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How Harding Saved The Versailles Treaty

June 2024
6min read

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.

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

The treaty document was promptly and carefully filed in the Department of State’s archives. Newspapermen were assured in a matter-of-fact way that the treaty was where it ought to be and that any press speculation regarding its possible loss was unfounded. The incident was thereafter soon forgotten and a public joke at the government’s expense was prevented—or at least postponed until the relevant notes turned up, when the Harding Papers were made available by the Harding Memorial Association in 1964. It was then revealed how the Harding administration had “saved” the Treaty of Versailles.

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