JOSEPH UGORETZ: Good evening, everybody, and welcome to Macaulay Honors College. I'm Joe Ugoretz, I'm the chief academic officer here at Macaulay, and we're really happy to be hosting this first in what we hope will be a series of shared events as a partnership with the Carnegie Council.
I'm going to hand you off in just a minute to Professor Ted Widmer, who is a distinguished lecturer here at Macaulay, but I just wanted to say a word about the college and what we're doing here. We are the honors college of the City University of New York. We have over 2,000 students across eight different campuses, and they're very academically talented, with a wide range of interests and a wide range of academic disciplines.
One of the things that we try to encourage as a college is connections to the intellectual life of the city, and especially connections across disciplines, and to let students become aware that they can be eventually public intellectuals and people who contribute to both the political and social leadership of the city but also the intellectual and academic life of the city. This event is just one example of that kind of activity, and we're happy to be the host to such luminaries.
I'll hand you right off to Professor Ted Widmer.
TED WIDMER: Thank you so much, Joe, and thank you all for coming out. We really appreciate your coming out in the evening of a busy day.
Welcome to this panel, which is called "100 Years After Versailles." I'm personally really happy about this event because I represent two out of the three hosting organizations.
As Joe said, I'm a distinguished lecturer here at Macaulay. I'm also a fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I've been a fellow there for about five years, but I've been a friend of the president, Joel Rosenthal, for about 20 years. He sends his regrets. He can't be with us tonight, but he certainly supports what we're all doing tonight.
I want to thank also the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program, which is another co-sponsor.
The genesis of this event really goes back to about six months ago, when I was thinking about the anniversary. We're going through a number of anniversaries of the very turbulent years 1918 and 1919. I had merely done a single essay in The New York Times about the armistice of November 11, 1918. That was the end of a story, of course.
But, as I thought about it some more, I realized how much lay in the year to come, in the year 1919, and I wrote a note to the editor who had edited me, who is a historian, who loves getting history into the pages of The New York Times, and I said, "What if we tried a year-long series about the year 1919? It's not one of the big famous years of American history—it's not 1776 or 1861—but it's important. It's important for how much was happening here in the United States and how much was happening around the world as the end of the war settled very uneasily and seemed to promise things, great things, like an end to war and a spread of self-government among peoples, all peoples on Earth might have the right to self-determination. These sweeping phrases were very much in the air, and yet, as events showed us looking backward, that isn't what happened at all. Yet, the failure is interesting in its own way." [Editor's note: Carnegie Council has also been publishing a podcast series to go along with the New York Times essay series. The essay and podcast series are both titled 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up.]
The more this editor and I talked about it, we realized that the forces that were in collision in 1919 resembled in some ways the forces that are in collision in 2019. You had people racing toward a technological future; embracing aviation, radio, fast kinds of music like jazz; and then you have agrarian populations and other people very much resisting these modern forces. In the same year 1919, you have women beginning their successful attempt to get the vote and you also have Prohibition. That, in a way, sums up the tensions of 1919.
But just to think about the United States in that context wasn't enough. We really wanted to tell a global story. Fortunately, there are many great stories about 1919 from a tremendous variety of international perspectives and wonderful historians doing really fresh new work on exactly that subject.
We have three great historians with us tonight to shed light on the negotiations at Versailles 100 years ago this month. The treaty was signed June 28, so in May they were pressing forward and having a lot of trouble writing a perfect treaty. We'll hear from three different scholars about ways in which the world was thinking about the Treaty of Versailles and the world that was going to come after that.
I will introduce all three of them right now, and they will speak in this order, and then we will talk a bit as a panel for about 10 minutes afterward. Each will present for about 10 minutes. Then we'd love your questions, we'd love a spirited conversation afterward.
To my immediate left is Sean McMeekin. He's the Francis Flournoy Professor of European History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. He's the author of many books on this period: The Russian Revolution: A New History; The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East 1908-1923; July 1914: Countdown to War; The Russian Origins of the First World War; The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power—which I have here—and other books and articles.
He will be followed by Erez Manela, professor of history at Harvard University, where he teaches international history and the history of the United States in the world. He's the author of The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism; co-editor of The Development Century: A Global History;The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective; and Empires at War: 1911-1923 (The Greater War). Only a few weeks ago, he wrote a wonderful op-ed in this series in The New York Times on Egyptian nationalism in 1919. [See also the accompanying Carnegie Council podcast interview with transcript.]
Our third and final panelist is Seiji Shirane, assistant professor of Japanese history at the City College of New York. His research and teaching focus on the Japanese Empire, war, and migration in the Asia-Pacific region. He's completing a book manuscript entitled Gateway: Imperialism, Colonial Taiwan, and Japanese Expansion in China and Southeast Asia, 1895–1945.
Please join me in welcoming all three of our panelists. We will begin with Sean McMeekin.
SEAN McMEEKIN: Thank you, Ted, for that kind introduction.
The Versailles Treaty needs no introduction, probably. It's one of the most notorious peace treaties of all times, certainly of modern times. I think it's worth asking why that is. It's synonymous with a certain type of spectacular failure, you might say—a failure to be successful in imposing a lasting peace, a treaty often blamed for the outbreak of the Second World War 20 years later.
Reparations, something I'm going to touch on, the reparations imposed on Germany in particular, although not only on Germany, are one of the kind of hot-button or touchstone issues that people associate with Versailles. It's strange, though, because reparations were not exactly new. The idea of imposing an indemnity or a kind of penalty payment on the defeated powers has a very old and long history. They did the same thing to France after the Napoleonic Wars, to France again after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and after the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878.
The Germans, in fact—this is one of the most remarkable aspects of this story of the end of the First World War—had actually just imposed reparations on Russia several months previously to the end of the war. That, in and of itself, I think helps to explain a lot of the disconnect and the reasons why the treaty in the end was so unsuccessful.
On the Western Front—to give a brief tour of the way things stood at the end of the war, which I think helps to frame and set up the discussion—the arrival of the Americans in force along with the mastery of the Allies, who had actually mastered and deployed the tank in a way that the Germans never succeeded in doing in the war, had succeeded in the end in breaking the German lines, and there was a certain breakdown in German morale, an uptick in desertions, and so on. There was certainly a victory of sorts on the Western Front.
