Search the Site

Shaping the World at Versailles: A Q&A With the Author of A Shattered Peace

Any history book will give you a chapter on the Treaty of Versailles, during which delegates from around the world gathered in France to hammer out peace terms following World War I. The men (and occasional woman) who negotiated the outcome may have had their own individual and national agendas, but their decisions arguably set the stage for decades of international socio and economic turmoil, culminating in events like Vietnam, the war in the Balkans, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In his new book, A Shattered Peace, executive editor David Andelman tracks in extraordinary depth what happened behind the scenes during the Versailles negotiations, and examines how the Treaty helped shape the modern international climate. Andelman agreed to answer our questions about his book.

Q: You argue that oversights and errors in the Treaty contributed directly to conflicts from Vietnam to the Cold War, and continue to profoundly impact today’s international relations. How did it create such strong ripple effects, and how has its influence continued almost a century later?

A: The diplomats and politicians who became architects of the Treaty of Versailles came to Paris in 1919 with the stated goal of remaking the world and, while they were in session, constituted themselves as the world’s government. With this end, and not being challenged in granting themselves this unprecedented power, they proceeded to redraw the boundaries and redistribute the populations of vast stretches of the planet. With a few narrow exceptions, these boundaries and the new nations they created, all but haphazardly, continue to the be those we find today — territories that we are all too often defending at gunpoint.

Because of the nature of these new states — all heterogeneous and, above all, weak, created in the image of the Western nations that gave them life — they became (quite intentionally) heavily dependent on these wealthy and more powerful countries which had deep interests in making sure that they survived by whatever means necessary.

The result is that only now, as I demonstrate in A Shattered Peace, these nations created in Paris in 1919 are beginning to come apart — often violently. The fault lines that existed when they were founded, but have been hidden for nearly a century, are splitting open as powerful internal forces of ethnicity, language, and religion began surfacing, as well as powerful economic imperatives.

Q: What were the Treaty’s biggest mistakes? How would the international landscape be different now if they hadn’t been made?

A: There were a host of colossal errors in fact and judgment made at the Paris Peace Conference that gave birth to this shattered peace.

First there was the fissure between the idealism of the American President Woodrow Wilson and the self-centered hubris of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Wilson sought gamely, but, in the end, fatally, to persuade his peers that the only viable world organization would be to allow nations and people to determine their own fate and their own system of government. Lloyd George and Clemenceau, while playing lip service to this fine ideal, had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Their goal was to create a world in their image that they could manipulate, and that would allow each leader to continue controlling the global empires he had possessed when he’d entered the war.

The European Allies failed to understand, however, that this old world order had already come apart economically, politically, and diplomatically, leaving a whole new global organization with new and different players. They also failed to understand the power of the ethnic minorities they were shuffling around like chess pieces.

Had the right of self-determination indeed been respected, and had nations been created for the good of their inhabitants rather than the convenience of the major powers, it is very likely that the powerful centrifugal forces of religions and nationalities that today are spinning the world apart could have been tamed. Palestinians and Jews, each with their own homeland, could have learned to live — and prosper — side by side, as could have Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis; and Croats, Serbs, and Kosovars.

The most costly errors, however, came when the peacemakers ignored so many of those who came to plead their case in Paris. Nguyen Tat Thanh, serving as a busboy at the Ritz Hotel, came to plead the case for independence for his people in Indochina. Given the brushoff by the western powers, he turned Communist, went off to Paris, and decades later took the nom-de-guerre Ho Chi Minh. China’s demands to keep Japan at bay were also ignored. The demonstrations that swept China gave rise to the Chinese Communist Party and brought to power a young militant named Mao Tse-Tung. Japan’s victory gave new strength to that nation’s military leadership, which a quarter century later turned their guns on the U.S., bringing America into the Second World War.

Q: What effect did the Treaty have on the Western economy? Eastern?

A: The Treaty had a powerful on impact on the economies of both West and East. While it exacted severe economic and territorial penalties on
the defeated Central Powers — especially Germany, but also Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the entire Ottoman Empire — it also did little to repair the economic structures of the victorious nations of Britain, France, and Italy, as well as smaller victims like Belgium. The war did leave the U.S. as the one Western economy all but untouched, and indeed even more prosperous than before the fighting began.

