Woodrow Wilson, John Maynard Keynes, Barack Obama (Pt. 1)

It was none other than John Maynard Keynes, architect of the great mass of current economic policy (whose success we presently so enjoy) who recounted with most vivid clarity what he called “The collapse of The President,” or the remarkable translation of Wilson’s idealistic Fourteen Points into the monstrosity of cynical politics that actually became the policy of the world towards conquered Germany: The Treaty of Versailles. I can do no better than to quote Keynes directly:

When President Wilson left Washington he enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequaled in history. His bold and measured words carried to the peoples of Europe above and beyond the voices of their own politicians. The enemy peoples trusted him to carry out the compact he had made with them; and the Allied peoples acknowledged him not as a victor only but almost as a prophet. In addition to this moral influence the realities of power were in his hands. The American armies were at the height of their numbers, discipline, and equipment. Europe was in complete dependence on the food supplies of the United States; and financially she was even more absolutely at their mercy. Europe not only already owed the United States more than she could pay; but only a large measure of further assistance could save her from starvation and bankruptcy. Never had a philosopher held such weapons wherewith to bind the princes of this world. How the crowds of the European capitals pressed about the carriage of the President! With what curiosity, anxiety, and hope we sought a glimpse of the features and bearing of the man of destiny who, coming from the West, was to bring healing to the wounds of the ancient parent of his civilization and lay for us the foundations of the future.

But of course we know how all that ended, or we should, for it ends in the Nazi VI army parading under the Arc de Triomphe. Wilson’s great advantages over all the rulers of Europe would lead one to expect Wilson to shape the peace almost to his whim. Yet when we consider the vicious outburst of crushed pride that was German Fascism, we must immediately turn our eyes to the instrument by which it was crushed: The Versailles treaty itself. With its extractions and restrictions, its violations of national identity and impossible demands, Versailles was remarkable not for its idealism, but for its worldliness; it is as if the monarchies decided to revive and exaggerate the ancient custom of torturing their defeated enemies. Versailles was not merely a practical compromise that secured the greater good through the means of satisfying some petty desires of the politicians, but the very reverse: The political aims of the French leaders were achieved by cynically disguising them as the interests of the whole world. The guise was all the more perfect because the chief actor was entirely sincere: In the charade of securing French power and calling it a Better World, Wilson actually believed that the council was, in the main, making a reality of the Fourteen Points. How could a man be so deceived?

The manifest differences between what the surrendering Germans were promised and what they received were so great and so obvious that the whole of that nation, from ruler to ditch-digger, was conscious of its oppression and united in their resentment and revenge. How could Wilson fail to see what was known to every smirking politician surrounding him, and recognized by every untutored clod in Germany? It is on this very topic that Keynes’s intuitive powers really come to our aid, for his vision of the the “Collapse” is really remarkable, if we can trust his understanding. He describes the way Wilson was gradually, by his own tendencies and the efforts of the French and English diplomats, gradually isolated from his supporters and increasingly closeted with Clemenceau and Loyd George, and perpetually cornered into a position of resistance, for he had not come to the conference with any concrete plan but only the grand general vision of the Fourteen Points. Every practical proposal was drawn from the highly specific plans of the French and English, and in general tended towards the more Realpolitik attitudes of those nations’ leaders, who had themselves expected to be forced to compromise with some over-idealistic scheme proposed by Wilson. But no such scheme existed, and so Wilson was ever in the position of recalcitrant, never able to truly gain by compromise, for his program had no trivialities to trade away for concessions, because he had no program. This was not an insurmountable difficulty of course, as Keynes had already mentioned the absolute indebtedness and physical dependence of Europe on the United States; this factor alone would have been enough for a much less subtle diplomat to overcome any number of tactical errors. Had Andrew Jackson been at Versailles instead of Woodrow Wilson, he would have failed just as thoroughly at matching the diplomatic skills of the Europeans. He would have failed to comprehend the French subtleties, sharing the insensibility to his environment and the character of the men around him with which Keynes faults Wilson. But at some point in the conference Jackson would have looked across and Clemenceau, and told his interpreter to notify the French leader that if he wished to disregard the terms which the United States had offered Germany to induce her to quit destroying France, what right did France have to claim benefits from that surrender? And at any rate any objection to the American program was also an objection to American assistance, and for all Jackson would care, France could damn well starve. But that is a speculative aside; if Jackson was not the type to be lured into compromising on the Fourteen Points, it is because he was not the type to have ever produced them. It was the same moral scruples that made Wilson’s vision for the world so bright and pure that doomed that vision to be butchered at the conference table, and for this reason even a lesser man than Wilson could have been a better man to defend, though a worse man to conceive, Wilson’s Better World. What then happened to the actual defender of idealistic peace?

The President’s attitude to his colleagues had now become: I want to meet you so far as I can; I see your difficulties and I should like to be able to agree to what you propose; but I can do nothing that is not just and right, and you must first of all show me that what you want does really fall within the words of the pronouncements which are binding on me. Then began the weaving of that web of sophistry and Jesuitical exegesis that was finally to clothe with insincerity the language and substance of the whole Treaty. The word was issued to the witches of all Paris:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

The subtlest sophisters and most hypocritical draftsmen were set to work, and produced many ingenious exercises which might have deceived for more than an hour a cleverer man than the President.

