the conference.
At which point Lloyd George and Clemenceau essentially ganged up on Wilson, forcing him to back off most of his 14 points, although he refused to budge on his highest priority, an international league of nations. The end result was a treaty so harsh on Germany that it virtually guaranteed a resentful German nation would start a second world war, which — a scant 20 years later — it did.
But Wilson did get his League of Nations, although, perhaps fittingly, his country refused to join it.