How Harding Saved The Versailles Treaty

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When the administration of Warren G. Harding took office in March, 1921, one of the duties it cheerfully assumed was acting as undertaker to the Treaty of Versailles—at least as far as the United States was concerned. Although Woodrow Wilson had been one of the treaty’s godfathers, the Senate had not been disposed to ratify it or to have anything to do with its concomitant, the League of Nations.

Still, there was enough pro-League sentiment among a small group of senators and congressmen to engender discussion of whether Harding might be persuaded to work out some sort of compromise. Newspaper cartoonists, having had a field day over the League struggle, now depicted Harding valiantly striving to “find” a treaty which somehow would accomplish the impossible and appeal to all sides. Eventually this led to some wisecracks by the press about where the Versailles Treaty— the document itself—actually was. On the surface all this was treated in jest, but behind the scenes in the State Department a minor crisis developed.

Meticulous to a fault, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes suddenly awoke to the fact that he really did not know where the official American copy of the Versailles Treaty was. Obviously his embarrassment, to say nothing of Harding’s, would be painful if the press discovered that the administration was ignorant of the treaty’s whereabouts. On JuIy 11, 1921, in a letter marked PERSONAL , he wrote to Harding’s private secretary, George B. Christian, Jr., as follows: My dear Mr. Christian:

There are some inquiries, with obviously humorous import, as to where, physically, the Treaty of Versailles is at this time. It appears that Mr. Wilson brought it back personally from Paris; that it was sent to the Senate and returned by the Senate to the White House. The general practice with respect to treaties which have not been ratified is to have them sent back from the White House to the Department of State, to be put in the archives. Apparently the Treaty is not here, and I should like to know whether it is at the White House merely to avoid a confession of ignorance which I should otherwise have to make and which might be a subject of some comment.

Faithfully yours, C HARLES E. H UGHES

On the same day, July 11, Christian replied: My dear Mr. Secretary:

I have your personal letter of today inquiring as to the whereabouts of the Treaty of Versailles. I personally know nothing whatever about it, but Mr. Forster [Rudolph Forster, executive secretary of the White House staff] tells me that after its return by the Senate it was sent from the office to President Wilson at the house, and that is the last he knows about it. He thinks, however, that President Wilson took the Treaty with him.

Sincerely yours, G EORGE B. C HRISTIAN , J R.

Christian’s reply did not allay Hughes’s anxiety. The Secretary of State had little desire to approach Wilson about the treaty, in view of the recent tense and vitriolic fight over the question of its ratification. On the other hand, he was piqued by the thought that the ex-President might indeed have taken the document when he left office. Cautiously, he answered Christian on July 12: My dear Mr. Christian:

I note that Mr. Forster says that after the return of the Treaty of Versailles by the Senate it was sent from the office to President Wilson at the house, and that is the last Mr. Forster knows about it. Has any search been made or do you think that it is necessary to have a search made to determine whether the Treaty is in fact at the White House? I suppose that all papers were removed from the White House proper and that all receptacles were emptied. If this is so, of course it would do no good to search in that quarter. I simply wished to be sure of my ground before bringing the matter to the attention of Mr. Wilson. Of course, he had no right to take the Treaty with him when he left office, as it was the official copy belonging to this Government and belongs in the archives of the Government, although not ratified.

Faithfully yours, C HARLES E. H UGHES

Christian immediately ordered a search of the White House files, and before the day was over had this reply in the Secretary’s hands: My dear Mr. Secretary:

I have your letter of July I2th. A careful search has been made at the White House proper for the document to which you refer and I find that no papers of any kind were left there by President Wilson. It is my understanding that those papers not returned to the office were taken by President Wilson with him.

Sincerely yours, G EORGE B. C HRISTIAN , J R.