The Treaty of Versailles

*Wilson said he was going to war to make the world safe for democracy.  At first, Americans hoped that the Navy could win the war, but it soon became apparent that we needed doughboys in France to beat the Germans. 

*To accomplish this, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May, 1917, allowing the government to draft men to fight in the war.  2.8 million men were eventually drafted, and 2 million more volunteered.  4 out of 4.8 million went to France during the War.

*In many ways, the war was a great blessing to America, even before war was declared.  As men fought rather than farmed, as wheat fields became battlefields, and as countries were cut off from colonies that might have supplied them with food, American farmers were able to make a killing selling foodstuffs around the world (as were Latin American countries; Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare would also bring Brazil into the war when a gigantic coffee ship was torpedoed).

*American manufacturers sold weapons to both sides when they could, although the British blockade ensured that most of them went to the Allies. 

*This was a problem for them, because when the war began Treasury Secretary William McAdoo closed the New York Stock Exchange so that European governments could not liquidate their assets there (which would have caused a stock market crash).  However, this meant that they quickly used up their gold reserves, and had to borrow money to buy American food and equipment.

*This was just fine, for the United States, though, because the only place Europeans could really borrow money was from America.  J.P. Morgan might have been dead, but his money lived on, and the Allies borrowed $10 billion.  Of course, this meant they had to win if Wall Street was going to be paid back.

*These stupendous exports of food, manufactured goods, and loans helped America recover from a small recession in 1910-1911.

*To pay for the War, the government borrowed money by selling bonds called Liberty Bonds (redeemable for the face value plus interest).  These raised over $20 billion, as Americans invested their new prosperity in them, saving money that they could spend to fuel the economy in the 1920s.

*Not everyone supported the war.  There were protests and strikes, as socialists and some unions accused Wilson of leading America into war to protect the investments of bankers and weapons manufacturers who had supported the allies.  An assassin broke into the mansion of J.P. Morgan, junior, and shot him (but he recovered quickly).  Some suffragettes protested against Wilson, saying he cared more for democracy in Europe than for democracy in America.

*In 1917, the Espionage Act (later made more powerful by amendments in 1918 called the Sedition Act) made it illegal to interfere with the war effort in any way, whether through strikes, interference in the sale of War Bonds, or through making disparaging comments about America's declaration of war, the US Army, military uniforms, or the US flag.  Violating these laws could result in fines or jail time.

*Although the parts of the Espionage Act created by the Sedition Act were overturned in 1920, parts of the Espionage Act remain part of US law, and some Senators in the 21st Century have suggested adding to its powers.

*Charles Schenck, a Socialist Party leader, was arrested under the Sedition Act for printing and distributing flyers encouraging young men to resist the draft.  He appealed, but in 1919 in Schenck v. United States, it was determined that Freedom of Speech could be limited when it presented a ‘clear and present’ danger to public safety, for example, ‘the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.’

*Eugene V. Debs was arrested for speaking out against the war, too, although he went on to run for the Presidency in 1920 and win 913,693 votes (3.41%).  The Industrial Workers of the World were harassed, and IWW leader Big Bill Haywood was arrested for opposing the draft, but skipped bail in 1921 and fled the country, going to communist Russia where he spent the rest of his life.

*On the other hand, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor supported the war effort.

*Besides imprisoning his detractors, Wilson's government regulated many aspects of the American economy and public life in order to promote the war effort:  the war would not just be fought on the Western Front, but also on the Home Front.  The government regulated the production of food, coal, oil, as well as the railroads to make sure the army got what it needed.

*To whip up support for the war, the Committee of Public Information, led by George Creel, produced propaganda to encourage people to support the war.   The committee used newsprint, posters, radio, telegraph, cable and movies to broadcast its message. It recruited about 75,000 "Four Minute Men," volunteers who spoke about the war at social events for an ideal length of four minutes, because the average human attention span was then thought to be four minutes (the average length of a political sound bite today is 9 seconds).  It staged different presentations for different ethnic groups, finding speakers and performers from that group to promote patriotism.  Americans were told that the war was a Great Crusade.

*The Food Administration under Herbert Hoover asked Americans to eat less in order to save food to send to soldiers.  He had already been involved in relief efforts based out of the UK, but came home to America when the US entered the war.  Hoover believed 'food will win the war.' He established set days to encourage people to save particular foods: meatless Mondays, wheatless Wednesdays, and said 'when in doubt, eat potatoes.'  He also encouraged Americans to plant Victory Gardens in order to raise food at home and not cut into commercial agricultural production.  During and after the war, Hoover helped feed so many starving people that he was known as the Great Humanitarian. 

*Because so many American men went off to fight, many women went to work in the factories, even middle-class women of the sort who had not worked before.  Others joined the Red Cross or worked as nurses for other organisations.  After the war ended, most of them went back home to their traditional roles as wives and mothers, but their service was one of the main reasons that Congress and the states were convinced to ratify the XIX Amendment in 1920.

*Many Blacks fought in the war, trying to earn respect through their sacrifices, as W.E.B. Du Bois encouraged them to do (and Booker T. Washington would have done so had he not died in 1915).  In the US military, of course, Black solders continued to serve in segregated units, mostly under white officers, although there were a few Black officers by this point.

