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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
A third of a century since his defeat and death, most of the passion that surrounded Woodrow Wilson in life is spent. Nearly all his friends and contemporaries have left the scene, and a world resounding to fresh agonies catches only echoes of the crusade that failed and of the opportunity cast aside at the close of the “war to end wars.” But the figure of the crusader himself, the unlikely St. George in silk hat and pincenez, the Presbyterian moralist wrestling with a backsliding world, remains ever interesting, a hero suited to Shakespearean tragedy, the center of an ever-mounting literature.
Of all the new books about him, none can match in basic importance the one excerpted here, The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson , by Herbert Hoover. Save for Wilson himself, who wrote a biography of Washington, no other President of the United States has written a book about another. Unlike Mr. Churchill in England, very few American Presidents have ventured far into history or any other form of literature save for the publication of their papers, speeches, and autobiographies. But Mr. Hoover has had more than the advantage of sharing the burdens of the same great office with his subject; both as Food Administrator and as unofficial adviser, he worked for him. On many occasions, Mr. Hoover sat at Wilson’s side, in private and at the conference table, during the war and the peacemaking, the period with which his book is concerned. Most importantly, he shared Wilson’s ideals and aspirations and saw them, after endless, man-killing struggles, dashed in large part to earth. Mr. Hoover writes not only with the grace born of simplicity, wide experience, and clear organization, but also with humor and sympathy. His is a remarkable work which illuminates with a fresh light the tragic figure whose presence must still haunt every statesmen’s conference table and every meeting at the “summit” until some kind of lasting peace descends upon this battered planet.
President Wilson, in the memories of thinking men, is the only enduring leader of those statesmen who conducted the First World War and its aftermath of peacemaking. I served under him in those times. I was a witness to the ordeal and tragedy of Woodrow Wilson. I had some background and a point of vantage from which to evaluate his endeavor to serve mankind.
It may be recalled that for eighteen years before the First World War I had been an administrative engineer, managing large industries in Russia, China, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Mexico and the United States. These projects required for their successful conduct some knowledge of their governments, their economics and their history. My relations with their peoples were not as a tourist or a diplomat. I participated in their daily life and work.
With the coming of the First World War, I directed the relief of 10,000,000 people in Belgium and Northern France who were victims of occupation by the German Army and were blockaded by the Allies. To accomplish this purpose I had to obtain agreements with the Germans for protection of our supplies, and with the British and French for permission to pass through their blockade. The administration of this huge enterprise required frequent contact with the British, French and German Prime Ministers and their military authorities. And in that period I had need for support from President Wilson and members of his Cabinet.
Shortly after we entered the war in April 1917,1 was appointed United States Food Administrator, acting directly under President Wilson. I served on the President’s American War Council throughout our participation in the war.
During the peacemaking, and some time after, I administered the Relief and Reconstruction of Europe directly under the President, but on behalf of all the victorious governments. That work required an organization in more than thirty countries with constant dealings with the prime ministers and high officials of each of the governments in Europe. Our organization included about 4.000 able Americans and many more thousands of local assistants.
Because this organization was the best equipped to furnish information useful to the peacemakers in Paris and had the only telegraph system connecting those countries, during the Armistice I was called to many sessions of the Council of Ten and the later created Supreme Council, colloquially called the “Big Four.” I served on many political missions on their behalf apart from my regular job. And during the Peace Conference I served on President Wilson’s Committee of Economic Advisers.
Why do I recite all this? Because I hope the reader will believe that I am informed and hope he will credit me with objectivity in analysis of President Wilson’s high endeavors, his evangelistic idealism, his successes, his difficulties, the purpose of his compromises and the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles.
With thirty-nine years of contacts with world affairs since that treaty, and the aid of the mass of subsequent information and disclosures, I can possibly contribute to an understanding of the gigantic tragedy which enveloped Woodrow Wilson and the whole world.
As I have gone over thousands of musty papers in my files, memories have sprung vividly to life and often have attested the amount of error and misrepresentation in what has been written about Woodrow Wilson.
My association with him was such that I necessarily formed convictions as to his philosophy of life, his character and his abilities which have deepened during these four decades. My appraisal of him is based solely on my own experiences with him and my knowledge of the forces with which he had to deal.
I have no need to speak of his great scholarly attainments. They were built into a superior mind. He possessed great clarity of thought, with an ability quickly to reduce problems to their bare bones. His public addresses were often clothed with great eloquence. As a Jeffersonian Democrat, he was a “liberal” of the nineteenth-century cast. His training in history and economics rejected every scintilla of socialism, which today connotes a liberal.
He yielded with great reluctance to the partial and temporary abandonment of our principles of life during the war, because of the multitude of tasks with which the citizen or the states could not cope. But he often expressed to me the hope that our methods of doing so were such that they could be quickly reversed and free enterprise restored.
Coming from an academic ivory tower with only a brief political career, he at times stumbled badly in the thicket of politics. Some of the appointments to which he was persuaded by politicians were bad. However, of the men whom he selected for the conduct of major war activities few were political appointees and all were men of high ability and integrity.
In evaluating Mr. Wilson’s make-up there are a few phenomena to bear in mind. He frequently has been described as “obstinate.” In my view this was not true. His mind ran to “moral principles,” “justice” and “right.” In them he held deep convictions. In some phases of character he partook of the original Presbyterians—what they concluded was right, was thereafter right as against all comers. He often referred with pride to his ancestral inheritance from the Scotch Covenanters of 1638.
The trouble into which he fell with these principles and ideals lay in their conflict with the age-old concepts and aims of nations in Europe. In these conflicts he was at times compelled to choose the lesser of evils. But he was slow to budge. He was not a snob but he had little patience with small minds.
His further difficulty was that at times he became impatient with honest and proper argument against his conclusions, and too often for his own good he construed such argument as personal criticism. He sometimes carried resentment at what he considered personal criticism to the extent of casting loyal and devoted friends into outer darkness. At one time I myself ran into a minor mental barbed-wire entanglement but without serious results. In my work, even when Mr. Wilson did not entirely agree with me, he listened with patience and we were always able to find a path upon which to travel successfully together.
But above all, three qualities of greatness stood out in Woodrow Wilson. He was a man of staunch morals. He was more than just an idealist: he was the personification of the heritage of idealism of the American people. He brought spiritual concepts to the peace table. He was a born crusader.
America is the only nation since the Crusades to fight other peoples’ battles at her own gigantic loss. We may be proud of that crusade even if it did fail to bring peace to mankind. Woodrow Wilson, however, did spread lasting ideals over the world.
The story of this period is the story of the leader of this crusade. It unfolds a tragedy to the world against which he fought—and it becomes the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson.
While the war was still being fought, Mr. Wilson began the enumeration of the principles which should form the basis of the peace which must follow after the inevitable victory over Germany and her allies. These were defined in four major addresses from January to December 1918. The President subsequently, for negotiation purposes, unified them as the “Fourteen Points and subsequent addresses.” They were Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation to all mankind of the New World ideals of peace. …
When at last the enemy states sought an armistice, they directed their request to President Wilson rather than to any Allied leader, and proposed that the basis of negotiations be the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses.”
The President at once took personal control of the negotiation. His purpose in doing so was threefold:
First, to assure before peace negotiations the withdrawal of enemy troops from occupied territory and the reduction of the strength of the enemy armies to impotence.
Second, to establish securely the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” as a basis for peace for Germany and the other enemy states.
Third, and of equal or greater importance, to secure agreement from the Allies that they, too, would adhere to the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” as the basis of peace.
[This was the beginning of what Mr. Hoover calls “the greatest drama of intellectual leadership in all history.”]
Woodrow Wilson had accomplished one of the most monumental feats of international action of any statesman of history. Singlehanded he had maneuvered the Germans from their island of safety, where they might have negotiated with their armies still standing, into almost complete surrender.
