Delivered from Evil: The Saga of World War II – Robert Leckie
At eleven o’clock in the morning of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918 the guns of the Great War began to fall silent. At dusk, a sickle moon arose. Its faint light fell on no-man’s-land where bloated rats splashed in shell holes filled with water, searching for corpses to feed upon. The little moon shone on those silent dark heaps of rubble that once were towns and cities, making crooked silhouettes of broken church crosses and toppled Gothic towers. Darkness brought crowds of singing, shouting soldiers into no-man’s-land to caper among the cruel black lace of the barbed wire. They exchanged prisoners or swapped German sausage for American cigarettes or French cognac. Bonfires were lighted. Rockets and Very flares trailing their long red tails were fired at the brightening wisp of yellow, shining palely now on the obsidian seas silently rolling over fleets of sunken ships and armies of drowned men and untold stores of treasure lost forever. Soon complete silence engulfed those gouged and gutted farmlands that had become the battlefields, and the sickle moon, having reached its zenith, slowly began its descent-while beneath it the cataclysm that had convulsed the world came shuddering to a stop.
Three weeks later, on December 4, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America sailed for the peace conference in Paris. He sailed with high hopes, buoyant in the belief that the noble principles embodied in his famous “fourteen points” would produce a peace between equals and lead to formation of a League of Nations empowered to keep that peace. Woodrow Wilson came to Europe as though he were peace incarnate. No conquering Caesar entering Rome followed by captive kings “to grace in chains his chariot wheels” ever received a more tumultuous triumph. For Wilson was not just another conqueror, of whom this tortured continent had seen a surfeit, but a savior without a sword. Everywhere he went he seemed to the frenzied, cheering populace to embody the aspirations of suffering humanity.
“No one has heard such cheers,” one correspondent wrote. “I, who heard them in the streets of Paris, can never forget them in all my life. I saw Foch pass, Clemenceau pass, Lloyd George, generals, returning troops, banners, but Wilson heard from his carriage something different, inhuman or superhuman.” Such adulation could not fail to convince Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the idealist, the “professor in politics,” that it was he who would be the architect of peace and that once again his Fourteen Points were to be its keystone. At least at first, his ears still echoing to that thunderous applause, he could not entertain the opposite suspicion: that he was to be party not to a peace among equals but o a vengeful Carthaginian ultimatum imposed by the victor on the vanquished.
Certainly there had been an abundance of words and deeds suggesting that he latter course was to be the real one. In Britain, Prime Minister David Lloyd George had secured a delay in the conference to take advantage of the rise in popularity given him by the Armistice, successfully campaigning for reelection on such merciful slogans as “Hang the Kaiser!” or “Make ’em pay!” With similar compassion, Winston Churchill rose in the House of Commons on March 3, 1919, to declare : “We are holding all our means of coercion in full operation or in immediate readiness for use. We are enforcing the blockade with vigour. We have strong armies ready to advance at the shortest notice. Germany is very near starvation. The evidence I have received from the officers sent by the War Office all over Germany shows, first of all, the great privation which the German people are suffering, and, secondly, the great danger of a collapse of the entire structure of German social and national life under the pressure of hunger and malnutrition. Now is therefore the time to settle.” The blockade of which Churchill spoke, and the hunger and suffering resulting from it, had already caused the deaths of 800,000 German noncombatants during the last two years of the war, and it was not to be lifted until the Treaty of Versailles was signed and the Allies had gained a trading head start. Moreover, “now” was indeed “the time to settle,” as Churchill’s colleagues well knew. To torment the Germans further would be to drive them with the fury of despair into the arms of the devil: the Bolshevik menace which at that time terrified all Europe.
Wilson’s idealism, then, was in no way acceptable to the other members of the Big Four-Lloyd George, Premier Georges Clemenceau of France, and Premier Vittorio Orlando of Italy-if it was not indeed a major sticking point with them. All of them considered the American to be naive and obviously unacquainted with the “practical” give-and-take of European power politics. They were also irked by the lone hand which Wilson had played with the enemy during the final months of the war, and they were indeed intensely jealous of his worldwide popularity. So they had negotiated secret treaties, sharing out the spoils in a way which, though customary, was not exactly compatible with the Fourteen Points. They also excluded the defeated nations from the conference, the surest sign that the “peace” was to be a capitulation, and relegated those smaller Allied nations, for whose rights the war had supposedly been fought, to the sidelines. Finally, in the hearts of Georges Clemenceau and his countrymen there throbbed a horrible ache for revenge, a yearning for a hard peace that would humble and hobble Germany for good and all.
