The United States' Role in the Shaping of the Peace Treaty of Trianon

By Pastor, Peter | The Historian, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The United States' Role in the Shaping of the Peace Treaty of Trianon


Pastor, Peter, The Historian


The First World War was a turning point in twentieth-century history. The United States became a European power when it entered the conflict against Germany on 7 April 1917. This step tipped the balance on the western front in favor of the Allies and brought about their victory over the Central Powers. The consequence of the triumph, among others, was the collapse and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among the successor states, Hungary found itself on the side of the defeated, which was confirmed by the Peace Treaty of Trianon, signed by the victor powers on 4 June 1920. Although the American peacemakers displayed sympathy toward Hungary during the preliminaries leading up to Trianon, they put up no major obstacles to the making of the punitive treaty. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), the major figure at the Paris Peace Conference, was as responsible for the shaping of the treaty as were the other members of the so-called Big Four. Due to the Senate's refusal to ratify the Trianon Treaty, the US also signed a separate peace treaty with the Hungarians in Budapest on 29 August 1921. This bilateral settlement was as onerous for Hungary as the original signed at the Grand Trianon Palace.

On 2 April 1917, when President Wilson called on Congress to declare war on Germany in response to Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare, he abstained from recommending war against Austria-Hungary. He did so because, as he pointed out, Austria-Hungary "has not actually engaged in warfare against the citizens of the United States on the seas." (1)

It was only on 4 December 1917 that President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Austria-Hungary, claiming that its government was "not acting upon its own initiative or in response to the wishes and feelings of her own peoples, but as the instrument of another nation [and w]e must meet its force with our own and regard the Central Powers as but one." (2) The next day Congress passed a joint resolution declaring war on the government of Austria-Hungary, which was signed by the president on 7 December 1917. (3) American war aims were spelled out in the famous Fourteen Points in the president's address to Congress on 8 January 1918. (4) Point ten dealt with Wilson's "wish" that the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy be given autonomy upon Allied victory. Wilson's prescription amounted to the reorganization of the Dual Monarchy, but no dismemberment. This mild requisite reflected Wilson's hope that the Habsburg Monarchy could be enticed away from the German alliance, which, in turn, would also hasten Germany's willingness to come to the peace table. (5)

The Austro-Hungarian establishment, however, rejected autonomy for its national minorities. On 2 April 1918, the Austro-Hungarian minister of foreign affairs, Count Ottokar Czernin (1872-1932), declared his government's unconditional support of Germany. (6) Since the Allies had hoped that by shifting its alliance Austria-Hungary would bridle German expansion, Czernin's words quashed their hopes. (7) The response to Vienna's intransigence was the promulgation of France's new war aim, which sought to undermine the home front of the Habsburg Monarchy by promising its disgruntled nationalities that their multinational state would be dismantled upon Allied victory. (8) This commitment contradicted point ten of the Fourteen Points, which by then had become the Allied war aim. The US position, however, soon changed in the direction of the French position.

On 24 June 1918, US Secretary of State Robert Lansing (1864-1928) proposed to Wilson a declaration "without reservation for an independent Poland, an independent Bohemia and an independent South Slav State, and a return of the Rumanians and Italians to their natural allegiance." (9) Lansing saw this as a "dismemberment of the present Austro-Hungarian Empire into its original elements, leaving these nationalities to form separate states as they might decide to form, especially if the severance of Austria and Hungary resulted. …

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