Seeds of Disaster, Part 1
By David H. Lippman
The Armistice of November 1918 may have ended the First World War, but it left the postwar generation disillusioned at all levels. The most literate generation ever to fight a war, they feel lied to and betrayed - by the politicians who sent them to war and the generals who ordered them into useless battles. They came home to find joblessness in Britain, civil war in Italy, Russia, and Germany, and prohibition in America.
Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell. Full of that Yankee-doodle-dum.
Half a million boots went slogging through hell. And I was the kid with the drum.
Over 1.1 million citizens of the British Empire were killed in action, 962,661 from Great Britain alone. The numbers of dead are almost beyond counting in Russia and Turkey. The official estimate of 1.7 million for Russia and 325,000 for Turkey is far too low. France has lost more than half the Frenchmen aged between 20 and 32, more than 1.4 million men, between 1914 and 1918. Germany has lost 1.8 million men, Austria-Hungary 1.29 million, Italy 615,000, the United States 116,000. Millions more are dead of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 and gone with all of them are the energy and vibrant optimism that was the signature of the Edwardian era. The trench lines of France and Belgium remain a 600-mile streak of white chalk, shell holes, ruined villages, unexploded ammunition, fresh pine trees, and cemeteries, containing the bodies - many of them unidentified - of an entire generation of European leaders and thinkers.
As the war ends, German citizens are eating pine cones, nettles, flour made from chestnuts, and ersatz coffee from acorns. The situation will get worse, as everyone awaits the judgment of the victorious powers, who are assembling in Paris for the Peace Conference to firmly end the war.
On December 13, at 4:20 a.m., the SS George Washington, a former German liner that the U.S. government seized at its Hoboken pier in 1917, sails towards the port of Brest, in France. The liner moors in Brest harbor at 1:30 p.m., after a barrage of saluting shells, American and French national anthems, steam whistles, and deafening cheers.
On board are 150 American geographers, ethnologists, historians, economists, and international lawyers, and the Hotel Belmont's top chef. This academically powerful crew, called "The Inquiry," reports to the gaunt, formal, somber, taciturn, idealistic President Woodrow Wilson, who is making history simply by making this voyage.
The former Princeton University president and New Jersey governor is, with this journey, becoming the first American president to leave the country while still in office. In fact, he's breaking the law. Under a 1913 statute, American presidents are forbidden to leave the country during their term in office.
But no federal marshal seeks to enforce this law upon the glacial professor who is now commander-in-chief. Wilson is a man of firm ideals and convictions, who deals in the world in simple, black-and-white terms, as befitting a former schoolteacher and preacher's son. He was once told by a friend, seeking support on an issue, that "You know there are two sides to every question."
"Yes," Wilson answered, "Right and wrong."
That view of the world has made him the spiritual leader of the Allied cause. Ironically, it has begun to make him unpopular at home. Wilson sails to Europe intending to create world peace according to his vision. The Inquiry is along to put Wilson's views into action. Wilson argues that the United States, being a disinterested party to Europe's endless squabbles, is the only nation that can truly represent the opinions of mankind. This view is based on fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson's belief that the United States is founded on ideas, not ethnicity.
Wilson's determination to create a new world, full of democracies, is making him popular with all Europe. New nations like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Kingdom of the Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes, are adopting American-style constitutions and naming major public squares after Wilson. One of the main intersections in Warsaw, for example, is Wilson Square. Ordinary Frenchmen, Britons, Belgians, Italians, and even Germans regard him as their saviour, a bespectacled David who slew the Goliath of Kaiserdom. When Wilson steps onto French soil, thousands of Frenchmen are there to see him. The Mayor of Brest greets Wilson, saying destiny brought the president to France to release the people of Europe from their torture.
As Wilson's train clatters to Paris, families kneel by the track to pray for Wilson and the success of his mission. When Wilson rides through Paris, escorted by Republican Guards, huge crowds are jammed into improvised grandstands on the Champs Elysees, cheering him. Women weep as they scream his name, flowers are hurled by the ton, and American journalist William Bolitho writes, "No one ever had such cheers. I, who heard them in the streets of Paris, can never forget them in my life."
Even where Wilson doesn't go, the effect is terrific. In Vienna, Red Cross workers tell their patients, mutilated soldiers, that there will be no Christmas presents.
"Wilson is coming," they answer, "Everything will be all right."
Children in France write essays about Wilson, saying he has no beard so there will be more of his face to kiss. Another writes, "I wish that President Wilson may never die." Egyptians call him the new Muslim Mahdi, and call for a revolt against the English so that the Americans and Wilson will take over their country.
Herbert Hoover, setting up the postwar reconstruction and anti-hunger programs, says "no such evangel of peace had appeared since Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount."
But Wilson misreads the cheering crowds. He believes he is acting as their tribune, to impose a world order based on law and mutual respect, where nations settle dispute through arbitration - with America as the arbitrator - and war is unthinkable. A League of Nations, designed and defined by Wilson in a form similar to the rules for boys' clubs he developed as a child, will act as the world's Senate, addressing and solving all international questions in a peaceful, honorable, and just manner. The League will be a worldwide form of Common Law, gaining with experience, but always acting in humanity's best interests.
