Western Europe After WW2

Western Europe After WW2

Western Europe After WW2 After World War II, there was no Peace Treaty, yet American diplomats succeeded in establishing a long-lasting peace. In 1919, some of the best minds of the age went to Versailles to  write a peace treaty to rebuild a broken civilization, but a twenty-year truce was the end result of all their efforts. The result was what former Harvard professor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called a debacle.* In his book, A World Restored, Kissinger contrasts the success of the Congress of Vienna with the failure of the Treaty of Versailles.  It is a paradox, Kissinger wrote, that “those ages, which in retrospect seem most peaceful, were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seemed unending appear least able to achieve it… Whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace,  stability… was at least conceivable.”* One failure of the Versailles treaty was that it came up with no uncompromisable principle that,  because it  was even more important than peace, set firm and clearly understood boundaries on the behavior of states. The Versailles statesmen, as well-intentioned as they may have been, failed to achieve that. Margaret MacMillan, an Oxford historian,  has recently defended them as scrupulous men who were simply overwhelmed by an unprecedented situation.*  A second critical aspect of the treaty’s failure was that the American Senate, first, and then the American electorate in the 1920 election did not give their consent. Without American involvement in the treaty and League, there was no way to enforce its provisions, essentially deeming the agreement futile. 

American approval of the treaty and its League at first seemed likely because public opinion seemed to support ratification. American opinion about the Treaty, for example,  was highlighted in the April 5th edition of The Literary Digest, a prominent and largely-circulated journal. The editors surveyed every newspaper in the country; 1377 editors responded. The first question asked was, “Do you favor the League of Nations?” Seven hundred and eighteen editors replied, “yes,” four hundred and seventy-eight replied, “conditional,” and only one hundred and eighty-one replied, “no.”* In an era before scientific polling of public opinion, this survey of newspaper editors is the closest one can get to how the country felt about the Treaty*. Given the data, the assumption was that the opinion of newspaper editors reflected the opinion of the communities for which they wrote.* Although the mindsets of the editors may only have represented the views of their upper and middle class readership, it may also have been assumed that these were the people who would shape public opinion. In another survey, The Literary Digest asked college students and faculties to vote the following ballot: 

  1. “I favor ratification of the League and Treaty without reservations and amendments.”
  2. “I am opposed to ratification in any form.”
  3. “I favor ratification of the Treaty, but only with the Lodge reservations.”
  4. “I favor a compromise between the Lodge and the Democratic reservations in order to facilitate ratifications.” *

Treaty reservations and amendments were important topics of debate in 1919. An amendment to the Treaty would involve returning to Paris and renegotiating approval of the treaty with the amendment included right in the text. A reservation was meant to avoid this protocol; it was simply an attachment to the Treaty that gave the American interpretation of the clause in question. Senator Lodge, one of the chief opponents of the Treaty, had 14 reservations* to combat Wilson’s 14 points. Wilson was only willing to accept the reservations if they were on an entirely separate document. It might have been an acceptable compromise until lawyers weighed in that  a separate document had no legal standing.* 

The Literary Digest published the results of the polling of college students and faculty; they were as follows: 

  1. 48,232 for the treaty without reservations and amendments
  2. 13,933 opposed
  3. 27,970 in favor but with the Lodge reservations
  4. 49,653 in favor of ratification but with compromise between democratic and republican positions*

The surveys show that only a small minority were unalterably opposed to ratification; a sizeable number of people wanted to accept the treaty with reservations attached, reservations that would “Americanize” the treaty and protect American interests. In the election of November of 1920, which both Democrats and Republicans alike framed as a referendum on the Treaty*, Warren G. Harding, the Republican candidate and an opponent of the Treaty in all forms, won in the largest landslide in American History up to that point*. James Cox , the democratic candidate for President, only received the electoral votes of the southern states. But the southern, formerly  Confederate states, still burdened by their resentment of Republicans for leading the North to victory in the civil war, always voted for the democratic party. So it cannot be assumed that even the solidly democratic southern states were champions of the league. How did it happen that even though only a small minority were unalterably opposed to the treaty, nonetheless that was the opinion that triumphed in the end? Why wasn’t some compromise agreed to? Did American opinion about the treaty change over the course of a year?

American rejection of the treaty dominated the careers of two of the most important figures of the 20th century and made another one famous. Woodrow Wilson was the chief proponent of the League and a principal author of its provisions*. He was an accomplished academic with a PhD in history and political science, an author of a popular American History textbook, The State, a former president of Princeton University, and a former governor of New Jersey, and elected and re-elected President in 1912 and 1916.   The son, grandson, and great-grandson of  Presbyterian Ministers*, Wilson was brought up with the core values of hard work, a strict puritan morality, and a firm belief in a statesman’s obligation to do God’s work in the world. Shortly after the American entry into the war, on January 8th, 1918, Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to enunciate American war aims. These are the famous fourteen points. At the end of his address, he said:

“To the vindication of [democracy], the people of the United States are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything they possess. The moral climax of this, the culminating and final war for human liberty has come, and they are ready to put their own strength, their highest purpose and their own integrity and devotion to the test.”*

The final war for human liberty! What could be more noble than that?  Wilson apparently accepted the popular philosophic Hegelian idea that the history of the world is the history of freedom and that greater freedom is the preordained destiny of humanity.* Months earlier , when Wilson returned to the White House from a joint session of Congress in which he asked for a declaration of war, he returned in silence, and at home in the White House, he  sobbed,  most likely grieving for those American soldiers he had just consigned to battle and to their deaths.* It may have been then that he understood that he had to make the soldiers’ sacrifices worthwhile;  he had to ensure that an institution like the League would guarantee a permanent peace and also make this the final war for human liberty.

