Diplomacy and Negotiations at the End of the War

The End of the War

Germany surrendered in November 1918 after its war alliance collapsed, ending World War I in a reshaped and devastated Europe.

Learning Objectives

Describe German surrender and the end of World War I

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Allied powers comprised the United Kingdom and the British Empire, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, France, Belgium, Japan, the United States, and others.
  • The European Central powers were Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.
  • Following its surrender, the Austro-Hungarian Empire failed to unite its people and split into Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
  • When Germany surrendered, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson demanded that Germany accede to the terms of the  Fourteen Points, which required the return of conquered territory to Russia and France. Germany saw the terms as harsh, while the Allies found them too lenient.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Brest-Litovsk: A peace accord signed on March 3, 1918, at Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus) between Russia (renamed the “Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic”) and the Central powers led by Germany, marking Russia’s exit from World War I.
  • Fourteen Points: A speech given by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. The address was intended to assure the country that the Great War was being fought for a moral cause and to lay out a vision for global postwar peace.

The Central powers alliance faced grim prospects in 1918. With a growing list of nations signing up with France and Britain, Germany and its imperial allies suffered mounting losses. What had in 1914 seemed to be an assured victory resulted in a crushing and humiliating defeat.

Beginning of the End

The four Central powers of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria faced the combined might of the Allied powers of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom with its British imperial dominion nations of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. Belgium became a partner following its invasion by Germany at the beginning of the war, while several other nations—including Japan, Serbia, Montenegro, San Marino, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Cuba, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Costa Rica, Brazil, Liberia, Siam (Thailand), and China—took encouragement from America’s entry into the war in April 1917 and joined the Allies. Some of these nations did not provide troops, but instead contributed monetarily. The Germans launched a final, desperate attack on France that failed miserably, while the other Central powers began to capitulate in the face of Allied counterattacks.

The image shows representatives from the three central powers, each of whom carries the flag of his respective nation, shaking hands. A lion sits holding a sword and holly between its paws in the foreground.

Central powers poster: A propaganda poster depicts the alliance between the Central powers in World War I.

Central Powers Collapse

Bulgaria was the first to collapse when a combined force of French, British, Italians, Serbs, and Greeks attacked through Albania in September 1918. By the end of the month, Bulgaria surrendered and withdrew its troops from Serbia and Greece, even allowing the Allies to use Bulgaria in military operations.

During the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt in what is now the Middle East, the Ottoman Army fell to British forces and Arab nationalist fighters aided by a key British military liaison and guerrilla leader named T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Approximately a month after Bulgaria’s surrender, the Ottoman Empire surrendered and permitted Allied military forces to use Ottoman territory, including the strategically important Dardanelles Strait, which had been the site of fierce naval and ground fighting between Allied and Ottoman forces beginning in 1915.

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T.E. Lawrence, photo by Lowell Thomas, 1918: T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” in Jerusalem upon being introduced at the office of the British military governor on February 28, 1918. The photo was taken by Lowell Thomas, an American war correspondent and broadcaster whose photos and film are credited with making Lawrence famous.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire also surrendered in October. The Habsburg royal family and the Austro-Hungarian government desperately sought to keep its domain of diverse nationalities together, but the once-powerful dynastic empire fell apart and split into the separate states of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

With no one to stand alongside it, Germany surrendered and on November 11, 1918, the horrors of World War I finally came to an end.

Terms and Fallout of Defeat

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson required that Germany accede to the terms of the Fourteen Points, which required the return of territory acquired by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to Russia, and the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to France. Germany considered the terms extremely harsh, while the Allied nations found them too lenient. However, when Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated the throne, the new German government quickly agreed to Wilson’s demands. The details of the agreement were hammered out the following year during the Paris Peace Conference.

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Signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk: This photo shows the signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (February 9, 1918). Russia ceded territory to Germany in this treaty, which was reversed with the end of World War I.

By the end of the war, there were millions of casualties. Many died in battle, while others succumbed to disease and malnutrition resulting from the destruction of their homes and surroundings. Additionally, somewhere between 20 and 40 million people—more than the number who died in the Great War itself—were overrun by an influenza pandemic known as “Spanish Flu” that spread throughout the world in 1918–1919. The economic toll was incredibly high as a result of the war, both in the overall shift in production concerns and the deprivation of nations denied or stripped of resources, causing widespread starvation throughout Europe during the winter of 1918–1919. Many veterans found themselves homeless and jobless upon their return from the battlefields.

