Wilsonianism within the Treaty of Versailles:
Consonance or Contradiction

IntroductionóWilson's Fourteen Points headline the post-war agenda

    Ended by the armistice of November 11, 1918, World War I was the costliest, most bitter, and most widespread armed conflict the world had ever known.  The four years of fighting claimed the lives of nearly 10 million soldiers (a number much greater than had died during the wars of the previous century) and as many as 21 million men were wounded.[1]  Besides the cost in human lives lost or impaired, World War I carried a final price tag to the belligerent nations of around U.S. $340 billion.[2]  A war of that magnitude left all of Europe devastated and desperate for a lasting resolution to the conflict that would prevent such a horror from ever recurring.

    At the end of the war, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was undoubtedly the strongest political figure in the international scene.  Representing the country whose late entrance into the war had tipped the balance and finally allowed the Allies to defeat the Germans, he traveled through the Allied countries as a modern messiah who had liberated the democratic peoples from imperial German rule.[3]  Furthermore, Wilson gained enormous political power through the strength of the American economy, as France and Britain were desperate for American help to rebuild their shattered economies after several years of all-out war.[4]  Finally, Wilson was the moral leader of the post-war period thanks in large part to his vision for a strong international peace, a vision he had shared in a January 1918 speech known as the Fourteen Points.

    A direct response to a proposed peace conference that took place in early 1918 prior to the end of the war, the Fourteen Points speech elaborated the terms Wilson considered essential to a fair peace settlement, or as Wilson had earlier called it, a ìpeace without victory.î[5]  In that memorable earlier speech on January 22, 1917, three months before U.S. entry into the war, Wilson had stated his belief that a one-sided settlement of the conflict would be of no value, because the loser would later feel compelled to reclaim what it had lost.[6]   Instead, the only basis for a lasting peace would be a peace forged among equals on the principles of justice and democracy.[7]  It was on these beliefs that Wilson founded his Fourteen Points, one manís vision for a safer and more peaceful world.

    Though the speech cannot seamlessly be translated into a post-war peace settlement where one side had been defeated, nonetheless Wilson clearly believed in a number of fundamental principles that would form the basis for a new world order necessary to secure an enduring peace.  Besides the eight points relating to particular geographical and political changes necessary to any proposed peace, the remaining six points constitute the tenets of Wilsonianism for purposes of this paper:[8]  open covenants of peace (Point One); absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas (Point Two); removal of economic barriers to trade (Point Three); reduction in armament levels to the lowest point possible (Point Four); respect for the self-determination of colonial populations (Point Five); and an association of nations to provide collective security (Point Fourteen).  Although Wilson did not specify the means by which he sought to achieve these objectives, his Points called upon each nation to act in the greater interest of the world at large, rather than in its own individual interest.[9]  This was the foundation for his internationalist agenda in pursuing an end to the war and in seeking a new world order to maintain peace thereafter.

The shift away from Wilsonianism: compromise or changed convictions?

    Although representatives from twenty-seven nations gathered at the Paris Peace Conference on January 18, 1919 to begin drawing up a formal peace settlement, the shape of the settlement was squarely in the hands of three men in particular:  Franceís Premier Georges Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson, and Britainís Prime Minister David Lloyd George, pictured from left to right.[10]  [See also a brief description of the personalities and roles of the ìBig Threeî during the conference.]  Wilson had convinced Lloyd George and Clemenceau to take the Fourteen Points as a blueprint for negotiating the peace treaty, which was only fair since Germany had signed the armistice ending the fighting on the expectation that the resulting peace would seek to implement Wilsonís objectives.[11]  But immediately the conference delegates decided not to allow Germany to participate in the conference, for as the vanquished party, it did not have the right to determine its fate.  Furthermore, the war had been long and brutal, and the sentiments among the Allies toward the Germans were nothing short of hatred.[12]  Soon thereafter, the blueprint was functionally discarded, and the direction of the conference shifted away from Wilsonianism and the foundational principles for creating a new world order toward the singular purpose of punishing Germany to prevent it from future aggression.  Wilson had attempted to address in the Fourteen Points what he had perceived to be the primary causes of the war (including imperialism, militarism, secret alliances, and balance of power politics) in a scrupulous effort to prevent those factors from causing future conflicts.[13]  But the conference and resulting Treaty turned into a piecemeal attempt by the Allies to make the world a safer and better place for themselves.