And, equally vital, he had won Allied agreement to the basis of peace laid down in his “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” with the exception of only one point—the freedom of the seas.
It was a vast triumph for Woodrow Wilson and a war-weary mankind.
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.
One of the first signs of resistance to the President’s “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” resulted from the speech he made at Manchester, England, on December 30, 1918, in which he assailed the balance of power and military alliances as roots of evil in the Old World. No echo resounded from the hearts of the Allied statesmen. On the contrary, Prime Minister Clemenceau thought it necessary to make an immediate reply—the same day. In a speech before the Chamber of Deputies, he said: There is an old system of alliances called the “balance of power.” It seems to be condemned nowadays, but if such a balance had preceded the war, if England, the United States, France, and Italy had agreed, say, that whoever attacked one of them attacked the whole world, the war would not have occurred. This system of alliances, which I do not renounce, will be my guiding thought at the Peace Conference if your confidence sends me there.
He received a three-to-one vote of confidence.
In the blood of many of the delegations at Versailles were the genes of a thousand years of hate and distrust, bred of religious and racial persecution and domination by other races. The impelling passion for vengeance of past wrongs rose with every hour of the day. Nor was it the delegates alone who were thus infused. Back home their people were at fever heat, demanding retribution from their enemies. England had just re-elected Lloyd George on a platform of “Hang the Kaiser” and of wringing from the foe fantastic sums in indemnities. Clemenceau had received a vote of confidence from the French Assembly with a program to render Germany innocuous for all time and to collect every centime of every Frenchman’s losses.
All the warring nations of Europe were economically exhausted, desperate, and most of them were hungry. Those twenty-seven nations were less interested in preserving peace for some distant future than in immediately righting their wrongs and insuring their economic recovery. Their representatives in Paris well knew that they would have to go home to their people, still torn by these emotions, to seek approval of the agreements at the Peace Conference. They had to bring back to their people annexations and reparations. Their continuation in power depended upon that.
Such were the destructive forces which sat at the peace table. As a historian, Mr. Wilson was no doubt familiar with their age-old background, but he did not seem to realize their dynamism. He believed that the horrors of war and the prospects of freedom and peace had instilled a new spirit of righteousness and idealism in the leaders of mankind. And his popular reception seemed to have confirmed it.
The Allies regarded the President’s latent power to press the adoption of his ideas upon them with vast suspicion. A leader more versed in the European school of diplomacy might have dictated the peace. He could have demanded his share of territorial spoils and enemy reparations, and could have traded them for concessions to his views. He could have stopped the huge American loans upon which many of these nations depended for their continued existence. He even could have threatened to cut off the daily bread which America alone could supply.
The Allies in their dealings with us concerning the Relief and Reconstruction organization very clearly revealed their fears and suspicions that the President might use these powers and proposed that all resources of the Allied and Associated nations be pooled in a fashion that would prevent such action. The use of such power would not have been in accord with American ideals. The President’s disavowal of its application, in advance, no doubt weakened him in his negotiations. He was too great a man to bargain in that way. American idealism indeed was unfitted to participate in a game played with power as the counters.
The President was to meet many other obstacles in peacemaking aside from the inherent conflict of New and Old World concepts of national life and the forces of emotion or extreme nationalism.
A maze of secret agreements had been entered into by the Allies, before America entered the war, by which they had already allotted the spoils of victory among their four Allied empires. … The carving up of Europe and the Middle East and Far East seemed fairly complete.
In view of subsequent events it is desirable to examine how much the President knew of these treaties and how much weight he gave to them. On that score it can be said at once that if he knew of them, his agreement with the Allies, by which they accepted the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses,” had canceled all of them, for they were in utter conflict with a dozen of the “points.”
In any event, only part of these treaties could possibly have been known to him.
My conviction is that the President attached no great importance to any of the treaties which had been disclosed prior to his arrival in Europe. When the Allies, on November 4, 1918, accepted the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses” as the basis of peace, these treaties were so much in conflict with this agreement that the President would naturally conclude they no longer had any force.
But in the larger sense, the forces which weakened the President’s influence at Paris were far deeper than the intrigues or the secret agreements between Allied statesmen. Here was the collision of civilizations that had grown centuries apart. Here the idealism of the Western World was in clash with the racial mores and the grim determination of many nations at the peace table to have revenge, reparations and territorial spoils.
At the Peace Conference the ordeal of Woodrow Wilson began and the forces inherent in the Old World took over the control of human fate.
[ In Paris a thousand problems descended upon the President. The administrative detail was exhausting in itself, and to this could be added the steady pressure of daily decisions required to handle the political eruptions taking place all over Europe .]
One of the side problems which drained the President’s vitality during the Armistice was the activities of the Communists, who were busy spreading revolution over Central and Eastern Europe through Russian agents, financed by captured Czarist gold. …
Communist Russia was a specter which wandered into the Peace Conference almost daily. There was no unity among the Big Four on how to deal with it.
On January 16, 1919, the Allies invited the Soviet Government to send representatives to a conference at Prinkipo, an island in the Sea of Marmora off the Turkish coast. The Communists toyed with the idea but demanded advance agreements. Several unofficial Americans visited Moscow and came back with various ideas for the President on how to make peace with the Soviet Government. All the offers by Communists to negotiate contained impossible advance stipulations.
During the Armistice all of the Allied and Associated Powers were involved in supporting attacks by “White” armies against the Soviet Government. In Siberia, the United States and Japan were supporting the White Army of General Kolchak. From the Black Sea, the British and French were supporting the White Armies of Generals Denikin and Wrangel. The Allies, including the United States, had taken Murmansk on the Arctic to prevent large stores of munitions, sent to aid the Kerensky regime, from reaching the Communists. Later the British supported a White Army under General Yudenich in an attack directed at Petrograd from the Northern Baltic.
The British and French exerted great pressure on Mr. Wilson for Americans to join in a general attack on Communist Russia. General Foch drew up plans for such an attack. Winston Churchill, representing the British Cabinet, appeared before the Big Four on February 14, 1919, and demanded a united invasion of Russia. The President’s attitude toward Churchill’s proposal is indicated by a telegram from the George Washington during the first journey home. It is given in the Swem Papers [journal of Charles L. Swem, the President’s private secretary] as follows:
January 19, 1919
AMERICAN MISSION , PARIS:
Am greatly surprised by Churchill’s recent suggestion. I distinctly understood Lloyd George to say that there could be no thought of military action and what I said at the hurried meeting Friday afternoon was meant only to convey the idea that I would not take any hasty separate action myself but would not be in favor of any course which would not mean the earliest practicable withdrawal of military forces. It would be fatal to be led further into the Russian chaos.
Not only was the President opposed to American participation in such a plan, but General Tasker Bliss [ex-Army Chief of Staff, a Peace Commission member], on February 26, circulated a strong note among the American Delegation opposing any such intervention. I agreed with General Bliss.
On March 26, after the President’s return to Paris, he asked for a memorandum on my information and opinion on the Soviet problem. After I had drawn up the memorandum, it occurred to me that something constructive might actually be done about the problem.
I stated that I had the most serious doubt that outside forces could do other than infinite harm, for any great wave of emotion must ferment and spread under repression, and I continued:
We have also to … [consider], what would actually happen if we undertook military intervention. We should probably be involved in years of police duty, and our first act would probably in the nature of things make us a party with the Allies to re-establishing the reactionary classes. It also requires consideration as to whether or not our people at home would stand for our providing power by which such reactionaries held their position. Furthermore, we become a junior in this partnership of four. It is therefore inevitable that we would find ourselves subordinated and even committed to policies against our convictions.
In all these lights, I have the following suggestions:
First: We cannot even remotely recognize this murderous tyranny without stimulating actionist radicalism in every country in Europe and without transgressing … every National ideal of our own.
