The 'Big Four'-Peacemaking in Paris in 1919: Alan Sharp Takes a Flesh Look at the Statesmen Responsible for the Treaty of Versailles

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In December 1919 John Maynard Keynes published The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a book which, for the next 90 years, established the framework for much of the discussion about the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War. In early June 1919 Keynes, a British academic economist, resigned from the British peace delegation in despair--an opportunity denied to millions of servicemen during the war. His book proved an instant international bestseller and one of the most effective polemics of the 20th century, doing much to promote the idea that three men, the British and French prime ministers, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, and American president, Woodrow Wilson, meeting in Wilson's 'hot, dry room' in Paris, created a disastrous settlement. He made only a passing reference to Vittorio Orlando, the Italian premier, one of only several distortions of reality in the version he created.

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Keynes on the 'Big Three'

Brilliantly written, the book reflected the bitter disappointment with Wilson's performance felt by Keynes and like-minded British and American officials and intellectuals. Keynes portrayed Wilson as naive and inept, squandering the immense moral prestige, overwhelming economic power and growing military presence of the United States in a confrontation in which he was outwitted and bamboozled by the caustic and cynical Clemenceau and the elusive and quick-thinking Lloyd George. Between them the formidable 'Tiger' and the wily 'Welsh Wizard' (their respective nicknames) took the ponderous Presbyterian to the cleaners and created a vindictive and unworkable settlement.

Keynes had a grudging admiration for Clemenceau. He 'was by far the most eminent member of the Council of Four and he had taken the measure of his colleagues.' Keynes pictured le pere la victoire (Old Man Victory) 'dry in soul and empty of hope, very old and tired, but surveying the scene with a cynical and almost impish air ... He had one illusion--France; and one disillusion--mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least.' His was 'the policy of an old man, whose most vivid impressions and most lively imaginations are of the past and not of the future.'

Keynes was torn between fascination at the speed with which Lloyd George could absorb both atmosphere and complex briefs and disgust at his lack of fixed principles. He argued that the December 1918 British election caused Lloyd George to abandon his natural instincts, which were 'right and reasonable', in favour of implied promises to punish Germany by pursuing war criminals and extracting from it as much of the costs of the war as possible. He emphasised Lloyd George's 'unerring, almost medium-like, sensibility to every one immediately around him'. This enabled him to perceive 'what each was thinking and even what each was going to say next' and to choose 'with telepathic instinct the argument or appeal best suited to the vanity, weakness or self-interest of his immediate auditor.' Later he pronounced, 'Lloyd George is rooted in nothing.'

If Lloyd George's principles were too easily trimmed, Keynes castigated Wilson for his stubborn inability to recognise the need for the concessions that would deliver his main objectives for minimal sacrifice. He came to Paris enjoying 'a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history.' He was 'the man of destiny ... coming ... to bring healing to the wounds of the ancient parent of his civilisation and to lay for us the foundations of the future.' Instead he proved to be a 'blind and deaf Don Quixote' with 'no plan, no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House.' He was too slow-witted to cope with Lloyd George and Clemenceau and too proud to accept that he had compromised the principles that he had enunciated in his 1918 speeches, of which the Fourteen Points, delivered on 8 January, contained the most famous. …