It is indeed difficult to fault 1he French. Twice within the memory of many living Frenchmen the German nation had hurled itself upon its western neighbor. In 1871, Bismarck’s harsh terms had torn from France the province of Alsace and part of Lorraine, the birthplace of Joan of Arc, and extracted a brutal, astronomical indemnity for the day of $1 billion. During 1914-18, no nation had suffered as much as the French. The country’s manhood had been bled white, and a terrible mutiny among the soldiers had almost brought France to her knees and robbed her of her sacred honor. Much of the countryside was in ruins, the ports were obsolete, and the railroads worn out. In 1918, the vengeful General Ludendortf, aware that Germany could not win, had with deliberate spite wrecked France’s northern mines in order to cripple a trade rival. A merciful lifting of the blockade imposed for the same reason on such an enemy seemed to Clemenceau to make a mockery of compassion. But when he tried to make this clear to Wilson, inviting him to visit the mines, the American refused, on those very grounds that he did not wish to be influenced against the Germans. His reply infuriated the Tiger of France and only deepened his conviction that he was dealing with a starry-eyed visionary who fancied himself the second Messiah. “Mr. Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points,” Clemenceau growled. “Why, Almighty God has only ten!”
Mr. Wilson, however, was not so ingenuous. By then, the echoing cheers had begun to fade in his ears, and he clearly saw the course upon which his colleagues were embarked. He knew European geography and history and was deeply aware of the difficulties of redrawing the borders of a continent constantly divided by war and dissension since it had emerged from the Dark Ages. He saw that much of the Carthaginian peace that Clemenceau was preparing was consonant with many of his Fourteen Points, such as national self-determination, and that to block his colleagues was also to endanger that League of Nations which was the keystone of the Points and the soul of his policy. That was his mistake. He made his concessions to save the League, but in his defense it must be observed that one of the League’s functions was to review the decisions made at Paris. Still, to be fair to Wilson, he could not have been so impolitic as to take up the cudgels for the late enemy when the common man everywhere was calling for his head. Nor could he simply have walked out of the conference, as he at one time seems to have considered, and thus leave much of Europe exposed to the Communist menace. Nor was he entirely to blame for the futile attempt to settle Europe’s problems on the basis of national determination, for nationalism was by then the very real mental fashion of the men of “advanced ideas.”
Even before the war, British thinker Norman Angell had written: “Political nationalism has become, for the European of our age, the most important thing in the world, more important than civilization, humanity, decency, kindness, pity; more important than life itself.” As votaries of this new religion, the Allied leaders decided to carve the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire into separate national states. They created the separate states of Austria and Hungary, a new republic of Czechoslovakia, and, by joining some Slavic areas to Serbia, the new nation of Yugoslavia. Poland was revived as an independent state and given a “corridor” through Germany to the once-German city of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) on the Baltic, while Romania was almost doubled in size at the expense of Hungary. Unfortunately, the peoples within these new boundaries did not coincide in language or race, and where there had once been a common market in Middle Europe, there were now trade barriers erected by each of the succession states. Each new nation also included minorities quick to demand self-determination, or minorities such as the German-speaking residents of Czechoslovakia and Poland, who had allegiance elsewhere. Unhappily, their race and language were like a string that a valorous but fanatic German corporal named Adolf Hitler would one day use to yank both them and their new homeland into Germany. Thus strategically vital Central Europe was cut up into a crowd of quarreling states able to make common cause together, and Austria, once the central nervous item when it was an empire, was left a weakling with neither ports nor markets, whose only salvation lay in union with Germany. This, of course, was not to be.