Second: That some Neutral of international reputation for probity and ability should be allowed to create a second Belgian Relief Commission for Russia. He should ask the Northern Neutrals, who are especially interested both politically and financially in the restoration of better conditions in Russia, to give to him diplomatic, financial and transportation support; … He should be told that we will raise no obstructions and that we would even help his humanitarian task if he gets assurances that the Bolsheviki will cease all militant action across certain defined boundaries and cease their subsidizing of disturbances abroad …
The President welcomed my plan because it would keep the Allied militarists in Paris busy debating for some time, and also because, if it succeeded, it would be of great value in saving human life and bringing stability to Europe.
[ Mr. Hoover approached Fridtjof Nansen, the polar explorer. Nansen’s efforts foundered on Russian conditions and French opposition, but, in the meantime, pressure in Paris for an American attack on the Communists had eased. Now, presently, the situation in Hungary offered typical new problems .]
We were faced with five revolutions in Hungary while trying to feed its people. We did not trouble President Wilson about the first one, which was the Hungarians’ declaration of an independent republic.
The second revolution, however, presented problems to the President and the Big Four. Béla Kun, a Hungarian, while a prisoner of war in Russia, had joined the Communists and had been especially indoctrinated for service in Hungary. He was sent to Budapest with a supply of gold to organize a revolution. His conspiracy succeeded and on March 22, 1919, he made himself dictator. He inaugurated a Red Terror, confiscated all property, and sadistically executed more than 2,000 persons without semblance of trial.
Because of these events the Big Four imposed a tight blockade on Hungary. Prior to the revolution my organization had set up our usual system for the rehabilitation of famine-debilitated children, the food supplies in this case being paid for by the Hungarian National Bank from its gold reserves. At the moment of Béla Kun’s seizure of power, we had a trainload of food en route for this purpose. The French officials in charge of the blockade refused to allow the train to pass, although we had arranged that the distribution to children would be continued under our organization.
Here again I had to appeal to the President for help. He arranged that Clemenceau give the proper orders—and we continued the feeding of the children.
On April 15 I transmitted to the President the following telegram from Captain T. T. C. Gregory, chief of our mission in Vienna: Trains of food recently held up by the French arrived yesterday Budapest. Created most favorable feeling for Americans as demonstrating their integrity in carrying out their engagements, more particularly among the anti-Bolshevik labor element in Budapest.
The problems of my organization with BeIa Kur. were however much wider than this. He controlled our railway connections to the surrounding states, and unless they were to starve, we had to secure some cooperation from him. Our staff proposed an agreement with him by which we would continue to operate our trains over Hungarian lines and, in turn, we would sell him food. [This was approved by the Big Four.]
I transmitted to the President, at his request, dayby-day accounts of BeIa Kun’s progress which I received from the well-informed Captain Gregory.
On August 1, after 100 days of government, BeIa Kun was overthrown by the trade-union leaders, who brought about a revolt in his army. Kun fled by plane; some of his assistants committed suicide. A government largely of trade-union leaders assumed power and the Republic was re-established. This was Hungary’s third revolution.
At this juncture the Rumanian Army began an invasion of Hungary “to right their wrongs,” and on August 5 occupied Budapest. They promptly began looting the city in good old medieval style, including the food in our canteens and the children’s hospitals.
Coincident with the occupation by the Rumanian Army, on August 5 another revolution took place with the help of the Rumanian Army. The Archduke Joseph, with eleven gendarmes and Rumanian machine guns directed at the government building, seized power and arrested the trade-union Ministry. A cry arose from all the liberated countries in Eastern Europe to Paris, “The Hapsburgs are coming back.”
Premier Clemenceau received a letter from the Archduke on August 8. In it he accused the trade-union Ministry of including some of Kun’s supporters, and stated his program to be “to crush Bolshevism.” He asked for a closer association with the Allied Governments. I was away on an inspection trip to Poland. Upon my return on August 19, I was again requested to attend a meeting of the Big Four.
The minutes of the meeting show that I gave the Council detailed information on the plundering by the Rumanian Army (including the testimony of two American eyewitnesses of their taking sixteen wagonloads of American food from the hospitals—as a result of which eleven children died).
Premier Clemenceau handed me the Archduke’s letter of August 8 and asked me how we should deal with him.
The minutes record the following: As to the Archduke’s usurpation, he [Hoover] would like to call attention to … a sidelight on the situation. The coup d’état by which the Archduke Joseph’s Government had been installed was not entirely a Hungarian affair, Rumanian troops had surrounded the meeting place of the Ministry and had turned their machine guns on the building in which they were sitting. This event had had an immediate repercussion throughout Poland and Eastern Europe and the Bolshevists were making much of it and claiming that the Alliance was trying to re-establish reactionary government in its worst form. This had done more to rehabilitate the Bolshevist cause than anything that had happened for a long time. … If things were allowed to continue as they were, the old … [regime] would be well established in ten days and the Allied and Associated Powers would have to be prepared to see the House of Hapsburg begin to re-establish itself throughout all its former dominions. He [Hoover] could only suggest that the Council should instruct its representatives in Budapest to call the Archduke before them and say that his Government could never be accepted or recognized. Such action might induce the Archduke to step aside and invite the social democrats to form a coalition government.
I was asked to draft such an instruction, which I did with zest, and presented it at the afternoon session. There was some hesitation about adopting it for fear that it was too direct and that the Archduke would defy the Big Four. I suggested that he could be given the impression that the Allies had armies of several million men and that his Rumanian military support was a weak reed. Finally, rather than act through the Allied Commission of four generals which the Big Four had established in Budapest, I was directed to send the telegram over my organization wires to Captain Gregory, who was then in Budapest, for delivery in person, with such verbal instructions as might expedite matters.
On the following day, August 23,1 received over our telegraph system a reply from Captain Gregory, expressed in the effective American slang in conformity with en clair language:
Archie on the carpet at 7 P.M.
Went through the hoop at 7:05 P.M.
We translated the message into proper terms and sent it to the Council then in session. When the messenger handed it to Premier Clemenceau, he also showed him the original telegram. Clemenceau at one time had been a reporter on a New York newspaper and had no difficulty understanding it. He claimed it for his own as a “memento of the war.”
An angry queen brought down the curtain on this episode. After I reached New York in mid-September 1919, a 1,200-word letter reached me from the Queen of Rumania. The letter was written wholly in longhand and the ink itself spluttered her indignation over the report which I had furnished the Big Four about the actions of the Rumanians in Budapest. Today the letter is a collector’s item.
An immense added burden was inflicted upon President Wilson through continuance of the blockade on Central and Eastern Europe, whose 300,000,ooo people were struggling to live and get on their feet.
Article XXI of the Armistice Agreement provided that: The existing blockade conditions set up by the Allied and Associated Powers are to remain unchanged.
The stated reasons for this provision were to maintain political control of the Continent until peace was made.
I had obtained through the President the following slight modification of this article: The Allies and the United States contemplate the provisioning of Germany during the Armistice as shall be found necessary.
The entire American group in Paris, from the President down, considered a rigid blockade utter folly because it created unemployment, prevented economic recovery and fertilized Communism.
The idea of a blockade to force a political objective or to punish by starvation was a horror to most Americans. Until we arrived in Europe, it had never occurred to any of us that the wartime blockade of food, medical supplies and clothing would be continued against the neutrals and the newly liberated countries or in violation of the indirect promise made to Germany.
Soon after my arrival in Europe in November, I sent members of my staff to Germany to investigate the situation. These men found that the food shortage was worse after the Armistice than before; that the new Republic could neither keep the farmers from hoarding food nor hold in check the bootlegging of food to those who could pay; and that their rationing was breaking down. Worse still, my men reported a general reduction in the weight of the population, actual starvation in the lower-income groups in the cities and such debilitation of millions of children that only stunted minds and stunted bodies could result. A mass of statistics was collected to confirm these conditions.