    Historians disagree on Wilsonís role during the directional shift of the conference.  A substantial majority claim Wilson remained committed to the principles of his vision but found himself obligated to make concessions to Lloyd George and Clemenceau in order to salvage the conference and obtain any peace settlement.[14]  Although the other two Allied leaders had paid lip service to Wilsonís ideas,[15]  during the negotiations they were clearly acting out of national self-interest.  Thus, according to this theory, the strength of their resolve to take home a treaty very favorable to their citizens left Wilson with no choice other than to compromise certain principles in order to make any progress at all.  But at least one historian, Manfred Boemeke,[16]  instead portrays the departure from the Fourteen Points and subsequent arrival at Versailles as a natural progression of Wilsonís convictions vis-à-vis Germany and its people.  Having long believed the primary German flaw to be its autocratic government, which did not allow the expression of the peopleís will, he became convinced by the end of the war that the German people themselves were just as militaristic in nature as their government.  Thus, he saw the role of the Paris Peace Conference as a trial of both defeated Germany and its people, and he resolved in his own mind to impose retributive justice upon them.  He even became an advocate of including the cost of Allied military pensions in the reparations imposed upon Germany (see discussion below), despite the counsel of his advisers that this was contrary to the logic of the Fourteen Points,[17]  because the Germans needed to understand fully the dire consequences of war.  Boemeke also describes a Wilson who was actively defending the Treaty after its signature, both at home and abroad (and beyond the need to convince the U.S. Senate to ratify it), based on his sincere belief that the Treatyís terms were morally just and right.

The consequent disregard of visionary principle

    Though the precise role Wilson played in the abandonment of his broad objectives is not the concern of this paper, the important fact is that, one by one, those objectives were compromised in the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles.  The first principle sacrificed was Point One (ìopen covenants of peace, openly arrived at, Ö diplomacy shall proceed Ö in the public viewî), and ironically it was Wilson himself who caused its compromise even before the negotiations commenced.  Wilson had fully (and naively) believed that if the peace negotiations were held under the public eye, the people would demand justice in the form of a stable and fair peace, preventing future war through the observance of international law and mutual respect.  He had also believed that the people would restrain their political leaders, who otherwise would be predisposed to seek the best resolution possible for their respective countries.[18]  Thus, it would have been consistent with his principles for Wilson to insist that the negotiations in Paris remain open to the public.  However, Clemenceau and Lloyd George had just received resounding votes of confidence from their home electorates, who were openly pushing for harsh retribution against Germany as well as compensation to themselves for their losses suffered because of Germanyís aggression.[19]  Therefore, to avoid the risk of codifying the un-Wilsonian spirit of the frenzied post-war political atmosphere, Wilson insisted that the negotiations be closed to the press.[20]  Perhaps he was implicitly hoping that he could still convince the other Allied leaders of the importance of his vision to future peace, or perhaps he was merely trying to conceal the extent to which he no longer believed in his own vision for peace.  Either way, though the idea of open international agreements would be later codified in the covenant of the League of Nations (see Article 18 of the Treaty), the Paris peace conference had failed to set a good example for others to follow.

    Point Two, the freedom of the seas, was also rejected in the early stages of the negotiations.  Britain refused to surrender its clear naval advantage in the name of some vague new principle,[21]  and after a war in which the navies had played an important role, it is understandable that Britain would not give up its greatest comparative advantage.  Nonetheless, it was an obvious demonstration from the beginning of the conference that the victors were not willing to sacrifice their own national interest on behalf of a greater global interest, whatever that global interest might be.  Wilson quickly saw he was not going to win on this point, and he dropped it to save his political battles for other points.

