Hamilton: President Wilson, The peace to end all peace
On December 4, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to depart the United States while still in office, sailed toward France on a captured German luxury liner converted to be the USS George Washington. From overseas, President Wilson was viewed as the American “savior” who was sailing from the New World to rescue the Old World from its follies and show the Europeans how to manage their affairs without killing each other. Accompanying President and the new Mrs. Wilson on the USS George Washington were dozens of academics whose expertise covered almost the entire spectrum of human endeavor. They were supposed to be the data bank for the negotiations to take place in Paris, to provide the fine print for the Treaty of Versailles.
A war-weary world was in love with Woodrow Wilson. The adoring cries of “Veelson! Veelson!” could almost be heard on shipboard as Wilson crossed the Atlantic, further fanning the already out-sized ego of the American president who saw no need to share credit with the Congress that gave him a Declaration of War against the Central Powers, that raised the funds to create sufficient armed forces to turn the tide against the Kaiser, that passed the unpopular Selective Service Act that provided the men needed to fight in the trenches. In fact, when Wilson spoke in England, he failed to mention the great suffering and sacrifices of the peoples of the British Empire.
When Wilson and his entourage arrived in France, British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister, Georges Clémenceau, were still at home shoring up their domestic political bases and making sure they understood the peace-treaty demands of their electorate. But Wilson, like President Obama, had his “pen and his telephone.” Wilson had his 14 Points for Peace and his vision of a collective-security agreement to be called: The League of Nations. For Wilson, that was more than enough.
In February, 1919, Wilson made a brief trip back home which should have alerted Wilson that the newly Republican-controlled U.S. Senate might not ratify a peace treaty about which it had not been consulted. But with the adulation of the European masses ringing in his ears, Wilson felt the concerns of the American Congress could be safely ignored.
Wilson even ignored the vast array of academic minds assembled in Paris to provide the technical advice that would be needed to adjust geographical boundaries, to adjudicate and resolve ethnic and religious differences among the peoples who were going to have to live under the dictates of the Treaty of Versailles which, as history would eventually record, set the stage for World War II, Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq.
Ironically, and with tragic consequences for future American war dead, wounded, and their families, when Nguyen Tat Thanh (later, Ho Chi Minh) tried to plead the case for Vietnamese independence to Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clémenceau, he was ignored. Thus, the peace treaty that was to end all wars ended up as the peace treaty to end all peace. And yes, with just a “pen and a telephone,” a president who ignores the elected representatives of the people can do a lot of harm.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame, and is a recipient of the University of Nebraska 2015 Alumni Achievement Award. He was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the Infantry School, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
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