But it was a victory that was not really accompanied by anything remotely resembling victory on the Eastern Fronts. In fact, on the Eastern Fronts of the war, it's important to remember Germany essentially had won the First World War. Russia had dropped out of the war. In some sense the American intervention really had canceled out, you might say, the Russians dropping out of the war in 1917.
But as far as the Eastern Front—and I think this helps explain why the Germans had such an explosive reaction to the harsh peace treaty imposed upon them, even the harsh terms of the armistice, although not as harsh as the treaty, the armistice of 11 November. Up until that moment the Germans had been told, and quite sensibly believed, that they had been winning the war. If you actually looked at the East, they had carved up the Russian Empire at Brest-Litovsk. They had imposed actually their own reparations on Russia, some of which had actually been paid in September 1918, including two massive shipments of gold. So the Germans felt they had won.
In fact, the Germans had a million troops occupying the carcass of what had been the Russian Empire in 1918. They had 600,000 troops in Ukraine alone. Now it's true that those troops were not necessarily frontline battalions. A lot of them were what the Germans called Landsturm or slightly older troops, a lot of them men in their 40s who weren't really seen as fit for frontline duty. But the fact remains that the Germans had essentially won the war in the East.
Their allies had won as well. Their allies had also imposed their own terms at Brest-Litovsk, including the Ottomans.
In fact, one of the odder tidbits of the end of the war that I'm always quite fond of shocking people with: When the war ended, there were actually Ottoman troops occupying Baku on the Caspian Sea, and there was actually a detachment of Ottoman troops who had wheeled north along the Caspian and occupied the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala, as it was then called. I say that simply because I like saying the word "Makhachkala."
They were a little bit like those eponymous Japanese troops at the end of the Second World War who had been bypassed in the island-hopping. Someone had to come and tell them that the war was over, and in fact you've lost even though you've actually gone far into enemy territory.
The Germans in 1918 hadn't just occupied the Ukraine. There was actually a kind of early echelon, an expeditionary detachment, which made it as far as the Volga to a town then called Tsaritsyn, which you might better know by its World War II appellation as Stalingrad.
So you wonder where somebody like Adolf Hitler got his ideas about Lebensraum in Osten (living space in the East) from. There it is on the map in 1918.
So the Germans didn't really feel entirely like they had been defeated. They had, in fact. I mean, if you actually look at what happens on the fronts, they had lost. There was a generalized collapse both on the West and even to some extent in the Southeast, where the Macedonian Front had collapsed. This is a totally forgotten front that almost never gets talked about, although it's somewhat posited that the war had actually begun in the Balkans and in a sense it also ended there. What had happened there was largely the Bulgarians had ceased to fight, in part because they were a little bit bitter about not having been given their own fair share of the carcass of Imperial Russia. When the Bulgarians collapsed, this basically opened up, obviously, the path up through the Balkans into Southeastern and then Central Europe.
The front in Syria, where the Ottomans had been holding the line against Allenby's armies, also collapsed more or less in September of 1918, although, interestingly, the British and their Allies actually had legions, detachments—they had the famous Jewish Legion, they had an Armenian Legion, they had a number of foreign auxiliaries fighting with them. They hadn't quite pushed all the way up into what we now consider Turkey, that is, postwar Turkey.
So the Ottomans were also in a strange position, both realizing they had lost the war, on the other hand, most of their country, too, had not been occupied yet. They had to accept the surrender, mostly because they had depleted the force pool. They had no troops left to defend their own capital, and now the Allies, with the breakthrough in Macedonia, could basically push on either to Vienna and Berlin, or they could have also pushed in the other direction toward Constantinople. But that said, they just didn't have the massive force on the ground to impose the type of Carthaginian settlement they chose to impose on those defeated adversaries.
The biggest problem in the firmament both in Central and Eastern Europe and also in the Ottoman Empire was quite simple: it was the collapse of Russia.
When they tried to impose a later treaty, an auxiliary of Versailles, called the Treaty of Sèvres, which is still kind of a dirty word in modern Turkey—this wasn't imposed until 1920—the whole thing, the whole settlement, the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, usually called the Sykes-Picot Agreement—more accurately described as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot Agreement because it was actually originally a Russian project launched and mooted way back in March of 1915—was premised on a Russian occupying army which no longer existed.
The Bolsheviks had literally dissolved the Russian Imperial Army by decree, partly in practice, partly by propaganda, and then finally by decree. They literally dissolved the army. They told the men to desert with their arms so they could inaugurate the class war.
So those armies had literally melted away in what is now Eastern Turkey. They had melted away in Eastern Europe. They weren't there anymore.
This posed an interesting problem, a dilemma for the Allies after they imposed the armistice at Compiègne on 11 November. They actually stipulated, if you read the armistice very closely, that they wanted the Germans to maintain a troop presence—the defeated Germans, the ostensibly humiliated, impoverished, utterly collapsed Germans—in the Baltics and in Ukraine with regard to the "internal situation" there. That was because the Allies were already worried about the spread of Bolshevism beyond the borders of Russia.
So the Germans were, on the one hand, a defeated adversary. On the other hand, they still had troops occupying Russia.
In the Ottoman Empire it was even more dramatic because the Russians had no troops there anymore, and the Allies wanted to impose this—in fact, it was a far more Carthaginian settlement in territorial terms than the one imposed on Germany. The problem there was that there were no Russian troops. So they actually tried to get the Americans to do the Russians' work.
In fact, the old mandates—now they were called "mandates" to satisfy Wilson; I'm not going to talk much about Wilson because we have a real expert on Wilson here—as they were styled, the problem was that there were no Russian troops, and when they were offered to the Americans, the Americans in essence said "No, thank you." The Americans didn't want to occupy what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Finally, the British had to lean on other auxiliaries, in particular, a Greek expeditionary army which landed at Smyrna in May 1919, and then a bit later a Franco-led army, a French army ostensibly—in fact, most of the troops weren't French, they were Armenians or Senegalese and other kinds of colonial troops. In the end, it was a kind of half-hearted occupation of Turkey, which Mustafa Kemal and the Turkish nationalists were able to fight off, not easily, but without too overmuch difficulty.
