The following article on the end of World War I is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The Russian sideshow was but one part of America’s introduction to international statecraft. The main stage was Paris and the postwar negotiations that would culminate in the Treaty of Versailles. America’s negotiating position had been staked out well before the end of the war. On 8 January 1918, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, President Wilson enunciated his Fourteen Points to guide the postwar world. He announced, before getting down to particulars, that “What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world, as against force and selfish aggression.”


The president’s tone was resolutely progressive and internationalist: “All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us.”

“The program of the world’s peace, therefore, is our program,” Wilson declared, “and that program, the only possible program,” was of course his Fourteen Points, which were:

  1. An end to secret diplomacy and treaties. Everything henceforth was to be done in the open so that people knew what their leaders were committing them to as a nation.
  2. Freedom of the seas, outside of reservations for territorial waters and the enforcement of international covenants.
  3. Free trade, long the liberal shibboleth for establishing perpetual peace.
  4. International arms reductions to the barest of minimums.
  5. A liberal adjustment of colonial claims, taking into equal consideration the interests of the colonial powers and the interests of the native populations. Wilson used the word “imperialist” as a condemnation, applying it frequently to Germany, though Britain had by far the larger empire—the largest in world history in fact, which reached its zenith immediately after the Great War.
  6. Ironically, given his future dispatch of troops to Russia, he called for all foreign powers (meaning most especially the Central Powers) to leave Russia alone to determine her own destiny, taking an optimistic view that if greeted with good will and disinterested assistance, Russia would gravitate in a liberal direction. Like many a liberal before and after him, Wilson believed that revolts against reactionary monarchies tend naturally toward the triumph of liberal values.
  7. The restoration of an independent Belgium.
  8. The restoration of France’s territorial integrity, plus the return of Alsace-Lorraine to French sovereignty.
  9. An adjustment of Italy’s frontiers to incorporate neighboring ethnic Italians within Italy’s borders.
  10. “The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.” In other words, the collapsed Habsburg Empire should be divided among its constituent nationalities on the grounds of “national self-determination,” another liberal shibboleth. In practice, it meant the forcible, violent shifting of peoples into ethnic safe havens.
  11. This point built on the previous one with a few particulars, including that Serbia’s borders should allow it access to the sea, and that the Balkan states should work in “friendly counsel” while protected by “international guarantees.”
  12. The Ottoman Empire was to be carved up. The Turks would have their state, but their other territories should be granted national self-determination. In addition, “the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.”
  13. Something that had not existed for more than a hundred years—an independent Poland—was to be re-created, with borders that gave it territorial access to the sea. Its “political and economic independence and territorial integrity” was to be “guaranteed by international covenant.”
  14. The creation of a League of Nations, which would develop the international agreements for the Fourteen Points to become effective, provide the many necessary international guarantees, and perpetuate a liberal world order.

As for Germany, Wilson said, “We wish her only to accept a place of equality among the peoples of the world—the new world in which we now live—instead of a place of mastery.” He closed with a rousing, or, according to taste, ridiculous peroration:

An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation, no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle, and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess. The moral climax of this, the culminating and final war for human liberty has come, and they are ready to put their own strength, their own highest purpose, their own integrity and devotion to the test.

The “final war for human liberty,” presaged the end, in Wilson’s mind, of the corrupt old order. He was a prophet of the world to come, a new world order for a Europe that had nearly destroyed itself. For many Europeans, Wilson’s idealism vindicated their sacrifices. They regarded him as a moral hero. Aside from the Bolsheviks with their rhetoric of world revolution, he was the only statesman whose thinking and proclamations were not grounded in national interest. Or, as Wilson himself preferred to think, America had been the only disinterested party in the world conflict and would be the only disinterested party in the making of the peace.


It seemed as if the man and his moment were met as delegates from around the world descended on Paris in December 1918. Through the first six months of 1919, they asserted nationalist aspirations, progressive nostrums, and hopes for new republics—and Wilson was at the center of the negotiations. The other two of the “big three” statesmen at the conference were regarded, in comparison, as representing European cynicism and Realpolitik, though they were hardly defenders of the old order. They were, in fact, men of the political Left. Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister of France, was an anti-clerical radical and nationalist; David Lloyd George, prime minister of Great Britain, was a Welshman, a Liberal, and an architect of Britain’s nascent welfare state. Neither Wilson nor Clemenceau nor Lloyd George had any interest in re-creating the Congress of Vienna of a hundred years before, playing the roles of the conservative statesmen Castlereagh, Wellington, and Metternich, and effecting a world restored; they wanted a world remade. Truth be told, though, the reactionaries of 1814–1815 did their job better, preserving a longer peace, than did the liberals of 1919.


