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p. 302. The big three (or maybe four)locked

  • Michael S. Neiberg


In the early months of 1919, David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau together held as much influence over world affairs as any three men in history. They had the power to redraw borders, determine forms of government for foreign countries, and influence the destinies of people around the world. “The big three (or maybe four)” describes the views of these three men, the challenges ahead of them, and how they influenced the peace conference. It also explains the role of Italy’s prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, who also wanted a place at the negotiating table, and the input of Japan, which was keen to increase its influence in the Pacific Rim.

In the early months of 1919, David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau together held as much influence over world affairs as any three men in history. They had the power to redraw borders, determine forms of government for foreign countries, and influence the destinies of people around the world. Historians can make too much of the importance of individuals in shaping history, but there is no denying that these three men played enormous roles in the final outcome of the Treaty of Versailles. There can be no understanding of the peace conference or the treaties it produced without an understanding of these three men, what they had in common, and the areas where they disagreed.

All three represented democracies, although they had taken different routes to power. Lloyd George came out of the coal-mining communities of Wales and had championed the cause of working people against the privileges of the commercial and landed elites. As chancellor of the exchequer in the years before the war, he had helped to usher in many elements of the British welfare state. He had also made many enemies, especially among Britain’s conservatives, for his financial policies, his desire to curb the power of the House of Lords, and his outspoken opposition to Britain’s prosecution of the Boer War in South Africa. His antiwar speech in Birmingham in 1899 caused a riot that led to the deaths p. 31of two people and forced Lloyd George himself to escape from the hall disguised as a policeman. His opposition to the Boer War notwithstanding, he was not a pacifist. He did, however, oppose unjust wars fought for the purpose of extending the empire’s reach or for the benefit of financial markets. The outbreak of war in 1914 led him to ask some deep and probing questions about how and why it began, but he never questioned the basic wisdom or necessity of Britain’s engagement in it, however ominous and fateful he thought the war might be.

The German invasion of Belgium convinced Lloyd George and many other politicians from his Liberal Party that Britain had no choice but to fight. He argued in a critical speech in August 1914 that his support for Britain’s war against Germany reflected the same ideals that had let him to defend the Boers, namely the immorality of the strong dominating the weak by means of military force. As Britain had unjustly gone to war with the Boers, so, too, had the Germans unjustly invaded Belgium and France. He saw more quickly than most that the war would not end in a few short months and that Great Britain would therefore need to prepare itself for a long, costly conflict. He rejected Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s 1914 call for “business as usual” and worked instead to bring centralization and modernization into British industry.

Despite the enemies he had made over his years of political infighting and accusations that he had more mistresses than principles, Lloyd George took on increasingly important roles during the war. His understanding of the demands of modern war and his background in coal country gave him distinct advantages as his responsibilities over the British wartime economy increased. He became the inaugural minister for munitions in 1915, charged with modernizing weapons manufacturing, and then the secretary of state for war in 1916. Even his critics came to respect the way he reorganized British industry, bolstered the morale of the workforce (despite his calls for limiting the hours British pubs p. 32could remain open), and projected his faith in final victory. He showed a willingness to work with groups as diverse as suffragettes and the opposition Conservatives to pursue the shared national interest in the defeat of Germany. By 1918 he was, and at least for a few months longer would remain, a popular and deeply admired leader who came to the Paris Peace Conference able to boast of having a mandate from his people to speak on their behalf.

Although the two men were very different people, Lloyd George’s path to the peace conference shared much with that of his French counterpart, Georges Clemenceau. Both were from poor places relatively isolated from the centers of power. Lloyd George hailed from Wales and Clemenceau from the Vendée in western France, a region with a reputation for its unstable political atmosphere. Like Lloyd George, Clemenceau had also made enemies among his country’s conservatives, in Clemenceau’s case for his opposition to the privileges of the wealthy and the Catholic Church. He had been a prime leader of the movement to exonerate the falsely accused Alsatian Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, whom the French army had tried to frame for treason in the 1890s. He, too, had a reputation for fierce political infighting and had fought many duels in his younger days. As a journalist, he had used his newspaper to bring down numerous French governments of which he disapproved. His great rival, French president Raymond Poincaré, once said of Clemenceau that he was a man made for catastrophes: if he could not prevent them, he would provoke them.

