Modern history




We Are the League of the People

ON JANUARY 12, the day after his arrival in Paris, Lloyd George met Clemenceau, Wilson and the Italian prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, at the French Foreign Ministry on the Quai d’Orsay for the first of well over a hundred meetings. Each man brought his foreign secretary and a bevy of advisers. The following day, in deference to British wishes, two Japanese representatives joined the group. This became the Council of Ten, although most people continued to refer to it as the Supreme Council. The smaller allies and neutrals were not invited, an indication of what was to come. At the end of March, as the Peace Conference reached its crucial struggles, the Supreme Council was to shed the foreign ministers and the Japanese to become the Council of Four: Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson and Orlando.

The great staterooms at the Quai d’Orsay have survived the passage of time and a later German occupation surprisingly well. They were given their present shape in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Napoleon III ruled a France that still dreamed of being a great world power. Important visitors still go in the formal entrance overlooking the Seine, past the massive branching staircase which leads up to the private apartments, and into the series of reception rooms and offices with their parquet floors, Aubusson carpets and massive fireplaces. Huge windows stretch up toward the high decorated ceilings and elaborate chandeliers. The heavy tables and chairs stand on fat gilded legs. The predominant colors are gold, red and ebony.

The Supreme Council met in the inner sanctum, the office of France’s foreign minister, Stéphen Pichon. Today it is white and gilt; in 1919 it was darker. The same carved-wood paneling still decorates the walls, and the faded seventeenth-century tapestries still hang above the paneling. The double doors open out to a rotunda and there is still a rose garden beyond. Clemenceau, as the host, presided from an armchair in front of the hearth with its massive log fire. His colleagues, each with a little table for his papers, faced him from the garden side, the British and Americans side by side, then the Japanese and the Italians off in a corner. Wilson, as the only head of state, had a chair a few inches higher than anyone else’s. The prime ministers and foreign ministers had high-backed, comfortable chairs, and in clusters behind them were the lesser advisers and secretaries on little gilt chairs.

The Supreme Council rapidly developed its own routine. It met once, sometimes twice, occasionally three times a day. There was an agenda of sorts, but the council also dealt with issues as they came up. It heard petitioners, a procession that did not end until the conference’s conclusion. As the afternoons closed in, the green silk curtains were drawn and the electric lights were switched on. The room was usually very hot, but the French reacted with horror to any suggestion of opening a window. Clemenceau slouched in his chair, frequently looking at the ceiling, with a bored expression; Wilson fidgeted, getting up from time to time to stretch his legs; Lansing, his foreign minister, who had little enough to do, made caricatures; Lloyd George chatted in a loud undertone, making jokes and comments. The official interpreter, Paul Mantoux, interpreted from French to English and back again, throwing himself into each speech with such verve that one might have thought he was himself begging for territory. Since Clemenceau spoke English well and the Italian foreign minister, Sidney Sonnino, spoke it reasonably, conversations among the Big Four were often in English. The assistants tiptoed about with maps and documents. Every afternoon the doors opened and footmen carried in tea and macaroons. Wilson was surprised and somewhat shocked at first that they should interrupt discussing the future of the world for such a trivial event, but, as he told his doctor, he realized that this was a foreign custom that he might as well accept.1

From their first meeting, the men on the Supreme Council knew that as their armed forces demobilized, their power was shrinking. “Three hundred and twelve thousand will be sent this month,” the commander of the American forces in Europe, General Pershing, told House that spring. “The record last month was 300,000. At this rate all our troops will be in the United States by August 15.”2 The peacemakers had to impose peace terms on the enemy while they could. Meanwhile, they had to worry about issues at home that had been postponed during the war. They were also racing, or so they believed, against another sort of enemy. Hunger, disease—typhoid, cholera and the dreadful influenza—revolutionary insurrections in one city after another, and small wars, some dozen of them in 1919 alone, all threatened to finish off what was left of European society.