 The chief opponent to the treaty and the League of Nations was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge was the scion of one of the most distinguished families in New England. Like Woodrow Wilson, he had a PhD in political science; his was one of the first doctoral degrees awarded by Harvard University. Like Wilson, he wrote a university text in American History.* Lodge thought that the American republic was the best hope of mankind and a singular historic achievement, but he  also was concerned about the survival of those New England values that informed its foundation. In the 1840s, Oliver Wendell Holmes had called Boston “the hub of the universe.”* The glory days of Boston, with writers like Hawthorne, Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau, and Whittier had, however,  come to an end. The city of Boston and all of Massachusetts had witnessed a transformation: by 1880, the census showed that “63 percent of Bostonians were either immigrants or the children of immigrants.* By 1877, Catholics accounted for more than three-quarters of all births in New England.”* In response to this dramatically changing demographic, some elite Bostonians called for restrictive immigration laws: Prescott Hall founded the Immigration Restriction League,* members included prominent New Englanders like the president of MIT and the president of Colby College.* Henry Cabot Lodge became the Congressional spokesperson and then advocate for this group in the Senate where he was chairman of the Committee on Immigration.* Immigration reform laws which established a literacy test upon entrance to the United States were passed by the Congress in 1897 *and again in 1913* and 1916*. President Woodrow Wilson, in a message that accompanied his veto of the 1916 bill, wrote:

“[the bill] seeks to all but close entirely the gates of asylum, which have always been open to those who could find nowhere else. And it excludes those to whom the opportunities of elementary education have been denied without regard to their character, their purposes, or their natural capacity.”*

Wilson’s veto was overruled in 1917, thus establishing in law the first attempt to restrict immigration rather than regulate it. Lodge, the leader of this effort,  was against unrestricted immigration for three reasons.* He believed that unrestricted immigration would inevitably lower the wages of American workmen. In an essay in the North American Review, titled The Restriction of Immigration, Lodges wrote:

“That this is not a fanciful anxiety is only too readily proved. Any one who is desirous of knowing in practical detail the degrading effect of this constant importation of the lowest forms of labor can find vivid pictures of its result in the very interesting book just published by Mr. Riis, entitled, ‘How the Other Half Lives.’ The story which he tells of the conditions of a large mass of the laboring population in the city of New York is enough to alarm every thinking man; and this dreadful condition of things is intensified every day by the steady inflow of immigration, which is constantly bringing down the wages of the working people of New York and affecting in a similar way the entire labor market of the United States.”*

America Rebuilt Europe After WW2

Lodge’s second concern was the  illiteracy of many of the most recent immigrants. Lodge wrote that public schools were designed to Americanize and teach literacy to immigrant children. Lodge, however, saw no easy way to make recent adult arrivals literate. American democracy needed voters who could fully participate as citizens and for this literacy was required. Finally, Lodge desired to preserve a common cultural heritage. In a speech to the Senate on March 16, 1896, Lodge stated that “[during] this century, down to 1875, then, as in the two which proceeded it, there had been scarcely any immigration to this country except from kindred or allied races and no other which was sufficiently numerous to have produced any effect on the national characteristics.” American character was everything to Henry Cabot Lodge. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, who believed that the defining feature of an American was the common experience of risking everything in order to assimilate into a new country*, Lodge believed that American character was formed by a common ancestry. Accepting immigrants from vastly different regions of the world was a danger to Lodge because there was no precedent for it, and therefore its ramifications were unknown. Lodge was a statesman of his own time and place; “diversity,” a sought after attribute in today’s society, would have been incomprensible to Lodge. However, he was no racist: during his time in Congress, he introduced a Voting Rights Act to ensure that African Americans were no longer denied their right to vote.* It was only in 1965 that the rest of the nation caught up to his mindset and enacted such a law*. Immigration reform, an issue in which Lodge was keenly interested and one which dominated his career for many years up until the war, was inextricably interwoven into the debate on the League of Nations. In 1918, the newly elected Japanese prime minister, Hara Takashi, sought to introduce into the covenant of the league a requirement that the citizens of all member countries be treated by all the other member countries with absolute equality. Takashi was responding to angry Japanese public opinion that resented how Japanese immigrants were treated in the United States. Among many restrictions, Japanese immigrants were banned from owning property and were sent to segregated schools with the Chinese.* Tempers in Japan ran so high that demonstrators at one point demanded that the Japanese fleet be sent to San Francisco to protect Japanese nationals.* American immigration policy was discriminatory and some Americans, like Henry Cabot Lodge, feared immigration policy would , if Takashi achieved his objective,  be determined by the League of Nations.

These two eminent Americans were on opposite sides on whether the United States should join the  League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson, as he personally delivered the Treaty to a joint session of Congress on July 10, 1919 urged its adoption:

“The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God. We cannot turn back. The light streams on the path ahead, and nowhere else.”

Henry Cabot Lodge, on the other hand, said in speech to the Senate on February 28th, 1919:

 “We have in this country a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, the freest and best government in the world, and we are the great rampart today against the anarchy and disorder which… are trying to invade every peaceful country in the world… We must not lose by an improvident attempt to reach eternal peace all that we have won by war and sacrifice… We must see to it that the democracy of the United States, which has prospered so mightily in the past, is not drawn by any hasty error… within the toils of international socialism and anarchy… America and the American people are first in my heart, now and always.”

The two accomplished and well-educated men had intelligent yet contrary arguments. How then should the United States decide which path to take? Both men, convinced of their own ability to sway an audience, were determined to take the issue to the voters  and let them decide in the presidential election of 1920. *The 1920 election was to be a plebiscite on the treaty. And both Wilson and Lodge were confident of victory

At this opportune moment, John Maynard Keynes’s bestselling book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was released to its American audience and became a bestseller here just as it was in Europe. Keynes noted right at the beginning his insider status at Versailles;  he was

“temporarily attached to the British treasury during the war, and was their official representative at the Paris Peace Conference up to June 7th, 1919; he also sat as deputy for the chancellor of exchequer on the Supreme Economic Council.”

He resigned his positions because he was convinced that the treaty was not based on the magnanimous Wilsonian principles of the Fourteen Points but  was instead a Carthaginian Peace that would prevent the restoration of the European economy; it was, moreover, a betrayal of solemn promises made to a defeated enemy. After his resignation, Keynes returned to his position as an economics professor at the University of Cambridge and wrote the book which was to make him famous. The book also changed American opinion and eroded support for the treaty and the league .

