The United States and the Settlement

The primary relationship of the United States to the treaties was determined by its participation as a belligerent in the war of 1914–18. The President, in whose name the action would be taken, determined to attend the peace conference in person as head of the American Commission To Negotiate Peace. The President arrived in Paris on December 13, 1918 and ceased to head the commission immediately after the signing of the treaty of peace with Germany. The commission itself continued its activities through the conclusion of the treaties of peace with Austria and Bulgaria and did not take ship to return to the United States until December 10, 1919.

The commissioners of the United States signed the treaties of peace with Germany, Austria, and Hungary as a consequence of having been in a state of war with each.

The American commissioners signed the treaty of peace with Bulgaria without having been at war with that country. “We took part in the negotiations” (with Bulgaria), wrote the Secretary of State to the President on November 21, 1919, “on the theory that under Article 10 [of the Covenant] we were bound to guarantee the settlements and therefore should have a voice in reaching them and should also be a party to the treaty.” On November 24 the President’s secretary transmitted a memorandum from Mrs. Wilson which stated from the President that the commissioners “could sign but [he] does not advise their remaining for that purpose” (file 763.72119/8126½ A and /8127½). The commissioners, still being at Paris, did sign the treaty of peace with Bulgaria on November 27.

Uncertainty of the extent of participation of the United States in the deliberations of the Supreme Council increased in October 1919 and thereafter. The American Commission To Negotiate Peace left Paris on December 9, and the treaty of peace with Germany was brought into force on January 10, 1920 without the eventual participation of the United States having been clarified.

In Washington attention was concentrated on the treaty of peace with Germany on which a highly publicized debate had been going on since the convening of the Senate of the 66th Congress on May 19, 1919. The debate increased in critical content after the formal submission of the treaty to the Senate on July 10 and again after the submission of the report of the Committee on Foreign Relations on September 10. The Senate failed to give its advice and consent to ratification on November 19.

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The Department of State on August 28, 1919 concluded that the “United States should not participate in the work of setting up commissions, etc., until the treaty is ratified by the United States”, but there seemed “to be no reason why United States representatives can not discuss with representatives of the other powers what may be done if and when the treaty comes into force”. Vacancies were not filled by the United States as they occurred, a situation which caused the Council to provide that commissions could take valid decisions if all eligible states were not represented.

The Secretary of State on October 22 wrote his opinion that “our representatives may sit as unofficial observers at the meetings of certain commissions in cases where such express authority is given by the Department”. On November 27, in view of the failure of the Senate to advise and consent to ratification of the treaty of peace with Germany, the Secretary of State informed the American Commission To Negotiate Peace, “the President feels that you should withdraw immediately the American representatives on all commissions growing out of or dependent on either the Peace Conference or the treaty except those dealing with Reparations Commission which are being further considered by the President. The Department feels that this Government has an interest apart from the treaty in keeping in touch with economic and financial questions.” As to the Austrian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian treaties, “the position of the United States … is the same as outlined above with reference to the German treaty”.

On December 8 the Ambassador in France was informed of the President’s agreement to his “sitting on the Supreme Council in behalf of the United States as an observer and not as a participant”. He was later cautioned to make it clear that “the United States is not to be considered as party to any resolution, declaration or action of or by the Council unless through special act of the Department this Government expressly adheres thereto”.

On December 30 he was instructed to request the Council “to delay all actions, resolutions, or decisions which concern this Government until Department sends you instructions for each matter involved”, and that “‘Principal Allied and Associated Powers’ should only be used when you have agreed to its use in any particular instance” (Foreign Relations, 1919, i, 31.)

Throughout November and December the Supreme Council devoted considerable thought to making the adjustments necessitated by the withdrawal of the United States and to organizing the work which remained. On December 13 the Supreme Council agreed that [Page 11] “the present session” of the peace conference should end at latest within a fortnight of the entry into force of the treaty with Germany. “Large questions” of policy would thereafter be dealt with by direct communication between the Governments and questions of detail would go to the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris.

The contemplated transition took place on January 21, 1920 when the Council of Heads of Government and of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in a last joint session provided for the future. The Conference of Ambassadors began its work on January 26, and shortly after there began a series of conferences extending over two years which were attended by the heads of government, the ministers of foreign affairs, or other delegates sitting as direct representatives of their governments. At this juncture it was incumbent upon the United States to decide upon the character and extent of its participation in the two series of meetings.

As to the Conference of Ambassadors, the Ambassador in France was instructed (ibid., p. 32): “The Department does not object to your attending unofficially and as an observer, … provided your colleagues should request or offer no objection to your attending the meetings in such capacity.”