The problem was that the Allies wanted to impose this kind of Carthaginian settlement up to and including these vast reparations payments on the Germans. The frontline figure they finally settled on was 132 million gold marks, roughly about $30-32 billion U.S. dollars, which at the time was actually a great fortune. Yet they weren't really occupying Germany in great force. They had seized the Rhine bridgeheads right at the end of the war, but they had not really pushed on.
In fact, some in the American camp, such as Franklin Roosevelt, who was actually assistant secretary of the Navy at the time, I think later drew from this the lesson—this is where he got his idea about unconditional surrender from—that in fact they should have pushed on in force to Berlin, which was certainly one way of looking at it: you either occupy the country in force in a truly overwhelming and frankly humiliating way to extract the punishment in the form of reparations, or you negotiate some sort of a compromise peace.
Instead I think what the Allies did was they tried to have it both ways. They tried to get their Carthaginian peace without actually having the troops on the ground to enforce it.
I think the first part of the answer anyway as to the abysmal failure of Versailles to lead to any kind of a lasting peace was this gap between ends and means. They simply didn't have the troops to enforce the kind of peace they meant to impose on the defeated enemies.
I'm going to wrap things up there and we can move on.
TED WIDMER: Thank you so much, Sean.
EREZ MANELA: Thank you, Ted.
Almost exactly 100 years ago, negotiations over the treaty that was then called the Peace Treaty with Germany—we now know it as the Treaty of Versailles—were actually wrapped up in Paris. After early May, after the wrapping up of all of the most difficult questions at the end of the conference, they had sent the final text of the treaty to the printers. Back then it took quite a while to print these sorts of things, and they sent an invitation to the Germans to join the conference.
What a lot of people forget is that initially the peace conference that gathered in Paris—and, by the way, the negotiations themselves happened in the center of Paris, only the signing of the treaty happened in Versailles in the Palace of Versailles—actually gathered initially for an inter-Allied preparatory conference. It was designed to prepare for the actual peace conference, which would include the defeated powers. That was the pattern that had worked in the past, for example, after the Napoleonic Wars.
It turned out, however, that the Allies took so long to agree on what terms they were going to offer the Germans that by the time they were finished agreeing in May of 1919, the situation on the ground, as Sean so nicely described, had so deteriorated that they really weren't interested in negotiating with the Germans at all. They just invited them, they presented them with the treaty as the Allies had negotiated it, and they essentially compelled them under duress to sign it in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, which was of course, where the French had signed their surrender to the Prussians 50 years before, so for the French that venue was very important symbolically.
These negotiations that ended almost to the day 100 years ago were obviously the result of four months of very intensive wrangling among the Allies, and at the center of all that wrangling was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson had arrived in Europe in late December, around Christmas of 1918, so he left the United States shortly after the armistice. He had about three or four weeks to spend before the actual negotiations began, so he did a kind of "victory tour" in Britain, going all the way up to Scotland; in France. being greeted like a conquering hero in Paris; in Italy, same thing in Rome and other Italian cities. By the time he got to the actual peace negotiations in Paris in January of 1919, he was, I have to imagine, pretty pumped up about what he could do with all this great reception that he received in Europe.
He, as I said, arrived in Europe in December of 1918 and, except for a short trip of a few weeks back home in the spring, he didn't return home to Washington, DC, permanently until July. The treaty was signed in Versailles on June 28. He didn't return until July of 1919. So we're talking about seven consecutive months that a sitting United States president was not present in the United States. There had never been anything like it before. U.S. presidents before Wilson took maybe very short trips of a day or two to places like Cuba or the Panama Canal or something like that. And it hasn't actually happened after. Even the more traveling presidents of the latter 20th century never left Washington for anything close to seven months.
Actually, when we think about why Wilson later failed to get the Treaty that he had so laboriously negotiated in Paris ratified by the U.S. Senate, this is part of the explanation. Wilson had abandoned the domestic front, he had abandoned the domestic political front. He was convinced that the shock of the war, the devastation of the war, was so powerful that senators just had to accept whatever the Allies would agree on, that they simply couldn't face the American people if they rejected the peace treaty. He obviously miscalculated.
What I want to say in the few minutes that I have left is I want to actually focus on what were the ideas, what was the intellectual equipment, that Wilson came to Europe with. What was he thinking about? What was he trying to do?
Some historians and others have focused on the fact that Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister, that he himself was a man of faith, although in that sense he was basically, like all American presidents in history, professing a Christian faith. They say that he saw himself as a messiah, that he saw himself as somebody on a quasi-religious mission.
I actually think that that's wrong. I think it's much more important to note about Wilson—besides the fact that he was the son of a Presbyterian minister and himself a professing Christian, in which again he was completely not unusual among American presidents—the thing that was unusual among presidents, and indeed unique, which is Wilson had a Ph.D. in history, like some of us here on stage. No other president in American history, either before Wilson or after Wilson, had a Ph.D. Some had a JD, law degrees, and so on and so forth, some other stuff—George W. Bush has an MBA—but none had a Ph.D.
Wilson was an intellectual. Wilson had an analysis of the historical moment in which he lived through, in which he was a leader. It was an analysis that predated, actually, the war, but I think was deepened in some sense, or made more urgent in his view, by the war.
Since I only have a few minutes, I want to give you really quickly a sense of what his analysis was and how he carried it to Paris.
Wilson, remember, came of age, as it were, in the latter decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. He was a child and a teenager during the U.S. Civil War, but he became an adult and a professor and then president of Princeton at the time when the United States and the world were undergoing unprecedented transformations, which we now call "modernity" or we call "globalization."
In his lifetime he saw the spread of technologies like the steam engine, which revolutionized production, the telegraph, which revolutionized communications, and the automobile, which revolutionized transportation, besides electric lights and all the rest of it. So he was very conscious of living through an age of unprecedented technological and economic change.
He also saw massive immigration into the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries you had more people living in the United States who were foreign-born than at any time before or since. He was very, very conscious of this massive movement of people around the world, and specifically in the United States.