Clemenceau and Lloyd George may have been deeply unpopular with conservatives in their own countries, but they both had solid reputations as patriots. Clemenceau had been the mayor of the Montmartre section of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and had opposed the peace treaty with Germany that resulted in the surrender of Alsace-Lorraine. As early as September 1914, he had emerged as a vocal and intense critic of the French government for not fighting the war with sufficient ardor and competence. p. 33In return the government heavily censored his newspaper, L’Homme Libre (The Free Man). Clemenceau responded by renaming the paper L’Homme Enchaîné (The Man in Chains) and maintaining his criticisms despite pressure from the government.

Lloyd George had developed a similar reputation for patriotism. He became known for his speech at Mansion House in 1911 defending the rights and honor of Great Britain on the world stage. The speech came in the midst of a diplomatic row between France and Germany. It pledged British support for France, and Lloyd George’s service during the war further showed that, despite his criticisms of the British establishment, he was as dedicated to the British cause as anyone. Unlike Clemenceau, however, Lloyd George was a member of the British government in 1914. He therefore worked within the system rather than from the outside.

Somewhat to the surprise of many of their fellow countrymen, Lloyd George and Clemenceau both rose to head their governments before the war’s end. Lloyd George became prime minister of a coalition government in December 1916, and Clemenceau returned to that job in France (he had been prime minister from 1906 to 1909) in November 1917. Both men advocated fighting a war to the end against Germany. Clemenceau also became the war minister as well as prime minister. When asked for specifics of his policies, he often said simply, “Je fais la guerre” (I make war). Lloyd George solidified political alliances with British conservatives, won over key newspaper barons, and extended Britain’s war in the Middle East as well.

Both men also showed a willingness to stand up to their generals and impose their own view of grand strategy, a foreshadowing of the way they isolated their military advisors at the Paris Peace Conference. Neither man showed much deference to the military expertise of the generals, as their predecessors had done. Instead, they often made strategic decisions contrary to the desires of those p. 34same generals. Lloyd George took military forces in Belgium and France away from British Expeditionary Forces commander Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, a man he despised and derided. Against the advice of most of Britain’s senior military officers, Lloyd George sent forces later in the war to Italy and to Palestine, hoping to find victory somewhere other than the frustrating western front. In Palestine, at least, he got what he wanted, as British forces seized Jerusalem, setting up both British power in the region and conflicts with the French in the months after the war. He also touched off a furor inside the British army in the spring of 1917 when he temporarily put British forces under the command of the French general Robert Nivelle. That idea proved ill-fated, as Nivelle’s offensive failed miserably, leaving behind tensions between Lloyd George and the generals that never healed.

Clemenceau had the benefit of having seen the Franco-Prussian War and having covered the end of the American Civil War as a young reporter. These experiences, plus his natural aversion to the conservatives who ran the army, made him more than willing to challenge his own generals. Clemenceau forced his will on military strategy, kept officers from playing key roles at primarily political bodies like the Supreme War Council, and coined the phrase that war was too important a business to be left to generals. He instinctively understood the essential insight of the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz that war is at its heart a political act. It therefore needed to have politicians, not generals, directing it.

Nevertheless, neither man had made his political name on foreign policy or defense issues. Nor had either one traveled much beyond his own borders on official diplomatic missions. Neither one knew much about the complexities of places like central Europe, the Middle East, or Russia. Clemenceau, however, may have had some important insights into the nature of the United States from his time spent there and from his (ultimately unhappy) marriage to an American woman. He may have understood even better than p. 35Woodrow Wilson the significance of the Republican triumph in the 1918 congressional elections. He appears to have grasped with his politician’s sixth sense that the election had fundamentally undermined Wilson’s position.