 Keynes was much more than just an economist*. He was, in addition, a member of the iconoclastic Bloomsbury group, a coterie of unique British intellectuals*. His friends in the group included Virginia Woolf, a prominent author and writer of a leading feminist book,  A Room of One’s Own; Roger Fry, a leading art historian who introduced post-impressionist art into England*; Leonard Woolf, a publisher who introduced the works of Sigmund Freud to England*; and Lytton Strachey, author of the famous book, Eminent Victorians*, a book which punctured the pomposity of Victorian England. 

These three men each held alternative visions for the post-war world. For Woodrow Wilson, the war took its place in the progressive arc of human history.  Hegel, a philosopher whom Wilson admired, asked:

“But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized- the question involuntarily arises – to what principle, to what final aim have these enormous sacrifices been offered”.

Hegel answered that the slaughter-bench of history led to an increase of freedom; this Wilson also believed. The War’s awful death toll would bend the arc of history towards greater freedom and liberty, and Wilson would devote himself into making this vision a reality.The league was destined to happen.  Lodge, a link in a chain of prominent New England Puritans, was a conservative seeking to preserve the wisdom of America’s past as a  unique birthright. Finally, John Maynard Keynes was the iconoclast and a pragmatist,  breaking with the ideas of the past to formulate new ideas for a radically new situation. These three different viewpoints shaped the debate on the treaty and on its League.     

Woodrow Wilson was so set on his vision, that in spite of serious misgivings in the Senate, he named himself the chief American representative at Versailles.* He left for Paris on December 5th, and on that very day, the Senate debated three resolutions.* The Cummins resolution stated that the Congress should send a delegation to observe the negotiations. A delegation of Senators would be a visible reminder to the President that the approval of the Senate was necessary for any treaty and that the prerogatives of the Senate had to be respected. In addition, Senators that day passed a resolution asking the President to tell them his interpretation of the Fourteen Points. Germans accepted the armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points, and senators were eager to hear how the president planned to apply them to the treaty. Senator Borah, who later became one of the chief adversaries of the treaty, moved a third resolution that required that the moment the treaty was submitted to the Senate that the Senate have it printed for wide dissemination across the country.  That way,  the American people could be involved in the decision on whether to approve the treaty. These rumblings of discontent suggest that senators were concerned with Wilson’s decision to write the treaty without the on-going advice of the Senate. It was a result of the augmented wartime power of the President and of  his disregard for the American system of checks and balances.The Senate had an important constitutional role to play and they wanted to be involved in the great events taking place in Paris. The treaty was so important to Wilson that he became the first and only American president to leave the country for an extended period of time: December of 1918 until June 1919, returning only for a little over a week in late February and early March for the primary purpose of signing legislative documents before Congress adjourned. Upon his return to D.C. in late February, Wilson began his campaign for adoption of the League of Nations in earnest.

The President used four opportunities to formulate arguments for adoption of the League of Nations. Even before he boarded the George Washington for his return voyage, he started to build his case. January 25, 1919 was the first session of the commission charged with drawing up the covenant of the League of Nations. Appropriately, Wilson was president of the commission.  In his opening remarks to the diplomats at Versailles, he emphasized the overwhelming magnitude of the peacemaker’s task, and due to all its intricacies, he said he knew that a perfect treaty would be unachievable on the first draft. The diplomats need not worry about that; the league of nations would be the process by which the treaty would be perfected over time.* When the George Washington docked in Boston, Wilson proceeded to build a more emotional argument for the treaty at two campaign style  rallies. The first was in Boston, the hometown of Henry Cabot Lodge, and the other was at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. At the Met an audience of over 5000 sang the great wartime song, Over There just before the President went to the podium to speak. Wilson first alluded to the song, and declared “[he would] not come back till it’s over, over there.” * According to Wilson, his job would not be  done until victory in war was matched by a treaty that included a League of Nations. Wilson concluded his speech with an emotional tribute to the American people, and said “God give us the privilege of knowing that we did it without counting the cost and because we were true Americans, lovers of liberty and of the right!”

His penultimate opportunity to build a case for a League of Nations before his return to Paris in early March was on February 26 of 1918 when he hosted a dinner for 34 of the senators and congressmen who sat on the foreign relations committees of their respective chambers . The President and First Lady were the hosts of the dinner, and after dinner the president and his guests went into the East room of the White House and sat informally in a large oval. After an introductory talk, Wilson conceded that some American sovereignty would be lost in the interest of giving weak nations a voice in world affairs. All treaties had to involve some sacrifice of autonomy. Because Wilson understood that many republicans in the East Room of the White House that night were reluctant to concede any American power, he returned again and again to the League’s  executive council. He assured his senatorial and congressional audience that the United States would be a permanent member of the executive council and that all decisions of the executive council had to be unanimously approved; therefore, Americans would be able to veto anything. Another topic of discussion during the meeting was the league’s arbitration requirements should a conflict arise between two countries. Yet again, both parties disagreed: Wilson and the democrats believed that the two nations should have to  at least talk about any contentious issue and hold up their actions to the light of public opinion. Lodge and the republicans, with the knowledge that Japan wanted to arbitrate the exclusion of Japanese nationals from immigration to the United States, argued that America alone should decide any internal matter. 

First reports of the dinner meeting that night were very positive. The New York Times reported that there was a very respectful dialogue but also noted that few senators would comment for the record because they needed time to reflect on the evening’s conversation.* On March 1st, the story changed: republican senators were utterly unimpressed. Senator Brandegee of Connecticut was quoted as saying:

“I feel as if I have been wandering with Alice in Wonderland and having tea with the Mad Hatter. When I woke up this morning, I expected the white rabbit to go to breakfast with me.”*

Senator Lodge said “the president seemed actually befuddled about many of the important points.” * Senator William Alden Smith stated “the president’s ignorance of the terms of the covenant was amazing… other Republican Senators were frankly amused, and like everyone present… waited tensely for what would come next.”* Senator Hitchcock, the democratic leader of the Senate defended the president before his colleagues by saying “[his] treatment of his Wednesday night visitors was ‘candid and generous.’”* In response, some Republican Senators smiled and laughed. These senators’ reactions were bad omens. Throughout his life, Wilson prided himself on his ability to convince an audience through speech. Apparently, he had lost that ability. 

