You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.
A professor of History and Government, President Woodrow Wilson fervently believed America could fulfill its promise as the world’s beacon of democracy, a “City Upon a Hill.” After WWI, this President aimed to reform old monarchial Europe, and lead the world to a new, enlightened destiny. But perhaps his ambitions were too lofty to be realized in a cynical world of power and greed.
Participants convened at the Bourbon Palace of Versailles on June 28th, 1919 to design a new future for . . . really the entire world. Wilson attended in person, which for an American President was a first. He posed, all smiles with the French president, Georges Clemenceau, the English Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and Italy’s, Vittorio Orlando.
Considering the devastation from the recent war, these leaders had their work cut out for them.
After the Armistice had been signed the previous year, Wilson prepared for his journey by completing a new framework to rebuild a better world. Titled the Fourteen Point Plan, the President outlined a path to enduring peace. The intent was clear: Freedom for all. Free trade, self-government, transparency in treaties, a reduction in weaponry, and most importantly, an international peace-keeping body, The League of Nations. This proposed League had been crafted to resolve international conflicts through open diplomacy. For Wilson, mechanized warfare had proven pointless, so much so, that modern warfare had become a zero sum game.
Naturally many attendees were self-appointed representatives from oppressed ethnic groups around the globe. All had gathered to endorse the American President’s call for free governments, freely chosen.
The Chinese, for example, lobbied for colonial possessions formally held by Germany be returned. China was ignored. Young Ho Chi Minh, a student in Paris, attempted to see President Wilson to discuss the liberation of his home, French Indochina, (Vietnam). But Ho never got trough the gilt doors of Versailles.
The multitudes under British colonial rule, clamored for freedom, as well. Egyptian, East Indian, and Muslim peoples embraced Wilson’s vision of self determination. Zionists, Palestinians, even the Sinn Fein in Ireland looked for release from British subjugation.
Returning home to the White House, the President received a cable that his deputy remaining at Versailles, a Colonel Edward House, had agreed, in Wilson’s absence, to drop the League provision. Wilson flipped his wig and back he sailed, to resurrect his League as a non-negotiable part of the final agreement.
And though the League of Nations was indeed established, the US never joined. After all the horse-trading with his counterparts in Paris, Wilson could not convinced Republican Senators to ratify his treaty. Stunned, the President took his crusade to the American people, via a whistle stop tour. Exhausted by exertion and poor health, Wilson finally collapsed, followed quickly by a massive stroke.
Without the United States participation the League invariably failed. And a broken Woodrow Wilson died shortly after leaving office.
Perhaps President Wilson was foolish to think old world autocrats would give up any power and authority to colonial possessions. Clemenceau and others had viewed him as hopelessly naive. And maybe Wilson’s critics were correct. The man had a stubborn, self-righteous streak, that ultimately was his undoing.
Open government, free elections, and international commitment to fair play. Was Wilson merely a dreamer?
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.