Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Great War... Woodrow Wilson on this day 100 years ago...

A Century of November will always have a deep connection with The Great War. Though this day in history 100 years ago isn’t referenced in the story… it will always and forever be remembered…

On January 22nd 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s peace note from December had largely been dismissed by both sides.  

President Wilson’s could once more turn his thoughts to Europe, where he hoped, as a powerful neutral actor, to be able to arrange peace on the continent.  Hoping for some sign that the Allies were willing to negotiate, he waited several weeks; in the meantime, the Germans made their own piece offer.

On December 18 1916, Wilson issued his note to the belligerent powers.  He announced himself as “the friend of all nations engaged in the present struggle.” In order to aid further negotiations, he asked all of the powers for a statement of their war aims, and hoped after that to bring them to the negotiating table–though he pointedly did not offer to serve as a mediator.  He stated that future peace could be secured by “the formation of a league of nations to insure peace and justice throughout the world.”

He made his neutrality quite clear, dismissing the grand language that the Allies often used to describe their cause: “The objects which the statesmen of the belligerents on both sides have in mind in this war are virtually the same, as stated in general terms to their own peoples and the world.”  This line struck a nerve with many Allied leaders, even leaving King George in tears.

Although high-minded, Wilson’s note served to exasperate many, even in his own government.  The State Department and even Col. House opposed the move, and tried to downplay its importance in their own discussions with European leaders.  Allied governments were annoyed with the move, while the German government, with its own peace initiative, was divided.  Only the neutral countries, eager for an end to the war at this point, were truly receptive.

As a result, Wilson decided that he would attempt to address “the people of the countries now at war,” in the form of a highly-publicized speech to the US Senate on January 22nd 1917.  

...It must be a peace without victory. It is not pleasant to say this… Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last…

No peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that no right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property… 

There should be a united, independent, and autonomous Poland… So far as practicable, moreover, every great people now struggling toward a full development of its resources and of its powers should be assured a direct outlet to the great highways of the sea.

I am proposing, as it were, that the nations should with one accord adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world: that no nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own polity, its own way of development–unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and powerful. 

I am proposing that all nations henceforth avoid entangling alliances which would draw them into competitions of power, catch them in a net of intrigue and selfish rivalry, and disturb their own affairs with influences intruded from without. There is no entangling alliance in a concert of power. When all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose, all act in the common interest and are free to live their own lives under a common protection. 

Wilson proposed that America would help to arrange peace now and to guarantee it in the future.  To deflect isolationist criticism, Wilson framed the language in terms of the founders, saying it is merely an extension of the Monroe Doctrine, and that participation in his proposed “League of Peace” would not be an “entangling alliance” of the sort Washington had warned against in his farewell address.

Wilson’s speech was cheered worldwide by peace advocates, and even by some parties that had largely been committed to the war effort (such as the French Socialists).  In the United States, Democrats hailed the speech, while most Republicans thought that Wilson’s speech was too idealistic, too interventionist, or (in the case of Teddy Roosevelt) outright traitorous.  There was a small coterie of midwestern pacifist Republicans, however, who joined Robert LaFollette in praising it as “the greatest message of a century.”

German Ambassador Bernstorff welcomed the speech, and tried to use it as evidence of American good intentions; he sent desperate pleas back to Berlin to try to postpone the German U-boat offensive that he knew would wreck any chance for an American diplomatic solution.

and then...

and finally Peace Begins...

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