It was already two months since the end of the war, and people were wondering why so little had been accomplished. Part of the reason was that the Allies were not really ready for the sudden end of the fighting. Nor could they have been. All their energies had been devoted to winning the war. “What had we to do with peace,” wrote Winston Churchill, “while we did not know whether we should not be destroyed? Who could think of reconstruction while the whole world was being hammered to pieces, or of demobilisation when the sole aim was to hurl every man and every shell into battle?” Foreign offices, it is true, colonial ministries and war offices had dusted off old goals and drawn up new demands while the fighting went on. There had been attempts to think seriously about the peace: the British special inquiry, established in 1917, the French Comité d’Etudes and the most comprehensive of all, the American Inquiry, set up in September 1917 under House’s supervision. To the dismay of the professional diplomats, they had called on outside experts, from historians to missionaries, and had produced detailed studies and maps. The Americans had produced sixty separate reports on the Far East and the Pacific alone, which contained much useful information as well as such insights as that, in India, “a great majority of the unmarried consist of very young children.”3 The Allied leaders had not paid much attention to any of their own studies.

In the first week of the Peace Conference, the Supreme Council spent much time talking about procedures. The British Foreign Office had produced a beautiful diagram in many colors of a hexagon within which the conference, its committees and subcommittees fitted together in perfect symmetry, while outside, the Allies’ own committees floated like minor planets. Lloyd George burst out laughing when it was shown to him. The French circulated a detailed agenda with lists of guiding principles and problems to be addressed, ranked in order of importance. Since the settlement with Germany came first and the League of Nations barely rated a mention, Wilson, with support from Lloyd George, rejected it. (Tardieu, its author, saw this as “the instinctive repugnance of the Anglo-Saxons to the systematized constructions of the Latin mind.”4)

The Supreme Council managed to choose a secretary, Henri Dutasta, a junior French diplomat who was rumored to be Clemenceau’s illegitimate son. (The extraordinarily efficient British official, Hankey, who became the deputy secretary, soon took over most of the work.) After much wrangling it was decided that French and English would both be the official languages for documents. The French argued for their own language alone, ostensibly on the grounds that it was more precise and at the same time capable of greater nuance. French, they said, had been the language of international communication and diplomacy for centuries. The British and the Americans pointed out that English was increasingly supplanting it. Lloyd George said that he would always regret that he did not know French better (he scarcely knew it at all), but it seemed absurd that English, spoken by more than 170 million people, should not have equal status with French. The Italians said, in that case, why not Italian as well? “Otherwise,” said Sonnino, “it would look as if Italy was being treated as an inferior by being excluded.” In that case, said Lloyd George, why not Japanese as well? The Japanese delegates, who tended to have trouble following the debates whether they were in French or English, remained silent. Clemenceau backed down, to the consternation of many of his own officials.5

In December the French Foreign Ministry had sent out invitations to every country, from Liberia to Siam, that could claim, however improbably, to be on the Allied side. By January there were twenty-nine countries represented in Paris, all expecting to take part. How would their role be defined? Would they all sit together, with the British empire having the same vote as Panama? None of the Great Powers wanted that, but where Clemenceau was willing to start the delegates from the lesser powers on relatively harmless questions such as international waterways, Wilson preferred as little structure as possible. “We ought to have,” he said, “no formal Conferences but only conversations.” Clemenceau found this exasperating: if the Allies waited until they had agreed on all the main issues, it would be months before the Peace Conference proper could begin, and public opinion would be very disappointed. Anyway, he added, they had to give all the other powers, who were assembling in Paris, something to do. Lloyd George proposed a compromise, as he was to do on many occasions: there would be a plenary session at the end of the week; in the meantime, the Supreme Council would get on with other matters.6

The members of the Supreme Council, even Wilson, had no intention of relinquishing control of the conference agenda, which promised to be huge. The rejected French list included the League of Nations, Polish affairs, Russian affairs, Baltic nationalities, states formed from the late Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Balkans; the Far East and the Pacific, Jewish affairs, international river navigation, international railways, legislation to guarantee people’s self-determination; protection for ethnic and religious minorities, international legislation on patents and trademarks, penalties for crimes committed during the war, reparations for war damages and economic and financial questions. The list was prescient.7