My staff also reported that the Republic was growing weaker from Spartacist” uprisings; that machine guns were firing in the streets of several cities; and that there was real danger of a revolution on one side from the militarists and on the other from the Spartacists (Communists), both working on the emotions of the hungry people.
… Despite the promise made in the Armistice Agreement, and despite every American effort, the food blockade on Germany was continued for four months after the Armistice. I deal with this subject somewhat extensively as it demonstrates not only an additional worry for the President but also the wide divergence between the American and Allied points of view.
This four months’ delay of food to Germany was a most insensate, wicked action. People can take philosophically the hardships of war. When the fighting is over, they begin to bury the past as part of the fight. But when they lay down their arms and surrender in the belief that they may have food for their women and children, and then find that this instrument of attack upon them is maintained—then hate but slowly dies.
It was a crime in statesmanship against civilization as a whole. It sowed dragon’s teeth of war which two decades later again enveloped most of mankind. But no one who reads the documents and records of the time will ever charge that crime against President Wilson and America. Yet we in the United States have had to suffer from this infection of revenge and bitterness which for a generation poisoned international life.
The British gradually came around to the American point of view, but the French continued their obstructionist tactics. Although this obstruction was both exasperating and destructive of the possibilities of ultimate world peace, I often wondered what the attitudes of the American people would be if they had been twice, within the recollection of the living, invaded by a more powerful, ruthless, destroying, plundering enemy. Would we then have been willing to make sacrifices in the hope that our invaders could be brought to co-operate in building peace for mankind? However, in this case, it seemed to us Americans that the course was clear—that we must build on the one hope of supporting the new Republic of Germany. The only alternative was Carthage. …
At the first meeting, on January 12, of the Supreme Allied Council of Supply and Relief I proposed that, subject to the Germans handing over the refugee ships [German merchant ships that had taken refuge in neutral ports at the time of the surrender; it had been proposed that these be used to carry relief supplies], they should receive an installment of 200,000 tons of breadstuffs and 70,000 tons of fat products, with further supplies later. No action resulted and Vance McCormick [a member of the President’s Committee of Economic Advisers] and I, supported by General Bliss, urged upon the President when he returned to Paris that these matters should receive immediate attention. The President arranged for a hearing before the Council of Ten on January 13.
At the meeting I sat in a small chair behind the President’s right shoulder. Vance was behind him to the left. Allied officials likewise sat in chairs behind their Prime Ministers. In order to coach our champions in the debate, we had to poke our heads out from behind. This conducting of a synthetic debate by the bobbing of heads was a little difficult. However, the President made a strong presentation.
Such conferences were held periodically during January and without results, owing to the obstructionist tactics sometimes of the British and always of the French, under one excuse or another.
On the evening of March 7, Prime Minister Lloyd George asked me to see him to discuss the situation. With him was General Plumer, Commander of the British Occupation Army in Germany. General Plumer was in a state of emotion rare for a British soldier. He announced to me in tragic tones that Germany must have food. That was no news to me. What he said later on, however, was helpful. He said that the rank and file of his army were sick and discontented and wanted to go home because they just could not stand the sight of hordes of skinny and bloated children pawing over the offal from British cantonments. His soldiers were actually depriving themselves to feed these kids. Plumer added that the country was going Bolshevist. I supported all his arguments.
After Plumer left, Lloyd George demanded to know why I did not send in food. He said that I had been appointed to that job and that the Council had authorized it on January 13. Not often do I lose my temper. But this was too much. I was also weary from constant obstructionism by day and constant work by night. In my explosion I reviewed the British lack of co-operation since I had arrived in Europe, the ruin which would have come to our farmers by the repudiation of contracts and the reimposition of the blockade on December 31. I stated that we had in consequence been forced to store hundreds o thousands of tons of food in neutral ports, much of it highly perishable. I pointed out that the British Navy, since the Armistice, had viciously prevented the Germans from fishing in the Baltic, which had been one of their food sources all during the war. I recited a list of cities in Germany which had already gone Communist (Spartacist). I handed him a telegram from our staff representative stating that machine guns were chattering in Berlin streets at that very moment. I added a few points about starving women and children after a nation had surrendered in order to get food for them, and added that no honest man could read the promises of the Armistice without a blush. I said that the Germans had not had a ton of food in the four months since that promise. I recalled that during these months I had been warning of the steady advance of the Communists among a hungry people and of the weakening of the new German representative government. I expressed my opinion that the Allies were on the point of having nothing better to make peace out of in Germany than they had in Communist Russia.
Lloyd George was a humane and overworked man. He had been helpful to me on many vital occasions over the previous four years. I immediately regretted this outbreak, apologized for it and was about to leave when, to my surprise, he mildly inquired if I would deliver “parts of that speech” to the Council of Ten. I said that I would be delighted to do so, but that it would carry much more weight if it came from him. He asked if I would give him some notes on what had happened and what I proposed, which I did on the spot. When I returned to my room and put on paper what I had said, I promptly came to the conclusion that most of my explosion must be eliminated and so I prepared some notes in softer terms. …
The American attack on the blockade as a whole did not let up for a moment until the Peace Treaty was signed. Minor relaxations were obtained, but any comprehensive major action was either opposed or delayed by the French. The net effect was not only the stifling of production, but the steady economic degeneration of Europe.
All through these efforts we were compelled to seek President Wilson’s advice and authority constantly, thereby adding further to the heavy load he bore. His concern over the blockade was profound, his prediction of its ugly results accurate. He never spared himself in his efforts to lift it.
In the sixty days of the President’s first visit to Europe, he had received stupendous acclaim from the European people. He had established the major principles of the League and had secured agreement for its inclusion in the Treaty with Germany by the unanimous vote of the Conference. He had formed the organization of Relief and Reconstruction, under American direction and on a nonpolitical basis, against the solid opposition of the Allies. He had defined American opposition to the tight blockade on Europe, with its economic degeneration, and had paved the way for some relaxation of it as to food. With the esteem of all Europe and warm good wishes for his return, it seemed at the time of his departure for New York that he had only to come back for a few weeks to this friendly atmosphere and complete a few remaining items to reach his final triumph.
One suggestion of the dissension to come marred the picture. Mrs. Wilson states that, before he left for the United States on February 14, Mr. Wilson had considered asking for Secretary of State Lansing’s resignation because of his lack of enthusiasm for the Leaeue. He did not do so but appointed Colonel House as the effective head of the American Delegation.
But while the President was in Washington, his troubles began. There were the Senate demands for amendments to the Covenant.
Even more disturbing, during his absence from Paris, the Allied Prime Ministers began to develop new attitudes about which the American Delegation in Paris kept him informed. By cable he was told of the French demands for the creation of an independent Republic of the Rhineland, their demands for Syria, the British demand for most of the other Arab States, and the Italian demands for all the possessions promised in the secret Pact of London. …
While returning to Europe on the George Washington the President anticipated what he would meet on arrival and formulated some ideas of what he would do about it. The Swem Papers contain his replies to questions from his associates aboard the ship. Swem was addicted to writing shorthand notes and quotes the President as saying: “I have just had a cable from Colonel House. Lloyd George and Clemenceau held a meeting the other day in London at which House was not able to be present … but I gather that these men have agreed on a definite programme. Apparently they are determined to get everything out of Germany they can, now that she is helpless. They are evidently planning to take what they can get frankly as a matter of spoils, regardless of either the ethics or the practical aspect of the proceeding. They have not attempted to determine among themselves what they think they are entitled to or what Germany may be able to pay, but they favor the naming of a commission to fix exactly what Germany has got today and the appointment of another commission to apportion this among the Allied Governments. Now, we are absolutely opposed to any such plan. A statement that I once made that this should be a ‘peace without victory’ I believe holds as strongly today in principle as it ever did. Because it is impossible in this day to make a peace based upon indemnities; it must be a peace of justice to the defeated nations or it will be fatal to all the nations in the end.