    Point Three of the Fourteen Points speech seemed to be a sine qua non of Wilsonís plan for international economic relations after the war, advocating ìthe removal Ö of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions.î  Implicit in that statement was the idea that an open and strong international economy would bind nations together and reduce the trade tensions that can escalate into war.  But although the notion of removing trade barriers is never explicitly refuted in the Treaty of Versailles, Point Three is probably the single most violated Point in spirit.  The Allied leaders, reacting to public opinion that demanded some meaningful reward for their four years of terrible suffering, resolved to impose upon Germany the obligation to repay an enormous sum of war reparations to the Allies (see the details Treaty Articles 231 to 263).  Historically used as a measure of victorís justice, whereby the victorious forced the vanquished to pay for the costs of the war,[22]  reparations after World War I were unlike any imposed following previous wars merely because of the sheer magnitude of the war.  In fact, the amount of reparations to be imposed upon Germany was so large and complex that the conference could not agree on a final figure nor on the components of the damages.  The final figure, announced at the London conference on reparations on May 5, 1921, was 136 billion German Marks, or roughly 33 billion U.S. dollars.[23]

    Clearly, Germany was not in a position to sustain such a foreign suction of its capital without bordering on internal collapse,[24]  yet the Allies, with full knowledge of the situation, insisted on setting the amount as high as conceivably possible to achieve variations on one underlying theme:  making themselves better off at the expense of a crippled Germany.  First, the Allies needed capital with which to rebuild their war-torn countries (especially France, whose industry had been nearly wiped out),[25]  and extracting payments from the vanquished Germany was the easiest means to obtain the capital.  Second, forcing Germany to pay large sums of money over a period of years would thoroughly disable the German war machine, since the German government would have no leftover resources to devote to it.[26] Finally, reparations leveled the economic playing field at the end of the war, placing the same vise upon Germany that war debts to the U.S. had placed upon Britain and France.[27]

    But while these rationales made sense to the self-serving interests of Britain and France, and leaving aside the question of whether reparations were an economically prudent solution to the German problem, they were fundamentally inconsistent with the tenets of Wilsonianism.  Wilson had advocated a settlement that ìwould prevent a renewal of hostilities by Germany yet Ö be as moderate and reasonable as possible,î[28]  for he believed that German economic recovery was pivotal to the post-war stability of Europe.[29]  Furthermore, he had also been opposed to the idea of reparations because they seemed to place all the blame for the war on Germanyís shoulders, a view he believed to be inaccurate.[30]  But, in this case, Wilson apparently came to agree with the British and French that reparations were just,[31]  deserting his earlier desire for a moderate settlement toward Germany in an effort to convince the Germans that aggression simply does not pay off.

    Next, the map of the world had to be redrawn at the end of the war, and the diplomats in Paris proceeded to follow many of the territorial provisions of the Fourteen Points, Points Six through Thirteen (see Treaty Articles 27 to 117).  Though not a focus of this paper, the territorial divisions went far beyond those proposed in the Fourteen Points, as the Big Three used their status as victors to divide up the German empire, granting to the newly established nations of Czechoslovakia and Poland parts of formerly German territory with strong concentrations of German citizens (compare the maps of 1914 and 1924 below).  Although this was a violation of the principle of nationality or self-determination espoused by Wilson after his Fourteen Points speech (and somewhat embodied in Point Fiveís objective of respecting the interests of colonial populations), this was deemed necessary in order to further restrain German power by building up strong states around it.[32] As for the German colonies outside of Europe, the question of national self-determination for those populations simply never arose.[33]  When Wilson refused to allow the British to annex German colonies abroad, the South African Jan Christian Smuts invented the ìmandateî system that was included in the Treaty.   In that system, the formely German territories weretaken away and transferred to the League of Nations (discussed below), which assigned or ìmandatedî them to other states who would administer them in trust for the League (Articles 118 to 158).[34]  But this innovative formula, hailed by the conference as a Wilsonian victory, was seen by some as merely a façade, giving de jure control to the League, while securing de facto control for the Allies.[35]  Furthermore, having rejected the spirit of self-determination of Point Five with respect to the former German colonies, the Allies were clearly not ready to offer the principle to the residents of their own colonies.[36]  Thus, similar to Points One, Two and Three of the Fourteen Points, Point Five is clearly compromised (or even non-existent) within the Treaty of Versailles.