World War I had touched every aspect of the lives of those who survived to see much of Europe and its territories in ruins.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points

The Fourteen Points, a speech made by Woodrow Wilson in January 1918 outlining the aims of the Great War, became the blueprint for postwar peace negotiations.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the key points made in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech, and the reaction of Germany, Britain, France, and other nations

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The  Fourteen Points  speech delivered by Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress was meant to assure the country that the Great War was being fought for the moral cause of postwar peace in Europe.
  • Believing that the Fourteen Points would offer fair terms for peace, the German  Imperial Chancellor Maximilian of Baden requested an armistice in October 1918. The fighting came to an end on November 11, 1918.
  • The Fourteen Points were the basis of negotiation between the defeated Central powers and the victorious Allies at the  Paris Peace Conference  of 1919. Allied leaders were skeptical of Wilsonian idealism, and Britain refused to agree to some of the conditions, such as allowing free navigation of the seas, and insisted Germany should pay  reparations.
  • President Wilson became ill at the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference, allowing French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and the other leaders of the “Big Four” to change many of his plans. The final peace  settlement  of the war, the  Treaty of Versailles, required Germany to pay huge sums for war reparations.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Versailles: One of the major peace treaties drafted at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the treaty ended the state of war between Germany and its coalition and the Allied powers led by France, Britain, and the United States.
  • Georges Clemenceau: (1841–1929) A French journalist, physician, and statesman who served as the prime minister of France from 1906 to 1909 and again from 1917 to 1920.
  • Paris Peace Conference: A 1919 meeting of the Allied victors and the defeated Central powers to set the terms of the armistice ending World War I and to establish a postwar peace plan based on U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

The Fourteen Points was a speech given by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. The address was intended to assure the country that World War I, which America had joined on April 6, 1917, was being fought for a moral cause and for a lasting postwar peace in Europe.

Portrait of Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson: Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech outlined his goals for postwar cooperation.

The speech was delivered 10 months before the armistice with Germany in November 1918, and became the basis for the terms of the German surrender, as negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his peace-making efforts first envisioned in the speech.

Content of the Speech

Some belligerents in the conflict gave general indications of their aims, but most kept their postwar goals to themselves, making the Fourteen Points speech the only explicit statement of war aims by any of the nations fighting in World War I.

Each of the Fourteen Points detailed in the speech was based on research by a team of about 150 experts, led by Wilson’s foreign policy advisor, Edward M. House, on the topics most likely to arise in the anticipated peace conference at the end of the war. Wilson’s speech translated many of the principles of Progressivism that had produced domestic reform in the United States into foreign policy objectives for all nations, including free trade, open agreements, democracy, and self-determination.

The speech also addressed goals articulated in Vladimir Lenin ‘s Decree on Peace of October 1917, including a just and democratic peace uncompromised by territorial annexations. The decree led to the March 3, 1918, signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Russia immediately withdrew from the war.

The Fourteen Points could be simplified to a core list of agreements and goals for all participating nations:

  1. No secret alliances between countries
  2. Freedom of the seas in peace and war
  3. Reduced trade barriers among nations
  4. General reduction of armaments
  5. Adjustment of colonial claims in the interests of inhabitants as well as the colonial powers
  6. Evacuation of Russian territory and a welcome for its government to the society of nations
  7. Restoration of Belgian territories in Germany
  8. Evacuation of all French territory, including Alsace-Lorraine
  9. Readjustment of Italian boundaries along clearly recognizable lines of nationality
  10. Independence for various national groups in Austria-Hungary
  11. Restoration of the Balkan nations and free access to the sea for Serbia
  12. Protection for minorities in Turkey and the free passage of the ships of all nations through the Dardanelles
  13. Independence for Poland, including access to the sea
  14. Establishment of a League of Nations to protect, “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike”

International Reaction

The speech was widely disseminated as an instrument of propaganda to encourage the Allies to victory. Copies were dropped behind German lines to encourage the Central powers to surrender in the expectation of a just settlement and, indeed, that was the result: a note sent to Wilson by German Imperial Chancellor Maximilian of Baden in October 1918 requested an immediate armistice and peace negotiations on the basis of the Fourteen Points.

The speech was made without prior coordination or consultation with Wilson’s counterparts in Europe and was the only public statement of war aims made by any of the combatants. This made it the centerpiece of the long debates over an equitable peace settlement and treaty terms that came afterward.