After Senator Hitchcock, the democratic leader of the Senate, denounced news reports that demeaned the president’s competence at the dinner, Henry Cabot Lodge, spokesman for the Republican opposition, began an eloquent address in opposition to the league of nations. When he rose to speak at 10:30 that morning, the galleries were already crowded with spectators, and a  long line of spectators filled the corridors outside waiting for their chance to enter the senate gallery and hear the debate. * The League of Nations, Lodge said, was a startling departure from long-standing American foreign policy, and if such a course was to be adopted, it should only be after the American people had an extended, reasonable debate on the issue based on facts:  “we must have facts, details, and sharp, clear-cut definition.” * The president, he implied, had not yet given a factual analysis; Lodge’s speech would be based on these facts. The League of Nations is a permanent alliance, and  Lodge reminded his audience that avoiding entangling alliances had been the keystone of American foreign policy ever since George Washington’s Farewell Address; did they really want to turn their back on over one hundred years of successful American diplomacy?* That principle, according to Henry Cabot Lodge, has served the country from its beginning to the very day he got up to speak. If  George Washington’s advice was to be discarded as out of date, it should only be after the most careful thought and reflection. In a patriotic riff, he quoted a poem by the famous English poet, Lord Byron, that George Washington, the Cincinnatus of the west, was a singular figure in world history.* Washington and the other founding fathers of the American Republic were part of a golden age in American History. His advice may have been out of date, but before it was to be discarded, Americans needed to reflect on how much wisdom he brought to the founding of the country. Another great principle of that golden age of America’s founding was the Monroe Doctrine. It’s guiding principle is that old world powers had to stay out of the western hemisphere. The League of Nations covenant, on the other hand, invited member nations to intervene anywhere in the world to maintain peace.* 

The Farewell Address’ and the Monroe Doctrine’s with the covenant of the League of Nations were only the beginning of Lodge’s concerns. Lodge also worried that the covenant of the league was in conflict with the American Constitution. The Constitution of the United States gave to the Congress of the United States – and not to the president nor his ambassadors nor to a League of Nations – the power to raise an army and send it into war. In Article X members of the league guaranteed the territorial integrity of every nation in the League.* Lodge drew out the implications of this commitment. Such a treaty might compel America’s entry into a war without congressional approval. In addition, as the only ally to end the war with a totally loyal and  reliable army and the only country with enormous financial resources, the United States would be the on country in a position to take on foreign military responsibilities. He questioned if the United States  really wanted to raise an army and build a navy to take on such worldwide commitments. The arbitration clauses as well could have unconstitutional consequences. Lodge believed that the American Congress by itself had the right to determine immigration policies. For the League to require that all foreign nationals be treated equally would restrict the power of congress to welcome some but not all immigrants.  He asked, “are we prepared to have a league of nations open our doors?”  Nearing the end of his speech, Lodge told his audience that “ We must build no bridges across the chasm which now separates American freedom and order from Russian Anarchy and destruction.” Russian Bolshevism, and its resulting war represent everything wrong with the world, and it represents the corruption Lodge sought to isolate America from. To conclude, Lodge states:

“I can never assent to any scheme no matter how fair its outward seeming which is not for the welfare and for the highest and best interest for my own beloved people.”

This final statement encapsulates Lodge’s difference from the idealist Wilson: Wilson wanted to lead the United States into a crusade for worldwide liberty, whereas the true isolationist, Lodge, feared that entangling alliances would corrupt the American Republic. Wilson and Lodge were so sure of their position that each one said he would campaign on the issue in the fast approaching presidential election of 1920. 

 John Maynard Keynes’s book, Economic Consequences of the Peace, appeared in November of 1919 and quickly took its place in the American debate on the Treaty. It was widely reviewed.  The Saturday Evening Post, a prestigious, popular, widely-circulated magazine for middle-class America printed an extensive two part review in the September 18th and September 25th, 1920 issues of the magazine – a little over a month before the election that would decide the fate of the treaty. Alonzo Engelbert Taylor, the author of the article, had been a member of the War Trade Board, and in that role, he travelled extensively in Europe and became familiar with its economic condition. “Travelling in ex-enemy and neutral countries… almost the first question asked of the visitor by German, Swiss, Dutch, Dane, Pole, Czech, Austrian, and Hungarian is , ‘have you read the book of Keynes?’” Taylor’s review of Economic Consequences of the Peace, is his way of informing Americans about the economic condition of Europe and of helping American public opinion formulate the next step with regards to foreign policy. Taylor believed that:

“International problems are so new to our experience that members of Congress cannot rely upon precedent; and therefore,… Congress cannot act until people give expression to their views… These views must find voice in the election… Under these circumstances, the study of our foreign relations becomes an immediate duty. Whether and with what reservations we enter a League of Nations or a World Court of appeal is an ultimate question.”

The purpose of his review was clear: to clarify public opinion in advance of the 1920 presidential election, for public opinion would determine the success or failure of the treaty. According to Taylor, Keynes’s book would have only sold thousands of copies if it were simply an economic analysis of war-torn Europe. Rather, it became a bestseller, selling thousands and thousands of copies due to its intimate account of the negotiations at the President’s House by the Big Four: Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Orlando, and Wilson. Of the atmosphere in the President’s House, John Maynard Keynes wrote:

“In Paris, where those connected with the Supreme Economic Council, received almost hourly reports of the misery, disorder, and decaying organization of all central and eastern Europe, allied and enemy alike, and learnt from the lips of the financial representatives of Germany and Austria unanswerable evidence, of the terrible exhaustion of their countries, an occasional visit to the hot, dry room in the President’s House, where the four fulfilled their destinies in empty and arid intrigue, only added to the sense of nightmare.”

Keynes’s analysis in his book benefitted from his membership on the Supreme Economic Council, for with this membership came an abundance of knowledge on the true economic state of Europe- particularly the eastern half of it. And with that  came the understanding that the first job of the peacemakers had to be to restore the economic vitality of all of Europe. Europe was too integrated a whole to survive if half of it was reduced to misery. Instead, at the President’s House, they talked of making Germany pay and squeezing them until “the pip squeaks.” For Keynes, the Big Four’s lack of understanding of the crucial role they had to take on in the rebuilding of the continent meant that “Paris was a nightmare, …  A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene; the futility and smallness of man before the great events, confront[ed] him… All the elements of ancient tragedy were there.”