*Among the most outstanding Black units was the 369th Infantry Regiment, formed from a New York National Guard regiment and nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans.  Prior to its formation, in fact, Black Americans who wanted fight in the Great War had had to enlist in the Canadian or French armies—and in Europe, the 369th was actually assigned to the French Army and did not fight alongside the American Expeditionary Force.  They served the longest tour of duty of any American unit in France, fought in several important battles, and suffered the highest casualty rate or any American unit, and also won a Medal of Honor and many other decorations, including 170 of the French Croix de Guerre, including the first one awarded to an American soldier.  Furthermore, the 369th Regimental Band was very popular among all the Allied troops, and played a large role in popularizing jazz music in Europe.  The Harlem Hellfighters would also serve in the Pacific in World War II, although they did not see much action until late in the War, helping to secure the Philippines after they were retaken from the Japanese.

*Other Black people moved north in the Great Migration to work in factories (where workers were needed after so many men went overseas to fight) and to live in areas where they might face less discrimination.  New York, Chicago, and Detroit particularly attracted large numbers of Black workers.

*These workers were managed by the War Industries Board under Bernard Baruch, which controlled the production and prices of many things manufactured during the war.  It promoted the use of mass production and standardisation, set quotas for factory output, allotted raw materials to different companies, used psychological testing to find the best jobs for workers, and increased manufacturing production by 20% before ceasing operations in 1920.

*To keep workers efficient, drinking was officially discouraged, which was greatly appreciated by the Prohibition movement.  Americans were told that drinking was unpatriotic, because Germans brewed a lot of beer.

*The Railway Administration, under Wilson's son-in-law and Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, took over the nation's railroads.  It cut back on passenger service and competing routes, built new locomotives and freight cars, gave shipment of war materiel priority, and for a while refused to ship goods manufactured by Henry Ford, because as a pacifist he refused to convert his factories to war production, until forced to do so by this policy.  After the war, the railroads were returned to their owners.

*As revolutions shook the great empires of Europe, Woodrow Wilson, the man who had fought to end war, saw that his time had come.  He issued a peace programme consisting of Fourteen Points This would end secret alliances, remove trade barriers between nations, reduce military forces worldwide, protect freedom of the seas, and create a League of Nations where representatives of all nations could meet to work out their differences and work together to prevent future through collective security. 

*For Wilson, America's involvement in the war was simply a grand extension of his moral diplomacy.  Wilson insisted this was not a war of imperialism.  America did not want to gain any more territory, and indeed, he wanted self-determination for all nations.  In fact the war should be fought to bring a peace without victory.

*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.  His offer of a gentle peace helped convince Germany to agree to an armistice. 
*In 1919, Wilson, David Lloyd-George of Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, Vittorio Orlando, and representatives of the defeated powers and the minor allies and interested neutral countries met in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the old palace of the French kings outside of Paris.  The other Allied leaders were not impressed by Wilson’s plan.  Clemenceau said, ‘God only had Ten Commandments; Wilson has fourteen!’  Clemenceau had spent many years living in America as a young man, and he had seen how Congress handled Reconstruction, and he liked it.

*One by one, Wilson’s points would be trimmed away, with only the League of Nations saved to keep him happy.  The Central powers, especially Germany, were to be humiliated.

*Germany lost large sections of territory in the east, including everything gained in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Polish Corridor, and the now-Free City of Danzig.  This cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany.  Perhaps the most symbolic loss for Germany was the Alsace-Lorraine, seized from France in 1871.
*Germany lost most of her military, being permitted only 100,000 soldiers in the army, a very small navy, and no air force, tanks, chemical weapons, or submarines.

*Germany was required to pay reparations of $33 billion to make up for the damage done in the war, which was far more than Germany could pay at the time.  Germany only finished paying reparations from the Great War in October, 2010.

*Finally, and most humiliating, Germany was required to sign the War Guilt Clause, saying that the war was all their fault.

*The other Central Powers lost territory, too.

*Austria-Hungary was divided into many smaller countries.  The land taken from Austria and Germany created a reduced Germany, and the countries of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia (with Serbia in charge), Poland (which had been wiped off the map in the late 18th Century), Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland and also gave land to Roumania, Greece, and France.  Italy demanded pieces of the old Empire, too, but Orlando was not a good enough negotiator, and did not get much of what he wanted, which embittered Italy towards the Allies.  Germany also lost all her overseas colonies.

*Large sections of the Ottoman Empire were carved off and given to the Allies (although it later regained some).  Britain got Palestine, Transjordan, and Kuwait.  The British colony 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.    France got Lebanon and Syria.  The Ottoman Empire soon collapsed and the last Sultan fled the country as Young Turks modernised the new Republic of Turkey.  Seeking to make a purely Turkish nation out of the remains of their old empire, they killed around 1,000,000 Christian Armenians.

*With the exception of limited self-determination in Europe, Wilson did not get any of his Fourteen Points except one, the League of Nations.

*When Wilson got home to present the treaty (with which he was not particularly pleased, but which he supported in order to get the United States into the League of Nations), he found that the Republicans in Congress opposed it, partly out of partisan politics (Wilson had deliberately excluded any Republicans from his negotiating team) and partly because they did not want America tied into the League of Nations which might have interfered with American independence. 

*Wilson toured the country, but worked so hard he eventually had a stroke, and for over a year the country was secretly run by his second wife and his doctor.

*The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, and made different peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary in 1921.

*The United States never joined the League of Nations.

*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 14 million).  Over 25% of Americans were 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).

*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.

*Despite this sense of gloom in much of the world, America did not feel quite so bad.  After all, we had fought a war to end war, and had won.  There would never be another war again.

This page last updated 22 March, 2021.
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