Wilson shared the general ignorance of global affairs with his two European counterparts. He had even remarked to a friend on the eve of his inauguration in 1913 that “it would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” He had given little thought to the rest of the world before becoming president, although he had an unshakable belief in American moral superiority that guided his views of the world beyond America’s shores. Although he did not face the risk of his government collapsing as could happen in a European parliamentary system, Wilson was never a popular president. He had won the 1912 election primarily because of a split in the Republican Party, and he won reelection in 1916 by one of the slimmest margins in American history. Wilson had in fact gone to bed the night of the election certain that he had lost. About 2,500 voters in normally Republican California gave Wilson just enough votes to win and thereby avoid the humiliation of becoming only the second incumbent president not to win reelection.

Wilson certainly had his enemies, most notable among them the popular former president Theodore Roosevelt, but he could inspire followers as well. Progressive reformers and journalists often saw Wilson in near-messianic terms as the herald of a new age in American history and maybe the world’s history as well. When the moral example of America proved insufficient, Wilson did not shy away from using force, as he did in sending American troops to Mexico, Haiti, and, later, Russia.

Hoping to keep America out of the war in Europe, but sharing his countrymen’s general hope for Allied victory, Wilson had played a double game between 1914 and 1917. He called for the American people to be impartial in regard to the war, but he had at the p. 36same time defined neutrality in such a way as to allow (or even encourage) American bankers, farmers, and industrialists to profit from the war. For reasons that were both practical and ideological, most American trade went to the Allies. American policy from 1914 to 1917 thus infuriated the Germans, who came to see the United States as a belligerent in all but name. Wilson’s policy also angered the British and French, who believed that the United States shared their general war aims but chose to profit from the war rather than commit itself to the shared goal of defeating German militarism.

The tensions in Wilson’s foreign policy reflected his uncertain political position at home. Wilson knew that he would face a serious challenge for reelection in 1916, as the split in the Republican Party had healed. Theodore Roosevelt, the man who had caused the split by forming his own party in 1912, had pledged to support the Republican nominee in 1916, in large part out of his desire to see Wilson beaten. He even considered running for president himself. Some surprising losses by Democrats in the 1914 congressional elections seemed to point to Wilson’s vulnerability. Although the war in Europe was only one factor among many for the American electorate, it put Wilson in an awkward spot, as he had to navigate between the isolationist wing of his Democratic Party, represented by his own secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, and the increasingly shrill condemnation of his continued policy of neutrality coming from the Republicans.

The president’s response to the German sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, in which 128 Americans were killed, proved to be a turning point for both sets of his critics. Wilson had refused the demands of isolationists to ban Americans from traveling overseas in recognition of the increased risk they now faced and the possibility of a future sinking leading the United States into war. Wilson saw such a move as inconsistent with American honor, a position that led Bryan to resign as secretary of state. On the other p. 37hand, Wilson had publicly stated in a speech he gave in Philadelphia that the United States was “too proud to fight,” words that filled his Republican critics with anger and shame and led many of the most prominent among them to end their public support of the administration’s foreign policy and work for his defeat in 1916.

Wilson had a hard time finding policies that both upheld the nation’s honor and avoided American entry into a war he knew the United States was in no position to fight. He mostly drew praise for his peaceful resolution of the Lusitania crisis as well as his handling of the 1916 German torpedoing of a civilian ferry ship, the Sussex, which injured several Americans. After the Sussex, Wilson extracted a promise from the Germans to stop unrestricted submarine warfare. The Sussex Pledge allowed Wilson to position himself in 1916 as the candidate of peace and to use the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” even though Wilson knew that he could not continue his diplomatic balancing act forever. With each act of German aggression, his strategy of demanding concessions without threatening war would grow less and less effective both at home and abroad. When the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, thereby invalidating the Sussex Pledge, most Americans saw that war with Germany had become inevitable. Wilson still held out hope that he could avoid war as he had done in 1915 and 1916, but the release of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans proposed an anti-American alliance with Mexico and Japan, severely limited his options.