The Fourteen Points versus the Treaty of Versailles

The Fourteen Points were accepted by France and Italy on November 1, 1918. Britain later signed off on all of the points except the freedom of the seas. The United Kingdom also wanted Germany to make reparation payments for the war and believed that condition should be included in the Fourteen Points.

Portrait of Georges Clemenceau

Georges Clemenceau: Georges Clemenceau (September 28, 1841–November 24, 1929) served as the prime minister of France and was one of the principal architects of the Treaty of Versailles.

President Wilson became sick at the onset of the Paris Peace Conference, which began on January 18, 1919, at the Palace of Versailles approximately 12 miles from Paris. Wilson’s illness enabled the right-wing French Chancellor Georges Clemenceau to lead the other two members of the “Big Four” powers—British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando—in changing many aspects of Wilson’s plan.

The most controversial alteration was that Germany received the blame for the whole war and was required to pay an astronomical sum in war reparations, including compensation for the damage inflicted on the territories its military occupied and funding for the pensions of wounded Allied soldiers and widows. Germany was also denied an air force, and the German army was not to exceed 100,000 men.

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Big Four of World War I: This photo shows the leaders of the “Big Four” Allied powers at the Paris Peace Conference, May 27, 1919. From left to right, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

The difference between President Wilson’s comparably honorable peace offer toward the German Empire, which was far less harsh than the demanded break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the terms laid out in the final version of the Treaty of Versailles led to great anger in Germany. The treaty came to be known there as, “the stab in the back,” a major propaganda slogan used in the years that followed by embittered German nationalists and ultimately the Nazi Party. The Treaty of Versailles had little to do with the Fourteen Points and was never ratified by the U.S. Senate

The Paris Peace Conference

The Paris Peace Conference determined the terms of peace after World War I between the victorious Allies and the defeated Central powers.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the contentious negotiations between the United States, Britain, and France at the Paris Peace Conference

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Paris Peace Conference, led by the leaders of France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the United States, set peace terms with the defeated Central powers that reshaped the map of Europe. The peace conference resulted in the Treaty of Versailles, which contained a punitive war-guilt clause declaring Germany guilty of initiating the war, requiring the German  government to pay the cost of the war to the victors, and severely crippling the German military. The treaty also disbanded the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • Woodrow Wilson wanted to deliver on the promise of the Fourteen Points and actively intervened in the Paris Peace talks, leading U.S. foreign policy toward interventionism. France and Britain refused to accept some of the Fourteen Points, although they agreed to the creation of a League of Nations.
  • The U.S. Congress never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, signing a separate peace agreement with Germany in 1921, and the United States did not join the League of Nations Wilson had envisioned.

Key Terms

  • Sykes-Picot Agreement: A secret pact, signed in 1916, between the governments of the United Kingdom and France with the assent of Russia, defining their proposed spheres of influence and control of the Middle East should the Central powers be defeated in World War I.
  • Fourteen Points: A speech given by President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. The address was intended to assure the country that the Great War was being fought for a moral cause and for postwar peace in Europe.
  • League of Nations: An international organization founded as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the World War I. Proposed by Woodrow Wilson, its goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling international disputes through negotiation, diplomacy, and improving global quality of life. The United States never joined because Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

Following the Allied victory, President Woodrow Wilson met with his counterparts, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. These leaders largely set the peace terms for the defeated Central powers, reshaping the map of Europe through territorial expansions and losses that favored the victors. While the conference should have been considered a victory for Wilson, whose envisioned League of Nations was established, the U.S. Congress refused to accept the terms of the conference’s cornerstone work, the Treaty of Versailles.

Negotiating the Peace

Germany and Communist Russia were not invited to attend negotiations at the conference, but numerous other nations sent delegations, each with a different agenda. For six months, Paris was effectively the center of a world government as the peacemakers dealt with bankrupt empires and created new countries.

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Participant countries in World War I: This map of the world shows participants in World War I. The Allies are depicted in green, the Central powers in orange, and neutral countries in grey. World War I involved most of the world, and subsequently peace negotiations did as well.

The most contentious outcome of the Paris Peace Conference was a punitive peace accord, the Treaty of Versailles, which included a “war-guilt clause” laying blame for the outbreak of war on Germany and, as punishment, weakening its military and requiring it to pay all war costs of the victorious nations. Also as a result of the conference’s postwar settlements, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist and new, self-governing states were created for its disparate ethnic peoples.