Germany was to stay weak. The country was to be stripped of all its overseas colonies, to admit war guilt as a basis for later reparation, to lose land for the Polish Corridor and the other buffer states ringing it round, to permit demilitarization west of the Rhine, and to be disarmed of all but enough troops to police the interior. Undoubtedly, the terms of the new Versailles Treaty were not nearly harsh as what a victorious Germany might have dictated. But they were nonetheless Carthaginian, certain, as Germany’s own Treaty of Versailles had been certain, to produce another and probably more terrible cataclysm, granting the growth of weaponry and the spread of industrialization. But even worse than those deliberate shackles was the monster sin of omission by which the Allies had ignored the economic problems that had caused the conflict just ended.
One of Wilson’s Fourteen Points was to call for the removal of all economic barriers, but he and his colleagues completely ignored this, causing the British economist John Maynard Keynes to comment: “The fundamental economic problems of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes was the one question on which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four.” He added: ”The future life of Europe was not their concern; its means of livelihoods not their anxiety. Their preoccupations, good and bad alike, related to frontiers and nationalities, to the balance of power, to imperial aggrandizement,to the future enfeeblement of a strong and desperate enemy, to revenge,and to the shifting by the victors of their unbearable financial burdens on to the shoulders of the defeated.”
Eventually, Lloyd George perceived the danger, and on March 25, 1919, he circulated a memorandum, part of which read: “You may strip Germany of her colonies, reduce her armaments to a mere police force and her navy to that of a fifth-rate power; all the same, in the end, if she feels that she has been unjustly treated in the peace of 1919, she will find means of exacting retribution from her conquerors. The maintenance of peace will .. . depend upon there being no causes of exasperation constantly stirring up the spirit of patriotism, of justice or of fair play to achieve redress…. For these reasons I am, therefore, strongly averse to transferring more Germans from German rule to the rule of some other nation than can possibly be helped. I cannot conceive any greater cause of future war than that the German people, who have certainly proved themselves one of the most vigorous and powerful nations in the world, should be surrounded by a number of small states, many of them consisting of people who have never previously set up a stable government for themselves,but each of them containing large masses of Germans clamouring for reunion with their native land.” There could hardly have been a more accurate forecast, and yet the warning was ignored.
On May 7, 1919, the terms were read to a German delegation led by Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau. Shocked, Brockdorff angrily attacked the Allies for continuing the blockade and insisted that the Fourteen Points were binding on all who signed the Armistice, after which he refused to sign the treaty. Then the German press published the terms. The German people were aghast. A bitter outcry against the treaty arose. Back in Paris, one of those who were shocked by the terms was Herbert Hoover, the American engineer who had become famous for feeding war victims. Unable to sleep, he rushed outside his hotel to walk the dark streets in dismay.
Later, before he became president of the United States, he wrote: “It seemed to me the economic consequences alone would pull down all Europe and thus injure the United States.” But the Allies would not budge, and a despairing Germany knew that it must sign. The blockade was strangling the country and the Communists had taken to the streets. On Saturday, June 28, a new German delegation-Dr. Herman Muller and Dr. Johannes Bell-arrived at the Palace of Versailles. They were Jed to a point outside the great doorway into the Hall of Mirrors, the very same glittering room in which a humiliated France had heard Wilhelm I proclaimed as the first German emperor. Forming a Jane into the hall were two facing files of soldiers in the gorgeous uniforms of the Garde Republicaine. They held naked sabers before their eyes. The Germans stared at them morosely. Beneath the plumed and gleaming Achilles helmets, every face was twisted in open hatred and contempt.
Inside the hall, the Allied leaders sat at a long table. In their center was Georges Clemenceau, crouched in his chair like a yellowish gnarled gnome. “Faites entrer les Allemands,” he rasped, his coal-black eyes glittering. “Show in the Germans!” With a flash and click the guardsmen sheathed their sabers. Dr. Muller and Dr. Bell were conducted to their chairs. Then they arose. With downcast eyes they approached the small table on which the treaty lay. They signed. Outside the palace, crashing cannon signaled to a jubilant Paris that the detestable Boche had at last been paid back. Inside the hall, the Allies signed: Wilson, Lloyd George, Orlando, finally Clemenceau. Turning, the Tiger of France felt his hand seized by former Premier Paul Painleve, who congratulated him. “Yes,” murmured Clemenceau, his eyes softening and brimming with tears, “it is a beautiful day.”