You had processes like industrialization and urbanization that were rapidly accelerating during his time, during those decades that he was a professor and a university administrator. He was president of Princeton for 10 years before he became governor of New Jersey for two and then president of the United States. All of these things were really shaping his sense of the historical moment and the war, in his view, fit into that analysis.
How did it fit into that analysis? Very quickly, in his view, all of these transformations that we might call modernity, all of these economic, technological, and demographic transformations, led—we call it the "Gilded Age"—to an unhealthy concentration of power in the hands of the few. Unhealthy concentration of power, rising inequality—Wilson saw these trends as anti-democratic. That is to say, power, in his view, had become in his lifetime less accountable, and he saw it as his mission to make power more accountable.
Why? Not because it was the right thing to do morally, although also because of that, but because, in his analysis, unaccountable power, once it goes beyond a certain tipping point, leads inevitably to revolution because those who are being oppressed, after a certain turning point. rise up.
When he saw the revolutions in his time, those that preceded the Bolshevik Revolution—for example, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which happened when he was just becoming governor of New Jersey not long before he became president; the Chinese Revolution—the Republic revolution, not the communist one—that swept away the last dynasty in 1911 also happened as he was coming into the presidency.
The disorder in the United States—labor uprisings, the assassination of President McKinley also in Wilson's adult lifetime by a professed anarchist, and generally the sense that anarchism was spreading in the United States—all of these things he saw as inevitable responses, historically speaking, to the unaccountable concentration of power.
This analysis, which was first developed in the domestic U.S. context, he also took internationally. Once the war began and he started figuring out what was going on, he said: "Okay, we have the Russian czar and we have the German kaiser. They are representatives of unaccountable power, that's why they're so aggressive and doing this war, and that is going to lead to anarchy and possibly revolution." In fact, he was right. It did lead to revolution both in Russia and in Germany. The one in Germany was suppressed, but that's a different story.
His solution, by the way, both domestically and internationally, was to try to reconstruct or reform political arrangements in such a way as to make power more accountable. In a domestic context that had to do with what we think of as Progressive Era reforms. In an international context that was his idea behind his negotiating position in Paris.
The League of Nations was a central construct that was designed to make power in the international arena more accountable and so reduce the chance of revolution and anarchy—that is to say, to replace revolution with reform. In this sense, Wilson's analysis had a lot in common with Lenin's analysis. Lenin had a similar sort of analysis. The difference between them is that Lenin saw only two options: either you have oppression and imperialism or you have revolution; there is no in-between.
Wilson was going for the in-between. He thought that there was an option to reform international affairs in a way that would both lessen "autocracy" as he called it—that was the term that he used—but also stave off revolution. That was the design.
Of course, we know that in many ways, as Sean already mentioned, the treaty was a failure. I would argue actually that it's interesting in that context to focus on the things that the treaty left behind—we can call failures or successes—that stuck.
Some of those things include the borders of many places in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. You look at maps of these regions, and many of the lines drawn there have their origins in the Versailles Treaty and the other treaties that Sean was mentioning before.
But the other thing is a certain approach toward international affairs as an institutionalized and collaborative endeavor. The League of Nations fails to prevent the Second World War, but then it doesn't disappear, it morphs into the United Nations. The United Nations is basically a revised version, very slightly revised—if a student submitted the United Nations as a paper after having submitted the League of Nations, I would probably fail them for plagiarism—and is still with us.
This set of ideas that Wilson had come up with in his analysis, this notion that various kinds of historical transformations make power less accountable and the only way to prevent collapse and disorder is to try to make it more accountable through institutional reforms and institutional constructions—these are things we are still struggling with today, both domestically and internationally.
TED WIDMER: Seiji?
SEIJI SHIRANE: When we think about Japan and China in relation to the World Wars, we always think about the Second World War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Pacific War, leading to millions of deaths both in Japan and in China, and World War I is often a footnote or forgotten. But I'm going to focus today on the impact and legacy of World War I on Japan, and was it really a failure, and for whom and from whose perspective?
For Japan it really was an arrival and part of a continuing struggle to gain status as a world power. They joined the Big Five at Versailles along with the United States, Britain, France, and Italy, and the reason why they were able to do that is they participated in the occupation of German territories in China, in Shandong in North China, as well as taking over German territories in the South Pacific, what we know today as Micronesia.
Having been inflicted by unequal treaties by the Western powers and tariff restrictions, the Japanese had been able to revise these treaties really only a couple of decades prior to World War I.
In 1919 in Versailles when they proposed the Racial Equality clause to be respected as an equal nation or equal race to the Western nations, this was part of their efforts to promote the idea that Japan was at least an honorary Western power. They had been experiencing anti-immigration laws in California, Canada, the British dominions in Australia and New Zealand, and then in California you had Alien Land Laws in the 1910s as well. So, a lot of it was about saving face and trying to make the League acceptable to the Japanese public.
In fact, this Racial Equality clause, when it was voted on by the League Committee in April 1919, seven out of the eleven powers—including China, which was protesting Japanese imperialism in China—approved this Racial Equality clause, but Wilson rejected it on the claim that he needed a unanimous vote.
So what's the legacy? Japan loses out on including a Racial Equality clause, but in many ways they can point to 1919 and the 1920s and 1930s, as they further expand into China and then later into Southeast Asia, of how the United States and Western powers are very hypocritical in their moral principles and international relations. It becomes fuel for this pan-Asian order that Japan needs to liberate the rest of Asia from Western dominance, and they can point to 1919 to show how the League of Nations was founded on unjust principles.
So Japan leaves World War I and Versailles having taken over German territories in China and in the South Pacific. Thus, in many ways, their status as a real imperial power is recognized by their Western allies.
China, like Japan, they had joined the Allied powers later, in 1917, by sending Chinese laborers to the French war front—roughly 140,000—and this allowed China to join the postwar conference, though as a minor nation, not one of the Big Five like Japan.
It's forgotten that China, despite its growing tensions with Japan, actually supports and votes for the Racial Equality clause because part of China's goals in 1919 is to fight against this Western-centric international order. You have the Russians, the French, the Germans, the Americans, and the British with spheres of influences and basically imperial interests in China that they're trying to eliminate.