“If they insist upon this sort of programme, I shall be compelled to withdraw my commissioners and return home and in due course take up the details of a separate peace. But, of course, I don’t believe that that will come to pass. I think that once we get together, they will learn that the American delegates have not come to bargain, but will stand firmly by the principles that we have set forth; and once they learn that that is our purpose I believe we shall come to an early agreement.”
How did he expect M. Clemenceau to “line up” with him on the general issues of the peace, he was asked.
“I really do not know,” he replied. “I am told that Clemenceau once said that ‘General Pershing is the stubbornest man I know, and I am saying that knowing Mr. Wilson, the President of the United States.’ But I think we shall get along very well. …”
Colonel House met the President on the arrival of the George Washington at the port on March 13. Mrs. Wilson’s book may well be quoted: … My husband and Colonel House talked on while I waited in my adjoining stateroom. It was after midnight … when I heard my husband’s door open and the Colonel take his leave. I opened the door connecting our rooms. Woodrow was standing. The change in his appearance shocked me. He seemed to have aged ten years, and his jaw was set in that way it had when he was making superhuman effort to control himself. …
Mrs. Wilson asked: “What is the matter? What has happened?”
“House has given away everything I had won before we left Paris. He has compromised on every side, and so I have to start all over again and this time it will be harder. … His own explanation of his compromises is that, with a hostile press in the United States expressing disapproval of the League of Nations as a part of the Treaty, he thought it best to yield some other points lest the Conference withdraw its approval altogether. So he has yielded until there is nothing left.”
… he threw back his head. The light of battle was in his eyes. “Well,” he said, “thank God I can still fight, and I’ll win them back or never look these boys I sent over here in the face again. They lost battles—but won the War, bless them. …”
Back in Paris, the President at once put into action his idea, expressed on the George Washington , of direct and secret negotiations between himself and the Prime Ministers with no one present but interpreters. This now became the Supreme Council, or the Big Four. The sessions lasted for many hours each day and Colonel House was not included at this time. The records of these conversations are very imperfect, and different versions do not agree. In any event, Woodrow Wilson went into battle for his ideas.
Unfortunately by the secrecy of these discussions the President had disarmed himself of his greatest weapon—appeal to the great world public that regarded him as the rightful leader of the crusade for the emancipation of mankind. The President up to this time certainly had not fully realized the dynamism of European emotions which controlled their statesmen, nor the age-old forces which dominated them.
On March 25 Lloyd George issued a long memorandum demanding a treaty of moderation with Germany. The “moderation” lay mostly in an insistence that there should be no dismemberment of Germany and in modest reparations. He advocated a “guiding principle” that in all states so far as humanly possible the different races should be unified, thus excluding many annexations by the new Eastern European states of the territory of other races. Lloyd George also described the many dangers of the spread of Bolshevism. He advocated early admission of Germany to the League and that the United States should join in a military alliance with Britain and France, guaranteeing France against future German aggression.
On March 31 André Tardieu, Clemenceau’s man Friday, drew up Clemenceau’s answer to these proposals, representing the French point of view. In his book he states that he pointed out that Germany had already surrendered all of her navy, a large part of her merchant ships, all of her colonies, and her foreign markets. He denounced “appeasement” of Germany; favored the strengthening of the small states by inclusion of Germans; advocated the reduction of the size of the German state to military impotency; and pointed out that otherwise the future security of France would be jeopardized.
Nowhere in these documents was there any reference to the “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses.” Nowhere does Tardieu mention the League of Nations. Parts of these “secret” documents appeared in the press and it became obvious that the terms of the treaty with Germany were to be dictated by the “Old Tiger.”
This intrepid old Frenchman personified all the emotions and sufferings of the French people. Twice in his lifetime he had witnessed German hobnailed boots on French soil. Constantly in his mind’s eye were German brutalities, destroyed French homes, the dead and injured, the widows and orphans. In this last aggression the Germans had left behind about 1,400,000 French dead and 740,000 seriously wounded and they had taken 400,000 French prisoners. The Old Tiger had no confidence that Germany had gone through any spiritual transformation either by defeat or by the Reichstag revolution against the Kaiser and the militarist group. Nor did he have any faith in President Wilson or his “Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses.”
On April 3, after about two weeks of this malignant atmosphere, the President’s doctor, Admiral Grayson, announced that Mr. Wilson had a severe attack of influenza and would be out of action for some days, and that Colonel House would take his place in the meetings of the Big Four. The President’s trouble was not the flu but a much more painful matter, being an infection of the prostate and bladder. I am able to make this statement on the authority of Dr. Albert R. Lamb, who, although not Mr. Wilson’s doctor, was physician to the American Mission and in constant contact with Admiral Grayson.∗
∗ This was given to me in a personal communication on July 4, 1957.
Some historians have contended that this illness impaired his clarity of mind and his vitality. Some even consider his stroke five months later as being connected with it.
I do not accept these views. This record will show that his subordinates transacted many important measures after this time. But though he was a very tired man, his mind and judgment were clear. He was sometimes impatient, which I could readily understand. In my world of smaller responsibilities, I sometimes reached the point when I could almost bite the devoted men of my own staff.
Mrs. Wilson herself, in her Memoir , gives the best account of the stirring events that came in the wake of her husband’s illness: Under this terrific strain of work and anxiety a more robust man might have broken. But had not a severe attack of grippe laid him low the fight would have gone on without respite. When the dread disease struck there was little reserve to fight with. He was too ill to rise from his bed. …
More days of tense anxiety. Getting better, the President insisted on knowing what had gone forward while he had been incapacitated. Alas, his absence had been taken advantage of again. The news that came to him was so grave we trembled for the effect on him. But the spirit was stronger than the flesh, and instead of causing a relapse it stiffened his will. Silently I sat beside his bed, knowing that he was formulating his course. At length he said: “I can never sign a Treaty made on these lines, and if all the rest of the delegates have determined on this, I will not be a party to it. If I have lost my fight, which I would not have done had I been on my feet, I will retire in good order; so we will go home. Call Grayson for me, please.”
When Admiral Grayson came in the President said: “Grayson, I wish you would send word to Captain McCauley that I want the George Washington put in shape at once for my return home as soon as you think it is safe for me to make the trip.”
… However, the President’s aides in Paris all felt that before taking any such abrupt step as withdrawing the American Delegation there must be vigorous clarification by the President of the failure of the Allies to make the Treaty along the lines to which they had agreed on November 4, 1918. The White House Secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, in Washington, had the same reaction, and on April 9 cabled the President through Admiral Grayson: The ordering of the George Washington to return to France looked upon here as an act of impatience and petulance on the President’s part and not accepted here in good grace by either friends or foes. It is considered as an evidence that the President intends to leave the Conference if his views are not accepted. I think this method of withdrawal most unwise and fraught with the most dangerous possibilities here and abroad, because it puts upon the President the responsibility of withdrawing when the President should by his own act place the responsibility for a break of the Conference where it properly belongs. …
I, too, made a suggestion for bringing [the Allies] to their senses. In a note of mine to the President on April 11 in connection with other subjects, I said: It grows upon me daily that the United States is the one great moral reserve in the world today and that we cannot maintain the independence of action through which this reserve is to be sustained if we allow ourselves to be dragged into detailed European entanglements over a period of years.
In my view, if the Allies cannot be brought to adopt peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points, we should retire from Europe lock, stock and barrel, and we should lend to the whole world our economic and moral strength, or the world will swim in a sea of misery and disaster worse than the Dark Ages. If they cannot be brought to accept peace on this basis, our national honor is at stake and we should have to make peace independently and retire.
