No document composed in the twentieth century has generated greater or more enduring controversy than the Treaty of Versailles. The reasons are clear enough. Never did the peoples of the earth hope for so much from so few as they did from Woodrow Wilson and his colleagues at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Never before or since have statesmen managed to embody in a single agreement so many specific provisions affecting all quarters of the globe. Never has so broad a peace settlement been followed so rapidly by revolutionary changes within nations, by severe economic depression, and by a still more devastating world war. Questions have been inevitable. Did the diplomats at Paris unnecessarily frustrate the hopes of the world? To what extent was the Versailles settlement responsible for the tragic events of later years? Inevitably, too, the increasing urgency of diplomatic problems in our time has provoked fresh evaluations of this effort to construct a new international order. It is not surprising that the judgments have been diverse, that the controversy has been heated, and that the issues remain vitally relevant to our present concerns.
Dispute over the treaty began as soon as its terms became public. Germans and many liberals in the Allied Countries protested that the provisions were too harsh, a "Carthaginian peace," not only unjust in light of the Armistice terms but impossible of fulfillment and productive only of future discord and war. Numerous Frenchmen and aroused citizens elsewhere countered that the treaty was in actuality too soft upon the Germans since it did not give France all those guaranties of security which her leaders had requested. A third verdict asserted that there were only two practical alternatives for treating a defeated enemy, either extreme indulgence which would leave no grievances or extreme ruthlessness which would permit no possibility of retaliation. But the Treaty of Versailles achieved neither. This peace, ran one classic comment, was too weak for the harshness it contained.
Beyond the "hard-soft" category of dispute another cycle of criticism has been devoted to the question of whether the settlement embodied too utopian a "new order" or maintained too reactionary an "old order." The treaty's greatest weakness, some have charged, lay in its lack of political realism. By pursuing the principle of self-determination it created too many weak nations in central Europe. It substituted for older considerations of the balance of power a mistaken faith in the new League of Nations. It abandoned the tested principles of diplomacy which had limited warfare in Europe during the nineteenth century for untried, idealistic arrangements which led to world war within a generation. Other critics, however, have protested that far from establishing a New Order the treaty simply restored . . .