Failure to Adopt the Fourteen Points

The Fourteen Points Wilson proffered in a 1918 speech to the U.S. Congress had helped win the hearts and minds of Americans and Europeans, including Germany and its allies, and his diplomacy essentially established the conditions for the armistices that brought the war to an end. No American president had ever visited Europe while in office, but Wilson believed it was his duty to be a prominent figure at the peace negotiations, with high hopes and expectations placed on him to deliver what he had promised for the postwar era. In doing so, Wilson was ultimately leading U.S. foreign policy toward interventionism, a move strongly resisted in some domestic circles.

Upon his arrival at the conference, Wilson worked to influence the direction that the French delegation led by Clemenceau and the British under Lloyd George took toward Germany and its fallen allies, as well as the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East. Yet Wilson’s attempts to gain acceptance of his Fourteen Points ultimately failed after France and Britain refused to adopt some specific points and its core principles, although they tried to appease the American president by consenting to the establishment of his League of Nations. Several of the Fourteen Points conflicted with other European powers, as well.

The United States did not believe responsibility for the war or the war-guilt clause placed on Germany was fair or warranted. It would not be until 1921, under President Warren Harding, that the United States finally signed separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

United States Rejects Treaty

The  Republican  Party, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, controlled the U.S. Senate after the election of 1918, but its members were divided into multiple positions on the Versailles question. It proved possible to build a  majority  coalition, but they could not attain the two-thirds majority needed to pass the treaty. Among the American public, Irish-Catholics and German-Americans were intensely opposed to the treaty, claiming that it favored the British.

An angry bloc in the Senate of 12 to 18 ” Irreconcilables “—mostly Republicans, but also representatives  of the Irish and German Democrats—fiercely opposed the treaty. One bloc of Democrats strongly supported the Versailles Treaty, even with reservations added by Lodge. A second group of Democrats supported the treaty but followed Wilson in opposing any amendments or reservations. The largest bloc, led by Lodge, comprised a majority of the Republicans who wanted a treaty with reservations, especially on Article X, which involved the power of the League of Nations to make war without a vote by the U.S. Congress. All of the Irreconcilables were bitter enemies of President Wilson, and he launched a nationwide speaking tour in the summer of 1919 to refute them. However, Wilson collapsed midway through the tour with a serious stroke that effectively ruined his leadership skills.

Portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge

Henry Cabot Lodge: Senator Henry Cabot Lodge led the Irreconcilables, who blocked approval of the Treaty of Versailles in the U.S. Congress.

The closest the treaty came to passage in Congress was on November 19, 1919, as Lodge and his fellow Republicans formed a coalition with pro-treaty Democrats and were close to a two-thirds majority for a treaty with reservations. Wilson rejected this compromise, however, and enough Democrats followed his lead to permanently end chances for ratification. During this period, Wilson became less trusting of the press and stopped holding press conferences, preferring to use his propaganda unit, the Committee for Public Information. A poll of historians in 2006 cited Wilson’s failure to compromise with the Republicans on U.S. entry into the league as one of the 10 biggest errors by an American president.

Wilson’s successor, President Warren G. Harding, continued American opposition to the League of Nations. It was not until July 21, 1921, that Harding signed into law the Knox-Porter Resolution drafted by Congress, which formally ended hostilities between the United States and the Central Powers.

Post-WWI Territorial Changes

The Treaty of Versailles included a number of territorial changes including Germany’s forced return of territories in Europe and yield of control over its colonies. The province of West Prussia was ceded to the restored Poland, granting it access to the Baltic Sea and turning East Prussia into an exclave separated from mainland Germany.

The major territorial changes included the following:

  • After approximately 200 years of French rule, Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine were ceded to Germany in 1871. In 1919, these regions returned to France.
  • Most Prussian provinces were ceded to Poland.
  • New territories were transferred to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Belgium.
  • Germany lost Kaliningrad, a strategically important port on the Baltic Sea.
  • Austria was forbidden from integrating with or into Germany.
  • German colonies were divided between Belgium, Great Britain and certain British Dominions, France, and Japan.
  • In Africa, Britain and France divided German Kamerun (Cameroons) and Togoland. Belgium and the United Kingdom gained territory in German East Africa, and Portugal received a sliver of German East Africa. German South West Africa was mandated to the Union of South Africa.
  • In the Pacific, Japan gained Germany’s islands north of the equator (the Marshall Islands, the Carolines, the Marianas, and the Palau Islands) and Kiautschou in China. German Samoa was assigned to New Zealand while German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and Nauru were assigned to Australia.