… However, the President decided to try it again with the Big Four. As to this, Ray Stannard Baker writes: But the days from April 9 onward were not happy days for any of the negotiators, least of all for Wilson. …
Today, when I went into his study, he looked old and worn. Things are not going well. He had two conferences of the Big Four today, and the League of Nations Commission last evening until midnight. …
I discuss later what took place during the ensuing weeks, but I may recount here a development which began the day after the President resumed his Big Four conferences, for it provides light on the attitudes of his Allied colleagues and on subsequent events.
In the sessions of the Big Four, on April 10 the Italians contended that the territories allotted to them for annexation in the secret Pact of London were not sufficient recognition of their needs. They set up a demand for Fiume and a larger part of Dalmatia.
The President had never agreed to the secret Treaty of London and this expansion was a blatant violation of his principles. His efforts to persuade Prime Minister Orlando had no effect and, at a session of the Big Four on April 19, Lloyd George and Clemenceau agreed with the President and promised that if he brought the matter into the open by denouncing the Italian claims they would publicly support him. He did so on April 23 with an elaborate and eloquent statement denying the Italian demands.
Mrs. Wilson, in her Memoir , gives the best account of this incident under date of April 19, 1919: Italy’s great grievance was Fiume. Mr. Wilson had steadfastly refused to give this port to Italy, on the ground that, by right of nationality, it belonged to the new Jugo-Slav State. France and England concurred, but let Wilson do most of the fighting. On a Saturday Orlando, Clemenceau, Balfour and my husband met at our house for a final discussion. Orlando remained obdurate in his opposition to the other three. …
The Italian Delegation withdrew from the Conference on April 25 and on its return to Italy there were many fiery speeches denouncing the President. The Italian people tore down their tributes to Mr. Wilson and burned him in effigy. However, Prime Minister Orlando did not engage in criticism of the President.
Tumulty had sent a message of approval to the President. In Mr. Wilson’s reply is this sentence: “The difficulties here would have been incredible to me before I got here.” But the President was to meet with an ordeal even more serious.
Within two weeks after recovery from his illness, President Wilson found himself in deep troubles besides those with the Italians. By their withdrawal from the Conference it was presumed they would neither sign the Treaty nor join the League.
The Japanese were quick to see the President’s difficulties and demanded immediate agreement to their assumption of the German rights in Shantung Province in China, which had been arranged in their secret treaty with the British and French. They implied that they, too, would withdraw from the Conference if their claims were not met.
The Germans had been invited by the Big Four to be in Paris on April 28—presumably to receive the peace terms. The whole world was expecting the signing of the peace.
In the latter part of April, the President, being faced with pressures from every quarter, began to compromise all along the line for the best terms he could obtain in order to rescue the League.
Having made up his mind, he acted quickly. The compromises to which he yielded rather than lose the League sowed the whole earth with dragon’s teeth. But he held the faith that the League could redeem the world from these evils.
From the European point of view the focal point of the Conference was not the Covenant of the League but the Treaty with Germany. Through the Treaty the entire structure of Europe was to be rebuilt.
The Treaty was formulated by various subcommittees made up from the different delegations, subject to higher authority—originally the Council of Ten, and later the Big Four. Each subcommittee cut a piece of the mosaic, but it was not assembled and printed as a whole until the day before the Germans were to receive it. The final document comprised about 75,000 words, 4,000 of which were devoted to the League Covenant.
The German Delegation of more than 100 members headed by Foreign Minister Count BrockdorffRantzau had been waiting in Versailles since April 29, but the Treaty was not ready until May 7. After it had been given to them, they were to be allowed a period in which to propose amendments. After Allied acceptance of any of the proposed changes, they were to be shown the dotted line.
At four o’clock on the morning of May 7 I was awakened by a troubled servant, who explained that there was a messenger waiting with an important document which he would put into no hands other than mine. It was the printed draft of the Treaty, which was to be handed to the Germans that day. At once I scanned its important parts. Although I had known the gist of many of the segments, I had not before had opportunity to envision it as a whole. Aside from the League Covenant, many provisions had been settled without considering their effect on others.
I certainly had no admiration for the conduct of the German militarists. But if the world was to have peace, it had, in my mind, to choose one of two alternatives: to reduce Germany to such poverty and political degradation that initiative and genius would be extinguished; or to give her terms that would permit the new representative government under President Ebert to live with the hope that free government might develop the nation as a peaceful member of the family of mankind. If this were not done, there would come either a return of the sullen militarists or the already infectious Communists—both with agression in their souls.
I was convinced that the terms set up in this draft of the Treaty would degrade all Europe and that peace for the long run could not be built on these foundations. I believed the Treaty contained the seeds of another war. It seemed to me that the economic provisions alone would pull down the whole Continent and, in the end, injure the United States.
I arose at early daylight and went for a walk in the deserted streets. Within a few blocks I met General Smuts and John Maynard Keynes of the British Delegation. We seemed to have come together by some sort of telepathy. It flashed into all our minds why each was walking about at that time of morning. Each was greatly disturbed. We agreed that the consequences of many parts of the proposed Treaty would ultimately bring destruction. We also agreed that we would do what we could among our own nationals to point out the dangers.
General Smuts had full knowledge of Old World diplomacy, an independent mind and often real statesmanship. Keynes was the economist for the British Delegation. Lloyd George apparently did not like him and referred to him as the “Puck of Economics.” He had a brilliant mind, powerful in analysis, and the gift of expression. Like most intellectuals, he was usually groping for new shapes and forms for the world, rather than for wisdom in what to do next. That sort of mind has a high place in the world, although it sometimes gets on the nerves of the fellow who must keep the machinery of civilization operating in the meantime. However, Keynes and I agreed fully on the economic consequences of the Treaty.∗
∗ I at least won his commendation, for in a book published later he remarks:
“Mr. Hoover was the only man who emerged from the ordeal of Paris with an enhanced reputation. This complex personality, with his habitual air of weary Titan (or, as others might put it, of exhausted prize fighter), his eyes steadily fixed on the true and essential facts of the European situation, imported into the Councils of Paris, when he took part in them, precisely that atmosphere of reality, knowledge, magnanimity and disinterestedness which, if they had been found in the other quarters, also would have given us the Good Peace.”
Later that morning, I called together the thinking members of my own organization who were in Paris. These men knew every economic and political back alley of Europe better than any one group of the peacemakers. They could appraise the hard problems of the political and economic consequences of the proposed Peace Treaty with objective minds.
We sat for hours poring over the document. A summary of our views is worthy of record. The first question was: “How can the feeble German Republic endure if the Allies reimpose the food blockade to force its signature?” At this time our organization was struggling desperately against the world’s shortage of food to prevent acute starvation in Germany. The delay in getting food to the Germans, by continuing the blockade for four months despite the promise made at the time of the Armistice, had drained almost the last remnants of breadstuffs and fats from their farms. The supplies which we could command with the shipping available were already below the need, and there was much suffering among the German workers. The situation was so bad that, in order to save the children of Germany, we had to channel a considerable part of the food supplies to this pitifully undernourished multitude, which added to the privation of their elders.
We were in a daily race against the spread of Communism (the Spartacists), which was steadily weakening the new German Republic under Ebert and Scheidemann, who, while they had no hesitation in using machine guns, were in fact using the food we supplied as their major weapon in maintaining order. The Communists had periodically seized various cities and provinces after the Armistice and had been suppressed in a sea of blood. Only a month before, the Spartacist Government of the Ruhr had been overthrown by bloody action. Twice Bavaria had gone Spartacist, and the last time had been only seven days before. Despite all this, the Big Four had overridden the President and decided to reimpose the blockade until the Germans signed on the dotted line. My staff and I asked ourselves how many days of starvation the German Government could endure before it went over to Communism or to military dictatorship.
