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America and World War I, Treaty of Versailles

irreconcilables, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Fourteen Points, President Wilson, Central Powers

Even before the war ended, President Wilson offered a plan for world peace, the Fourteen Points. The plan, announced to Congress on January 8, 1918, would abolish secret diplomacy, guarantee freedom of the seas, remove international trade barriers wherever possible, reduce arms, and consider the interests of colonized peoples. Eight more points addressed changes to specific boundaries based on the principle of self-determination, or the right of nations to shape their own destinies. Finally, Wilson’s points called for a League of Nations to arbitrate disputes between nations and usher in an epoch of peace. High hopes for the Fourteen Points prevailed at the time of the armistice but faded by June 1919, when emissaries of the Big Four (the United States, France, Britain, and Italy) gathered at Versailles to determine the conditions of peace.

At Versailles, the Allies ignored most of Wilson’s goals. During postwar negotiations, including the Treaty of Versailles, they redrew the map of Europe and established nine new nations, including Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Boundaries of other nations were shifted, and out of the Ottoman Empire, which fought on the side of the Central Powers during the war, four areas were carved: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. These areas were given to France and Britain as mandates, or temporary colonies. The Treaty of Versailles demilitarized Germany, which lost its air force and much of its army and navy. Germany also lost its colonies and had to return to France the Alsace-Lorraine area, which Germany had annexed in 1871. Finally, forced to admit blame for the war, Germany was burdened with high reparations for war damages.

A spirit of vindictiveness among the Allies invalidated Wilson’s goals and led to a number of defects in the Treaty of Versailles. First, Germany’s humiliation led to resentment, which festered over the next decades. Second, the Big Four paid no attention to the interests of the new Bolshevik government in Russia, which the treaty antagonized. Third, in some instances, the treaty ignored the demands of colonized peoples to govern themselves.

The Treaty of Versailles did include a charter or covenant for the League of Nations, a point that embodied Woodrow Wilson’s highest goal for world peace. However, the U.S. Senate rejected the League of Nations and the entire treaty. Republicans who favored isolation (the “irreconcilables”) spurned the treaty. Conservative Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, disliked the treaty’s provisions for joint military actions against aggressors, even though such action was voluntary. They demanded modifications, but Wilson refused to compromise. Overestimating his prestige and refusing to consider Republican reservations, Wilson remained adamant. Uncompromising and exhausted, the president campaigned for the treaty until he collapsed with a stroke. The United States never joined the League of Nations, started in 1919, and signed a separate peace treaty with Germany in 1921.

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