They quickly realize this is not possible, so they focus on Japan's Twenty-One Demands, which led to what we call the May Fourth Movement in 1919. Basically, the Twenty-One Demands aimed at expanding Japanese imperial interests, not just in Shandong, the former German territory, but in Northeast China, in Central China, Shanghai, and in South China. World War I really is a turning point in terms of the rise of Japanese interests in China, the elimination of German territories, but even the decline of British and French vis-à-vis Japanese power.
Yet there is disillusion and protest because, in the end, they feel betrayed by Wilson and the Western powers for granting Shandong Province to Japan, and really it results in this idea of recognizing the weakness of China's international status. There is a symbolic protest in that the Chinese representatives refuse to sign the treaty. In Chinese textbooks, even to this day, people point to 1919 as the awakening and rise of Chinese nationalism.
Much of the focus, deservedly, is toward Japanese imperialism, 1919 being the start of Japanese expansion, not just in Taiwan and Manchuria but in other parts of China, which leads to Japanese incursions in Manchuria in 1931 and then the invasion and total war in 1937.
But it's not just anti-imperial and anti-Japanese sentiment that perhaps is of use to current Chinese nationalism. When we talk about international relations and morality, the Chinese will point to 1919, about how Wilsonian rhetoric and the reality of racial equality or self-determination really didn't come about in the case of China and in Korea.
Again, for Japan, just to wrap up the legacy of the 1930s and the 1940s, the Japanese will point to the rejection of the Racial Equality clause as justification for their Asian Monroe Doctrine, this idea that Japan has a manifest destiny in China, that it's the leader and most civilized of their Asian neighbors, and basically this moralization that the Wilsonian moment brings about has an impact on Japan.
When Japan invades Northeast China in 1931, they take it over and turn it into a so-called "independent Manchukuo state" because they know that outright colonization is no longer legitimate. They're not fooling anybody, but they try to create this independent country called Manchukuo, which is really a puppet state of Japan, and it's quickly rejected by the League of Nations in 1932, which says, "No, it's really a colony of Japan." Yet, Japan will walk out of the League of Nations, basically pointing to Western hypocrisy about the Western countries not having given up their own colonies.
Lastly, in terms of how the Treaty of Versailles is often promoted and narrated in Chinese textbooks, again a seminal moment was May 4, 1919, this rise of anti-imperial, anti-Japanese nationalism, but again the conference is usually quoted as having goals of carving up colonial territory by the imperial powers, not just Japan but by the Western powers.
It's the heroic refusal of Chinese representatives to sign the treaty that is a moral victory. But really this 1919 moment, although the Chinese you can argue failed to achieve any material gains, they walk away from 1919 as moral victors because they're the ones fighting against Japan and fighting against the United States and the Western world order, and in that sense I would say that 1919 still has a really powerful legacy in East Asia today.
TED WIDMER: Thank you so much for three superb presentations.
I hope you'll all save your questions for each of our panelists.
I thought I'd start with just a general question about Woodrow Wilson, which I guess I should direct to Erez, but I hope all three of you will feel free to think about it.
He has a very strange historical reputation. I went to a presentation by Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, last week at the Carnegie Council on how presidents rate. Wilson isn't doing very well. I think he's around 15, 18, 20, in there. About 50 years ago he probably would have been in the top five presidents of all time.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: He was number 4 in 1962.
TED WIDMER: Thank you. So he was number 4, presumably after Lincoln, Washington, and FDR, and he was revered—and now he's not only not reversed, he's reviled, I think. We know much more about his racism. And yet, listening to Erez, I was thinking that asking for more accountable government—I think we all think that's a pretty good thing.
So why did his reputation disintegrate so quickly? It apparently didn't disintegrate around 1919 if he was that popular in 1962. What might he have done better? That's a very complicated question.
But why is he so unlikable in 2019, when he really was, as Erez has said in his book, the "focal point for the hopes of the world"? The United States came in late to the war, in 1917, and yet out of the wreckage of the end of the war the United States was the great hope of the world. That's really a poignant moment in our history, when things might have turned out better.
Can we just talk about Wilson for a second and why he isn't our hero today?
EREZ MANELA: I'll be quick about it.
First of all, I'll just mention that FDR, as many of you know, was as a young man in the Wilson administration, he was assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, so he was actually involved in the World War I efforts and in the negotiations afterward in a professional capacity.
He was very consciously in some sense, when he was president and the Second World War was going on, implementing a Wilsonian program, but better in terms of managing the politics of it both international and domestic—in his view, that is to say.
I will just briefly point out that after Richard Nixon was first elected president, in his very first inaugural address he talks about Wilson as a man of peace, and how he, Nixon, is also a man of peace, and that's why he's going to bring peace in Vietnam, because obviously he is elected on that promise. So Nixon also greatly admired Wilson. I've always wanted to really look deeply into that, and I haven't yet. But I will note that Nixon was very influenced by his mother growing up. His mother was a Quaker and a pacifist, and also someone who really admired Wilson because Nixon's mother lived through 1919 as an adult. That's a bit of armchair psychologizing.
There are two parts to this Wilson business. Why is he not liked? First of all, obviously it's the flip side of all the admiration that he garnered. When he first arrived in Europe, he disappointed a very, very large number of people both in Europe and around the world, and his reputation tanked particularly after the treaty failed to be ratified by the Senate. The United States didn't join the League of Nations, which was Wilson's baby in some sense; it was "isolationist" during the interwar years; and then, of course, the "war to end all wars" becomes the dress rehearsal for the Second World War. From that 30,000-foot perspective he certainly did not meet the grand expectations that were attached to him and that he encouraged at the time.
Then there's the domestic issue, which you mentioned. The international thing has been around for a long time. The domestic thing, historians have known about it for a long time, but it has only really burst into the public consciousness fairly recently, which is his specific record on race and, even more specifically, his record on re-segregating some departments in the federal government, which was quite terrible and has now been centered as his legacy. So it's very difficult to rate highly the president who you blame for re-segregating the federal government.