There was general agreement that Germany should be disarmed, but to what degree—especially given the Bolshevik menace—was a matter of heated debate. In the end the victors attempted to almost completely demilitarize what had been a highly militaristic German society. The German army was limited to one hundred thousand men and the navy to fifteen thousand, police forces were limited to prewar levels, and school cadet corps were eliminated. Beyond that, Germany was denied an air force, a tank corps, submarines, heavy artillery, and much else besides. The German military would amount to a constabulary force that might be able to handle domestic Bolshevik revolutionaries, but not much else.

There was also general agreement that Germany should be made geographically smaller, and there were several countries, not just France, that were eager to assist in this scheme, including Poland, Lithuania, and Denmark. France laid claim not only to Alsace-Lorraine but to the Rhineland—wanting either to annex it, make it independent (a second Belgium), or at the very least occupy and demilitarize it—and even to the coal-rich Saarland, which by any reasonable definition was entirely German. No matter how it was sliced and diced, Germany would still dwarf France in population. Even so, the French wanted to erect as many obstacles as possible to ensure that Germany could never again invade France.

But this was to neglect the role that resentment can play in human affairs. Germany, stripped of the trappings of a sovereign nation and a great power, was then stuck with the bill for the Great War. Germany bore the costs because Germany bore the guilt, as stated in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles (written by two Americans, Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles): “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” Austria and Hungary signed treaties with similar clauses, but it was Germany on whom the brunt fell.

Lloyd George put the case for imposing financial reparations on Germany: “Somebody had to pay. If Germany could not pay, it meant the British taxpayer had to pay. Those who ought to pay were those who caused the loss.” Lloyd George had trained as a lawyer. For him it was a simple matter of damages and liabilities. He was also insistent that his client, Great Britain, get its fair share of any financial settlement, which, to get near the level of French demands, would have to include pensions for British war widows and orphans. Nevertheless, the British share of German payments was set at only slightly more than half of what the French were to receive.

The Americans were creditors, and though they sought no reparations payments for themselves, they did want repayment on wartime loans. The British were technically creditors too, but their loans to Russia, Italy, and other countries, including France, were unlikely to be repaid, and, in turn, the British owed the United States $4.7 billion. In 1923 Britain reached an agreement on a repayment schedule, with interest, to the United States. Writing many years later, after the conclusion of yet another world war, Winston Churchill noted, “The basis of this agreement was considered, not only in this island, but by many disinterested financial authorities in America, to be a severe and improvident condition for both borrower and lender. ‘They hired the money, didn’t they?’ said President Coolidge. This laconic statement was true, but not exhaustive.”

Churchill had a further point: “Payments between countries which take the form of a transfer of goods and services, or still more of their fruitful exchange, are not only just but beneficial. Payments which are only the arbitrary, artificial transmission across the exchange of such very large sums as arise in war finance cannot fail to derange the whole process of world economy. This is equally true whether the payments are exacted from an ally who shared the victory and bore much of the brunt or from a defeated enemy nation.” Magnanimity, in other words, was the better course politically and economically. This was a minority view in 1919, especially among the French, who saw German reparations payments as another shackle on German recovery, and hence on Germany’s potential for aggression. One who shared Churchill’s view was economist John Maynard Keynes, who believed in canceling debts and encouraging free trade, which in the end would benefit everyone. Keynes attended the Paris Peace Conference as an advisor from the British Treasury and returned as one of the most influential critics of the Treaty of Versailles. In the end, however, the total bill presented to the Germans—$34 billion—was a large but not fantastical sum, rather smaller than the more than $17 trillion the United States owed to its creditors in 2013.

On 25 March 1919 Lloyd George’s staff drafted a memorandum that he presented to the Council of Four (the United States, France, Italy, and Great Britain). The “Fontainebleau Memorandum” tried to carve out a moderate middle ground, stripping Germany of her colonies, demanding reparations payments, and demilitarizing the Rhineland, but otherwise warning against further punitive exactions. We “cannot,” he said, “both cripple” Germany economically and “expect her to pay” reparations. The victors could not surround Germany with small states carved out of her own territory without creating a “cause for a future war” with “large masses of Germans clamouring for reunion with their native land.” Finally, he warned, as Churchill had, that “The greatest danger I see in the present situation is that,” if punished too severely, “Germany may throw in her lot with Bolshevism and place her resources, her brains, her vast organizing power at the disposal of the revolutionary fanatics whose dream is to conquer the world for Bolshevism by force of arms.” Wilson agreed, Clemenceau was furious, and Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy was irrelevant. Clemenceau, however, won further concessions, including a limited French occupation of the Rhineland with a phased withdrawal over fifteen years; French ownership of the Saarland’s coal mines, in reparation for Germany’s destruction of France’s coal industry; and a League of Nations mandate over the Saar, with the disposition of the country eventually to be settled by a popular vote.


