On June 28, a hundred years ago today, World War 1 came to its second end with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, shown in this 1919 painting. Representatives of defeated Germany hunch over the treaty, penning their signatures. Across the table, with what appears to be a newspaper (or documents), the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson looks on. To his left sit the mustached Georges Clemenceau (France) and Lloyd George (Britain). On the right side of the painting stands the final member of the Council of Four (or Big Four): Vittorio Orlando (Italy), with his full head of white hair.
Seven months had passed since the guns fell silent for the Armistice, on November 11, 1918. Over those many months, the victors discussed ways to achieve the competing goals of humiliating Germany with full blame and, at the same time, establishing an international body that might respect all nations in time of discord, a league of nations.
It was just after 3 o’clock when they gathered in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Afternoon light flooded through the garden windows, reflected here in the mirrors–some 357–that line the long hallway in this opulent French palace. The painter, William Orpen, shows the reflected windows in a fragile state, nearly shattering above the heads of Wilson, Clemenceau and George.
For Wilson, the treaty had that fragile feel to it. He had hoped, had argued for months, that a durable peace could only be achieved if Germany could recover, and, equally important to him, if all parties could agree on an international group to moderate disagreements in the future. Although the treaty dealt Germany a heavy blow, Wilson did convince his colleagues to include his proposal for a league of nations in the peace treaty, to be signed by all parties.
In 1920, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his proposal. But in United States, the idea met defeat in Congress. The Republican-held Senate comprised a large number of isolationists. They weren’t interested in the kind of global community and world order Wilson envisioned. Senators feared a loss of sovereignty if they agreed to an international body that would arbitrate disputes. While the American public largely supported the treaty and the formation of a league of nations, the Senate did not. America never ratified the Treaty of Versailles.
And so a third ending was needed before moving the Great War to the pages of history. On August 25, 1921, months after Wilson left office, the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Berlin, which stated that the U.S. would enjoy all the “rights, privileges, indemnities, reparations or advantages” specified in the Treaty of Versailles. There was no mention of the League of Nations, which America never joined. (1)
World War 1, like many (perhaps like most), proved harder to end than it was to begin. And Wilson’s hope for world peace? That dream stayed on the table in Versailles.
(1) “The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles,” Office of the Historian, Department of State, United States of America. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/paris-peace
The negotiations and Wilson’s contributions fascinate me. I recommend the biography of Wilson: O’Toole, Patricia. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Also informative are these websites (among many):