Milestones

Milestones: 1914–1920

The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles

The Paris Peace Conference was an international meeting convened in January 1919 at Versailles just outside Paris. The purpose of the meeting was to establish the terms of the peace after World War. Though nearly thirty nations participated, the representatives of Great Britain, France, the United States, and Italy became known as the “Big Four.” The “Big Four” would dominate the proceedings that led to the formulation of the Treaty of Versailles, a treaty that articulated the compromises reached at the conference. The Treaty of Versailles included a plan to form a League of Nations that would serve as an international forum and an international collective security arrangement. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was a strong advocate of the League as he believed it would prevent future wars.

Treaty of Versailles

Treaty of Versailles

Negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference were not always easy. Great Britain, France, and Italy fought together during the First World War as Allied Powers. The United States, entered the war in April 1917 as an Associated Power, and while it fought on the side of the Allies, it was not bound to honor pre-existing agreements between the Allied powers. These agreements tended to focus on postwar redistribution of territories. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson strongly opposed many of these arrangements, including Italian demands on the Adriatic. This often led to significant disagreements among the “Big Four.”

Treaty negotiations were also weakened by the absence of other important nations. Russia had fought as one of the Allies until December 1917, when its new Bolshevik Government withdrew from the war. The Allied Powers refused to recognize the new Bolshevik Government and thus did not invite its representatives to the Peace Conference. The Allies were angered by the Bolshevik decision to repudiate Russia’s outstanding financial debts to the Allies and to publish the texts of secret agreements between the Allies concerning the postwar period. The Allies also excluded the defeated Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria).

According to French and British wishes, Germany was subjected to strict punitive measures under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The new German government was required to surrender approximately 10 percent of its prewar territory in Europe and all of its overseas possessions. The harbor city of Danzig (now Gdansk) and the coal-rich Saarland were placed under the administration of the League of Nations, and France was allowed to exploit the economic resources of the Saarland until 1935. The German Army and Navy were limited in size. Kaiser Wilhelm II and a number of other high-ranking German officials were to be tried as war criminals. Under the terms of Article 231 of the treaty, the Germans accepted responsibility for the war and, as such, were liable to pay financial reparations to the Allies, though the actual amount would be determined by an Inter-Allied Commission that would present its findings in 1921 (the amount they determined was 132 billion gold Reichmarks, or $32 billion, which came on top of an initial $5 billion payment demanded by the treaty). Germans would grow to resent these harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

Henry Cabot Lodge

Henry Cabot Lodge

While the Treaty of Versailles did not present a peace agreement that satisfied all parties concerned, by the time President Woodrow Wilson returned to the United States in July 1919, American public opinion was overwhelming in favor of ratifying the treaty, including the Covenant of the League of Nations. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that 32 state legislatures passed resolutions in favor of the treaty, there was intense opposition to it within the U.S. Senate.

Senate opposition to the Treaty of Versailles cited Article 10 of the treaty, which dealt with collective security and the League of Nations. This article, opponents argued, ceded the war powers of the U.S. Government to the League’s Council. The opposition came from two groups: the “Irreconcilables,” who refused to join the League of Nations under any circumstances, and “Reservationists,” led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Henry Cabot Lodge, who were willing to ratify the treaty with amendments. While Lodge was defeated in his attempt to pass amendments to the Treaty in September, he did manage to attach 14 “reservations” to it in November. In a final vote on March 19, 1920, the Treaty of Versailles fell short of ratification by seven votes. Consequently, the U.S. Government signed the Treaty of Berlin on August 25, 1921. This was a separate peace treaty with Germany that stipulated that the United States would enjoy all “rights, privileges, indemnities, reparations or advantages” conferred to it by the Treaty of Versailles, but left out any mention of the League of Nations, which the United States never joined.