He's wrong. The crowds in each country all see Wilson as the man who will further their own nation's particular ambitions: Britain to regain her lost prosperity, France to regain her lost lands and ensure Germany's humbling, Italy's to gain slices of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire. Representatives of newly freed and still-enslaved nations and ethnic groups also see Wilson as the man who will impose new borders upon Europe and Asia. They believe he will create independent homelands for a vast array of ethnicities: the Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Serbs, Bosnians, Armenians, even representatives of tracts of Russia in the hands of Bolshevik or White forces.
Unfortunately for these people, Wilson has no such intentions. He can't grant all of these wishes even if he could - too many of the ethnic rivalries are demanding the same swatches of land, like Bohemia and the Sudetenland. And he has no desire to restore the power and grandeur of the battered European powers.
Wilson wants to end the use of the ocean as a battlefield, making it open to commerce in peace and war. That would end Britannia's domination of the world's waves. Nor does Wilson want to grant Clemenceau's desire for revanche. Wilson still seeks "peace without victory." These ideas are bitterly opposed by Britain and France.
More importantly, Wilson lacks a popular mandate from home to impose his schoolmaster's vision of a logical and fair world. In November, Wilson urges his fellow Americans to support the war and the peace by returning a Democratic majority to Congress. This blatantly partisan appeal has the usual impact on the American people: they shove it in his face. Wilson sails to France facing Republican majorities in the House and Senate, led by the intractable Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., Idaho's William Borah, and California's Hiram Johnson. All distrust foreign entanglements as much as they dislike the Kaiser and his authoritarian state.
Borah is absolutely opposed to the United States joining a League of Nations, convinced that it would put American troops at the disposal of British admirals and generals. Lodge is more canny: he will support the League, but only if Wilson yields to his 14 "reservations," which include keeping America out of a League-led army. Wilson does not yield, arguing that if the United States can make exceptions to the League, all nations can, and it will be rendered powerless.
Wilson, who sees political issues as simple problems, reacts by refusing to take any leading Republicans with him. The sole Republican is the amiable lightweight Henry White, a former US Ambassador to France.
Already the American people are beginning to show a backlash towards Wilson and his high-minded and high-handed manner. To make matters worse, the war has also created xenophobia in America, as official and private vigilantes are attacking any opposition or criticism to the nation and the war. The xenophobia has manifested itself in many ways. At the top is an attack on all things German and Germanic. American propaganda efforts, backed by the new movie industry, paint the German people and their leaders as bloodstained monsters in the most lurid terms, depicting the Kaiser and his Generalstab as genocidal maniacs who have butchered POWs, raped nuns, and blasted towns off the map. While there have been plenty of such incidents in the war, the American and British propaganda efforts overstate them, and in some cases, create fictions, like the non-existent German factory that reportedly turns human bodies into glue.
The American people react to this dose of harshness in predictable fashion. German-Americans are fired from jobs, imprisoned, investigated, harassed, and chased out of towns. Streets with German names are changed in a burst of super-patriotism, often to those of American heroes or battles. In Newark, New Jersey, Hamburg Place becomes Wilson Avenue, Bismarck Place becomes Marne Street, and Berlin Street becomes Rome Street. In New York City, the statue of "Germania" is hauled down from the Custom House at Bowling Green, and its Iron Cross shield replaced with one that bears the word "Belgium."
Americans ban the playing of the works of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. They change the name of sauerkraut to "liberty cabbage," and German measles become "Liberty Measles." And baseball star "Heinie" Zimmerman quickly becomes Henry Zimmerman.
These excesses take on more frightening forms when American officials hound union leaders, socialists, conscientious objectors, and anyone regarded by authority as being unpatriotic. Organizers for the International Workers of the World and other unions find themselves jailed as traitors and saboteurs, on flimsy or fabricated evidence.
The excesses take on more bizarre forms when anti-liquor groups turn the wartime expedient of banning alcohol sales into the permanent form of Prohibition.
The xenophobia leads to an increased nativism and distrust of any foreigners. The Americans have had enough of the world, despite their short leading role on its stage. They would rather turn their attention to Charlie Chaplin's new movies or baseball's defending world champion Boston Red Sox, who have just polished off the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, four games to two, behind pitcher Babe Ruth's record 27 consecutive scoreless innings.
On this fragile latticework, Wilson plans to build his structure of lasting peace. At his Paris mansion at 28 Rue de Monceau, Wilson begins his work when the Peace Conference opens on January 18, 1919. Representatives of 27 nations gather to build the new world at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d'Orsay in Paris, a vast stone pile. Around a horseshoe-shaped table, covered with green baize, the great leaders sit in gilt chairs amid damask draperies. Representatives of the four top Allied powers and 28 other Allied and Associated Nations must decide the fates of 400 million Europeans, 10 million former subjects of the Turkish Empire, and 12 million more people in former German colonies across Africa and the Pacific. The conference opens on January 18, the anniversary of the proclamation of the German empire, with Clemenceau declaring that France's security needs and reparations claims will be decided first - then the League of Nations. That includes dividing up the German Empire.
To be continued.
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social
Research, has written many magazine articles
about World War II. He currently works as
a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J.