More difficult was determining the borders of the countries of Eastern Europe. Few Americans thought they had fought the Great War to settle the fate of Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Serbs, Slovenes, Romanians, Croats, or the countless other ethnic groups whose futures were being determined in the faraway deal-making in Paris. Nevertheless, these groups and others canvassed for public support in the big cities of the United States, tapping into ethnic immigrant communities and affirming the Wilsonian ideals of national self-determination—or some variant thereof, given that it was impossible to draw borders that did not incorporate other nationalities. Small countries, the peacemakers soon realized, could be just as aggressive in asserting their dominion over territory as had been the defeated Central Powers. Trying to come up with proper borders, the Big Four, led by Wilson, literally crawled over a giant map on the floor. President Wilson was not always scrupulous on the matter of self-determination. He turned over a quarter of a million German-speaking citizens of Tyrol to the Italians, for example. This was an act of appeasement, but it did not stop Italian prime minister Vittorio Orlando from storming out of the Peace Conference, incensed at Wilson’s blocking Italian territorial claims in the Adriatic—claims against the newly formed state of Yugoslavia, which had Wilson’s sympathy. In June Orlando’s government fell from power.

But while drawing new borders was fun, the nub of the peace treaty—without which it was meaningless—was getting Germany’s signature on the document. When the Germans arrived at Versailles in the spring of 1919, they were appalled at the treaty’s terms and harrumphed at Woodrow Wilson’s hypocrisy. The first of his Fourteen Points insisted on diplomacy being conducted in public, with “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” But the reality was that the treaty had de facto been decided by Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau. The Germans were expected to sign and shut up, though as a face-saving measure they were granted a fortnight to study the treaty (it was the size of a book) and comment on it. By the end of May, the Germans had thoroughly annotated their objections. Many in the British delegation, including Lloyd George, and some Americans, including Herbert Hoover, had second thoughts (or first thoughts—because most had never seen the entire document themselves), but the signing of the treaty went ahead on 28 June 1919 at the palace of Versailles.

The reparations owed by Germany were, in fact, ratcheted down several times, but this had no effect on German resentment or on Germany’s default on the debt in 1933. In the end, according to historian Sheldon Anderson, “The Germans paid less in relative terms than the French did in 1871” following the Franco-Prussian War. It was not reparations that sank Germany’s economy during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, but something far more mundane, according to historian Richard Vinen: “Germany’s problems sprang mainly not from reparations, which rarely amounted to more than 3 percent of her gross national product, but from a tradition of high state spending, compounded by the welfare commitments of the Weimar government and the financial legacy of the Great War.” Reparations and the military limitations placed on Germany crumbled away as the British and French declined to enforce them.


The Americans were no longer involved at all—not because they were excluded, but because they had decided that they had paid their debt to Lafayette with more than 320,000 American military casualties, more than 116,000 of them dead. Their duty was done. In the Senate, the Republican majority had long warned Wilson that it would not accept a League of Nations that interfered with an independent American foreign policy; a treaty that obliged America to belong to such a league would be fatally flawed. This was not Wilson’s attitude, of course. He thought the Treaty of Versailles a victory—he told his wife that “as no one is satisfied, it makes me hope we have a just peace”—and he fought for it with such vigor that he brooked no compromises with, and would accept no amendments or revisions from, the United States Senate. On 10 July 1919 he challenged the Senate to approve the treaty, saying, “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?”

It looked as though the Senate, to Wilson’s astonishment and rage, was prepared to do just that. So he embarked on a whistle-stop campaign to rally the American people to the treaty. His health was failing, and the campaign nearly killed him. His doctors finally forced him to stop. But in his own righteous way he was prepared to risk his life for what he and Lloyd George and Clemenceau had wrought in Paris. Wilson suffered a terrible stroke on 2 October, which left him physically and mentally debilitated, though Wilson’s wife tried to keep the effects hidden.

Republicans in the Senate would not ratify a treaty that committed the United States, without the consent of Congress, to protect the territorial integrity of threatened League states. Wilson, who by November had regained some of his strength, again refused any alteration of the treaty. He won the Noble Peace Prize but failed to get what he really wanted. In November 1919, the Versailles Treaty was put up for a vote in the Senate, once with amendments, once without—and both times it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. On 19 March 1920 another vote was held on an amended version of the treaty, but Wilsonian Democrats who refused to countenance any changes helped sink it. In 1921, after Wilson was out of office, the United States reached a separate peace with each of the chief Central Powers—Germany, Austria, and Hungary—but disdained joining the League of Nations.

Wilson had the United States enter the Great War as an “associated power” rather than an “ally.” Perhaps it should have been no surprise that despite his best efforts the United States wrapped up its postwar business in similar fashion, on its own terms. Wilson was asked in his last cabinet meeting what he would do now. Pedagogical to the last, he announced, “I am going to try to teach ex-presidents how to behave.”

This article is part of our extensive collection of articles on the Great War. Click here to see our comprehensive article on World War 1. 

This article on the end of World War I is from the book The Yanks Are Coming! A Military HIstory of the United States in World War I © 2014 by H.W Crocker III. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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