Wilson’s responses to American entry into the war in April 1917 reveal a great deal about his views toward war and the way he wanted to shape the peace that would follow. Much more than Clemenceau or Lloyd George, Wilson believed that wars came from regimes, not peoples. Freely elected governments, he said, did not send their citizens off to war in the modern age except in self-defense. The problem in Germany was not the German people, therefore, but their aristocratic and unrepresentative p. 38government. Change the government by deposing the kaiser and instituting true democracy, and the German people could assume their rightful place in Europe. Thus in his declaration-of-war speech he emphasized, “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war.”

Neither Clemenceau nor Lloyd George shared Wilson’s version of recent history. While both distrusted the kaiser’s government, they saw other causes at work. Like most British strategists, Lloyd George believed that the traditional European strategic balance of power had failed. One state (in this case Germany, abetted by Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) had grown too powerful to be contained or deterred by the prewar alliance system that the great powers had so carefully crafted. In the postwar era, he believed, a Europe dominated by a too powerful France could be just as unstable as the prewar era had been. Thus the British had opposed the detachment of the Rhineland from Germany as, in Lloyd George’s words, an Alsace-Lorraine in reverse. For the same reason, the British were reluctant to commit to a permanent alliance with France in the postwar years.

Clemenceau laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Germans, a state and a people that had, in his view, been an existential threat to France since its unification in 1871. Fueled by a hyper-nationalist ideology and powered by a highly industrialized economy, Germany had chosen to threaten and bully its neighbors. Only an international coalition working together in a four-year total war could stop it. Clemenceau did not share Wilson’s hope that a democratic government could properly channel the energies of the German people, nor did he put much faith in the Germans accepting their defeat and reforming themselves. He demanded protections from Germany for his native France, which, unlike the United States or Great Britain, still had to live next door to its traditional enemy.p. 39

4. Most Germans saw the Paris Peace Conference as illegitimate and one-sided. The most reactionary among them turned to violent paramilitaries such as the Freikorps, whose poster reads, “Protect Your Homeland.”

Although there were no socialists among the plenipotentiaries of the great powers, they offered a different opinion on the causes of the war. They tended to believe that the war had been caused by the concentration of wealth and power that resulted from the inherent nature of the capitalist system. The profiteering of arms manufacturers and imperialists had created conflict between the great powers that eventually spilled out into a global war. The Big Three, as Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau came to be known, successfully kept such ideas out of the conference rooms, but they knew how popular those same ideas were with segments of all of their populations.

Each leader’s views about how and why the war had started naturally influenced ideas about the peace. Wilson came to be the leader of an ideology called liberal idealism, or internationalism, p. 40that called for the creation of structures above the nation-state. Advocates believed that such a system could resolve disputes before they turned into wars. They also argued that building institutional networks of cooperation (most importantly through global trade) between nation-states would give states incentives to work together instead of seeing the world as a zero-sum game. Wilson thus championed the formation of a League of Nations, an idea that had its origins in the late eighteenth century but had languished until the war seemed to show the need for some supranational body that could help the world avoid future catastrophes.

Clemenceau and Lloyd George did not necessarily oppose the formation of an international body, but they did not believe that such an organization could or should replace the role of the nation-state. Clemenceau in particular wanted the League of Nations to act as a kind of permanent international alliance against German resurgence. Neither he nor Lloyd George put much faith in the effectiveness of the League of Nations to fulfill Wilson’s vision, but, knowing how important it was to the president, they used their support for it as a bargaining chip. So, too, did the Italians and Japanese, both of whom occasionally threatened not to join the League unless they obtained some of their key demands in return.

