In 1918, after four years of a war that tore apart the continent, swept aside centuries-old empires, and ruined the traditional orders of societies, Europeans were hoping for new solutions. The new Europe that would emerge from the conflict would have to do away with the inadequate diplomatic practice—the Concert of Europe—that had led to the war, and definitively prevent its return. One man embodied this hope, US President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). He represented the traditional values of diplomatic rhetoric—law, morality, and justice—but also promoted new notions in international relations, such as the right of self-determination, democracy, the primacy of humanity over national interests, and the establishment of new frameworks for diplomacy via a community of powers rather than a balance of power. His ideas thus spoke equally to European conservatives and reformists.
The aftermath of the First World War was marked by a Wilsonian “moment” in which the man and his ideas assumed an unprecedented glory in Europe and the world. From the fall of 1918 to the spring of 1919, Wilson generated an immense wave of hope, one that European peoples greatly needed at the time. A significant portion of the president’s ideas regarding peace echoed arguments that had already emerged in liberal internationalist and some socialist circles in Europe and the US, which he skillfully made his own and associated with his name. In fact, Wilson himself was not as Wilsonian as is often believed. This man, torn between the reality of politics and his idealism steeped in an almost religious conception of global affairs, rarely rose to the height of his own ideals. His detractors maintained that unlike the image he projected of himself, he never deduced his actions from his principles but rather the other way around, using the latter to justify the former.
In this sense, the Wilsonian moment was based more on rhetoric than the American president’s actual policy. The magic nevertheless worked in the aftermath of the war.
The Construction of a Figure
From August 1914 to April 1917, as neutral America was observing the ravages of the European war, Wilson built his image of a man of peace during the speeches and position-taking he directed to the American and European peoples. While in 1914-1915 he presented himself somewhat abstractly as the guardian of the values of peace, 1916 and the first months of 1917 were marked by his increasingly international engagement, an active neutrality of sorts in the pursuit of an ideal. In May 1916 he supported the proposal of the League to Enforce Peace, which sought to create an international organization entrusted with resolving conflict once the war was over. In January 1917, his important “Peace Without Victory” speech shocked some and enthralled others in Europe: after inviting belligerents a few weeks earlier to reveal their war aims to the world, Wilson declared there could not be postwar stability if the victors humiliated the vanquished. He stated that a punitive resolution was destined for failure, and that a peace limited to negotiations between former enemies exchanging territory and spheres of influence, in short by the reestablishment of a balance of power, would be no more than a temporary respite before the next large-scale conflict. Therefore, this terrible war had to be followed by a new kind of peace. It was in this speech that Wilson presented most of what would make up, one year later, his famous Fourteen Points.
The US entry in the European conflict on April 6, 1917, marked a turning point in the war. It was a milestone in the Wilsonian legend, with the president being seen by Europeans as the person who would unblock the situation, which had been bogged down since the winter of 1914. One week after the declaration of war, the American president approved the creation of a Committee on Public Information, a propaganda organ whose tasks included spreading American values and ideas to neutral and belligerent States. Its massive press campaign in Europe and abroad was designed to make Wilson into the man of Peace. The strategy was remarkably effective. In the fall of 1918, the entire world knew Wilson, who now presented himself as the defender of humanity’s interest, implying that European statesmen defended interests that were less noble. A few weeks after the armistice of November 11, Wilson announced that he would travel to Paris for the peace conference. This was the first time a US president had set foot on European soil while in office, thereby reflecting the extraordinary nature of the event.
Europe Facing the Man of Peace
The American president disembarked in Brest on December 13, 1918. France, which had been molded by the press since 1917, was jubilant. When he arrived in Paris by train the next day, he was greeted by a million cheering people—the savior of humanity had come. He later briefly traveled to Italy, where he was welcomed as a new messiah, and to England, which also experienced a Wilsonian moment.
The president’s reputation for humanity, generosity, goodwill, and power was such that it led to an unprecedented epistolary movement, with men, women, children, and the elderly everywhere—especially in France, along with Europe and other parts of the world—making the rare gesture for the time of writing to a head of state, especially a foreign one. Enamored young girls wrote to him as they today would to an idol. For some his figure was one of a Prince to whom various requests and supplications were addressed recounting the terrible misery of a Europe in mourning; for others he was a confidant to whom they revealed their most secret matters; for yet others he was a new kind of politician with whom one could speak directly regarding global issues; for nationalists he was the one who would free them from the imperial yoke… Wilson generated immense hope, and with it necessarily came the great risk of disappointment.
This short moment of enthusiasm for Wilson has often—and perhaps too easily—been interpreted as a temporary collective madness, an effect of the anxious relaxation that followed the end of hostilities, an outlet of sorts while waiting for reality to reassert itself. For this reason, the emotion that underpinned this “moment” has often been taken lightly, and there was subsequent mockery of the time’s “illusion of peace.”
Still, the Wilsonian wave of 1919 contains many lessons. The first is that it was a new chapter of the long and deep reflections on how to pacify international relations. The American president was the first head of state from a major power to embrace internationalist ideas, and the most fervent promoter of the League of Nations, which was indeed founded in 1919. Wilson and his followers were part of an increasingly audible culture of peace since the nineteenth century, especially in Europe.
The second lesson is connected to the war itself. In the East, communism gave a meaning to the European slaughter—war was the daughter of capitalism and its corollary, imperialism. In the West, Wilsonianism also gave meaning to the bloodshed. Many have retorted that Wilson’s messianism was fatally illusory, but in 1919 it was the only horizon offered to European peoples that did not involve revolutionary violence or the simple military victory and its mundane territorial settlement. For Wilson’s European disciples, this absurd, destructive, and cruel war had to lead to a new and different world. Was this naive on their part? Picture yourself in 1919, after more than ten million deaths: how not to be gripped by the Wilsonian promise? After so much suffering, what is left to believe for if nothing changes? In fact, for so many men and women throughout Europe, the bitter realization that, despite this promise of a new world, nothing really changed after 1919 is where the disillusion that characterized the postwar period originated.