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Treaty of Versailles

After winning re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War," Woodrow Wilson quickly found in early 1917 that the drift toward war was becoming more difficult to resist. However, he was at pains to make clear that the United States would only enter the war with its own aims, which would be different from those of the European powers. On January 22, 1917, Wilson addressed the U.S. Senate on the subject:

The present war must first be ended, but we owe it to candor and to a just regard for the opinion of mankind to say that, so far as our participation in guarantees of future peace is concerned, it makes a great deal of difference in what way and upon what terms it is ended. The treaties and agreements which bring it to an end must embody terms which will create a peace that is worth guaranteeing and preserving a peace that will win the approval of mankind, not merely a peace that will serve the several interest and immediate aims of the nations engaged.
While the allies were anxious to have American support, they viewed Wilson`s premises as completely naive and had no intention of following his precepts when they negotiated peace with the Germans after the armistice of November 1918. Representatives of the German government were summoned to Paris and on May 7, 1919, presented with the fruits of the peace negotiations. After examining the more than 200-page document, the Germans were outraged. They believed that they had been lured into an armistice with the promise that the Fourteen Points would serve as the backbone of the peace treaty. What they found instead bore little resemblance to Wilson’s even-handed proposals. Thus, the stage was set for two decades of German poverty, hunger, privation and World War II. Peace with Germany, like most complicated issues, required compromise. Despite German anger, the result of the negotiations was much more moderate than the harsh terms of Brest-Litovsk, but still far from the spirit of the Fourteen Points. The treaty contained more than 400 articles, but the major issues can be summarized by the following:
  • Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France.
  • German colonies were assigned to victorious nations as ”mandates” under the League of Nations.
  • The Saar Basin was assigned to France for 15 years, then a plebiscite was to be held to determine the area`s allegiance.
  • Poland was reestablished as an independent nation and granted access to the sea through a strip of land that came to be known as the Polish Corridor.
  • The amount of German reparations was to be determined by a Reparations Commission.
  • Germany was forced to accept responsibility for all losses and damages in the conflict in what was termed the "war guilt clause" (Article 231).
  • Germany was required to disarm, specifically:
    • The drafting of military personnel as prohibited.
    • The Rhineland was demilitarized.
    • The German army was limited in size to 100,000 men.
    • The German navy and air force were severely reduced.
    • The German general staff was abolished.
    • Restrictions were placed on the manufacture and importation of war matériel.
  • The Covenant of the League of Nations was included as part of the treaty.
Wilson’s victories included the creation of a modern Poland, the pledge of support for disarmament, the establishment of colonial trusts and, of course, the creation of the League of Nations. However, in order to obtain these provisions, he acquiesced to the demands of the Allies on reparations, stripping Germany of its colonies and the near total destruction of the German military — all of which contributed to an undercurrent of anger in the defeated nation. Opposition to the treaty came from many different sources. Besides the isolationists who felt the treaty forced to United States to do too much, another view was that it did little to prevent future global conflicts. This point, made in an editorial that appeared in the New Republic on May 24, 1919, expressed this view:
Yet if they connive at this Treaty they will, as liberal and humane American democrats who seek by social experiment and education to render their country more worthy of its still unredeemed national promise, be delivering themselves into the hands of their enemies, the reactionaries and the revolutionists. The future of liberal Americanism depends upon a moral union between democracy and nationalism. Such a union is compromised so long as nationalism remains competitive in policy, exclusive in spirit, and complacently capitalist in organization.
Wilson was well aware of the objectionable features of the treaty, but believed that they could be overcome in the future by actions of the League of Nations. The formal signing of the treaty took place on June 28.
NOTE: The Treaty of Versailles was designed to establish the terms of peace between the Allied Powers and Germany; it was one part of what is generally regarded as the Peace of Paris, which also includes separate treaties with Hungary, Turkey and Austria.
See also Wilson`s Search for Peace and map depicting German territorial losses.