Negotiations in the Middle East

In the Middle East, negotiations were complicated by competing aims, claims, and the new mandate system. The United States hoped to establish a more liberal and diplomatic world, as stated in the Fourteen Points, where democracy, sovereignty, liberty, and self-determination would be respected. France and Britain, on the other hand, already controlled empires, wielded power over subjects around the world, and aspired to be dominant colonial powers.

In light of the previously secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, a 1916 treaty regarding European spheres of influence in the regions, and following the adoption of the mandate system on the Arab province of the former Ottoman lands, the conference heard statements from competing Zionist and Arab claimants. President Wilson recommended an international commission of inquiry to ascertain the wishes of the local inhabitants. Eventually it became the purely American King-Crane Commission, an investigatory commission that toured all of Syria and Palestine during the summer of 1919, taking statements and sampling opinions. Its report, presented to President Wilson, was kept secret from the public until The New York Times broke the story in December 1922, although a pro-Zionist joint resolution on Palestine was passed by Congress in September 1922.

The League of Nations

The League of Nations, created by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, was an organization formed to promote diplomacy and preserve world peace.

Learning Objectives

Identify the creation, goals, and limitations of the League of Nations

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Originally envisioned in Woodrow Wilson ‘s Fourteen Points, the League of Nations sought to prevent wars through collective security and mutual disarmament, and by settling disputes through international negotiation and arbitration.
  • The league lacked its own armed forces and depended on utilizing the military strength of member nations, which most of the great powers were reluctant to do. The league was unable to prevent aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s or prevent Germany, Japan, Italy, and Spain from withdrawing membership.
  • Several key nations did not take roles in the league. Soviet Russia never entered the league, and Germany was not allowed to join until 1926. Despite President Wilson’s vigorous campaign for American support,  Republicans refused to support either the Treat of Versailles or the league. The United States never ratified the treaty and was therefore excluded from any league activities.

Key Terms

  • Fourteen Points: A speech given by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. The address was intended to assure the country that the Great War was being fought for a moral cause and to outline a postwar blueprint for global peace.
  • Treaty of Versailles: One of the peace treaties at the end of World War I that ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied powers. It was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
  • Paris Peace Conference: The meeting of the Allied victors following the end of World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Central powers following the armistice of 1918.

The League of Nations was an international, governmental organization founded through negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference  of 1919, which officially brought an end to the First World War. The league was the brainchild of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who first unveiled the idea in his famed speech to Congress on January 18, 1918, outlining the Fourteen Points, his blueprint for global postwar peace and diplomacy.

The league was the first permanent international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament, and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. It also indirectly addressed labor conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. At its largest, from September 1934 to February 1935, the league counted 58 nations as members.

While its philosophy and diplomatic aims were groundbreaking, the league never reached its full potential largely due to a lack of participation by key international players, notably Russian and the United States.

League Philosophy

The diplomatic philosophy behind the League of Nations represented a fundamental shift from the preceding hundred years. The league lacked its own armed forces and depended on the traditional Great Powers nations—France, Britain, Russia, Germany, and Japan—to enforce its resolutions, maintain its economic sanctions, or provide military support when needed. Yet the Great Powers were often reluctant to do so because of concerns about weakening their individual strength and using resources outside their borders.

After a number of notable successes and some early failures in the 1920s, the league ultimately proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. Germany withdrew from the league, as did Japan, Italy, Spain, and others. The onset of World War II proved that the league had failed its primary purpose, which was to prevent another world conflict.

Creating the League

By the time the fighting ended in November 1918, World War I had leveled a profound blow, affecting the social, political, and economic systems of Europe and its colonies and inflicting psychological and physical damage. Antiwar sentiment rose across the world following World War I, which was described as, “the war to end all wars.” The war was ultimately blamed on international arms races, alliances, secret diplomacy, and the freedom of sovereign states to enter into war for their own benefit.

One proposed remedy to this sort of damaging international affairs was the creation of an organization whose aim was to prevent future wars through disarmament, open diplomacy, international cooperation, restrictions on the right to wage war, and penalties that made war unattractive. Wilson and his adviser, Colonel Edward M. House, enthusiastically promoted the idea of the league as a means of avoiding any repetition of the bloodshed of World War I, and the creation of the league became the centerpiece of Wilson’s Fourteen Points for Peace.