SEIJI SHIRANE: On this question, Wilson's legacy in Asia I would say for Japan's former colonies is still quite positive. Of course, for more on that you can read Erez's chapters on the impact of Wilsonian rhetoric on Korean anti-Japanese nationalism and independence movements.
Also, Taiwanese intellectuals. The Taiwanese were colonized by Japan from 1895. Despite efforts by the Japanese to censor Wilsonian rhetoric of self-determination and independence, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean intellectuals and activists really take up Wilsonian rhetoric, and that is still highlighted and part of present-day nationalism in Asia to this day.
Obviously, Japanese racial equality didn't apply to their empire. Koreans, Chinese, and Taiwanese were second-class citizens, but from the perspective of Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese everyone was a racist in 1919. So it's to what degree and toward whom, and from that perspective Wilson's rhetoric really had a positive influence on non-Japanese within Japan's empire.
SEAN McMEEKIN: If I could jump in, I would just add one thing regarding this kind of almost betrayed promise or disappointment in Wilson. It wasn't only in the newly forming nation-states of Eastern Europe or in Asia where this whole promise of either anti-colonialism or self-determination had been raised. There was also great disappointment in the defeated powers themselves. After all, the Germans really had sued for peace in essence along what we might call the "Wilsonian premise." One might call that bad faith, they didn't want it when they were winning. Once they were losing, they thought, Oh, well, the idea of a peace without annexation.
The phrase "ethnic self-determination" was actually not in the original Fourteen Points. The actual phrase had more to do with the idea that the wishes of the people concerned would be taken into account. That is to say, you couldn't impose a treaty on, let's say, Germans or anyone else without thinking about their interests.
The Ottomans actually—you could call this bad faith, too—tried to surrender to the Americans, only to be told that they were not actually at war with the United States so the United States could not actually accept their surrender and impose the peace.
There was a great disconnect there. In fact, of the Fourteen Points, Point 12 specifically pointed to, in effect, the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire regarding self-determination for minority peoples, such as Armenians, Greeks, and so on, despite the fact that the United States was not actually at war with the Ottoman Empire. So there was a real disconnect there.
But I think it does speak to this larger problem of disappointment. Now, maybe Wilson was to that extent promising things he couldn't deliver. But a man who had, in essence, promised not just the victorious Allies but also the defeated powers that the peace treaty would be just and would take into account their interests, came essentially to be the front man for a much different sort of treaty that was quite punitive and Carthaginian and obviously contrary to his own principles. In that sense he was, quite literally I suppose, a failure.
TED WIDMER: I'll ask one more question, and it's a hard one, and then I hope we'll open it up to questions from all of you.
Should presidents raise hopes very high or not? I think we would lean toward yes. We expect our presidents to lead us in moral and idealistic ways as well as to be wise geopolitical strategists. We heard a lot about the gritty reality on the ground in 1919, and I appreciate how much you enlightened us on those subjects.
But something was working for Wilson. He talked about things no global leader had ever really dared to talk about. Certainly no one who had lasted very long at the head of a European country had talked about the right of the people to elect their leaders. The French Revolution tried to say that, but it didn't last that long.
The rights of small countries is a very important point that Wilson kept talking about. Freedom of the seas, which our ally England didn't care for very much.
He was articulating a vision of a moral order. That, as Erez just said, seemed to be all the more reason for people to really hate him afterwards because it failed so obviously.
I'm thinking a lot of about current events right now. Also, we had a president who obviously seemed to stand for moral principles between 2009 and 2017 and now that's much less a part of U.S. foreign policy.
What do we want? Do we want elevated expectations that we have trouble living up to? Do we want just cold realism?
Wilson's failure, I think, is a sobering reminder of the peril in a president trying to raise expectations too high. Perhaps you could comment on that.
EREZ MANELA: I go back to this notion of analysis and program rather than promise. It was never phrased as "I promise you that this is going to happen." It was more phrased as, "This is the situation, it's really dire, it's really revolutionary, and the war proves it, and unless we do something very radical"—that was the idea, but reformist rather than revolutionary—"we're going to have things falling apart," which is precisely what Yeats wrote immediately as this was happening.
I think actually his analysis was not wrong. It was not unique to him, by the way. As I said, it was shared by Lenin, it was shared by many others.
And it turned out that he didn't succeed in staving off the revolutions that he wanted to stave off.
Obviously, the Russian Revolution, which started in 1917 but really succeeded and entrenched itself after the end of the war—and in some sense the United States, saves the Bolshevik Revolution because had the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk stayed in place, one could argue that the Bolshevik Revolution would not have survived. It's the defeat of Germany which is the result of America entering into the war that vitiates the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and allows the Bolsheviks to consolidate. But that's beside the point.
The programs that the fascists in Italy come to power with, and then the national socialists in Germany, are also revolutionary programs and are also programs that speak to people who feel that power is not accountable to them and they're looking to destroy the existing order and to make power as they see it accountable.
I think there's a lesson here. Obviously, Wilson failed to put together the solution that he wanted to put together, but I think his analysis is quite illuminating, including for the present day.
SEAN McMEEKIN: First of all, I wholeheartedly agree with Erez's analysis of the impact of the U.S. intervention—unintended consequences—rather than, in effect, making the world safe for democracy, we made it safe for communism.
That said, I will give Wilson this: there is much that is attractive about his vision in 1919. I think again it's this problem, if we're talking about statesmanship, of the gap between ends and means.
I'll give an example regarding the Ottoman Empire. Largely on Wilson's urging, or at least to placate Wilson, Lloyd George and Clémenceau actually agreed to send a fact-finding mission, in essence the equivalent of almost like a roving Gallup poll, led by two Americans, the King-Crane Commission, now largely forgotten today, to canvass public opinion and see what the people actually thought in the region. It won't surprise you to learn that very few of them wanted to be ruled by Britain and France. To the extent that they had any favorable views of any Western power, it was the United States, but that was largely vague, and, because these were two Americans, probably they're just telling them what they want to hear. But that said, the basic snapshot was, "No, we don't really want to be ruled by European powers." It was, of course, shelved and largely forgotten.
