American History
The Treaty of Versailles

*The Great War ended at 11:11 AM on 11 November, 1918, but creating a peace treaty was much more complicated.

*Woodrow Wilson wanted a ‘peace without victory,’ and had a plan for a post-war world, safe for democracy and without any more war.  His plan involved Fourteen Points.

*Wilson demanded an end to secret treaties, a reduction in weaponry for all nations, eventual freedom for Europe’s colonies, self-determination for ethnic groups in Europe, and a new way for the nations of the world to work together to preserve peace, stability, and freedom:  a League of Nations.

*Wilson went to Europe to promote his plan, become the first president to visit Europe while in office, and was greeted like a king when he arrived in France.  Streets were named for him, crowds cheered him wherever he went, and people across Europe expected a new age of peace and freedom.

*Wilson made mistakes, however.  He brought no Republicans with him, which made the Republicans at home, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, resent his work and try to turn Americans against him.  Furthermore, he misunderstood the nature of European politics and overestimated the power of his convictions.

*The major European leaders at the conference in Versailles were David Lloyd George (UK), Georges Clemenceau (France), and Vittorio Orlando (Italy).  They had little interest in freedom or justice, particularly for Germany.  France in particular wanted revenge.  Among other things, Germany was forced to pay reparations for the entire war (impoverishing the country), and, worst of all, accept the humiliating ‘war guilt clause.’   Wilson protested, but was told he had to accept it, or there might be no League of Nations.

*Europe’s leaders were willing to allow some of Germany and Austria-Hungary’s eastern lands their independence and encouraged the republics that formed after the old emperors were overthrown.  Many new nations were created, although some, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, were made up of several ethnic groups joined under one government, and many of the Yugoslavians did not appreciate this. However, where the Central Powers bordered the Allies, the Allies planned to take their land.  France re-took Alsace-Lorraine and Italy took over South Tyrol.  Wilson protested against this, but was told he had to accept it, or there might be no League of Nations.

*The Ottoman Empire completely collapsed into Turkey and many different Arab (and a few other) states, which were placed under the temporary control of Britain and France.  The new country of Iraq was created out of three different Ottoman Provinces (Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul) which contained different ethnic and religious groups, who ended up dominated by the Sunni Arabs.  Wilson protested against this, but was told he had to accept it, or there might be no League of Nations.

*Europe also did not want to give up its foreign colonies (except that Germany had to give all of its colonies to Britain, France, and Japan).  Wilson protested against this Although not as much as he did against other compromises), but was told he had to accept it, or there might be no League of Nations.

*Wilson did get the League of Nations, but when he got home and campaigned across the country for the acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles, it was rejected by the Senate, largely due to Republican opposition, particularly because the League of Nations required all its members to help defend any member state that was attacked or otherwise in danger of losing its independence.  Many Americans feared this would get America involved in another European War.  After all Wilson’s work and compromises to create the League of Nations, American never joined (which was one reason the League ended up being weak and ineffective).

*World War I was devastating to all the countries involved in it.  Most of the major countries involved lost over 3% of their entire population.  Just as the war was ending, the world suffered another deadly tragedy, known as the Spanish Flu (a strain of H1N1) (so-called because Spanish newspapers gave it the first major coverage, even though the first known cases appeared in the US and then in other European countries).  It lasted from 1918 to 1919.

*It is estimated that a third of the world’s population, on all inhabited continents (and even remote Pacific Islands) was infected, and between 50 million and 100 million people died—more than died in World War I (about 15 million).  Over one in four Americans was infected; over half a million died (far more than the 53,000 Americans killed in battle in World War I or the 63,000 who died outside of combat).

*After all this death, Americans were tired of involvement in world affairs.  Not only did they reject the Treaty of Versailles (although another treaty was later signed with Germany), but in 1920 America (including many women voters, thanks to the XIX Amendment) voted for Warren G. Harding, who promised Americans a Return to Normalcy.

*Nonetheless, American could not avoid all involvement with the rest of the world.  Many of the Allied countries had borrowed money from the US during the war (and Germany owed the US some reparations, which will be fully paid off in 2010), and the US had to have some interest in making sure these debts were paid.

*World War I changed the world.  New nations were created, a generation of young men was nearly wiped out, and the survivors felt lost in the world around them.  In many countries, the generation that survived World War I was known as the Lost Generation, which had a reputation for being cynical, short-sighted, and unreligious (as religious belief declined in countries who had all thought they were fighting with God on their side).  In Germany in particular, the burden of war reparation, the loss of territory, and especially the humiliation of the War Guilt Clause led to bitterness, resentment, and a desire to find scapegoats and new leaders who would restore the glory of the German Empire.




This page last updated 31 October, 2009.