The Conference of Ambassadors solved the difficulty of the abstention of the United States from its decisions on behalf of the “Principal Allied and Associated Powers” by employing this formula: “The British Empire, France, Italy and Japan, signatories with the United States of America, as the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, to the Treaty of Peace.” The phrase was first used in the treaty transferring Slesvig to Denmark, May 22, 1920.

As to the series of conferences, no general instruction was issued. The first two of these were regarded as continuations of the peace conference for concluding the treaty of peace with Turkey. At the London conference, February 12–April 10, 1920, the President did not wish the Ambassador to attend “in any capacity even if you should be invited” (ibid., 1920, i, 1). At San Remo, April 18–26, 1920, the Ambassador in Italy was present as an “observer”. Until January 1923 there were subsequently held 15 conferences that can be regarded as related to the peace conference, of which 3 dealt only with Turkey and the Near East. Nine of the series dealt wholly or in part with reparation questions, in which the United States participated only at the informational level through its unofficial observer with the Reparation Commission. At Paris, August 8–13, 1921, there was an observer for the Upper Silesian question only (ibid., 1921, i, 15), and there was an observer at Cannes, January [Page 12] 6–13, 1922. An invitation to Genoa, April 10–May 19, 1922, was declined since the conclusion was reached that it would be “a conference of a political character in which the Government of the United States could not helpfully participate” (ibid., 1922, i, 393). However, the Ambassador in Italy was sent to Genoa for the duration of the conference.

The function of an observer was described in the instruction of April 20, 1920 to the Ambassador in Italy for attendance at the San Remo conference (ibid., 1920, i, 2): “You are not to participate but will act solely as an observer. You are to express no opinion and take no action on any subjects [considered] by the Supreme Council but you are to report the proceedings to the Department and await instructions on any question on which an expression of the views of this Government is desired.” The policy of the representative of the United States admitted to the Conference of Ambassadors to be an observer, as described by the first Ambassador in France to fill the position, was that “in every case where it seems that United States in the event of ratifying treaties concerned might even possibly desire to adopt different attitude from that decided upon by Conference a reservation has been made” (ibid., p. 3).

The Acting Secretary of State reported in a circular telegram of January 18, 1921 that it had been decided to discontinue representation on the Conference of Ambassadors “since this country has not accepted the Treaty of Versailles and as the most important questions raised by the armistice have been disposed of”. By January 28 the Ambassador in France was asked to get copies of the minutes of meetings of the Conference of Ambassadors “informally”; they “would be of great value to the Department”.

The Secretary of State of the new administration was equally cautious when he took office in March 1921, while the Principal Allied Powers were sitting in London to decide on the reparation program. From their president on May 6 came this request (ibid., 1921, i, 12):

“As President of the Allied Conference which is just completing its sittings in London, I am authorised with the unanimous concurrence of all the Powers here represented to express to the United States Government our feeling that the settlement of the international difficulties in which the world is still involved would be materially assisted by the co-operation of the United States; and I am therefore to enquire whether that Government is disposed to be represented in the future, as it was at an earlier date, at Allied Conferences, [Page 13] wherever they may meet, at the Ambassadors’ Conference, which sits at Paris, and on the Reparations Commission.

“We are united in feeling that American cognizance of our proceedings and, where possible, American participation in them, will be best facilitated by this.”

The Government of the United States accepted this invitation the same day, saying that, “while maintaining the traditional policy of abstention from participation in matters of distinctly European concern”, it was “deeply interested in the proper economic adjustments and in the just settlement of the matters of world-wide importance which are under discussion in these conferences, and desires helpfully to cooperate in the deliberations upon these questions.”

After the Schedule of Payments for reparation was accepted, the Ambassador in London was designated to participate in the Supreme Council without committing his Government “to any action on its part”. Nonparticipation was to resolve any difficulty in separating “matters of ‘distinctly European concern’ from matters of ‘worldwide importance’”(ibid., p. 14). The American Ambassador in Paris resumed as “unofficial American observer on the Conference of Ambassadors”. His function was “to make reservations for reference to the Department on decisions affecting the interests of the United States”, refraining from opinion or comment on other questions and making any commitments only on instructions.

The pattern of participation as it stood in May 1921 remained substantially unchanged so long as questions originating from the Paris Peace Conference were uppermost. The general lines of the policy described were given more rigidity when the Senate’s condition to the treaties restoring friendly relations with Germany, Austria, and Hungary became applicable. Attendance of the “observer” at meetings of the Conference of Ambassadors was seldom more than formal. The staff attached to the office of the unofficial American observer on the Reparation Commission rendered many services. Some of the personnel were taken over by the Commission, while the unofficial observer himself was not infrequently called upon to give awards, to umpire questions, or to make disinterested reports upon such matters as the evaluation of shipping tonnage.