Nor could powerful states be expected to cede some of their power to an international group unless they could control its outcomes. The League had as one of its principles that all states would be represented equally regardless of size, even though five of the nine places in the governing League Council would be held by the war’s great victors. Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Henry Cabot Lodge all thought an egalitarian structure foolish, as it would inevitably dilute their own states’ power. Many Europeans also wanted to keep the Russians and Germans out of the League until they adopted democratic forms of government. But the more states that stayed out of the League, the less power and legitimacy it would have.

p. 41The Big Three dominated the Paris Peace Conference, but they were not alone. Italy believed that it deserved a place at the table and significant rewards for its declaration of war against Austria-Hungary in May 1915. Italy’s prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, styled himself the “Premier of Victory,” but his position at the conference was weak. The British and French especially resented Italy for, in their view, auctioning off Italy’s services to both sides before deciding that the Allies could offer them more than the Germans could. Italy’s mediocre performance on the battlefield and its need for massive Allied aid after the collapse of the Italian army at the Battle of Caporetto in October 1917 further undermined the Italian position.

Orlando also had severe political and personal limitations. He spoke little English and only halting French but did not like having to rely on translators, so he rarely used them. He was himself a member of the Italian Liberal Party but had to work with the powerful Sidney Sonnino, the foreign minister and a former prime minister. Sonnino was a member of the opposition Historical Right Party, which had major foreign policy disagreements with the Liberals, especially in their demand that Italy annex Dalmatia and Fiume. The Big Three were staunchly opposed to those annexations; thus Orlando found himself in the awkward position of having to balance the obstinacy of his allies with the demands of his own government. He also knew that if Italy did not come out of the conference with tangible gains, the constitutional monarchy itself might not survive an armed challenge from the left or the right. At one point during the conference, the stress led him to break down sobbing in front of his fellow statesmen, underscoring their view of him as an amiable gentleman but a hopelessly weak politician. He walked out of the conference in protest in April and then resigned as prime minister on June 23, just before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. He did not attend the signing ceremony.

Sonnino proved to be even more difficult for the Allies to deal with than Orlando. On the surface, Sonnino might have been the kind p. 42of man to get along with the Big Three. He was in fact half Welsh, which might have endeared him to Lloyd George. He was also, like Lloyd George and Clemenceau, an outsider, half Jewish by birth and Protestant by faith in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. But Sonnino shared none of Wilson’s ideals, did not defend Italy’s positions well, and always seemed to be asking for much more than the Big Three thought Italy deserved. They were soon wistful for the days when Orlando represented Italy in Paris.

Any Italian statesman would have found himself in a difficult position in Paris. Uncertain of popular support for Italian entry into the war, the government had promised a quick march to Vienna followed by massive gains for Italy in the Trentino, the Adriatic coast, and even parts of the Ottoman Empire. But the war had turned out to be bloody and inconclusive, with a stalemate in the Julian Alps alongside the Isonzo River. The collapse at Caporetto led to the change of government that brought Orlando to power, and it also led to a new military command structure. The Italians ended the war with a major victory over exhausted Austro-Hungarian forces at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, raising Italian hopes for the peace conference.

Such hopes, unrealistic though they were, inspired such Italian demagogues as the poet and aviator Gabriele d’Annunzio and the journalist and war veteran Benito Mussolini. They called for massive expansions of Italian territory and threatened violence against the government if it did not find some way to achieve them. They pledged to oppose with force the proposed creation of a large Slavic state opposite the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Some had begun to talk of a “mutilated victory” and spazio vitale (vital living space). They came to see Britain and France as enemies of Italy for denying Italy its just compensation for its wartime contributions. Although the French and British did not see just how unstable Italian hyper-nationalism would become, Orlando and Sonnino did. They also knew that strong Italian opposition to the creation of Yugoslavia would force them to take a harsh line against it despite the Big p. 43Three’s support for it. Orlando refused to meet with the Yugoslav delegates and even went so far as to call them enemies of Italy.

Some non-Europeans played key roles as well. Jan Smuts, a former Boer commander, parlayed an unusual political career into a prominent role at the conference. Fearing a German takeover of South Africa in 1914, then seeing a chance for South Africa to conquer German colonial possessions in Africa, Smuts rose by 1917 to a seat on the Imperial War Cabinet, where he became a critical advisor to Lloyd George, despite turning down Lloyd George’s offer to become commander of British forces in the Middle East. Smuts wanted South Africa to take over German Southwest Africa (later Namibia), but he also favored lenient terms against Germany more generally and supported the League of Nations. He eventually became the key advocate of the mandate system by which the British and French took over effective political control of large parts of the former Ottoman Empire.