One of the major figures in the unfolding tragedy at Versailles was Georges Clemenceau, prime minister of France. According to John Maynard Keynes, Clemenceau could be seen “throned, in his grey gloves, on the brocade chair, dry in soul and empty of hope. Very old and tired, but surveying the scene with a cynical and almost impish air.” Clemenceau only had one objective: to castrate German power so it could never threaten France again, thereby granting France ultimate security. Keynes saw Clemenceau as a follower of Bismarck’s real politik – the only thing that mattered in foreign affairs was power. German industrialization and population growth so far exceeded that of France that Clemenceau had to do everything he could to reduce the power of Germany.  He also sought an  iron clad security alliance with the United States and Great Britain. “Prudence,” Keynes wrote, required that Clemenceau give “some measure of lip service to the ideals of foolish Americans and hypocritical Englishmen; but it would be stupid to believe that there is much room in the world, as it really is, for such affairs as the League of Nations, or any sense in the principle of self-determination.” In fact, Woodrow Wilson only got Clemenceau to accept the idea of a League of Nations because Wilson offered, in return, an Anglo-American Guarantee of French borders vis-a-vis Germany. Margaret MacMillan, in PeaceMakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and its Attempt to End War, reports that Clemenceau was willing to trade valuable real estate, some oil rich, for such guarantees:  

David Lloyd George: We want Mosul.

Georges Clemenceau: You shall have it.

David Lloyd George: We want Palestine.

Georges Clemenceau: You shall have it.

This, of course, was not the sort of conversation that Keynes expected to hear at a conference that was trying to restore the world. It was the same old imperialistic scramble; this explains Keynes’s anger, his abrupt resignation as the official representative of the British Treasury at the Treaty and at the Supreme Economic Council. He wrote:

“It was the task of the Peace Conference to honor engagements and to satisfy justice; but not less to reestablish life and to heal wounds. These tasks were dictated as much by prudence as by the magnanimity which the wisdom of antiquity approved in victors.”

The reality of events in the President’s House was severely disappointing and lead Keynes to write his fiercely critical book. While those at Versailles, like Clemenceau and Lloyd George, were only out to get what was best for their country, poverty and chaos engulfed much of  Europe. 

While Keynes most memorably saw Clemenceau seated in a chair “dry of soul and empty of hope,” Keynes carefully observed Lloyd George:

“watching the company, with six or seven senses not available to ordinary men, judging character, motive and subconscious impulse, perceiving what each was thinking, and even what each was going to say next, and compounding with telepathic instinct, the argument or appeal best suited to the vanity, weakness, or self-interest of his immediate auditor.”

Lloyd George was the consummate politician. But to what purpose? Did he work to “honor engagements and satisfy justice?” On November 11, 1918, the Germans laid down their arms on the basis of Wilson’s 14 points. At that point, the 14 points moved “beyond the region of idealism and aspiration, and had become part of a solemn contract to which all the great powers of the world had put their signature.” The reparation clauses were nothing less than a betrayal, and Lloyd George was largely responsible. 

In December of 1918, just over a month after the signing of the armistice, Lloyd George called a general election, hoping to increase his majority in Parliament. The timing, in fact, was no coincidence; he hoped to ride to an election victory on the heels of a long awaited military victory. His campaign highlighted German responsibility for the war and their obligation to pay full reparations. Only during the campaign did he introduce the idea of including widows’ pensions and separation allowances in reparations calculations. Suddenly, German reparation obligations  skyrocketed. In the armistice agreement, the Germans were to pay “for all damages done to the civilian population… by the aggression of Germany by land sea and air.” Including pensions and allowances in calculating reparations totals was, according to Keynes, a betrayal of a solemn promise, a promise in which the Germans had put their faith when they agreed to the armistice. Now it was a “carthaginian peace,” a punitive peace from which Germany would not recover. And it was short-sighted. If Germany was not restored to economic health then all of continental Europe would be left prostate. To whom will the British sell their manufactures then? The brilliant, consummate politician won his election but did great harm to the economic wellbeing of Europe, defeated and victors alike. In 1921, in Keynes’s sequel to The Economic Consequences of the Peace, entitled A Revision of the Treaty, he wrote that he could:

“conceive for this terrifying statesmanship a plausible defence. Mr. Lloyd George took the responsibility for the Treaty of Peace, which was not wise, which was partly impossible, and which endangered the life of Europe. He may defend himself by saying that he knew that it was not wise, and was partly impossible, and endangered the life of Europe; but that public passions and public ignorance play a part in the world of which he who aspires to lead a democracy must take account. That the Peace of Versailles was the best monetary settlement which the demands of the mob and the characters of the chief actors conjoined to permit; and for the life of Europe, that he has spent his skill and strength for two years in avoiding or moderating the dangers.” (p1,2)

Here, Keynes recognizes that a new era in international relations had just begun. For the first time, all male citizens in Western Europe had the right to vote. A successful politician had to appeal to the average man on the street, and those men wanted revenge for the enormous suffering of the past four years.  So Lloyd George campaigned for widows’ pensions and separation allowances to be included in reparations  because he recognized that the average man wanted somebody to pay for the suffering they had endured. 

The final tragedy at Versailles, Keynes wrote in his best selling book,  was that Woodrow Wilson was incapable of using the power of his personality and the reality of American power to dominate those two old world politicians. According to Keynes:

“he lacked the dominating  intellectual equipment which would have been necessary to cope with the subtle and dangerous spellbinders whom a tremendous clash of forces and personalities had brought to the top as triumphant masters in the swift game of give and take, face to face in council,-a game of which he had no experience at all.” p.24

He had arrived in Paris as an almost superhuman figure. When his ship, the George Washington, arrived in the port town of Brest, the President continued on by night train to Paris. His Doctor observed from the observation platform of the moving train that crowds of people were standing along the tracks in the dark of night in silent tribute to the President. When he arrived in Paris, he was given a tumultuous hero’s welcome. It seemed, at that moment, and perhaps even the President thought so as well, that he could achieve the peace that could end all wars and make the enormous death toll of war meaningful. How quickly the euphoria ended. Keynes wrote that the “President’s slowness amongst the Europeans was noteworthy. He could not, all in a minute, take in what the rest were saying, size up the situation with a glance, frame a reply, and meet the case by a slight change of ground.” The eloquence of the President’s oratory in the 14 points speech lifted the war aims into a noble cause. Now, however, at the Peace Conference, a different skill was necessary; the force of his personality had to compel others to do his bidding, and help him enact his program. Unfortunately, Wilson was far from capable of doing this. In fact, according to Keynes, “this blind and deaf Don Quixote was entering a cavern where the swift and glittering blade was in the hands of the adversary.” Wilson’s temperament was theological, not practical.

