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

By Arthur Walworth | Go to book overview

4

"Possessions" or "Mandates"?

In January the Supreme Council discussed the disposal of the seized German colonies—the Pacific islands, East Africa, South West Africa, the Cameroons, and Togo. Consideration of this question, following only a few days after the controversy with the British dominions over the matter of representation, 1. precipitated a conflict between President Wilson and the spokesmen for the Allied governments. This encounter raised the question of future relations among the English-speaking peoples, as well as difficulties posed by a secret wartime understanding among the Allies.

It was vital, in Wilson's opinion, that any arrangements made for the government of colonial peoples should come within the purview of a league of nations and should serve to solidify the position of the new international body. Obviously the league must be created before it could be entrusted with authority to supervise the rule of the less advanced peoples of the world. Immediate introduction into the proceedings at Paris of the question of the governance of the ex-German colonies was a threat to the American program. In placing the league of nations first among the five topics that the Peace Conference accepted on January 18, Wilson hoped to ensure that the new regime would not be, as the French foreign ministry had proposed, merely a source of moral sanction for the acquisition of German territories. George Louis Beer of the Inquiry recognized the import of the challenge and wrote in his diary: "Whole question a test case and vital to league of nations. It is absolutely fundamental." 2.

European colonization in Asia and Africa had a long history, going back more than three centuries, and the life of each colony down through the years had responded to the manners, thought, and ethics of its foreign ruler. Native aspirations to self‐ government, which reflected the general trend in the world toward democratic polities, were sometimes repressed, sometimes guided by the ruling power.

Opinion in the United States was far from well informed as to the policies of the chief imperial powers. Many idealists tended to assume that colonial government was always oppressive. Americans, proud and sentimental about their own revolt of 1776, sympathized with restless colonial peoples. There was a wish that undeveloped countries might be guided to become independent, self-respecting members of the family of nations. Leftists in the Western democracies were not unsympathetic to Lenin's denunciation of "imperialism."

Wilson recognized this sentiment. In his view the colonial system offended the principle of self-determination by exerting a right to hand peoples about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property. In the fifth of his Fourteen Points

____________________
1.
See above, pp. 17-18.
2.
Beer diary, January 28, February 1 and 5, 1919, Special Collections, Columbia University Library.

-64-

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