    Wilsonís Point Four is one point that figures prominently within the Treaty of Versailles, yet in a way that misses the spirit of his valiant idea.  In the Treaty, the Allies went to great pains to ensure that German armaments were reduced to the lowest point imaginable (see Articles 159-213).  These detailed articles limited Germanyís military forces and its arsenal to specific lists and numbers and even ordered the demilitarization of the Rhineland as a buffer for France.  Though clearly infringements of German sovereignty and unprecedented in a post-war peace treaty, the Allies considered these measures necessary to secure a safer world.[37]  It had become common among the Allied leaders and peoples to view German militarism as a national state of mind,[38]  and one French statesman at the Paris conference later wrote:  ìGermany turned towards war, as flowers turn towards the sun.î[39]   Many thought it inevitable that Germany would engage in future aggression unless its military power was effectively restrained.  As for Wilson, he was content to apply his principle to the defeated Germans, upon whom it could be rather easily imposed, but it was also his ultimate intention to apply the notion of arms control more generally.  At the same time, however, he was advocating a stronger U.S. Navy,[40]  and the only mention in the Treaty of Versailles of his larger ambition of global disarmament is found in Article 8 (part of the Covenant of the League of Nations), which prescribed plans for the collective reduction of armaments.  Thus, on the whole, Wilsonís principle of reduction of armaments was painstakingly imposed upon Germany, but only vaguely and distantly required of the Allies.

    The one point from Wilsonís Fourteen Points speech to be substantially included in the Treaty of Versailles in the spirit Wilson had intended it was Point Fourteen, the creation of an assembly of nations for the purpose of collective security.  One can surmise that Wilson believed collective security to be the essential process to prevent future wars as horrible as World War I, since he was willing to sacrifice many of his other principles to ensure Allied support for the League.  Thus, this was Wilsonís great triumph, and presumably he made sure it appeared at the very beginning (Articles 1 ñ 26) in the final version of the Treaty, to herald his internationalist principles in a document otherwise filled with compromises of those same principles.  The covenant of the League began by spelling out the structure and procedures of the new assembly.  All sovereign states would be invited to participate, except Germany, who would be allowed to join only after a period of probation, and Russia, who was not invited to join due to its internal turmoil.[41]  Article 10 provided the raison díetre of the League, prescribing the use of collective action (including military force) against an aggressor state having violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another state.  Articles 12-15 and 17 provided a series of procedures for states to resolve disputes by peaceful means (including arbitration by the Council of the League, or by the Permanent Court of International Justice).  Thus, in this one major contribution of Wilsonian ideals to the Treaty of Versailles, an ambitious new world order was instituted based on the principles of peaceful modification of boundaries and peaceful resolution of disputes,[42]  no small achievement in light of the previous centuries when war was really the only mechanism of dispute resolution.


    In January 1919, the Allies set out to establish a resolution to the Great War that would prevent any future atrocity of that magnitude.  Wilsonís admirable ideas from his Fourteen Points speech had attempted to respond to the perceived causes of World War I, preventing future war by curtailing the conditions that gave rise to war.  Yet in the end, the Treaty of Versailles more closely resembled a truce of exhaustion rather than a comprehensive resolution of societyís problems.  But unlike a real truce, World War I had winners and losers, and the Allies as victors had the power to impose the terms of the truce on Germany and its defeated allies.  In so doing, they focused on one cause of the war (to the seeming exclusion of all others):  German aggression.  Whether one characterizes the Treaty of Versailles as a free-for-all division of the spoils of victory, as some do, or as a thorough and calculated attempt to prevent a future war caused by German militarism, it is clear the Allies did their best to neutralize German military, economic, and even political power.  That approach to peace clearly contradicted or at least severely compromised almost all of the fundamental tenets of Wilsonianism, as expressed in the Fourteen Points.  The peace treaty was so divergent from the spirit of the Fourteen Points that Germany very reluctantly (and only under the threat of more hostilities) signed onto the harsh and far-reaching terms the Allies had laid down in the Treaty.[43]


