10 November 2010
Allies around the conference table in Paris in 1919
BOB DOUGHTY: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
In nineteen eighteen, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a truce took effect between the Allies and Germany. But not until seven months later was a treaty signed to officially end what was known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars.
This week in our series, Shirley Griffith and Larry West continue the story of the peace conference following World War One.
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: American President Woodrow Wilson was one of the chief negotiators at the conference in Paris. Throughout the early months of nineteen nineteen, he struggled hard for a treaty that would result in peace with justice for all sides.
Wilson demanded a treaty that provided for a new international organization. He called it the League of Nations. To Wilson, the league was more important than any other part of the treaty.
Not all Americans shared Wilson's opinion. Many feared the league would take away the power of the American government to declare war and make treaties. They also agreed with the leaders of the other allied nations. Establishing the league was less important than punishing the defeated enemy.
Left to right: Britain's Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italy's Premier Vittorio Orlando, France's Premier Georges Clemenceau, and President Woodrow Wilson on June 28, 1919.
LARRY WEST: The other major allied leaders at the peace conference were Prime Minister David Lloyd-George of Britain, Premier Georges Clemenceau of France, and Premier Vittorio Otto of Italy.
Lloyd-George, Clemenceau, and Otto understood how much Wilson wanted the League of Nations. They used this knowledge to win Wilson's approval for other parts of the peace treaty.
Wilson soon learned that, to get the league, he had to compromise on many issues. For example, he had to accept British and French demands to make Germany pay all war damages. The payments added up to more than three hundred thousand million dollars. Wilson also had to accept the allied takeover of Germany's colonies.
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Some of Wilson's compromises violated his belief in self-determination. This was the right of all people to decide for themselves who would govern them.
One compromise, for example, gave to Japan Germany's colonial rights in the Shantung area of China. China protested the decision. It asked that control of Shantung be returned to the Chinese government. But President Wilson needed Japan's support for the League of Nations. So he accepted Japan's demand for control of Shantung.
There were other violations of the policy of self-determination. These affected the people and land along the borders of several European nations.
For example, three million Germans were made citizens of the new nation of Czechoslovakia. Millions of other Germans were forced into the newly formed nation of Poland. And Italy received territory that had belonged to Austria.
LARRY WEST: Today, most history experts agree Woodrow Wilson was correct in opposing these decisions. They say Germany's loss of territory and citizens caused deep bitterness. And the bitterness helped lead to the rise of fascist dictator Adolph Hitler in the nineteen thirties.
In East Asia, Japanese control over parts of China created serious tensions. Both decisions helped plant the seeds for the bloody harvest of World War Two twenty years later. But allied leaders at the Paris peace conference were not looking far into the future. As one person said at the time: "They divided Europe like people cutting up a tasty pie."
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: After months of negotiations, the peace treaty was completed. The Allies gave it to a German delegation on May seventh, nineteen-nineteen. The head of the delegation objected immediately. He said the treaty was unfair. He urged his government not to sign it.
At first, Germany did not sign. The leader of the government refused and resigned in protest. But a new government was formed. And its leader signed the document at a ceremony at the palace in Versailles outside Paris.
Finally, World War One was officially over.
LARRY WEST: President Woodrow Wilson returned to the United States after the treaty signing ceremony. He was not completely satisfied with the treaty. Yet he believed it was still valuable, because it established the League of Nations.
Wilson's battle for the league was only half over when the treaty was signed in Europe. He had to win approval from the United States Senate. That half of the battle would not be easy.
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Part of the problem was political. Wilson was a member of the Democratic Party. The Senate was controlled by the Republican Party. Also, Wilson had refused to name any important Republicans to his negotiating team at the peace conference.
Henry Cabot Lodge
Part of the problem was personal. A number of senators disliked Wilson. One was Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge was the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He told a friend he never expected to hate anyone as much as he hated Wilson.
LARRY WEST: Wilson spoke before the Senate just two days after he returned from Europe. He urged it to approve the peace treaty.
Wilson said: "The united power of free nations must put a stop to aggression. And the world must be given peace. Shall we and any other free people refuse to accept this great duty? Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world? We cannot turn back. America shall show the way. The light streams upon the path ahead and nowhere else."
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee began hearings on the treaty. It heard a number of people who opposed the League of Nations. They said the league would destroy the freedom and independence of the United States.
The committee completed its hearings and prepared a report for the full Senate. The report said the United States should reject the treaty, unless changes were made. The committee proposed almost forty changes.
LARRY WEST: The committee's report was a blow to President Wilson both politically and personally. He had worked extremely hard to win Europe's support for the idea of a league of nations. Great crowds in Paris had cheered him and his idea. Now, the Senate of his own country was about to reject it.
Wilson decided he must take his case out of the hands of the peoples' representatives. He would take the case directly to the people themselves. He would build public support for the treaty. If enough citizens supported it, he believed, the Senate could not reject it.
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: President Wilson planned a speaking trip all across the country. His family and his doctor urged him not to go. They said he was still weak from a recent sickness. But Wilson refused the advice. He said the treaty was more important to him than his own life.
The president left Washington in early September. He traveled in a special train.
In city after city, he made speeches and rode in parades. He shook thousands of hands. At times, he suffered from a painful headache. But there was no time to rest.
LARRY WEST: Everywhere Wilson stopped, he urged the people to support the League of Nations. It was, he said, the only hope for peace.
In Boulder, Colorado, ten thousand people waited to hear him. By then, Wilson was extremely weak. He had to be helped up the steps of the building where he was to speak. He made the speech. He said he was working to honor the men who had died in the war. He said he was working for the children of the world.
SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Wilson put all his heart and energy into his speeches. And, as his family and doctor had warned, the pressure was too great. While in Wichita, Kansas, the pain in his head became terrible. He could not speak clearly. His face seemed frozen. A blood vessel had broken in his brain. Wilson had suffered a stroke.
The president was forced to return to Washington. His condition got worse every day. Soon, he was unable to move.
Woodrow Wilson would spend the rest of his presidency as a terribly sick man. He continued to hold on to his dreams of a League of Nations. But his dreams now filled a broken body.
We will continue our story next week.
BOB DOUGHTY: Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Shirley Griffith and Larry West.
You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and images at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.