The Supreme Council also faced intense scrutiny from the public. In the weeks leading up to the start of the proceedings, hundreds of journalists had arrived in Paris. The French government created a lavish press club, in a millionaire’s house. The press, men mainly but also including a handful of women, such as the great American muckraker Ida Tarbell, were ungrateful. They sneered at the vulgarity of the décor, and the Americans nicknamed it “The House of a Thousand Teats.” More important, the press complained about the secrecy of the proceedings. Wilson had talked in his Fourteen Points about “open covenants openly arrived at.” As with many of his catchphrases, its meaning was not clear, perhaps not even to Wilson himself, but it caught the public imagination.8

Wilson certainly meant there should be no more secret treaties, such as those that he and many others saw as one of the causes of the Great War, but did he mean that all the negotiations would be open for public scrutiny? That is what many of the journalists and their readers expected. Press representatives demanded the right to attend the meetings of the Supreme Council, or at least get daily summaries of their discussions. He had always fought for the freedom of the press, Clemenceau told his aide General Mordacq, but there were limits. It would be “a veritable suicide” to let the press report on the day-to-day discussions of the Supreme Council. If that were to happen, Lloyd George commented, the Peace Conference would go on forever. He proposed that they release a statement to the press, saying that the process of reaching decisions among the powers was going to be long and delicate, and that they had no wish to stir up unnecessary controversy by publicizing their disagreements. Wilson agreed. American journalists complained bitterly to Baker, Wilson’s press adviser, who went, according to one, pale with anxiety. Wilson, they told him, was a hypocrite and a naïve one at that. Lloyd George and Clemenceau, safe from the spotlight of public scrutiny, would tie him in knots. The journalists threatened to leave Paris, but few did.9

The lesser powers were also full of complaints and demands. Portugal, which had contributed 60,000 soldiers to the Western Front, thought it was outrageous that it should have only one official delegate while Brazil, which had sent a medical unit and some aviators, had three. Britain supported Portugal, an old ally, the United States Brazil. Recognition in Paris, the center of world power, was important for established states, and crucial for what the peacemakers christened “states in process of formation.” With the collapse of Russia, and the disintegration of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman empire, there were many of these. Just standing in front of the Supreme Council to present a case was validation of a sort—and good for reputations back home.10

For the next five months, until the signing of the German treaty in June at Versailles, Paris housed a virtual world government. “We are the league of the people,” said Clemenceau the day before that momentous ceremony. Wilson replied, “We are the State.” And even in those very first meetings, the members of the Supreme Council were starting to act as a cabinet, within a representative system of government. Indeed, it was an analogy that they themselves used.11

Paris may have housed a world government, but that government’s power was never as great as most people, both then and since, have assumed. By the time the Supreme Council first met on January 12, Poland had been re-created, Finland and the Baltic states were well on their way to independence and Czechoslovakia had been pieced together. In the Balkans, Serbia had joined with Austria-Hungary’s South Slav territories of Croatia and Slovenia. The new entity did not yet have a name but some people were talking of a Yugoslav state. “The task of the Parisian Treaty-makers,” Lloyd George commented, “was not to decide what in fairness should be given to the liberated nationalities, but what in common honesty should be freed from their clutches when they had overstepped the bounds of self-determination.” 12

But what were those bounds? There was no clear answer—or rather, every competing nationality had a different answer. “You see those little holes?” a local asked an American visitor to Lvov, on the disputed borders between Russia and Poland. “We call them here ‘Wilson’s Points.’ They have been made with machine guns; the big gaps have been made with hand grenades. We are now engaged in self-determination, and God knows what and when the end will be.” At its first meetings the Supreme Council had to deal with fighting between Poland and its neighbors. When the Peace Conference officially ended a year later, the fighting was still going on, there and elsewhere. Tasker Bliss, the American military adviser, wrote gloomily to his wife from Paris predicting another thirty years of war in Europe. “The ‘submerged nations’ are coming to the surface and as soon as they appear, they fly at somebody’s throat. They are like mosquitoes—vicious from the moment of their birth.”13

