The Wilsonian Moment?

By Chace, James | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

The Wilsonian Moment?


Chace, James, The Wilson Quarterly


How are we to balance the principle of national sovereignty and fundamental issues of human rights when the two are in conflict? The debate began in earnest after World War I and continues to this day.

Walter Lippmann, 27 years old and one of the brightest young men in Washington, was working in the War Department in 1917. A crusading progressive journalist at the New Republic, Lippmann had once been enamored of Theodore Roosevelt but had become an avid supporter of Woodrow Wilson. He joined the office of Secretary of War Newton Baker in an advisory group that included the future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and Eugene Meyer, later the publisher of the Washington Post. Lippmann established himself in the department as a standard-bearer for liberal causes, in particular that of protecting the press from arbitrary censorship. Using Wilsonian language, he reminded Wilson's eminence grise, Edward House, "We are' fighting not so much to beat an enemy, as to make a world that is safe for democracy." Though he was not, in his own words, a "sentimental liberal," he recognized that liberals were vital constituents in Wilson's search for consensus.

Lippmann's toughness recommended itself to the president and to House (who liked to be called "Colonel," an honorary Texas title). One day in September, six months after the United States had entered the Great War, Colonel House asked to see Lippmann on a secret matter: Wilson wanted to assemble a group of experts who would draw up material for an eventual peace conference. Lippmann was to be general secretary to the group, which would meet in New York under the rubric of "The Inquiry." Burying themselves in the offices of the American Geographical Society at 155th Street and Broadway, the members of The Inquiry pored over books and maps that would be critical to redrawing the frontiers of Europe. Lippmann did not exaggerate when he called the group's work "huge, superabundant, and overflowing."

As Ronald Steel recounts in his biography of Lippmann, the effort to apportion territory was seriously compromised by top-secret documents that Secretary Baker revealed to Lippmann one October afternoon at the War Department. The sheaf of agreements, which the Allies had signed with one another, spelled out how Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Japan planned to compensate themselves once Germany was beaten. To Lippmann, a war that had already cost the antagonists millions of casualties now seemed to have been fought for reparations and territories. That hardly embodied the ideals to which Wilson was committed. France was to recover Alsace and Lorraine, the two provinces it had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, as well as parts of the Saarland. Great Britain was to get African colonies. Italy would be awarded the Austrian-held territories of Istria and Dalmatia. Japan would get the Shandong Peninsula of China. Wilson knew of these treaties, but he believed, as he told Colonel House, that when the war was over, the Allies could be brought around to his way of thinking, "because then, among other things, they will be dependent on us financially."

With that inducement in reserve, Wilson and House went to work drafting and redrafting the contents of the memorandum Lippmann gave them. What had emerged from weeks of discussion by The Inquiry was the rough basis for eight of the 14 points Wilson would present in a speech in January 1918 as the foundation of an enduring peace. The first five points and the fourteenth--dealing with open covenants openly arrived at, freedom of the seas, lower tariffs, disarmament, respect for colonial peoples, and, last but hardly least in Wilson's schema, a League of Nations--the president added himself.

Points six through 13 took up the territorial provisions that had been the concern of The Inquiry. Wilson struggled to resolve the provisions' inherent contradictions. He wanted to grant all peoples the right of self-determination and to acknowledge the legitimacy of their national aspirations, for he believed that to deny the legitimacy of nationalism by drawing boundaries that reflected dynastic claims would almost surely lead to conflict. …

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