Wilson (center, with black top hat)
splitting the jubilant crowd after
signing the Treaty on June 18, 1919

    Furthermore, although the signature of the Treaty on June 28, 1919 led to much celebration that the war was officially over and a new era based on the noble ideas of collective security and peaceful resolution of disputes had begun, there were two important failures associated with the new world order that undermined its long-term success.  First, by redrawing the map of the world at the Paris conference and simultaneously enforcing the newly-drawn boundaries with collective security under the League, the Allies seemed to permanently freeze the territorial post-war status quo.[44]  Germany would later come to resent that status quo, and Adolf Hitler would purposefully endeavor to subvert the Versailles world order.[45]  Second, Wilson had decided during the negotiations to postpone resolution of the most difficult problems for discussion within the League.  With respect to issues such as a plebiscite in Upper Silesia (former German territory granted to Poland), what to do with Russia, and the Japanese plea for a recognition in the Treaty of racial equality, Wilson hoped the League would be able to more easily solve the issues in the years following the conference, as he put it, ìwhen the war psychosis has abated.î[46]  But in the end, Wilson surely regretted postponing resolution of those issues until later, since, after the U.S. Senateís isolationist refusal to join the League, the U.S. did not have a say on those issues, and the League was weakened as a result of the U.S. absence.  Thus, despite the fact the League was a lofty goal and a significant accomplishment for Wilson and his diplomacy, the potential success of the achievement (and of Wilsonís legacy) was cut short.

    Finally, the actual extent to which Wilson agreed with the harshest parts of the Treaty and even pushed for their inclusion is subject to debate among historians.  However, it seems safe to conclude that Wilsonís attitude concerning Germany and the nature of the peace settlement probably changed during the eighteen months of American belligerency, most likely in favor of a harsher sentence against Germany.  Thus, it may be somewhat inaccurate to blame Wilson for sacrificing his principled idealism or to condemn Clemenceau and Lloyd George for forcing Wilson to compromise and accept a harsh settlement.  But that leaves open the question of whether Wilson can be blamed for abandoning his principles and jumping on the retributive bandwagon.   Nevertheless, no matter how it came to be, the Versailles peace was clearly inconsistent with Wilsonís ideals of early 1918.  Though the treaty embodied Wilsonís vision of the rule of law (enforced by collective security) regulating international relations, the document was a great departure from the rest of his visionary principles.  While it is anyoneís guess whether a treaty consonant with the whole of Wilsonianism would have prevented a second world war, it is at least clear that the Treaty of Versailles played a role in the events leading up to the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

    [For a brief note on the Treaty of Versailles as fodder for Hitlerís fire; blaming the Big Three for their retributive peace; and other reflections on the Treaty, see Authorís Personal Conclusions.]