It is tempting but misleading to compare the situation in 1919 to that in 1945. In 1919 there were no superpowers, no Soviet Union with its millions of soldiers occupying the center of Europe and no United States with its huge economy and its monopoly of the atomic bomb. In 1919, the enemy states were not utterly defeated. The peacemakers talked expansively about making and unmaking nations, but the clay was not as malleable and the strength to mold it not as great as they liked to think. Of course, the peacemakers had considerable power. They still had armies and navies. They had the weapon of food if they chose to use it against a starving Europe. They could exert influence by threats and promises, to grant or withhold recognition, for example. They could get out the maps and move borders this way or that, and most of the time their decisions would be accepted—but not always, as the case of Turkey was to show in spectacular fashion. The ability of the international government in Paris to control events was limited by such factors as distance, usable transportation and available forces—and by the unwillingness of the Great Powers to expend their resources.

In 1919 the limits were not yet clear—to the peacemakers themselves, or to the world. Consequently, many people believed that, if only they could catch the attention of the Supreme Council, past wrongs would be righted and their futures assured. A young kitchen assistant at the Ritz sent in a petition asking for independence from France for his little country. Ho Chi Minh—and Vietnam—were too obscure even to receive an answer. A Korean graduate of Princeton University tried to get to Paris but was refused a passport. After the Second World War, Syngman Rhee became the president of a newly independent South Korea.14

Women’s suffrage societies met in Paris, chaired by the formidable Englishwoman Millicent Fawcett, and passed resolutions asking for representation at the Peace Conference and votes for women. Wilson, who had a certain sympathy for their cause, met their delegation and talked vaguely but encouragingly about a special commission of the conference, with women members, to look into women’s issues. In February, just before he left on a short trip back to the United States, he hesitantly asked his fellow peacemakers whether they would support this. Balfour said he was a strong supporter of votes for women but he did not think they should be dealing with such a matter. Clemenceau agreed. The Italians said it was a purely domestic issue. As Clemenceau whispered loudly, “What’s the little chap saying?,” the Japanese delegate expressed appreciation for the great part women had played in civilization but commented that the suffrage movement in Japan was scarcely worth notice. The matter was dropped, never to be taken up again.15

The peacemakers soon discovered that they had taken on the administration of much of Europe and large parts of the Middle East. Old ruling structures had collapsed and Allied occupation forces and Allied representatives were being drawn in to take their place. There was little choice; if they did not do it, no one would—or, worse, revolutionaries might. The men on the spot did what they could. In Belgrade, a British admiral scraped together a small fleet of barges and sent them up and down the Danube carrying food and raw materials. He brought about a modest revival in trade and industry, often in the face of obstruction from the different governments along the river, but it was a stopgap measure. As he told Paris, the long-term solution was international control of the Danube and the other great European waterways. There were other schemes and other enthusiasts, but was there the political will? Or the money?16

The economic responsibilities alone were daunting. The war had disrupted the world’s economy and it would not be easy to get it going again. The European nations had borrowed huge amounts of money—in the case of the Allies, increasingly from the United States. Now they found it almost impossible to get the credit to finance their reconstruction and the revival of trade. The war had left factories unusable, fields untilled, bridges and railway lines destroyed. There were shortages of fertilizer, seeds, raw materials, shipping, locomotives. Europe still depended largely on coal for its fuel, but the mines in France, Belgium, Poland and Germany were flooded. The emergence of new nations in central Europe further damaged what was left of the old trading and transportation networks. In Vienna, the electric lights flickered and the trams stopped running because the coal which had once come from the north was now blocked by a new border.

