How Harding Saved The Versailles Treaty

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The Secretary of State now found himself in a difficult situation. Although the whole matter had been handled with the utmost secrecy, the press had surmised that something was amiss because of the gingerly manner in which the administration was treating humorous quips about the treaty. The Washington Post , for example, speculated that the treaty was “lost, strayed, or stolen,” and that “no one knows where it is.” Harding had scheduled a press conference for July 15. Rumors now circulated that reporters intended to ask the President quite specifically where the document was. Secretary Hughes decided that he must act.

Carefully observing protocol, and with constrained formality, Hughes sent a message to ex-President Wilson asking what had become of the treaty document. (Wilson had moved to the house on S Street in Washington where he was to die three years later.) By noon on July 15—the news conference was set for 1 P.M. —no reply had been received. The disquieted Secretary of State closeted himself briefly with President Harding, and the two agreed that if the question came up, the President would merely indicate that the document was in safe hands, and that no one need worry about it.

While Harding was left to face the reporters, Hughes returned to the State Department. There he found this letter, delivered personally by Wilson’s secretary: My dear Mr. Secretary:

When the Treaty of Versailles failed of ratification by the Senate the copy of the Treaty accompanying this note was returned to me personally with the official notification from the Senate that votes sufficient for the ratification could not be obtained.

This was at the time I was very ill, and the copy was put in my private fireproof files for safekeeping, and when my effects were transferred from the White House to my present residence this copy of the Treaty was of course transferred with other papers under the conditions of safety with which it had at all times been surrounded.

I beg now that if it is convenient to you, you will permit me to deposit it with the Department of State. I am therefore sending the copy by my secretary along with this letter.

Cordially yours, W OODROW W ILSON

P.S. I know that your judgment will justify me in asking the favor of having a formal receipt sent me for this copy.

The pains Wilson took to assure Hughes that the treaty had been properly cared for, and the hint of distrust in the curt postscript, make an interesting psychological footnote to the League struggle of a year earlier. Secretary Hughes, much relieved, quickly complied with Wilson’s request for a receipt and immediately phoned George Christian, hoping to reach Harding before the President started his news conference. Christian told him it was too late: the conference had begun.

Harding, however, evidently managed to answer questions about the treaty with sufficient nonchalance. There was, reported the New York Times the next day, “no mystery as to the whereabouts of the officially certified copy.” Still, the Times added, with a slightly puzzled air, the President “will not come out flatly and tell just where the treaty is deposited.”

The aftermath is largely told in an exchange of notes between Harding and Hughes after the news conference was over on July 15. From Harding: My dear Mr. Secretary:

I have your note of this date enclosing a copy of the letter of Ex-President Wilson with which he sent to you the official copy of the Versailles Treaty. I did not have the information when the newspaper correspondents queried me on this subject and I made reply to them along the lines of our conversation at noon today. If mysterious publicity results I think perhaps it would be well for you to say at your next newspaper conference that you have the Treaty in the files of the Department of State, and let it go at that without further explanation or elaboration. If I had had the information I might have very easily answered the inquiry and disposed of the question.

Very truly yours, W ARREN G. H ARDING

From Hughes: My dear Mr. President:

I should have added to my note referring to the return of the Versailles Treaty by Mr. Wilson, that I received it from Mr. Wilson’s messenger while you were holding your Press Conference, and at once telephoned to Mr. Christian so that word could in some way reach you during the Conference in case any question were asked. Mr. Suydam of this Department [Henry W. Suydam, chief of the Division of Current Information], who was in attendance at the Conference, of course knew nothing about the return of the Treaty as it was received after he had left the Department. Faithfully yours, C HARLES E. H UGHES