In his book, A Revision of the Treaty, Keynes writes that “the peace of Versailles was the best momentary settlement which the demands of the mob and the characters of the chief actors conjoined to permit.” Chapter 3 of Economic Consequences of the Peace is devoted to examining the character of the chief actors; chapters 4 and 5 focus on reparations clauses. This is the heart of Keynes’s book because it was his goal to prove that the treaty was draconian and not a treaty drafted in accord with the uplifting words of the 14 points. When Woodrow Wilson introduced the 14 points to Congress on January 8th, 1918, he assured those listening that he did “not wish to injure [Germany] or to block her in any way [from] her legitimate influence or power… [he wished] her only to accept a place of equality among the peoples of the world.” Keynes, however,  gave copious examples in his book to show how severely reparations payments would affect German ability to recover. Coal, for example, is a crucial raw material for an industrial society. Yet, because Germany flooded so many French mines, it was required to alot much of its own coal production as reparations payment. But without coal, Germany could not rebuild its industries. So too with shipping. The treaty required that the German merchant marine be turned over to the allies. As a result, all German goods would have to be shipped on foreign ships and the profit to be made in the carrying trade would all be made by other countries. In addition to payments in kind, Germany also had to pay in gold. Germany would have  to export and sell manufactured and agricultural goods at prices that undercut other manufacturers. So not only would Germany take a loss by selling at low prices, but the industries of the victorious allies would suffer. The German government would also have to raise taxes. As Keynes writes 

“at this stage the struggle ceases to be primarily one between the Allies and the German government, and becomes a struggle between different sections and classes of Germans. The struggle will be bitter and violent, for it will present itself to each of the contesting interests as an affair of life and death… a government which makes a serious attempt to cover its liabilities will inevitably fall from power.” (79)

Keynes was prescient enough to realize that an impossibly punitive treaty would spark a revolution in Germany.

When Keynes’s book was published in the United States it created a sensation and was widely reviewed in leading journals and magazines. In 1998, Charles R. McCann republished some of the most influential responses to Keynes’ book written by American reviewers in 1919 and 1920. The reviews are representative but not exhaustive; they show that American reviewers were keenly interested in the question of  reparations and whether Germany could afford to pay. At first, this  abiding interest does not make sense as the United States was not to receive any reparations itself. The question was of keen interest to reviewers because its answer allowed them to judge whether the treaty was based on the 14 points, or was instead a Carthaginian Peace meant to destroy Germany. Harold J. Laski wrote in The Nation (February 7, 1920)  

The treaty imposes certain economic penalties upon Germany. What are the probable consequences of their enforcement? What are the chance that they are capable of being enforced? The substance of Mr. Keynes’s argument is that they spell disaster to the whole of Europe and that they are made in cynical disregard of the actual facts in debate. But the atmosphere in which this thesis is maintained  goes even deeper. The treaty, it is urged, is a wanton and dishonest evasion of the basis upon which Mr. Wilson, in the name of the Allies gave Germany to understand that she had surrendered.” Page 73 of “What the Treaty Really Mean”

In the April 14th edition of 1920 in The New Republic, Alvin Johnson states that 

“there is surprisingly little effort made by American reviewers to refute the charge that the Treaty is in many respects in direct violation of the preliminary engagements, nor is anywhere a serious attempt made to show that those engagements were not morally binding”

Whereas Laski succinctly identifies the thesis of Keynes’s book, Johnson goes further and says that American reviewers do not refute the thesis that the treaty is a direct violation of promises made by Woodrow Wilson to the Germans.  Frank Vanderlip in the April 20, 1920 issue of The Bookman” wrote of Keynes book that the  “. recent publication of the book in this country is making a profound impression here.” (Page 158). He titled his article “The Most Influential Publication since the Armistice.” Taken altogether, American book reviewers seemed to agree with Keynes that the treaty was overly punitive.. Even a critical writer like Charles Seymour wrote in The Yale Review  that although Keynes “ writes in the style of a propagandist, albeit one more amusing than the average,… Much of the criticism of the economic clauses of the treaty is just.”

Keynes’s book, no doubt, influenced public opinion about the treaty and was one reason the treaty failed. How much is difficult to definitively answer. Robert McCrum, a long-time editor in chief at the English publishing house of Faber & Faber, listed the book as one of the hundred most important non fiction books of the 20th century in a 2017 article in The Guardian, because he thought  that “Keynes’s …book helped to consolidate American public opinion against the treaty… [and] it rapidly became the source of conventional left-liberal wisdom on Versailles.” The book made a compelling case that the treaty was not Wilsonian, but Carthaginian, and this became the “conventional left-liberal wisdom” that turned Americans against the treaty. 