First Page
Personalities of the Big Three
Author's Personal Conclusions

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1.    Edward Coffman, ìWorld War I,î 1999 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia, Deluxe Edition, CD-ROM, p. 17 (from class photocopy packet).
2.    Id.
3.    James L. Stokesbury, ìA Short History of World War I,î 1981, p. 309.
4.    William R. Keylor, ìVersailles and International Diplomacyin The Treaty of Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Ch. 19, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 477.
5.    Coffman, supra note 1, at 19.
6.    Ross Gregory, ìThe Origins of American Intervention in the First World War,î 1971, p. 115.
7.    Id. at 116.
8.    This term is used elsewhere in scholarly literature to refer to differing facets and/or combinations of Wilsonís beliefs, but these six principles (Points I-V and XIV of the Fourteen    Point speech) will be the focus of this paper, to observe how they appear vel non in the Treaty of Versailles.
9.    Akira Iriye, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Vol. III, ìThe Globalizing of America, 1913-1945,î 1993, p. 71.
10.    The other member of the Big Four, Italyís Premier Vittorio Orlando, is omitted from this discussion, since history portrays his role during the peace conference as insignificant to  the outcome of the Treaty.
11.    Coffman, supra note 1, at 19.  See also, Ronald Steel, ìPrologue:  1919-1945-1989in The Treaty of Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 22.
12.    Stokesbury, supra note 3, at 308.
13.    Id. at 311; Robert H. Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson and World War I:  1917-1921, 1985, p. 8.
14.    Iriye, supra note 9, at 59.
15.    Keylor, supra note 4, at 472.
16.    The references in this paragraph are found in Manfred Boemeke, ìWoodrow Wilsonís Image of Germany, the War-Guilt Question, and the Treaty of Versaillesin The Treaty of  Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Ch. 25, Boemeke, Feldman and Glaser, eds, 1998, pp. 603-614.
17.    Ferrell, supra note 13, at 143.
18.    Keylor, supra note 4, at 474.
19.    Id. at 480-481.
20.    Id.
21.    Stokesbury, supra note 3, at 314.
22.    In fact, Germany had imposed war reparations upon France at the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 in the amount of five billion French francs.  Keylor, supra note 4, at 497.
23.    Harold G. Moulton and Constantine E. McGuire, Germanyís Capacity to Pay:  A Study of the Reparation Problem, 1923, p. 60.
24.    Id. at 245, 247.
25.    The German army had deliberately destroyed most of Franceís industrial strength in the occupied territory, with the intent of crippling France as a postwar commercial competitor.  Keylor, supra note 4, at 497.  As a result, France was able to obtain in the Versailles Treaty control of coal mines in the Saar region for fifteen years.  Elisabeth Glaser, ìThe Making of the Economic Peacein The Treaty of Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Ch. 15, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 386.
26.    See, e.g., id. at 382.
27.    Antony Lentin, ìA Commentin The Treaty of Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Ch. 10, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 224.
28.    Wilson to Edward M. House, Oct. 28, 1918, PWW, 51:473, quoted in, Thomas J. Knock, ìWilsonian Concepts and International Realities at the End of the WarinThe Treaty of Versailles:  A Reassessment After 75 Years, Ch. 4, Boemeke, Feldman & Glaser, eds., 1998, p. 117.
29.    Iriye, supra note 9, at 64.
30.    In fact, Article 231 of the Treaty places the moral blame on Germany for causing the war.  Some historians see this article as one of the harshest Treaty articles and most inconsistent with Wilsonianism.  See, e.g., Coffman, supra note 1, at 20.  However, at least one author disagrees, stating instead that it was the American delegation that advocated Article 231, to please the Allied public by recognizing Germanyís moral debt despite the reality that Germanyís economic debt could never possibly be paid in full. Keylor, supra note 4, at 500.
31.    See earlier discussion of Wilsonís role in the shift away from Wilsonianism.
32.    Iriye, supra note 9, at 60.
33.    Keylor, supra note 4, at 494.
34.    Id.
35.    Stokesbury, supra note 3, at 313.
36.    Keylor, supra note 4, at 495.
37.    Iriye, supra note 9, at 60.
38.    Nicholas Murray Butler, (pseudonym Cosmos), The Basis of Durable Peace, 1917, p. 55.
39.    André Tardieu, The Truth About the Treaty, 1921, p. 17.
40.    Iriye, supra note 9, at 60.
41.    The rest of this paragraph is adapted from Iriye, supra note 9, at 62-63.
42.    Knock, supra note 28, at 114.
43.    Iriye, supra note 9, at 59.
44.    Id. at 63.
45.    See generally, Mildred Salz Wertheimer, Germany Under Hitler, World Affairs Pamphlets, No. 8, 1935.
46.    Ferrell, supra note 13, at 146.