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Paris 1919

The price of America's entry on the Allied Side in World War I was President Woodrow Wilson's highmindedness. When the war was over, he swiftly occupied the high moral ground, and also, working from his country's unscathed position, assumed leadership of the preliminary peace talks - among the Allies only - in Paris in the last days of 1918. This preliminary conference shaded seamlessly into the real thing, but from the start it was an extremely lopsided venture, with a Council of Four - the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy - presiding over a long train of petitioners, people from all over the earth seeking official recognition of sovereignties and borders that emerged from the collapse of old empires. Germany never really participated in the Conference; it signed an unnegotiated treaty that the Allies at had worked out on their own, more or less at gunpoint. From the start, Wilson's principal aim was the establishment of the League of Nations, a first step toward the new world order that so many conservative Americans today regard with fear and loathing. Like-minded men quashed America's membership in the League in 1920, by which time Wilson was back in Washington, the victim, in all likelihood, of several debilitating strokes, but even without that a disillusioned man. The world had not rushed to welcome his ambitious ideas for international cooperation.

Margarget MacMillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World (Random House, 2002) is about the disappointing encounter - tragic in many ways - between Wilson's new ideas and the self-interest that has always informed the exercise of power. Although he may have been the most unambiguous optimist in Paris in 1919, Wilson was not the only one. There was a general feeling that the War had brought an end to the old world order, completing a transition begun in 1789. With all the autocratic empires gone (except, ominously, from Japan), the way seemed clear for a universal democracy, and this is what underlay Wilson's famous advocacy of national self-determination. The spread of democracy was what distinguished the world of 1919 from that of 1815, when at the Congress of Vienna the lords of the earth had last gathered together. The Castlereaghs and Talleyrands and Metternichs at Vienna hadn't had to worry about public opinion, certainly not in the form of electorates; they were free to practice the old-fashioned, power-balancing horse trading with which Europe had immemorially adjusted its disputes. By 1919, in contrast, public opinion was a strange and many-headed dragon. Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George might have felt themselves free to draw lines across the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, but where their own electorates were concerned they were more inclined to grovel. It was French public opinion that made the German peace so onerous, and any government that treated Germany with respect would have been repudiated at the polls.

If leadership was a venerable institution in 1919, public opinion, the new annointer of leaders, was raw.  MacMillan's fluent writing and extraordinary marshalling of the myriad strands that were rewoven in 1919 cannot dispel the funk of public self-righteousness that seeps from nearly every page. Mass media in every country clamored for noble abstractions and local advancement - in the same breath. When the Italians realized that they were not going to be granted dominion of the Dalmatian coast, they withdrew from the conference altogether. The Japanese, of all people, pressed for recognition of the principal of racial equality, not because they intended to observe it at home but because they resented the 'yellow peril' phobias of politicians in California, and it was consideration for the worst prejudices of voters that motivated Wilson, of all people, to maneuver the overruling of an amendment that would have added a racial equality clause to the Covenant of the League of Nations. The hypocrisies surrounding this episode make one long for the candid egotism of Bismarckian realpolitik. Ideals notwithstanding, leaders were forced back to the old horse-trading, but in new, complex dimensions.

It's possible that the French felt good about the outcome of the Peace Conference. The Austrians, destitute rump of a vast territory whose internal borders now closed against it, felt lucky. But almost everyone else came away with a grudge. Some grudges were worse than others, but in the end it would be the grudges, not the realities, that moved events. Ms MacMillan rightly points out that the Versailles Treaty was not the punitive instrument that it has been made out to be - but she cannot deny that it was made out to be punitive, most expressively by Adolf Hitler. Ever since its appearance, Paris 1919 has been touted as a revisionist history of the Peace. Macmillan herself contributes to this reading. In her Introduction, she writes, "It has become a commonplace to say that the peace settlements of 1919 were a failure, that they led directly to the Second World War. That is to overestimate their power." Doubtless the Peace did not directly lead to the Second World War. But it is difficult to imagine how the ground for a further war could have been better prepared.

The ground was also prepared for today's mess in the Middle East. The biggest casualty of the war was the Ottoman Empire, and the borders of the nations into which it was divided were not drawn (per the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres) its former overlords. The Europeans were so struck by the Ottoman collapse that they allowed themselves to be persuaded by the altogether too popular Eleutherios Venizelos to allot to Greece the territory around the largely Greek city of Smyrna. This would provide the man who dragged Turkey into the modern world, Kemal Attatürk, with his rallying cry - and doom thousands of Greeks to death in a not-so-minor massacre. The other lines drawn at Sèvres proved less ephemeral; they are with us still. Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia - all began at a conference table outside of Paris eighty-odd years ago, and all owed their demarcations to an elaborate shuffling of French and English interests. Whatever your position, now, on the relation of Israel to a Palestinian state, Arthur Balfour's declaration of 1917, announcing British support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" - made in a letter to Lord Rothschild - remains a monument of Edwardian, and unilateral, arrogance.

Reviewing Paris 1919 in the NYTBR, Tony Judt said that Ms MacMillan's writing is not equal to the prose of John Maynard Keynes and Harold Nicolson, two assistants at the peace talks who soon after published famous denunciations of its flaws, but whether or not that's so (I think it's sadly unlikely that either Keynes or Nicolson would be published today), Paris 1919 is a well-written and, more importantly, brilliantly conceived volume. I can't think of single book that comes anywhere near to explaining the political foundations of the world we live in. Ms MacMillan has a first-class knack for thumbnail biography and three-paragraph background, and shrewd readers could not do better than to regard her book as a sophisticated crammer. As for the consequences of the Peace itself, Ms MacMillan may be excused from proving a point: as Zhou En Lai said of the French Revolution, it's still too soon to tell. (January 2003)

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