THE BIG FOUR
AT THE PARIS PEACE CONFERENCE OF 1919
IDS 2213: World Civilization Since the Fifteenth Century
The University of Texas at San Antonio
Robert Lansing (1864-1928), a U.S. Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson,1 was second delegate (to Wilson) on the American negotiating team at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference,2 which followed World War I. In his book The Big Four, and Others of the Peace Conference, published in 1921,3 Lansing gives his impressions of the chief negotiators for the Allies: French Premier Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, and Wilson.
Lansing, described by one historian as a shrewd observer,4 went beyond a mere account of each negotiators remarks at the conference; he gave his thoughts on each mans character, personality, and even outward appearance (suggesting that ones face and bearing are reflections of his or her outlook on the world). Lansing saw the negotiation process as being not at all an objective, methodical presentation of each countrys position by an unbiased representative, but rather as a study in the dynamics and effectiveness of contrasting styles, skills, and worldviews of the various negotiators.
Lansing was a diplomat and as such seemed to make some effort to give a fair and diplomatic assessment of each of the four men; there is in fact some degree of admiration in each of the descriptions. However by reading only slightly below the surface one can detect biases and preferences, and the portion concerning President Wilson is perhaps the most telling in this regard. One might expect Lansing, as an American, to have been patriotic and loyal to the point of agreeing with and supporting his superiors (Wilsons) views and strategies on every issue. This seems not to have been the case. Although Lansing grants that Wilsons ideals are praiseworthy and that the President was perhaps the most well-meaning of the four, the secretary makes a stronger point of his belief that it was Wilsons idealism that made the President less than totally effective as a negotiator.5 The perfunctory nod to Wilsons idealism, followed as it is by a fairly lengthy analysis of his shortcomings (especially in the context of Lansings views of the others present as having strong skills and wills6) seems to be a case of damning with faint praise.
One might question the wisdom, if not the right, of a cabinet member to criticize (however diplomatically) the methods of the President who appointed him and under whom he serves. Though it is true that the memoirs discussed here were published two years after the fact, it remains that Lansing was recalling an assessment he had made at the time of the negotiations. Lansings words seem somewhat condescending, clothed though they are in all due respect.
An examination of the backgrounds of the two men, Lansing and Wilson, sheds some light on this. Both had studied law, and both had experience in professions where they could apply their legal expertise. Nevertheless their career paths previous to their respective positions in the executive branch of government differed in important ways.7,8
Wilson made his mark in academia, and it was an impressive one. Although he briefly attended law school, his graduate degrees (including a doctorate) were in political science. Wilson had several professorships, including one at Princeton in jurisprudence and political economy, and wrote books and articles.9 He could justly be called a leading and esteemed authority.
Lansing, on the other hand, was admitted to the bar, and soon entered public service on the national level as counsel for the State Department. He was an active arbitrator who specialized in international controversies and gained renown for his successful accomplishments.10
When one knows these facts, Lansings attitude towards Wilson seems easier to understand. Lansing seems to be asserting that Wilson may have plenty of book knowledge and possess the lofty ideals that come with being an ivory-tower academician, but that he, Lansing, has been there in the trenches dealing with actual people -- real controversies where he faced others with agendas or selfish motives or maybe just loud voices. Thus Lansing feels qualified to comment on Wilsons performance at the peace conference.
Lansing then reports that the results were as he expected. Wilson came to Paris with his Fourteen Points, a set of guidelines first announced to the U.S. Congress a year earlier, in which he gave his idealistic vision of the postwar world, a world where nations dealt with one another in openness, fairness, and trust, and democracy and self-determination prevailed.11 The other negotiators, more savvy than Wilson, gave the American lip service, according to Lansing; but when it came to actual, tangible results, they managed to manipulate Wilson into compromising his positions without their having to do likewise with their own.12
Other factors could have come into play. One historian notes, At the Paris Peace Conference, Lansing found himself largely ignored by Wilson.13 Lansing, who probably considered himself the more effective negotiator, must have perceived quite a slight that his skills were not only not being used to the full but were being totally wasted. It was later revealed that Lansing did not agree with the formation of the League of Nations,14 which was Wilsons fourteenth point,15 and this and other factors led to Wilsons forcing Lansing to resign as Secretary of State.16 Considering these factors, it is fairly amazing that Lansing wrote as kindly of the President as he did in his memoirs. One may conclude that Lansing, despite his disagreements with Wilson and his misfortunes resulting from their association, still respected the office of the Presidency and understood the importance of writing respectfully of its occupant in a published memoir; he still probably maintained a good deal of admiration for Wilsons principles and intelligence; and possibly was further moved by the fact that by the time the book was published, Wilson, then out of office, was bedridden, the victim of a stroke he suffered late in 1919,17 and harsh words toward him would be unseemly.