From all quarters of Europe, from officials and private relief agencies, alarming reports came in: millions of unemployed men, desperate housewives feeding their families on potatoes and cabbage soup, emaciated children. In that first cold winter of the peace, Herbert Hoover, the American relief administrator, warned the Allies that some 200 million people in the enemy countries and almost as many again among the victors and the neutral nations faced famine. Germany alone needed 200,000 tons of wheat per month and 70,000 tons of meat. Throughout the territories of the old Austria-Hungary, hospitals had run out of bandages and medicines. In the new Czechoslovak state, a million children were going without milk. In Vienna, more babies were dying than were surviving. People were eating coal dust, wood shavings, sand. Relief workers invented names for things they had never seen before, such as the mangel-wurzel disease, which afflicted those who lived solely on beets. 17

The humanitarian case for doing something was unanswerable. So was the political one. “So long as hunger continued to gnaw,” Wilson warned his colleagues, “the foundations of government would continue to crumble.”18 They had the resources. The Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and the Americans all had surplus food and raw materials which they were eager to sell. The ships could be found to carry them. But where was the money to come from? Germany had gold reserves, but the French, who were determined those should go toward reparations, did not want to see them used up financing imports. The European Allies could not finance relief on the scale that was needed, and the defeated nations, except Germany, were bankrupt. That left the United States, but Congress and the American public were torn between an impulse to help and a sense that the United States had done enough in winning the war. After the Second World War, their mood was very much the same, but with a crucial difference: in place of the diffuse threat of revolution there was a single clear enemy, in the Soviet Union. The equivalent of the Marshall Plan, which contributed so much to the revival of Europe in those circumstances, was not possible in 1919.

The United States, moreover, did not have the preponderance of power that it had after the Second World War. Its European allies were not exhausted and desperate, prepared to take American aid, even at the price of accepting American suggestions. In 1919, they still saw themselves as, and indeed were, independent actors in world affairs. Before the war ended, Britain, France and Italy drew up a plan for pooling Allied credit, food, raw materials and ships to undertake relief and reconstruction under an inter-Allied board. The Americans resisted. They suspected that their allies wanted to control the distribution of resources, even though the bulk would come from the United States, as a lever to pressure the enemy states into accepting peace terms. When Wilson insisted that Hoover be placed in charge of Allied relief administration, the Europeans objected. Hoover, Lloyd George complained, would become the “food dictator of Europe” and American businessmen would take the opportunity to move in. The Europeans only gave way reluctantly, and did their best to make Hoover’s job difficult.19

To Wilson, as to many Americans, Hoover was a hero, a poor orphan who had worked his way through Stanford University to become one of the world’s leading engineers. During the war he had organized a massive relief program for German-occupied Belgium, and when the United States became a belligerent in 1917 he took charge of saving food for the war effort. “I can Hooverize on dinner,” said Valentine cards. “But I’ll never learn to Hooverize, When it comes to loving you.” He was efficient, hardworking and humorless. Lloyd George found him tactless and brusque. The Europeans resented his reminders that the United States was supplying the bulk of Europe’s relief and the way in which he promoted American economic interests, unloading, for example, stockpiled American pork products and severely undercutting European producers.20

Although the Allies had a number of economic agencies, supervised loosely by the Supreme Economic Council, Hoover’s food and relief section was by far the most effective. With $100 million from the United States and about $62 million from Britain, he established offices in thirty-two countries, opened soup kitchens that fed millions of children, and moved tons of food, clothes and medical supplies into the hardest-hit areas. By the spring of 1919, Hoover’s organization was running railways and supervising mines. It had its own telegraph network. It waged war on lice, with thousands of hair clippers, tons of soap, special baths and stations manned by American soldiers. Travelers who did not have a “deloused” certificate were seized and disinfected. In the summer of 1919 Hoover infuriated the Europeans yet again. He argued that the United States had done enough; it was now up to the Europeans. With hard work, austerity and savings they should be all right. His views met with approval in an increasingly isolationist Washington, and American aid and loans fell off sharply.21

In fact, it took Europe until 1925 to get back to prewar levels of production; in some areas, recovery was much slower. Many governments resorted to such measures as borrowing, budget deficits and trade controls to keep their countries afloat. Europe’s economy as a whole remained fragile, adding to political strains at home in the 1920s and tensions abroad as governments turned to protectionist measures. Perhaps with American money and European cooperation a stronger Europe could have been built, more able to resist the challenges of the 1930s.22

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