2. The League of Nations
But it had not been a beautiful day: not for France, nor for its allies; nor for Germany nor its allies; nor for the world. Rather, it had been a very black day indeed. Because of the war and the treaty, all European balance was destroyed; and because Europe was the center of world trade as well as the headquarters for all but two of the world’s empires, so also was world balance destroyed. Three of these empires-the German, Austrian, and Turkish-simply van1ed. A fourth, the Russian, having exchanged the whip of the Cossack for the goad of the commissar, was already engaged in recovering the land lost to Germany, while crushing the last remnants of White Russian resistance and preparing the Red Army for the forthcoming invasion of Poland. A fifth, and once the most powerful, Great Britain, had sunk from the status of world banker and arbiter to that of a debtor nation whose voice and counsel no longer carried special weight. A sixth, the French , was reduced to the status of a second-rate power whose multiparty system was made for chaos. A seventh, the United States of America, was retreating into isolationism, while preparing to embark on that noble experiment “of Prohibition. The eighth and newest, Italy, having received war booty the South Tyrol, Trieste, Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands, calmly seized Fiume (now Rijeka, Yugoslavia) and then retired from its forage sulking because it could not also grab islands off the coasts of Dalmatia and Albania. Only the ninth, Japan, was satisfied. Because of a casualty rate of .002 percent-that is, 300 dead and 907 wounded-Japan had emerged as the dominant power in the Far East and been given a collection of German islands, which, contrary to League of Nations regulations for these “mandated” isles, it promptly began to fortify and to use for bases to expand its sea power in the Western Pacific.
Of all these arrivals and departures , the most shattering were the coming of the Russian Revolution and the passing of the Pax Britannica. Although the new masters of Russia had yet to consolidate themselves before they could begin to spread their Marxist doctrine of atheistic materialism throughout the world, the old balance of power embodied in the Pax Britannica was definitely dead. Because Britain had felt compelled to field a huge conscript army in a continental land war, it forever lost control of that balance of power by which it had traditionally prevented wars from becoming worldwide. Perhaps this was inevitable, granting the industrialization of other nations and the quickening race for markets, granting also the acceleration of only a few nations with land-mass-plus-population toward the exclusive rank of superpower; and probably the wonder of it all was that this seafaring island race for a hundred years had been able even to check Europe’s fratricidal tendencies. However that may be, something had to replace the Pax Britannica. To Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations would fill the vacuum. He was as certain of this as he was positive that the United States would ratify the treaty and accept the Covenant of the League.
Unfortunately, Woodrow Wilson seemed to be able to alienate certain people without even trying. Before sailing for Europe, he had angered the Republican opposition by calling for a Democratic sweep in the midterm election of 1918. Then he had neglected to name any high-ranking Republican to the peace delegation. Finally, he had defied Republican senators who opposed making the League Covenant part of the treaty . “When that Treaty comes back,” he had said, “gentlemen on this side will find the Covenant not only in it, but so many threads of the Treaty tied to the Covenant that you cannot dissect the Covenant from the Treaty without destroying the whole vital structure .” Much as this decision to make warp and woof of Treaty and Covenant was then hailed as a triumph of Wilsonian statecraft, in fact his intransigence doomed both. President Wilson mistook his countrymen’s ebullient enthusiasm for the World War, a conflict which he personally entered with great reluctance (“There is such a thing as a man’s being too proud to fight”), as proof that they were at last ready to accept world responsibility. But they were not. It would take another much crueler conflagration to rid themselves of the notion that a war is like a football game: When the game is over and victory is yours, it’s time to celebrate. That was what was happening. The Torrid Twenties were at hand, and many, many Americans, either ignoring Prohibition or actually taking up drink in defiant resentment of the Volstead Act’s arrogant intrusion into their private lives, had beaten their swords into cocktail shakers and were dancing deeper and deeper into the ostrich hole of isolation. Moreover, apathy was giving way to disillusion. The time of the “debunkers” had also arrived with their oh-so-palatable myths that 126,000 Americans had died and 334,000 had been wounded “to pull England’s chestnuts out of the fire” or to rescue the big American banks from an Allied defeat that would mean default on their enormous debts. And had they not won “the war to end wars”? What, then, was this talk about a League of Nations to prevent future wars? Many Americans bitterly believed they had been deliberately deceived and they vowed never again to ignore George Washington’s warning against involvement in “the broils of Europe .” To these people, the wearying labyrinthine way of foreign policy seemed to wind up the hill of Sisyphus.