However, there were other significant reasons besides Keynes’ book that explain why the Treaty was not signed by the United States. Wilson’s intransigence was important and a second reason the treaty was doomed. He was not a well man and perhaps it was his illness which made him so unyielding and so uncompromising.Wilson’s health had been an issue for many years; as president of Princeton, he went temporarily blind in one eye due to dangerously high blood pressure, and his personal physician urged him to retire from an active life.* Instead, Wilson went on to become governor of New Jersey and President of the United States. His high blood pressure eventually caused a totally debilitating stroke in early October of 1919. It is highly probable, however, that even before that devastating stroke,  Wilson suffered a series of smaller strokes earlier in 1919, and that these smaller strokes affected his mental acuity, his memory, his personality, and his ability to negotiate.* 

The treaty and the League were bound to fail unless Wilson and the Republican opposition compromised. This became clear in a series of Senate votes. There were three votes: on the first vote on November 19, 1919, 39 approved and 55 rejected the treaty. This vote was on the treaty which included the Lodge reservations. Wilson had instructed Democrats loyal to him to turn down this version of the treaty. A second vote was held later in the day on the treaty without reservations. On this vote, 38 approved and 53 rejected the treaty. This time, Wilson’s supporters voted for the treaty, but the Lodge Republicans who wanted to attach reservations and the irreconcilable republicans, who would vote no on any version of the Treaty, taken together, provided the 53 votes that rejected the treaty. Compromise alone could save the treaty and this was the one act Wilson refused to take. In a final Senate vote in March of 1920, the treaty was turned down for the third and last time. In a 1945 review for Political Science Quarterly, David Muzzey noted that “Wilson’s insistent contention that our [American]refusal to ratify the treaty without amendments or reservations would ‘break the heart of the world (was like his claim of a “mandate” from the American people), a product of his own wishful thinking, which was not supported by the facts in the case. Friends of the League in both parties attempted to move him from his irreconcilable position. His spokesman in the Senate, Gilbert Hitchcock, pleaded with him to modify his demands.”  Lodge’s long-standing opposition to unrestricted immigration was a third reason the treaty failed. In the campaign of 1920 Republicans argued that a League of Nations, an international government of sorts, would hinder the assimilation of new Americans. Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, in fact all hyphenated Americans as the campaign of 1920 called them, would root for their former  homeland in relevant issues that came before the league. Wouldn’t an isolated America help them forget the past and have them look instead to their new future in the United States? Part of the debate about the league in 1919 illustrated this point: Woodrow Wilson was pressured by Irish-Americans to support Irish home rule and include a statement on Irish home-rule in the League covenant . He was publicly booed for not doing so by Irish-American groups as he campaigned for the league across America. Joining the league would accentuate attachment to ethnic heritage, while staying out,  Republicans felt , would turn new Americans towards fuller identity with their new country.  Lodge’s concern that the prerogatives of the Senate be maintained was a fourth reason the treaty failed. Lodge was always “America first,” and he believed that protecting the constitutional role of the senate in advising and approving treaties was more important than joining an international league. Reservations, from his vantage point, were a way for the Senate to assert its role in treaty making. The President refused to accept meaningful involvement of the senate in treaty negotiations and so the Senate, which was shut out, refused to accept the treaty.* ( Henry Cabot Lodge and the League of Nations, the Journal of American Studies Vol. 4, No. 2 (February 1971) pp. 201-214 by David Mervin)

Furthermore, even though Wilson and Lodge asked that the election of 1920 be a plebiscite on the treaty, no American election is ever only about one issue. Therefore, it’s not for certain that a vote for the Republican victor, Warren G. Harding, was decided by Harding’s opposition to the Treaty and the league; other issues were important in the 1920 presidential campaign. Harding’s slogan, “a return to normalcy,” succinctly captured the issues. A vote for Harding was also a vote against the expanded powers of the wartime president and a vote against unrestricted immigration. The democrats included no statement on immigration in their party platform of 1920; the republican platform of 1920, on the other hand sought to restrict it. In fact, one of the first acts of the new Republican administration in 1921 was to enact an immigration bill that set up a quota system for immigration into the United States. The 1921 emergency quota act restricted the number of immigrants to 357,000 people per year and set the number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of the number of immigrants from that country already resident in the US in the census of 1910. The act was passed without a recorded vote in the house and was passed in the senate by 90-2-4. An overwhelming vote for restriction, reflecting an upsurge in nativist thought.  Immigration was further restricted in a 1924 immigration act that reduced the quote from 3 percent to 2 percent. This was American Immigration policy until 1965. The overwhelming sentiment against continued large-scale immigration is reminiscent of the “build the wall” attitude in the election of 2016, and shows by comparison just how powerful nativist sentiment can be and how it can thwart progressive agendas. It is worthwhile to note that the percentage of foreign born in 1920 was as high as it had been in 2016; a comparable situation calling forth comparable political agendas. Since scientific polling only began with Gallup polls in the 1930s, we cannot even extrapolate from The Literary Digest polls of 1920 and conclude that Americans overwhelmingly supported the treaty in January of 1919. How college students and their professors voted, for example, was not at all representative of the American public, nor were the responses of newspaper editors.

McCrum, however, was correct to say that Keynes’ book is one of the hundred most important non-fiction books of the 20th century, but for different reasons.The importance of Economic Consequences of the Peace stems from two startling and very prescient insights into the twentieth century world. It’s important because, in the first place, Keynes, a Bloomsbury iconoclast like his friends, realized that there was no god-given order to society. In his introduction to Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes wrote that “very few of us realize with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary nature of the economic organization by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century.” There were no laws of nature that applied to man in society. The world was not so organized that man always acted in his own economic self interest;  in fact, oftentimes,  men were not even aware of their own self interest. Laissez-Faire, letting nature take its course, was not a way to allow natural economic laws to function unimpeded.  It was only an ideal construct useful to economists by way of  comparison to the way the world actually worked. Additionally, the gold standard was not something that would always be useful. It only succeeded in the 19th century because  the growth of economic productivity fortuitously matched European worldwide exploration and the resultant expansion of the gold supply. In the twentieth century, with the whole world explored and the discovery of new gold at an end, the gold standard was no longer useful – in fact, it was harmful. In an article in The New Yorker on John Maynard Keynes, Louis Menand, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history, wrote:

“He was a highly cultivated English gentleman with a bohemian soul. Heterodoxy was the normal vein of his thought– “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” [is] ,above all else , [a] demolition of old ways of thinking.” …. “one purpose of the book, was to condemn the makers of the Versailles treaty….but another was to announce the death of the nineteenth century system.”*

Keynes was a prescient thinker because he realized that there was no natural order to society, and thus understood that his own post war generation was responsible for constructing its own ordered society. From this insight, he drew the conclusion that the goal of social policy was not to discover and travel along, some God-given, preordained destiny. (This was Wilson’s error in thinking World War 1 was the final fight for human liberty.) Rather, it was to do what was most practical in any given situation because no social institution or policy was ever permanent. To those like Wilson who advocated that in the long run, society would achieve its destiny, he famously responded, “in the long run, we’re all dead.”