However, the interesting what-if here is that had Wilson decided that the United States did want to impose a just-er sort of peace treaty which did take more into account the wishes of the peoples concerned, their desire for accountability, or at the very least more locally responsive governance, this would have actually required some sort of a troop commitment.
That is to say the United States probably would have had to have taken up some of the mandates for the Middle East, which in the end the United States did not do, or let's say in Eastern Europe or in Russia. The United States did intervene half-heartedly in the Russian Civil War; U.S. troops saw virtually no combat, depending on how exactly you define "combat." Now, I'm not saying it was a good thing necessarily for the United States to make a massive troop commitment to Russia, but if the United States had wanted to shape the outcome there, then probably some sort of military commitment would have been desirable.
The same thing goes for Europe writ large, where the United States in essence mobilizes an army of 4 million, and that's why everyone thinks Wilson is all-powerful.
Also because of the financial leverage because the United States has become the banker or the broker or the financier of the Allied coalition, the United States does have leverage, it does have power. But then it essentially demobilizes, and nearly all the troops came home, so that in the end the power, the leverage to impose some sort of a just-er, more sensible—"more sensitive" might even be a better word—peace settlement would have necessarily had to have been premised on a U.S. troop commitment.
You might say that both Roosevelt, and even to a greater extent Truman, learned that lesson after the Second World War, where they decided if they did want to shape the world order more to the liking of American principles, they actually did have to make a really broad, and frankly expensive, security commitment.
SEIJI SHIRANE: I'll just add even sort of the high-minded ideals of spreading liberal democratic values around the world in 1919, there are lessons to be taken away from that.
The mandate system of carving up and redistributing German territory and the Ottoman Empire as Class A, B, C mandates, and Japan receives Micronesia as a Class-A mandate—this idea that Wilson says, "Well, depending on the level of civilization, are these civilized enough to be self-determined?"
This sort of arrogance, and obviously this idea that these American-Eurocentric values should be spread—clearly, in the 1990s, post winning the Cold War, there has been this extra confidence that the United States can go in and hopefully promote its own values—that kind of arrogance of who's civilized enough to rule themselves, and this paternalism, I think unfortunately, still exists today.
QUESTION: Ernestine Bradley, The New School.
I, of course, was very interested and found the different presentations fascinating. However, I had hoped that we would also be enlightened on the legacy. This is the 100th anniversary and in my opinion we are still laboring under the mismanagement of the Versailles Peace Treaty.
I'm not a historian, so I feel I can afford to dislike President Wilson from the bottom of my heart because I feel he sold the League of Nations—he made enormous concessions to Clémenceau, to the colonial powers for the League of Nations—and then the irony is that he could not get it through the Senate in this country. Particularly, of course, England and France then drew lines over territory that were in the selfish interests of colonials in the 20th century and we are still in the battles of those misaligned borders.
I just want to say I regret that you haven't spoken more to this legacy. I don't know whether you have time or not.
SEAN McMEEKIN: Just briefly, if you're referring to Sykes-Picot, for example, this is something I've written about at great length. It's absolutely true that Wilson in the end basically gave in, and yes, betrayed his principles and accepted this kind of mandate system for the Middle East.
There are other treaties we haven't even mentioned regarding, let's say, the settlement in Southeastern Europe. In Hungary today the Treaty of Trianon is still a dirty word, as is the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine in Bulgaria, a second national catastrophe. The Austrians aren't quite as peeved about the Treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye, although they might be. In Hungary—I was actually just there in December—people have a very, shall we say, negative view of these events and these decisions.
That said, when it comes to the Middle Eastern settlement, I do that think Sykes and Picot in particular have received almost unequaled opprobrium in the sense that the borders they drew up—and this is a myth, I'm sorry—in 1916 are not the borders we have today. Just to give you a really prominent example, Mosul and Kirkuk in the oil-bearing regions of Northern Iraq were supposed to be in French Syria. The British seized them in 1918 because they wanted to, because they didn't want the war to end before they got there.
The point being not to defend the actions of either France or Britain, but to say that in the end in fact it wasn't really the decisions made by the diplomats that mattered. In the end it actually was worked out on the ground, largely by armed force. In the end the French actually had to go and invade Syria to make their claim. In the end the Turks, Greeks, and the Armenians in various groups had to fight over the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, and the borders were largely determined by the balance of force on the ground.
So while the diplomats certainly bear a lot of the blame and Wilson obviously was a great disappointment, that said, I do think that the settlement that was eventually worked out was largely worked out by main force on the ground as opposed to by these treaties in Paris, most of which didn't actually last very long.
TED WIDMER: Anyone else want to talk about Clémenceau at all?
EREZ MANELA: I'll just say very briefly—I guess I've cast myself here as a defender of Wilson, but I suppose we need someone to play that role, otherwise, it would be boring, we'd just be all dumping on him.
I think actually the mandate system, in the way that it is designed in the League of Nations Covenant, was more or less in line with what Wilson had in mind. I don't think it was a big concession.
The treaty itself doesn't specify which countries will be mandatories in which territories. That only happens later, after Wilson is off the stage and the British and French reassert their power through the League of Nations.
Historian Susan Pedersen, who teaches here at Columbia, wrote a really wonderful book precisely about this, about how the British and French then, after Wilson disappears from the world stage, fill the mandate system that was put in the Covenant with their own imperial interests.
That was not part of the way in which it was designed. It was not concessions that he made. They was simply things that he failed to take care of, particularly after the failure to convince the Senate to ratify the peace treaty.
I'll just point out one last thing. Constitutionally—and in the early 20th century they still took these constitutional issues seriously—the Senate has to ratify international treaties by a two-thirds majority. The treaty actually got a very significant majority in the Senate vote, it just fell, I think, two or three votes short of the two-thirds required. So it had wide support, just not quite wide enough, and the United States didn't get into the League of Nations.
TED WIDMER: I guess I wanted all of you or some of you to touch on Clémenceau and his negotiating skills. He made the remark that "God only had Ten Commandments and Wilson had Fourteen Points."
Did he wait Wilson out after his popularity started to diminish, or was he just a more skillful negotiator and Wilson wasn't accustomed to the European tactics? If you could just touch upon that a little bit.