The Paris Peace Conference approved the proposal to create the League of Nations in January 1919, and the league was established by Part I of the Treaty of Versailles. In June 1919, 44 states signed the league’s covenant.

This cartoon implies that without America the bridge would collapse. The bridge represents the League of Nations, and Uncle Sam, the personification of America is reluctant to place the keystone in the bridge to complete it. This is odd because in the Treaty of Versailles, it was Woodrow Wilson the president of America that suggested that the League of Nations as part of his fourteen points. The missing keystone demonstrates how difficult it will be for the League to function without having the United States as a member. But it was a Republican majority in Congress that blocked the USA's entry into the League, not the President. It is now known that Wilson was very, very ill during vital periods at Versailles and afterwards and probably lacked the will to win Congress around.

Failure of the League: While one of the primary goals of the League of Nations was global diplomacy, the league proved largely unsuccessful in part because it lacked the support of the United States.

The league held its first council meeting in Paris in January 1920, six days after the Treat of Versailles came into force. The aftermath of World War I left many issues to be settled, including the exact position of national boundaries and which country particular regions would join. Most of these questions were handled by the victorious Allied powers, and subsequently the league played little part in resolving the turmoil resulting from the war.

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League of Nations Commission: Members of the Commission of the League of Nations in Paris, France, 1919.

League Weaknesses

The league’s major weaknesses can be summed up in three categories: Representation, collective security, and enforcement.

Representation at the league was often a problem. Though it was intended to encompass all nations, many never joined, or their time as part of the league was short. The most conspicuous absence was the United States. When the league was born in January 1920, neither Germany nor Russia was permitted to join. The league was further weakened when major powers, such as Japan and Italy, left in the 1930s.

The second important weakness grew from the contradiction between the idea of collective security that formed the basis of the league and international relations between individual states. The league’s collective security system required nations to act, if necessary, against states they considered friendly, and in a way that might endanger their national interests, to support states for which they had no normal affinity.

Finally, the League of Nations lacked any type of armed forces of its own and depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, which they were unwilling to do. Its two most important members, Britain and France, were reluctant to use sanctions and even more reluctant to resort to military action on behalf of the league as pacifism had become a strong force among the people and the leaders of the two countries in the aftermath of World War I.

The United States Rejects the League

Despite Wilson’s efforts to establish and promote the organization, for which he was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize (bestowed in 1920) in recognition of his work as the “Father of the League of Nations,” the United States did not join the league due to opposition from Republicans in the Senate. The two-thirds majority needed to pass the treaty was not obtained.

The Republican Party, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, controlled the U.S. Senate after the election of 1918, but its members were divided into multiple positions on the Treaty of Versailles and, subsequently, the League of Nations. Among the American public, Irish Catholics and German Americans were intensely opposed to the treaty, claiming it favored the British.

An angry bloc in the Senate of 12 to 18 ” Irreconcilables “—mostly Republicans, but also representatives of the Irish and German Democrats—fiercely opposed the treaty. One bloc of Democrats strongly supported the Treaty of Versailles, even with reservations added by Lodge. A second group of Democrats supported the treaty but followed Wilson in opposing any amendments or reservations.

The largest bloc, led by Lodge, wanted a treaty with reservations, especially on Article X, which involved the power of the League of Nations to make war without a vote by the U.S. Congress. The Irreconcilables were bitter enemies of President Wilson, and he launched a nationwide speaking tour in the summer of 1919 to refute them. However, Wilson collapsed midway through the tour with a serious stroke that effectively ruined his leadership abilities.

Wilson’s successor, President Warren G. Harding, continued American opposition to the League of Nations. It was not until July 21, 1921, that Harding signed into law the Knox-Porter Resolution drafted by Congress, which formally ended hostilities between the United States and the Central powers.

The United States was the only major power to emerge from World War I in a position of relative economic strength, putting America in the best position to intervene in international disagreements with potential for war. Therefore, the U.S. refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and to join the league had global consequences in terms of the financing and enforcement America could have brought to bear on league diplomacy.

The irony of the large, wealthy nation whose president first proposed the league failing to join its ranks was not lost on other countries and was a major reason the league did not become the great diplomatic clearing house Wilson envisioned. The league cannot be labeled a failure, however, as it laid the groundwork for the United Nations, which replaced the League of Nations after World War II and inherited a number of agencies and organizations founded by the league.