Thus instead of saying that German-Austria is prohibited from uniting with Germany except by leave of France (which would be inconsistent with the principle of self-determination), the Treaty, with delicate draftsmanship, states that “Germany acknowledges and will respect strictly the independence of Austria, within the frontiers which may be fixed in a Treaty between that State and the Principal Allied and Associated Powers; she agrees that this independence shall be inalienable, except with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations,” which sounds, but is not, quite different. And who knows but that the President forgot that another part of the Treaty provides that for this purpose the Council of the League must be unanimous.

Instead of giving Danzig to Poland, the Treaty establishes Danzig as a “Free” City, but includes this “Free” City within the Polish Customs frontier, entrusts to Poland the control of the river and railway system, and provides that “the Polish Government shall undertake the conduct of the foreign relations of the Free City of Danzig as well as the diplomatic protection of citizens of that city when abroad.”

In placing the river system of Germany under foreign control, the Treaty speaks of declaring international those “river systems which naturally provide more than one State with access to the sea, with or without transhipment from one vessel to another.”

Such instances could be multiplied. The honest and intelligible purpose of French policy, to limit the population of Germany and weaken her economic system, is clothed, for the President’s sake, in the august language of freedom and international equality.

I love the expressiveness of that image, of the “witches of Paris” being summoned to conceal from Wilson the reality of what he was doing. Of course what Keynes is referring to is the whole body of intellectual power, artistry of words and thought, the skills of lawyers and the mastery of deceivers of all stripes that grows up alongside and inside an ancient and developed culture. Wilson could not have been more in the home of self-deceit, or been surrounded by a more ready and fertile hive of panderers to those who deceive themselves. The Witches of Paris indeed! The height of the Western culture of the age, and an age of sophistry at that, had sharpened the skills of the “sophister” to such acuity…well in any case it was effective, and its long term effect was to ensure that the City of Paris was trampled by the coarse boots of vengeful Germans after barely twenty years. German pride was scourged by the first World War, concluding with the Treaty of Versailles. French pride was scourged by the second World War, begun by the same treaty, the work of French pride.

But there was a peculiar quality that made this outcome sure, one that would not have been present had the others convinced Wilson to scourge Germany with some means other than the lie that it was entirely consistent with the Fourteen Points. What I mean to say is that, had the means of converting the president into a believer in the French proposals and their harsh treatment of Germany been more frank and honest, it may not have had such tragic consequences. A cruelty done with the belief that it is a kindness is a more immoderate thing than a mere indulgence in cruelty. Look at Keynes’ description of how Wilson received Germany’s inevitable objection to the harshness of the final terms:

At last the work was finished; and the President’s conscience was still intact. In spite of everything, I believe that his temperament allowed him to leave Paris a really sincere man; and it is probable that to this day he is genuinely convinced that the Treaty contains practically nothing inconsistent with his former professions.

But the work was too complete, and to this was due the last tragic episode of the drama. The reply of Brockdorff-Rantzau inevitably took the line that Germany had laid down her arms on the basis of certain assurances, and that the Treaty in many particulars was not consistent with these assurances. But this was exactly what the President could not admit; in the sweat of solitary contemplation and with prayers to God he had done nothing that was not just and right; for the President to admit that the German reply had force in it was to destroy his self-respect and to disrupt the inner equipoise of his soul; and every instinct of his stubborn nature rose in self-protection. In the language of medical psychology, to suggest to the President that the Treaty was an abandonment of his professions was to touch on the raw a Freudian complex. It was a subject intolerable to discuss, and every subconscious instinct plotted to defeat its further exploration.

Wilson, according to Keynes, could not look back at his conduct during the conference and face the possibility that he had really abandoned his principles, which was by this time the most glaring reality of the whole drama. But of course how could he face such a thing? He had not been induced to believe that the Fourteen Points had to be abandoned; such a conviction was probably impossible. He had not surrendered to the notion that Germany was too dangerous to be trusted and had to be dealt with harshly, or that she was a deceiver herself and it served her right to be deceived. But he had allowed identical damage to be done through greatly assisted self-deception that he was still holding his sacred position. He could have admitted the error of the other courses, but he could not admit that he had really broken faith. Thus in the final hours, it was found that Wilson’s position could not be reversed or even moderated, because to do so would have involved a terrible admission of guilt by the President. He is prevented from doing what is right by the mere fear of knowing that he has already done wrong. There is a chapter in Chesterton’s book on Eugenics entitled “The Impotence Of Impenitence,” and the phrase fits Wilson’s error neatly. But it fits better the whole age; Chesterton might well have been unaware of the specific role of this sin in the formation of the Treaty, but he describes the world in 1922 as if he were describing the man who tried to save it in 1919:

This strange, weak obstinacy, this persistence in the wrong path of progress, grows weaker and worse, as do all such weak things. And by the time in which I write its moral attitude has taken on something of the sinister and even the horrible. Our mistakes have become our secrets. Editors and journalists tear up with a guilty air all that reminds them of the party promises unfulfilled, or the party ideals reproaching them. It is true of our statesmen (much more than of our bishops, of whom Mr. Wells said it), that socially in evidence they are intellectually in hiding. The society is heavy with unconfessed sins; its mind is sore and silent with painful subjects; it has a constipation of conscience. There are many things it has done and allowed to be done which it does not really dare to think about; it calls them by other names and tries to talk itself into faith in a false past, as men make up the things they would have said in a quarrel.


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