Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919

By Arthur Walworth | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

A World to Be Saved
by Democracy

AT the end of World War I four great empires had fallen. Traditions of government had been shaken to the breaking point. Complex industries, dependent on a flow of raw materials and fabricated goods over an intricate system of rails and waterways, were dislocated; and there was human misery from the Rhine to Vladivostok. In Russia a militant party had displaced the czar as absolute ruler, while among insurgent groups in the West there was agitation that might destroy the very freedoms that made it possible for them to agitate.

During the long ordeal cries had arisen for a peace that would prevent a repetition of the holocaust that had killed and crippled millions of men, devastated many hundred of villages, brought on famine, and saddled posterity with a huge burden of debt. It was now to be seen whether the war that Woodrow Wilson had tried to justify as a means of making the world "safe for democracy" had indeed achieved that goal. For the first time in the long history of Europe, democratic governments were to bear the responsibility of re-establishing the Continent's international structure and of ordering its affairs. Democracy, now at its high watermark in the world's history, bore full responsibility for constructing a durable peace. It made embarrassing demands on diplomacy.

The peacemakers would find little guidance in history for arranging relations among industrialized nations in a rapidly changing world society. In the comparatively well-ordered diplomacy of nineteenth-century Europe the peace had been kept by statesmen who viewed international problems from the light of their own nation's interest and who undertook to maintain a balance of power. The native aspirations of small populations were used often by the great and imperial powers as justification for "protection." The concert of Europe, recognizing no legal right of "self-determination," had considered this to be merely a formula that depended on political circumstances in each case in which it was invoked. The word, long current in the vocabulary of German philosophers, was conjured up by Wilson in February 1918 as propaganda appealing to German leftists. "An imperative principle of action," he called it, "which statesmen will ignore at their peril." In the course of the failure of the balance of power that had existed in 1914, the latent forces of small nationalities were at liberty to establish native governments. They were to enjoy not only freedom of action, but substantial encouragement from the great democracies of the West.

Through all the dark days of the fighting the people of the democracies had clung to a conviction that a complete victory would bring redemption of personal and

-xi-

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