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Herbert Hoover Describes The Ordeal Of Woodrow Wilson
The great tragedy of the twenty-eighth President as witnessed by his loyal lieutenant, the thirty-first
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
He now decided to go to Europe—his friends advised both for and against—to personally head the American Delegation at the Peace Conference. The President’s decision was his own, and it became one of the pivotal acts of the titanic world drama.
From my own experience, I was convinced that Mr. Wilson’s New World idealism would clash seriously with the Old World concepts of the Allied statesmen, and I feared that the President’s dominant voice in creating world opinion would be stilled if he became involved in the inevitable restraints of personal negotiation. …
When the President arrived he was received everywhere with almost religious fervor by immense ovations were greater than had ever come before to a mortal man.
His eloquent development of his basis of peace, with its “independence of peoples,” “self-determination,” “no annexations,” “justice,” “right,” a “new order,” “freedom of mankind” and a “lasting peace,” had stirred hope among the masses everywhere in the world. To them, no such man of moral and political power and no such an evangel of peace had appeared since Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount. Everywhere men believed that a new era had come to all mankind. It was the star of Bethlehem rising again.
For the moment, Woodrow Wilson had reached the zenith of intellectual and spiritual leadership of the whole world, never hitherto known in history.
To understand the immense tragedy which befell Woodrow Wilson and the whole world, it is necessary to understand the forces which dominated the new stage upon which he now appeared.
The guns of the first total war of history had been silenced. But the tumult had not quieted among the 95 per cent of the human race who had taken part in the war. This had been no war fought as of old by soldiers on battlefields, with little civilian involvement. In those days civilians were rarely assaulted. Now for the first time civilians had been attacked from the air and on the seas. Even women and children had to be organized to supply services or to work the farms and factories. Millions of homes mourned their injured and dead.
By the time the President arrived in Paris, revolutions creating seventeen constitutional republics had swept over Europe. Ten new nations had declared their independence and had set up constitutional governments, or soon were to do so. The peoples of the old enemy states had discarded their dictators or rulers. All of Europe, outside of Russia, was now to be under constitutional government and enjoy personal freedoms.
When the President arrived, the delegations of twenty-seven nations of the Allied and Associated Powers had been approved to sit at the peace table. The delegations of seven nations who had declared themselves self-governing peoples, not yet “recognized,” and seven little nations neutral in the war came there to peer into the windows, anxious for their future. The representatives of the five enemy countries were later allowed to sit on a hard bench outside in the halls while their fate was discussed. And the Communists, from their stronghold in Moscow, were lurking in the shadows, creating trouble for all mankind.
From the start the President was met with settings unfamiliar to him and obstacles he had never imagined. Fundamentally he was confronted with the irreconcilable conflicts between Old and New World concepts of government and of social and economic life. The two worlds were indeed in many ways strangers to each other.
The American people had been implacably antiimperial, anti-colonial, and generally anti-the-subjugation of one people by another from the day of our Declaration of Independence.
We had no population pressure or other incentive to colonialism. The driving force of Allied statesmen, on the other hand, was not “self-determination”: it was “empire.” Its roots in Britain, France, Italy and Japan were centuries-deep. Both national glory and the standards of living of the people in the “mother country” in each empire had been built upon, and their economy had been geared to, returns from imperial possessions.
With our Declaration of Independence came the American concept that nations have the right to determine their own independence and form of government. We had expressed public sympathy with the efforts of many nations toward these ends, beginning with the Greek declaration of freedom from the Turks a hundred years earlier. Conflict was inevitable between our ideas of free men and the very base of any peace settlement in Europe.
With his naming banner of the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses,” his eloquence about selfdetermination, his denunciations of annexations and “bandying peoples about,” Mr. Wilson was a menacing intruder in the concepts of British, French and Italian statesmen and a threat to their secret treaties dividing all Europe.