Thus, Wilson did not have, as he fervently believed, his countrymen on his side. Moreover, when he returned home he found himself ranged against Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, a suave, scholarly and powerful Republican leader who had no difficulty in arousing opposition to the League, “this evil thing with a holy name.” Lodge hated Wilson with an implacable hatred . Even though he personally favored creation of a world organization, he wanted nothing born of the brain of Thomas Woodrow Wilson. So Lodge moved to bury the treaty by hobbling it with reservations and hamstringing it with debate. Lodge was not only supported by all that was reactionary in America, including resurgent isolationism, but by many internationalists who believed that Wilson had betrayed his own principles for the League. The New Republic abandoned its allegiance to Wilson with the dire prophecy: “The European politicians who with American complicity have hatched this inhuman monster, have acted either cynically, hypocritically or vindictively, and their handiwork will breed future cynicism, hypocrisy, and vindictiveness in the minds of future generations.”
Though shaken, Wilson refused to accept this Cassandra cry and vowed to take his cause to the people. In September of 1919 he began to stump the country. “I can predict with absolute certainty,” he declared, “that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.” But Wilson’s power to move the masses was gone. Passionate and eloquent as ever, he spoke to unheeding audiences. On the night of September 25, he suffered a nervous collapse followed by a stroke. Slowly, with drawn blinds, the presidential train reversed its course to carry a paralyzed chief executive back to Washington. For two months Wilson lay in the White House unable to move, seen only by his physician, his secretary and his family. He could barely scrawl an indecipherable signature on the few documents brought to him by his wife or his secretary, Joseph Tumulty. For the first time in American history the problem foreseen by the Constitution arose: “In the case of … inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.” But when Secretary of State Robert Lansing attempted to implement this proviso, he met a furious rebuff from Tumulty. Moreover, dim-witted Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, famous for that penetrating epigram, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar,” was literally terrified that “the same should devolve” on him.
Eventually, Wilson recovered his mental powers but not his health. His pride he could never lose, and when defeat of the League appeared certain, he rejected all calls for compromise with the fierce reply: “Let Lodge compromise! Better a thousand times to go down fighting than to dip your colors to dishonorable compromise.” This from that statesman who in Paris had made a creed of compromise. On November 19, 1919, the League was rejected in the Senate, and again a year later. “We had a chance to gain the leadership of the world,” said a sorrowing Woodrow Wilson. “We have lost it, and soon we shall be witnessing the tragedy of it all.” It has been said that American abstention was the chief rock upon which the League of Nations foundered; and yet, even with the United States a member, it is difficult to see what the League could have done to prevent war or remove injustices or restrain a predatory nation. The real rock that sank the League was the problem faced by any world organization committed to keeping the peace: How do you punish a sovereign state? To do so, a world organization must be sovereign to the errant state, and no state, however just and righteous, has yet to surrender an iota of its sovereignty, let alone been willing to accept a judgment of errancy.
To impose its will, then, the League needed force; and it had none. It was a policeman without a pistol, a judge dependent for his power of persuasion on the writ of international law or the thrust of public opinion, neither of which has been known to dissuade any government determined to follow a certain course. So the League sank into a noble futility, becoming a debating society invoking empty sanctions against the new breed of international predators spawned by the Treaty of Versailles. Not even Woodrow Wilson could have envisioned that “the tragedy of it all” was so close at hand, or that it could so completely engulf mankind. Of predictions of another world war there was then a surfeit; and yet, no one foresaw that the death of the dynasties and the end of the empires was to be so quickly succeeded by the day of the dictator.