The reparations extracted from Germany, in particular, had a catastrophic impact far beyond that nation’s borders. Designed by Clemenceau and Lloyd George to make certain that Germany never rose again as a power to challenge France or Britain, the system of reparations was destructive to the entire fabric of trade and industry across the continent. It laid the basis for the hyper-inflation that marked the post-war Weimar republic in Germany, and the eventual depression that engulfed much of the Western world. For that reason, primarily, it helped lay the basis for the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War.

In the East, the economy of Japan, one of the victorious Allied powers in the First World War, was dominant throughout the region, and the Treaty assured the continued fragmentation and hegemony of Japan over China and Korea, as well as its access to many of the riches of Siberia. The rights Japan retained in China paved the way for the continued impoverishment of the latter, and the ability of the former to build a powerful military machine that would turn on the West, and especially the U.S., in World War II. As I trace in my book, the provisions of the Treaty assured that it would take decades for China, with its vast wealth of natural resources and population, to resume its leadership role as the fastest growing economy in Asia.

Q: What role did the Middle East play during the negotiations? How did the European powers view Muslim regions, and how did the decisions made about the Middle East affect the state of diplomatic relations today?

A: The Middle East was an important sideshow to the main Paris Peace Conference, since many of the outlines of the region had been predetermined by a string of secret pacts during the war. And few of the Paris peacemakers understood the critical strategic role that the Middle East would play in the future.

The Middle East was of far greater importance to the European powers than to the U.S. The region was the principal transit route from the Mediterranean to the British colonies of the sub-Continent that would become India and Pakistan, and the French possessions in Indochina. Oil was not yet the major force of economics and geopolitics that it would become later. World War I was the first major conflict to be fought with any contribution from the internal combustion engine. And few thought the U.S. would ever need more oil than could be pumped out of Texas.

Above all, none of the principal negotiators, or their top advisers, had any notion of the deep passions and bitter hostilities that divided the various tribes and nationalities in the former Ottoman territories. The head of the Middle East committee of the Inquiry, the think-tank Wilson brought with him to Paris, was a Columbia professor, William Westermann, who was an expert on the Crusades. His deep understanding of the region ended sometime before the year 1300.

So when the negotiators created what would become the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (then known as Palestine), they had no conception of the forces they had set in motion, which I trace in some detail in my book. The combinations they engineered of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, and Palestinian and Jew, evolved quickly into a volatile stew pot of heterogeneous nations where one faction would dominate others for decades, and with pernicious consequences.

Today, only by understanding how this all began can we conceive of unraveling these creations and returning to a simpler, and hopefully more peaceful region.

Q: Who, besides the major historical figures, were the biggest economic players behind the scenes during the negotiations?

A: Curiously, the single dominant economic figure at the Paris Peace Conference was an individual who left in the middle, and who predicted from the start that its economic provisions would be catastrophic for the future of peace and prosperity, particularly in Europe. John Maynard Keynes, a Cambridge University don, was a 35-year-old economic adviser on the British delegation — a brilliant member of the famed Bloomsbury Group that also included Virginia Woolf, her eventual lover Vita Sackville-West, and Vita’s husband, the young diplomat Harold Nicholson, who was also at Paris and was himself to become deeply disillusioned over the outcome of the negotiations.

Keynes believed the system of reparations that was being discussed was confiscatory and destructive, finally bolting from the conference before the end to write his landmark treatise, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which became a runaway best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic and forced Lloyd George to concede that Keynes was right, while the Treaty and its negotiators were wrong.

There were many other fascinating young men who continued to serve as behind-the scenes negotiators and advisers on the economic aspects of
the Treaty. The American delegation included John Foster Dulles (whose brother, Allen, was a top aide to their uncle, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing), a 30-year-old attorney with the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell; Norman Davis, a wealthy Tennessee gentleman who’d made his fortune trading with Cuba, and Thomas Lamont, who looked after the interests of the Morgan Bank, Wall Street and the American economy, in that order. All warned of the folly of bankrupting Germany.