Whatever critiques of Wilsons practical skills Lansing may have presented, he never hesitated to emphasize that the Presidents dedication to a spirit of fairness was unwavering.18 The only other principal negotiator Lansing seems to regard as having principles even approaching Wilsons is Vittorio Orlando, the Italian premier and that countrys representative at the Paris talks. Lansing is impressed by Orlandos dignity and pleasant personality, but more than that he waxes quite full of praise with the recognition of a mentality ... trained and developed in the field of jurisprudence, [that] possessed the precision of thought and clearness of expression which are the attributes of a mind accustomed to the exactness of legal expressions19 -- in other words, like his own! Orlandos eventual failure to accomplish a great deal on Italys behalf, Lansing felt, was in no way due to any shortcoming on the Premiers part, but rather owed to circumstances beyond his control, including the other negotiators view that Italy had contributed little to the Allied cause and deserved few of the spoils, and also the simple fact that Italy was less of a political and economic power than Britain, France, or the U.S., and thus had comparatively little clout. Only because of Orlandos skill in debate, his statesmanship, and his keen logical sense, Lansing maintained, did Italy get any sort of a fair hearing at all.20
The two negotiators of the Big Four that did seem to have the most influence were the remaining ones, Britains Lloyd George and Frances Clemenceau. Lansing characterizes both of them as determined and aggressive, less concerned with diplomatic niceties than with getting what they wanted.21 Differences were cited: Clemenceau, an old (77 at the time), grizzled veteran of battles diplomatic and political,22 could listen patiently to lofty declarations of principles and brotherhood, but when his turn came he made it known that as far as he was concerned, people and nations arent to be trusted, and such ideas as Wilsons proposed League of Nations were naive. He tolerated its formation only after he saw to it that, essentially, another alliance of his country with Britain and the U.S. was written into the Paris accords.23 Lloyd George, characterized by Lansing as impulsive to a fault, was the most insistent on making Germany pay, literally and figuratively, for what it had wrought in the war. He claimed that he was bound by promises he had made to the British people and could not compromise.24 (This contrasts with Wilson, who was in essentially the same situation, but made compromises nonetheless.25) Lansing did not feel Lloyd George was a natural negotiator, but that the Prime Minister won points through sheer enthusiasm and forcefulness, quick criticism of others, and good material from his advisors -- and in this manner achieved a great deal of success.26
It seems then that Lansing implicitly made a division of the four leaders into two mutually exclusive categories: those who went to Paris with a spirit of fair play (Wilson and Orlando), and those who were influential (Clemenceau and Lloyd George). If his assessment is accurate, it says a great deal about human nature. If not, it says as much about Mr. Lansing.
A final observation may be in order. Historians James Holoka and Jiu-Hwa Upshur suggest that Wilsons Fourteen Points failed to be adopted.27 In a literal sense, this is true. Certain individual points were specifically voted down and others were modified by the assembled leaders,28 and in most cases it was because of preexisting agreements and promises with which these points came in conflict that such decisions were made.29 Nevertheless, another historian, David Hirst, notes that [o]n the whole ..., the final settlement was nearer the Fourteen Points than Wilson and his major advisors had at first thought possible.30 If Hirst is correct and Wilson was indeed a negotiator who came to the table with a list of desires and came away having exceeded even his own expectations, then perhaps observers, instead of questioning the Presidents negotiating prowess, should have deemed it remarkable.
1 Ferrell, Robert H., Lansing, Robert, in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).
2 Holoka, James P., and Upshur, Jiu-Hwa L., The Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, in Lives and Times: A World History Reader, ed. Holoka and Upshur (St. Paul MN: West Publishing Co., 1995), Volume II, p. 229.
[Hereafter referred to as Big Four at Paris]
3 Lansing, Robert, from The Big Four, and Others of the Peace Conference (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921; reprint, Freeport NY: Books for Libraries, 1972), quoted in Holoka, James P., and Upshur, Jiu-Hwa L., The Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, in Lives and Times: A World History Reader, ed. Holoka and Upshur (St. Paul MN: West Publishing Co., 1995), Volume II, p. 233.
[Hereafter referred to as Big Four, and Others]
4 Holoka and Upshur, Big Four at Paris, in Lives and Times, Vol. II, p. 229.
5 Lansing, Big Four, and Others, quoted in Holoka and Upshur, Big Four at Paris, in Lives and Times, Vol. II, pp. 230-32.
6 Ibid., pp. 230-33.
7 Ferrell, Lansing, in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
8 Hirst, David W., Wilson, Woodrow, in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).
10 Ferrell, Lansing, in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
11 Hirst, David W., Fourteen Points, in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).
12 Lansing, Big Four, and Others, quoted in Holoka and Upshur, Big Four at Paris, in Lives and Times, Vol. II, pp. 230-33.
13 Ferrell, Lansing, in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
15 Hirst, Fourteen Points, in Grolier Multimedia
16 Ferrell, Lansing, in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
17 Hirst, Wilson, in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
18 Lansing, Big Four, and Others, quoted in Holoka and Upshur, Big Four at Paris, in Lives and Times, Vol. II, pp. 230-31.
19 Ibid., pp. 232-33.
20 Ibid., p. 233.
21 Ibid., pp. 230, 232.
22 Ewy, P.M., Clemenceau, Georges, in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).
23 Lansing, Big Four, and Others, quoted in Holoka and Upshur, Big Four at Paris, in Lives and Times, Vol. II, p. 230.
24 Ibid., p. 232.
25 Ibid., p. 231.
26 Ibid., p. 232.
27 Holoka and Upshur, Big Four at Paris, in Lives and Times, Vol. II, p. 230.
28 Hirst, Fourteen Points, in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.
29 Lansing, Big Four, and Others, quoted in Holoka and Upshur, Big Four at Paris, in Lives and Times, Vol. II, pp. 231-2.
30 Hirst, Fourteen Points, in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.