Ghosts of WWI Wait for Trump In Europe
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
President Trump will travel to Paris November 11 to mark the centenary of the World War I Armistice. This comes at a time when relations are strained with our European allies. We will have just finished a midterm election in which the president’s penchant for going it alone is one of the issues.
It’s deja vu all over again. Precisely those themes were evident in the autumn of 1918. As the war with Imperial Germany drew to a close, America’s relations with Britain, France, and Italy were anything but cordial; and the bipartisan domestic consensus at work in the year and a half since America’s entry into the war was badly frayed.
The root of these conflicts, moreover, lay in the character and policy outlook of Woodrow Wilson. On October 6, the Germans appealed directly to Wilson, requesting negotiations based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Germans believed they might get a better deal from the American President than they might get from his co-combatants.
They had reason for hope; as negotiations began, Britain and France were not even consulted by Wilson. Before and after our entry into the war, Wilson had consistently blamed the conflict on the Kaiser and his generals, while absolving the German people. His speech declaring war had asserted that the U.S. aimed to secure “the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included.”
Nowhere in that declaration were Britain or France mentioned as allies with whom America would make common cause. To comprehend how bizarre that was, try to imagine Franklin Roosevelt, on December 8, 1941, going before Congress, eschewing a message of total war, and proclaiming “we have no quarrel with the Japanese people.”
The Fourteen Points, on whose basis Berlin hoped to negotiate, were announced on January 8, 1918. They represented Wilson’s vision of the war’s aims and the basis for the postwar peace. They were rooted in “a principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities … whether they be strong or weak”. The anchor was Point 14, which described the League of Nations.
The Points did not mention reparations; did not guarantee the return to France of territory lost to Germany in previous conflicts; and did not call for the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After three years of brutal conflict, this leniency toward their adversaries would prove difficult for Wilson’s allies to swallow.
The Republican opposition was fit to be tied, including the GOP leader in the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, who’d once been portrayed as an isolationist. On October 15, 1918, Lodge offered a motion in the Senate demanding Wilson offer Germany only an unconditional surrender. The editors of most U.S. newspapers concurred.
In an effort to stall the momentum building for a harsh peace, Wilson took the unprecedented step of imploring the American electorate to return a Democratic majority to Congress in order to sustain his war policy. The appeal backfired, for Wilson’s message shattered the fragile consensus that had prevailed in the conduct of the war the previous seventeen months.
On November 5 the Republicans gained control of both houses. Lodge became the master of the Senate and the Foreign Relations committee. Allied resistance to Wilson’s one-man show had further stiffened. Germany was rapidly collapsing; revolution swept the country, the Kaiser abdicated and on November 9 the German Republic was proclaimed.
An advance of Supreme Commander Foch’s Allied armies to Berlin followed by an unconditional surrender would not have been out of the question. By November, though, Wilson’s initiative had made a negotiated Armistice the only possible denouement. Wilson succeeded in compelling London and Paris to accept an Armistice based on the Fourteen Points.
The surrender terms signed on November 11 were harsher than Wilson had originally hoped. One passage asserted Germany was liable for “reparation for damage done.” It turned out that Wilson’s tactics in the Armistice negotiations would come back to haunt him as the 1919 Peace Conference unfolded.
The Virginia born Democrat was not trusted by his wartime partners; a fragile German democracy placed undue faith in him as its advocate; and a Republican Congress had no investment in whatever he negotiated at Versailles. When Wilson refused to compromise on the terms, Lodge would lead the Senate to send the League and the entire Versailles Treaty to defeat.
No wonder President Trump is fighting so hard to shore up Republican chances to hold onto Congress. A century ago the failure of a president to find common ground with his own national legislature led to the defeat of his foreign policy and, some would say, left the way open for a new war. It’s a century old narrative that’s in danger of repeating.
Mr. Atkinson, a retired newspaper executive, writes on topics in 20th-century history.
Image: Courtesy of Elliott Banfield.