On the French delegation there was Louis Loucheur, a brilliant grand-ecole graduate, who would continue to look after French interests for decades, even as his body became consumed by a degenerative disease and he took first to canes, then a wheelchair. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see here.

Q: What was the most surprising fact you learned about the Treaty?

A: It’s difficult to single out a single surprise from this vast morass of ignorance, naiveté, and cupidity that constituted the Peace Conference and the Treaty it spawned. But I would have to say the biggest surprise was the profound disdain exhibited by the leaders of France and Britain for President Wilson and his moral compass. None of these statesmen had any interest whatsoever in the creation of a League of Nations (similar to our United Nations today) that was so central to Wilson’s sense of how the peace they were constructing could make the Great War that had just ended the last global conflict. But the European victors were quite cynically prepared to play on Wilson’s desire to win Allied approval of a League. Their strategy was to force him to bargain away self-determination and freedom for half the world, one nation at a time — at each turn threatening to withhold their approval of a League of Nations if Wilson refused to give in to their demands.

Toward the end of the Peace Conference, a small group of the top British negotiators went for a picnic in one of the forests that surrounded Paris. As they relaxed and laughed among themselves, one said to his colleagues, “Well we really picked Wilson’s pockets clean, didn’t we … down to the pocket lint.”

Q: What was the biggest hidden agenda that the U.S. had during the meetings? In what area did the U.S. have the biggest impact?

A: The hidden agendas were really brought to Paris by Britain, France, and Japan, rather than the U.S. If the U.S. brought one such agenda, which did not remain hidden for long, it was Wilson’s determination to bring American boys home from Europe as quickly as possible and avoid any further involvement in other European disputes or conflicts.

Accordingly, Wilson refused to take on any “mandate,” such as the Armenian territories of Turkey that had been victim of widespread massacres, or embark on an invasion of Russia to assist the anti-Bolshevik forces that were battling communist troops there.

If the U.S. had any impact, it was as a moderating influence that prevented some of the harshest penalties that threatened to dismember Germany entirely, spread famine across wide areas of Central and Eastern Europe, and even accelerate the arrival of Bolshevism in the West.

The Treaty was a catastrophe for Wilson and the U.S. Refusing to compromise on a single provision when the Senate began the ratification process, Wilson embarked on a coast-to-coast whistle stop campaign to convince American voters that the Senate had to ratify the Treaty and the League of Nations. Halfway through his trip, he suffered a major stroke, which incapacitated him for the remainder of his presidency. The Treaty was defeated, the U.S. never joined the League of Nations, and less than two decades later, the world was plunged into another global war.

Q: Did the Treaty help lead us into the Cold War? Would it have been
inevitable even if the stipulations hammered out in Versailles had been different?

A: The Treaty did not lead us into the Cold War, but it certainly did accelerate the process. Lenin was persuaded that before long, communism would move westward, across Central Europe (it was already in Hungary), through Germany, and eventually to the Atlantic. He also believed that the failure of the Treaty of Versailles (which he viewed as inevitable) would simply accelerate the process. Accordingly, the conflict between Bolshevism and capitalism was set up even before the major powers gathered in Paris in 1919.

The peacemakers did, as I describe in the book, miss several stellar opportunities to open a dialogue with the Bolsheviks that might have changed the course or pace of what would become the Cold War. Certainly Wilson’s refusals to commit American troops to the anti-Bolshevik resistance, and the eventual dispatch of Herbert Hoover‘s food to feed the famine-ravaged stretches under Bolshevik control won favor from Lenin. Still it would have been interesting to see whether a more open policy, even a dialogue begun at that time, might have changed the course of the Russian revolution in any fashion, or at least its leaders’ dealings with the West.

In the end, though, there was a fundamental disconnect. Bolsheviks were perceived as the terrorists of the first decades of the Twentieth century. They had taken over by force a major Western ally, exterminated its ruling royal family, and waged an ideological war on its capitalist enemies. Communism was winning converts throughout the Western world. Indeed, the Bolsheviks were never truly absent from the negotiating table. Their spirit overhung all of the proceedings. The way they were treated by the peacemakers in Paris merely confirmed the beliefs of most of Russia’s communist leaders — the West was not to be trusted, and should be treated as an implacable enemy.