Even if the German Republic did not succumb to Communism or militarism, we feared that the separation of segments of the German people on her east and west borders would make Germany a poisonous breeding ground for unification movements. The Treaty would reduce the population from about 90,000,000 to about 60,000,000 under the Reich. We recalled that, in the past, European statesmen had periodically dismembered Germany and had lived to see it unified in the explosion of war.
We canvassed the consequences of the transfer of segments of other races to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Rumania. Some of these nations were already virtually at war over their boundaries.
Along with these doubts, we were completely agreed that the provisions for monetary and commodity reparations required from Germany would bring quick disaster. We were certain that the claims for damages without some fixed sum within her capacity to pay would stifle her ability and incentive to maintain production. We believed the initial reparations payment of five billion dollars in cash, coal, machinery, tools and ships would strip Germany of working capital. This alone would prevent her from regaining industrial productivity from which reparations could be paid. Our calculations, for instance, showed that Germany’s possible coal supply would be cut nearly in half by her loss of Alsace-Lorraine, the Saar and parts of Silesia. The Germans would have no fuel for household use if they were to keep their industries going.
We examined the question of mandates and the elements of positive empire building among the mandatories. We believed the repression of freedom movements in the Arab States would yield only trouble. The great injury to China, by assigning the German titles in the Shantung Province to Japan, would keep Asia in a turmoil.
We were all staunchly for the Covenant of the League but had fears of the outcome of Article X and the coercion provisions.
My colleagues and I were of the opinion that the Germans, when they had their say, would no doubt point out with truth that the Treaty was far removed from the President’s “basis of peace,” upon which they had surrendered. They would probably indicate every loophole in the Treaty with vigor and would no doubt ask for more than they deserved. Those of my group who knew the members of the German Ministry were convinced that the Germans could not sign the Treaty as it stood and survive politically at home.
We believed that, if the Germans did sign without substantial relaxation in terms, there could be no real recovery in Germany and the Treaty would sooner or later need to be revised. On the other hand, we believed that, if they signed on the proposed terms, the economic degeneration in the rest of the world would be checked. Its signing should end the killing of men; it would end the blockade and the black lists; it would restore many technical treaties upon which international commerce revolved; it would tend to reduce the vast unemployment over the world; it would bring new hope to the rest of the world.
However, my colleagues and I concluded that the first thing to do was to use our influence, however minor, to improve the Treaty.
[ On several occasions, and in a long memorandum, Mr. Hoover urged the President to demand modifications. He suggested among other things that the British, suffering a change of heart, might support him .]
A few days after the President had received this memorandum, he requested me to call on him to discuss the Treaty situation. I was, perhaps, overemphatic that we join with Lloyd George although I intended no personal criticism of Mr. Wilson. The President appeared to be a very tired man. He interrupted me sharply with the startling information that “Lloyd George will not stand up against Clemenceau despite what he says.” I agreed that if this were the case, and the Germans signed the Treaty, then he must sign or there would be chaos over the whole earth.
Bernard Baruch later informed me that to satisfy the urgings of the Americans, the President (accompanied by Baruch) called upon Lloyd George and stated flatly that the Americans would go to any length to accept German amendments which the British would also accept. But inasmuch as he had in the first place opposed these very inclusions in the Treaty, which Lloyd George now proposed to amend, and as the British Prime Minister had sided with Clemenceau, he (the President) insisted that Lloyd George first obtain Clemenceau’s agreement.
Mr. Wilson has been blamed because he did not get more revisions in the Peace Treaty when the British recantation gave him the opportunity. This is obviously unjust.
The Old Tiger refused to budge.
The President concluded that the men and forces which dominated Europe could not be surmounted at this time, that the world must be saved from chaos by signing the Treaty and that there was hope that its wrongs could be cured in time by the League.
On June 16, the German Delegation was given the Allied reply to their demands with an ultimatum to sign within five days.
Certain concessions were made to the Germans, principally as to plebiscites, in the areas designated for transfer to Denmark, Belgium, and Upper Silesia.
The other modifications were minor, and an assurance was given that with good conduct Germany could become a member of the League. …
The German Delegation at Versailles refused to sign and took the train for Weimar to inform the German Ministry. They arrived in Weimar on June 19. Count Brockdorff-Rantzau recommended that the Treaty not be signed.
Chancellor Scheidemann and six members of the Ministry resigned on June 20, refusing to be a party to the Treaty. A new and weak ministry sent two obscure persons to sign. But history has proved that with the threat of starvation and Foch’s army pointed at them, the Germans signed with the belief that the Treaty would fall of its own weight, especially if they gave it systematic pushes.
On Saturday, June 28, we all went to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles to witness the signing by thirtytwo nations. General Smuts signed the Treaty as a British delegate and at the same time issued a press statement denouncing it and demanding revision.
I took satisfaction in the great spiritual lift the ceremony gave to the French people, as it was in this same Hall nearly fifty years before where they had been ruthlessly humiliated by the Germans. But I had difficulty in keeping my mind on the ceremony. It was constantly traveling over the fearful consequences of many of the paragraphs which these men were signing with such pomp, and then going back to the high hopes with which I had landed in Europe eight months before. I did not come away exultant.
Before we leave the European scene I should record the unfriendly and cynical attitudes of the European leaders toward Mr. Wilson, his ideals and principles. There can be no doubt that, despite his efforts to ignore them, these emotions contributed greatly to his many ordeals and to his final tragedy.
The minutes of the Allied meetings and the statements made by the Allied leaders, published years later, reveal clearly the smoldering enmity toward the President and his “basis of peace.” …
In his book, The Truth about the Peace Treaties , Lloyd George expresses his personal attitude toward Mr. Wilson, and at the same time reveals some of Clemenceau’s attitudes: Clemenceau followed his movements [Wilson’s] like an old watchdog keeping an eye on a strange and unwelcome dog who has visited the farmyard and of whose intentions he is more than doubtful. …
I really think that at first the idealistic President regarded himself as a missionary whose function it was to rescue the poor European heathen from their age-long worship of false and fiery gods. He was apt to address us in that vein, beginning with a few simple and elementary truths about right being more important than might, and justice being more eternal than force. … They [the Allies] were therefore impatient at having little sermonettes delivered to them, full of rudimentary sentences about things which they had fought for years to vindicate when the President was proclaiming that he was too proud to fight for them. …
… He was the most extraordinary compound I have ever encountered of the noble visionary, the implacable and unscrupulous partisan, the exalted idealist and the man of rather petty personal rancours.
Other British leaders who were skeptical or downright opposed to the President included Mr. Balfour, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Curzon, Walter Long and Winston Churchill—all members of the British Cabinet.
Mr. Churchill, in his book, The Aftermath , is most bitter toward Mr. Wilson, saying: The American peace argosy wended on across the waters bearing a man who had not only to encounter the moral obliquity of Europe, but to produce world salvation in a form acceptable to political enemies whom he had deeply and newly offended. Upon him centered the hopes of the world. Before him lay the naughty entanglements of Paris; and behind him, the sullen veto of the Senate.
If Mr. Wilson had been either simply an idealist or a caucus politician, he might have succeeded. His attempt to run the two in double harness was the cause of his undoing. The spacious philanthropy which he exhaled upon Europe stopped quite sharply at the coasts of his own country.
