Du Bois, as noted above, had hoped that black participation in the war effort would promote racial justice at home and self-government for colonies abroad. “We return,” he wrote in The Crisis in May 1919, “we return from fighting, we return fighting. Make way for Democracy!” But the war’s aftermath both in the United States and overseas left him bitterly disappointed. Du Bois concluded that Wilson had “never at any single moment meant to include in his democracy” black Americans or the colonial peoples of the world. “Most men today,” he complained, “cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery.” In 1903, in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had made the memorable prediction that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” He now forecast a “fight for freedom” that would pit “black and brown and yellow men” throughout the world against racism and imperialism.

Disappointment at the failure to apply the Fourteen Points to the non-European world created a pervasive cynicism about Western use of the language of freedom and democracy. Wilson’s apparent willingness to accede to the demands of the imperial powers helped to spark a series of popular protest movements across the Middle East and Asia, and the rise of a new anti-Western nationalism. It inspired the May 4 movement in China, a mass protest against the decision at the Versailles peace conference to award certain German concessions (parts of China governed by foreign powers) to Japan. Some leaders, like Nguyen That Thanh, who took the name Ho Chi Minh, turned to communism, in whose name he would lead Vietnam’s long and bloody struggle for independence. The Soviet leader Lenin, in fact, had spoken of “the right of nations to self-determination” before Wilson, and with the collapse of the Wilsonian moment. Lenin’s reputation in the colonial world began to eclipse that of the American president. But whether communist or not, these movements announced the emergence of anticolonial nationalism as a major force in world affairs, which it would remain for the rest of the twentieth century.

“Your liberalness,” one Egyptian leader remarked, speaking of Britain and America, “is only for yourselves.” Yet ironically, when colonial peoples demanded to be recognized as independent members of the international community, they would invoke both the heritage of the American Revolution—the first colonial struggle that produced an independent nation—and the Wilsonian language whereby the self-governing nationstate is the most legitimate political institution, and all nations deserve equal respect.

As Du Bois recognized, World War I sowed the seeds not of a lasting peace but of wars to come. German resentment over the peace terms would help to fuel the rise of Adolf Hitler and the coming of World War II. In the breakup of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, violence over the status of Northern Ireland, and the seemingly unending conflict in the Middle East between Arabs and Israelis, the world was still haunted by the ghost of Versailles.

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