SEAN McMEEKIN: I know actually more about how Lloyd George was able to outfox Wilson specifically on Middle Eastern questions. The thing is we shouldn't always put the British and French in exactly the same camp. Clémenceau himself was actually up against some pretty stout British opposition at the beginning regarding something like the Middle Eastern settlement.
If you're talking about reparations, then yes, absolutely they waited out Wilson until, I think, by the end he was just sort of collapsing.
But regarding the specifics of the settlement, it's interesting that the British did not actually want to let the French have Syria. They actually concocted this legend, the "Lawrence of Arabia" legend, which you might have seen in this Hollywood movie by David Lean, where Lawrence and his Bedouin irregulars, the Arab Legion, actually march into Damascus.
In fact, Lawrence was driven into Damascus in a Rolls Royce and he had absolutely nothing to do with the fall of Damascus, nor did the Arab Legion. It was actually taken by Australian light cavalry. They invented that story because they were riding this new horse of a kind of cynical British version of Arab nationalism in order to deny Syria to France.
The way Wilson was manipulated, I think somewhat more seriously though, was that—again, because his principles, attractive as they were, were easily manipulated—at the end of April of 1919, to get into the nitty-gritty of this—and again this is more Lloyd George than Clémenceau, but Clémenceau certainly had a hand in this—what was at issue was the Italians were upset—we haven't talked about Orlando either—because they were getting cut out of the settlement of what was being given to Serbia, which is to say Yugoslavia, so they kind of stormed out of the meeting in a huff.
The way it was put to Wilson was that the Italian claims—because Italy also had a share of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire—the Italians were claiming much of the Southern coast of what is now Turkey, from Antalya basically over to Bodrum, and the only argument they could come up with in Wilsonian terms—that is, that this is our claim—was that it used to belong to the Roman Empire, which was several millennia old.
The way Lloyd George was able to manipulate Wilson was by proposing quite boldly that in fact the Italians had no claim because there weren't really any Italians living there but there were Greeks living there. So Wilson in the end then essentially green-lighted what would become the Greek invasion of Turkey. The Greek landing at Smyrna was escorted in by British ships.
But regarding the reparations question, Clémenceau was kind of stubborn in that sense. The French were insisting both on getting damages as far as the overall kind of settlement of how much was owed in reparations. They didn't get as much as they wanted.
Part of what then, I suppose, doomed the French in turn was that John Maynard Keynes wrote his great polemic on the economic consequences of the peace, thus helping to poison opinion in both Britain, and even more significantly I think in the United States, against the treaty with the idea that the French had been unreasonable, as really had the British, and the British and Americans started turning against the treaty almost from the start.
In the end it was a dirty business, and these were old-school politicians and negotiators and statesmen, and frankly Wilson was a bit out of his depth, I think, when it came to that level of negotiation. He just didn't have the experience to know what he was up against.
EREZ MANELA: Can I made a quick comment on that?
That was the John Maynard Keynes position of Wilson as out of his depth.
I agree with Sean that I think the British made out much better than the French.
I think Clémenceau's biggest desideratum was the collective security guarantee, which he didn't get, because he wanted to forestall another German invasion. He didn't get that, either.
The British made out much better. They got the choicest territories. They got each of their dominions—the Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders—admitted as separated members into the peace conference and then into the League of Nations. They got each of them their own mandates, and the New Zealanders got Samoa and all kinds of things like that.
The French didn't get their security guarantee and they got the German occupation in 20 years.
I just want to make one point, which is when we talk about failure and success—we want to judge it, as you said, from the perspective of 100 years hence—then the long view is that if we think that World War I led to World War II, the Americans made out much better out of World War II than any of the other major powers. The French were occupied and eventually lost their empire, the British eventually lost their empire as well, and the 20th century became the American Century. If we think about it from that perspective, it complicates our sense of, "Oh, you know, the French and British outsmarted Wilson"—you know, the last laugh.
QUESTION: My name is Ron Berenbeim.
Just one comment and then a point about Wilson. That is, if you're ever going on a tour of the Middle East or India or any place like that, don't rely on British maps. They don't make good maps, especially when wars come to an end, and that's something important to remember.
But I think Wilson's major problem, from which Franklin Roosevelt, who was at Versailles for a while and I think left at some point, learned a great deal, was that Wilson never built any congressional support for the League. He could have taken Henry Cabot Lodge, who was not totally opposed to the League of Nations but was very skeptical about the concept—for reasons that with the European Union and its monetary union we can now well understand—he just didn't know where the enforcement would come from, and he was concerned about that.
FDR's takeaway from Versailles was that he wasn't going to go into this thing without some strong governing body, which he eventually called the Security Council—or his successors did—and he was going to work very hard to build support for it at home rather than alienating Lodge, who I think could have been brought around. He just wanted to have his say.
SEAN McMEEKIN: It's fair to say Wilson was quite stubborn at the end, in part because of his failing health. He actually essentially had a stroke and was down for the count, really, by the time the Senate was finally voting.
But it's absolutely true he refused to make any concessions to Henry Cabot Lodge and some of the other Republican leaders. Some of the irreconcilables probably wouldn't have gone along in any case, but there were definitely a lot of Republicans who would have crossed the aisle.
I do think he was a stubborn man, and by then to some extent also I think his failing health made him even more stubborn. I think it's quite sad that in the end, as you said, the League did go down in that flaming defeat in the Senate.
EREZ MANELA: I think you're absolutely right, as I was saying before, that the abandonment of the domestic front was a big error on his part.
That said, I said before that Wilson was the only Ph.D. president in history. His Ph.D. was from Johns Hopkins, one of the first institutions that granted a Ph.D., and he was a Princeton man. He then taught at Princeton.
Henry Cabot Lodge was also a historian but was a Harvard man. So, even if he had taken him to Paris, I don't know if you could have gotten the Princeton man and the Harvard man together on the same page. I just have to say that.
TED WIDMER: That's a good note, I think, to adjourn on.
Thank you so much for your questions.
Thank Sean, Seiji, and Erez for their wonderful commentary tonight.
Let's continue the conversation in the reception.