He did not wish to come to speedy terms with the European Allies; he did not wish to meet their leading men around a table; he saw himself for a prolonged period at the summit of the world, chastening the Allies, chastising the Germans and generally giving laws to mankind. He believed himself capable of appealing to peoples and parliaments over the heads of their own governments. … In the Peace Conference—to European eyes—President Wilson sought to play a part out of all proportion to any stake which his country had contributed or intended to contribute to European affairs. … He sought to bend the world—no doubt for its own good—to his personal views. … If President Wilson had set himself from the beginning to make common cause with Lloyd George and Clemenceau, the whole force of these three great men, the heads of the dominant nations, might have played with plenary and beneficent power over the wide scene of European tragedy. He consumed his own strength and theirs in conflicts in which he was always worsted.
Clemenceau in his book, Grandeur and Misery of Victory , makes a variety of disparaging statements: Doubtless he [President Wilson] had too much confidence in all the talky-talk and super talky-talk of his “League of Nations.” England in various guises has gone back to her old policy of strife on the Continent, and America, prodigiously enriched by the war [Clemenceau’s italics], is presenting us with a tradesman’s account that does more honour to her greed than to her self-respect.
President Wilson, the inspired prophet of a whole ideological venture … had insufficient knowledge of … Europe. … It became incumbent on him to settle the destiny of nations by mixtures of empiricism and idealism. … He acted to the very best of his abilities in circumstances the origins of which had escaped him and whose ulterior developments lay beyond his ken. …
On the other hand, the President on his return to the United States was most generous about his colleagues at Paris. He may have been under illusions about the feelings of some of them toward him.
Vance McCormick, in his Diary under date of July 5, 1919, says: The President sent for Lamont, Davis, Baruch and me with Dr. Taussig to come to his room [on the George Washington returning to America] … to read us his message to Congress to get our suggestions and criticisms.
We had few changes to suggest as it was an excellent general statement of the situation at Paris and the problems that confronted him. We raised the question as to the praise given his colleagues and developed from him a real feeling of friendship for his colleagues whom he said privately were in accord with the principles we were fighting for but were hampered and restricted by their own political conditions at home, due to the temper of their people. He said he was surprised to find they had accepted the Fourteen Points not for expediency only but because they believed in them.
He had probably mistaken politeness for friendship or failed to realize that “Truth is the first fatality of war.”
President Wilson finally left France for the United States on June 28, 1919, and arrived in New York on July 8. I bade him good-by at the station in Paris and had no opportunity to talk with him again at any length for over two years.
We wound up our official Relief and Reconstruction organization in Europe early in September and installed in its place the American Relief Administration based upon charity.
I called on Premier Clemenceau on September 3 to express my appreciation for his undeviating support of my work. In another memoir, I have recalled: … He was in a gloomy mood, saying, “There will be another world war in your time and you will be needed back in Europe.” We would not have agreed on the methods of preventing it, so I did not pursue the subject. But to lighten the parting, I said, “Do you remember Captain Gregory’s report on the decline and fall of the Hapsburgs?” He laughed, pulled out a drawer in his desk and produced the original telegram, saying, “I keep it close by, for that episode was one of the few flashes of humor that came into our attempts to make over the world.” He was still chuckling when we parted.
The Premier was fairly accurate on both predictions. The Second World War began twenty-one years after the end of the first one. I was back in Europe in 1946 to co-ordinate world food supplies to meet the second terrible famine, which was inevitable from that war.
Upon the President’s return home, he launched his crusade for Senate ratification of the Treaty. With an accompanying statement of great eloquence, he submitted the Treaty to the Senate on July 10 and the French-British-American military alliance on July 29. On August 19 he conferred with the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By this time, Senators were in sharp debate over the Treaty. …
With the opposition the President had to meet in the Senate and from racial groups of enemy-state origin, he could not admit to his enemies that there was anything very seriously wrong with the Treaty or the Covenant if he were to secure ratification.
It was obvious that the opposition in the Senate and the country to ratification of the Treaty was concentrating mainly on Article X of the Covenant, which read: The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.
The President’s statements greatly stressed the inviolability of this article. To the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 19, he said: Article X seems to me to constitute the very backbone of the whole Covenant. Without it the League would be hardly more than an influential debating society.
… While the President actually began his crusade for Senate ratification in his statement accompanying submission of the Treaty to the Senate on July 10, his major effort began on September 4, when he started west to carry the fight for Treaty ratification to the country. On this journey he made forty addresses (often two in a single city), in twenty-seven cities, stretching from Washington to the Pacific coast.
He discussed the League at length in almost every address. His speeches were moving and impressive. He often referred to the vital relationship of Article X to the entire settlement. He was adamant against accepting any reservations to the Treaty. He devoted much time to explaining the compromise by which Japan was assigned the German rights in Shantung; he vigorously defended the mandates; he expounded on the changes made in the original draft of the Covenant to meet Senatorial concern for the Monroe Doctrine, to provide the right of withdrawal from the League and to safeguard our internal affairs. He explained the necessity for compromises on reparations and other features of the Treaty.
Mostly, the President spoke extemporaneously, and was often on his feet several hours during a day. This strain, together with the attendant travel and the necessity for constant contact with individuals, was greater than any human being should have risked—let alone a man physically weakened by the stresses of the war and seven months of negotiation in Paris.
The President collapsed after his speech at Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919. Through no fault of his own Woodrow Wilson’s crusade was over.
Woodrow Wilson’s ordeal ended on February 3, 1924. He had never fully recovered from his stroke.
Pericles’ oration over the Greeks who died for their country could well be the epilogue for Woodrow Wilson: So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received, each for his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of all sepulchres, not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or action as the occasion comes by. For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.
For a moment at the time of the Armistice, Mr. Wilson appeared to rise to intellectual domination of most of the civilized world. With his courage and eloquence, he carried a message of hope for the independence of nations, the freedom of men and lasting peace. Never since his time has any man risen to the political and spiritual heights that came to him. His proclaimed principles of self-government and independence aided the spread of freedom to twenty-two races at the time of the Armistice.
But he was to find that his was a struggle between the concepts of the New and Old Worlds. European statesmen were dominated by the forces of hate and revenge of their peoples for grievous wrongs; by the economic prostration of their peoples; and by the ancient system of imperial spoils. Mr. Wilson was forced to compromise with their demands in order to save the League, confident that it would in time right the wrongs that had been done.
Woodrow Wilson lived to see some parts of his defeats at Paris become victories. He saw his ferment of freedom bring independence to Iran and Egypt. But he witnessed the Republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan snuffed out by Communist Russia. Above all he lived to see the League of Nations come into being despite America’s absence. He witnessed the settling of dangerous controversies and the making of many treaties which aided the economy, health and morals of the world. He lived to see the World Court of International Justice bring solution to many conflicts and the International Labor Organization bring benefits to men who work.
Had Mr. Wilson lived two decades longer, he would have seen the seeds planted by the Old World statesmen at Versailles bring another, and even more terrible, World War. He would have seen the freedom of a dozen nations consumed in the vortex of Communism. Yet his ferment of freedom still survives in the revolts of their people armed only with naked hands against machine guns. Also, he would have seen the Old World of Western Europe moving into a common ground of concepts of self-government and a common front against the spread of Communism.
Had he lived, he would have seen the League concept rise again from this second blood bath of mankind under the name of the United Nations. The spirit of Woodrow Wilson came to the world again.
The United Nations’ organization, except in one particular, follows very closely the pattern of Woodrow Wilson’s League. The Council, dominated by the Great Powers, each with its veto, the Assembly, the Secretariat, the machinery for appeal in case of aggression, the processes of investigation, conciliation, arbitration, the economic and military sanctions—all these were better formulated in the League and with fewer words. But the admission of aggressive dictatorship to its membership would never have been accepted by Woodrow Wilson. He conceived the League as an association of free nations, not to include men and dictatorships conspiring for its ruin.
He stated among his principles of peace: … Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.
A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. It must be a league of honor. …
With his death ended a Greek tragedy, not on the stage of imagination, but in the lives of nations. And as in the tragedies of old the inspiring words and deeds of men who failed still live.