5. South African Jan Smuts was one of the few important non-European voices at the conference. He was largely responsible for the mandate system that decided the fate of the former German and Ottoman colonies.

p. 44As a group, the men in positions of power in Paris believed deeply in the superiority of white people, whether in Virginia, Palestine, or Namibia. They occasionally listened politely to the entreaties of people from Africa and Asia but rarely took their opinions or their concerns seriously. They never did grasp how deeply the four murderous years of the war had undermined the ideals of European superiority on which their empires had been constructed. They still believed themselves to be at the top of the evolutionary pyramid and therefore to still deserve the right to shape the destinies of people around the globe, even without seeking their consent. With the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson, they also believed that having suffered deep human and material losses, their societies were entitled to a share of whatever spoils were to be had.

The one exception to this general pattern of European feelings of superiority over the rest of the world involved Japan, which had emerged as a serious rival and occasional partner to the Big Three. Since opening to the West in the 1850s, Japan had modernized and developed into a major power. It had defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, and then German forces in China and in the Marshall, Marianas, and Caroline Islands. Thanks to its naval alliance with Great Britain, Japan was also the only non-European state in a formal alliance with a European one. European statesmen were never quite sure whether to read Japan as a looming threat or a potential ally for their own goals of power projection, but by 1919 more of them were coming to the former rather than the latter view.

For their part, Japanese leaders knew that the European influence in Asia would likely decline after the war, and they very much wanted to be the power that would fill in the resulting vacuum. Their delegation to Paris was led by Prince Saionji Kinmochi, a seventy-year-old elder statesman and former prime minister who had studied at the Sorbonne and had been a classmate of Georges p. 45Clemenceau there. Japanese leaders mistrusted the principles of Woodrow Wilson, seeing right through his noble-sounding ideals to the racist core that underlay them. As one Japanese newspaper wrote, Wilson was an angel in rhetoric but a devil in deed. The Japanese knew that Wilson held Asians to a lower standard of development than he did Europeans. They also blamed Wilson’s promises of national self-determination for the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment in both China and Korea. Hoping to catch Wilson in a trap and expose his hypocrisy, the Japanese delegates came to Paris seeking to force the insertion of a racial equality clause into the final treaty. Either the Allies would agree, and thereby undercut their own rationale for imperialism, or they would refuse and give the Japanese a tremendous public relations victory across Asia, especially inside the European and American colonial empires.

The Japanese also came to Paris hoping to increase their influence in the Pacific Rim more generally. The Allies had pledged to give Japan permanent influence or control over any German colonial territories north of the equator that they could capture. Having done its part, Japan expected to be rewarded, not only with those islands, but also with concessions in the indisputably Chinese region of the Shandong Peninsula, controlled by Germany before the war. Shandong loomed as a potential roadblock to everything Wilson wanted to accomplish. Unquestionably Chinese, it might have to be placed under Japanese control in order to assure Japanese participation in Wilson’s cherished League of Nations.

But if the Big Four (if one wants to be generous and include Italy’s Orlando) were powerful, they were not omnipotent. They all came from fractious, democratic political systems with many overlapping and contrasting interest groups. Their citizens by no means agreed on what they wanted to see the peace conference accomplish. Many of them had already become deeply disillusioned with the very systems the Big Four represented, and p. 46a violent minority of them, from both the left and the right, had begun to plot revolution. The Big Four thus had enormous challenges ahead of them as they sat down in Paris not only to try to resolve the problems of the world but to satisfy the hopes of their own people as well.

6. The leaders (left to right) of the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and the United States—David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson—largely set the agenda for the conference. They were not, however, omnipotent, as changing circumstances and competing interest groups limited their decision-making power.