Not only was Keynes an iconoclastic thinker with new ideas for the brand new world of post-War Europe, but he was also a pragmatic visionary. The greatest example of his pragmatism is his program to restore the economic health of Europe by a revision of the treaty. Keynes’s work on the supreme economic council gave him compelling evidence that the chief task facing the statesmen of 1919 was rebuilding the economic health of Europe. He asked himself what steps could be taken to achieve this; the final chapter of Economic Consequences of the Peace answers that question. A chief problem was the money owed by the Allies to the United States. Britain and France and the other allied powers had bankrupted themselves fighting the war. The only way they could possibly pay their debts to the United States was by squeezing as much money as possible from their defeated enemy. But Germany was in an even more precarious financial position and couldn’t pay the vast sums demanded in reparations.  Keynes noted that “entangling alliances or entangling leagues are nothing to the entanglements of cash owing:

What should be done?

“By fixing the reparations payments well within Germany’s capacity to pay, we make possible the renewal of hope and enterprise within her territory, we avoid the perpetual friction… and opportunity of improper pressure arising out of treaty clauses which are impossible of fulfillment.” 

Keynes’s path to more reasonable reparations was simple: cancel war debts. He reasoned that if the allied powers were not required to pay their debts to the United States, they, in turn, would have less reason to squeeze Germany for all the money they didn’t have. Keynes understood that modern warfare is so destructive that the defeated power has no ability to rebuild their own country, let alone the victorious ones. In fact, in modern warfare the victor has to pay. The United States was the one victorious country to come out of the war in a favorable financial position; its allies owed it billions of US dollars. The United States had to write off these debts, and war loans would be  transformed into war gifts. Keynes argued that these loans were not an investment, but were America’s contribution to the war effort. America should not expect to get the money back. Furthermore, America might as well be magnanimous because, with most of Europe bankrupt, it would never see the money again anyway. Keynes believed that “She [Europe] will not pinch herself in order that the fruit of her daily labor may go elsewhere. In short, I do not believe that any of these tributes will continue to be paid, at the best, for more than a very few years. They do not square with human nature…” (Page 166 of ECP) In short, Germany will not pay reparations to the allies and they will not pay their debts to the United States.

In addition, because “the requirements of Europe are immediate,”and because “it will be very difficult for European production to get started without a temporary measure of external assistance,” Europe needs a substantial international loan*. Once again, the responsibility to do this falls on the victor. Keynes writes that “the burden of finding the immediate resources must inevitably fall in major part on the United States.*”

Even with the cancellation of war debts and the provision of a huge international loan – all at the expense of the United States – Europe would still be unable to economically flourish. The borders were all wrong. Keynes noted that the Treaty of Versailles, due to its organizing principle of the the right of each ethnic group to have its own country, had split Europe into a number of small countries. The treaty might have satisfied nationalists’ demands, but it produced a medley of economically unstable countries. What was needed was some sort of European union in which member states agreed to remove all tariff barriers amongst themselves. Keynes realized that such a customs union “might go some way in effect towards realizing the former German dream of Mittel-Europa”(156). In fact, Germany’s drive to world power in 1914 involved building a powerful Mittel-Europa under German leadership. Keynes’s critics argued that World War I was not fought by the victorious allies to help Germany achieve one of its principle war aims. He, on the other hand, urged his critics to forget crippling Germany and instead do what was  practical and  necessary for the  economic renewal of European civilization. Unlike Wilson and Lodge, Keynes did not think in terms of politics,  but thought in economic terms and that made him a pragmatist. He wrote: “If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of reaction and despairing convulsions of revolution before which the horrors of the great German war will fade into nothing.” (P158) In other words,  the political situation will develop out of the economic reality. And so the first step in peacemaking was to rebuild the economies of Europe

Keynes’s plan was dependent on the decision of the United States. When he reached the end of his analysis,  in the final pages of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he saw that there were two possible paths for the United States. On the one hand:

“The impulse which, we are told, is now strong in the mind of the United States to be quit of the turmoil, the complication, the violence, the expense, and, above all, the unintelligibility of the European is easily understood. No one can feel more intensely than the writer how natural it is to retort to the impracticability of the European statesmen,- Rot, then, in your own malice.” (Page 168 of ECP)

Some Americans, moreover, Alonzo Engelbert Taylor  wrote in his article in The Saturday Evening Post, thought that Europe was so thoroughly destroyed by the war that it could not be restored. It  is was beyond repair and so any aid would be throwing good money after bad. This path leads to isolationism. 

There was, however, a second path Americans could take, which could be taken:

“… if America recalls for a moment what Europe has meant to her and still means to her, what Europe, the mother of art and of knowledge, in spite of everything, still is and still will be, will she not reject these counsels of indifference and isolation, and interest herself in what may prove decisive issues for the progress and civilization of all mankind.” Page 168 of ECP
The answer from America would come in time.  Keynes wrote “we must await the progress of events as patiently as we can.” (Pg 170) It was a long wait. Wilson’s intransigence, Lodge’s “America first” policy, and Keynes’s withering analysis of the treaty all turned America against it. But history is useful because the future can learn from the past. American rejection of the Treaty and its isolationist policy was clearly a foreign affairs disaster. So after World War 2, American diplomats sought a different model to ensure peace. And there was, ready-made, Keynes’s keen insights and program of action for rebuilding a stable continent all encapsulated in his best selling book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The Marshall Plan, the International Monetary Fund, the Iron and Steel Community of 1951, the European Union, and the outcome of the Battle of Bretton Woods, all, in some way or form, were derived from the policies of John Maynard Keynes. Of the three, Wilson, the idealist; Lodge, the conservative; and Keynes, the pragmatic economist, it was Keynes who had the ideas necessary to restore war-torn Europe.  His ideas, developed in the immediate aftermath of World War I have stood the test of time because they are the foundation of the peace that followed World War II.

Written by Kedar Nagaraj

Western Europe After WW2

USS Iowa (BB-61) : USS Iowa’s Curator David Way on her history!

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