An American in Paris

On the eve of Donald Trump’s arrival in Paris,

Mike Ungersma recalls the first visit by an American President

His achievements were many –

  • The first President to visit Europe while in office
  • The first President with an earned doctorate degree
  • The first President to hold press regular conferences
  • The first President to win the Nobel Peace Prize

We cannot be certain of how President Trump will be received in the French capital on Friday July 14 – Bastille Day – but we know exactly how Woodrow Wilson was greeted.  From the moment in December of 1918 his party arrived in Brest aboard the former German passenger ship renamed SS George Washington, to his arrival in Paris for the talks at Versailles among the victorious Allies, Wilson had become an international hero.

When the President disembarked at Brest on December 13, he met sunny streets lined with flags and laurel wreaths, listened to the warm drone of Breton bagpipes filling the air, and heard shouts of “Vive Amerique! Vive Wilson!” echoing above the crowd.  Huge numbers of people, many resplendent in their traditional Breton costumes, covered every inch of pavement, every roof, every tree.  Even the lampposts were taken.

Margaret MacMillan, Six Months That Changed the World

The ‘Six Months’ historian Professor Margaret MacMillan refers to represents a time today’s ‘jet age’ politicians would find extraordinary.  After appointing himself and three other members of his Administration official delegates to the Paris gathering, Wilson said he wanted to focus on ‘Big Picture’ ideals at the meeting, and not get bogged down in details.  But bogged down he became, so much so that apart from a brief return to the States from mid-February to mid-March, Wilson stayed in Paris for an amazing six months.

Perhaps no other American President before or since has enjoyed such international popularity.  It arose because of Wilson’s appealing if scholarly idealism and the eloquent and visionary promises he made as he reluctantly led the United States into a war that was to – in his words – “make the world safe for Democracy”.  The hopes and aspirations of literally millions rested on Wilson.  His reticence to become involved was summed up in his insistence that the U.S. was not an ‘ally’ of the British and French in the conflict; it was an ‘associate’.  But once committed, Wilson became an uncompromising and determined statesman who, while regarded dismissively as naive by many European leaders, was seen as a saviour to those who had suffered the ravages of the world’s first global war.

It is worth remembering what had taken place in those awful four years leading up to the peace conference.  Professor MacMillan, whose new book, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, is published in August, told a Canadian interviewer:

. . . we still don’t know what to make of it. We’re still horrified by the loss, by the sense that it may have all been a mistake, by the sheer waste, and by what happened afterward. Nothing much was settled, it helped to brutalize European society, to breed ideologies like fascism and Bolshevism, to prepare the way for the horrors that came in the 1920s and 1930s and the Second World War. It’s also a war that created the modern world. It had its greatest impact on Europe, of course, but it shaped Canada and Australia, helped to speed the rise of the United States to superpower status, and redrew the map of much of the world. It was a watershed that remains one of the greatest historical puzzles.

Donald Trump, invited by President Emmanuel Macron to watch as American soldiers parade with their French counterparts down the Champs-Elysées, will in a sense become a ‘bookend’ to his respected predecessor.  One hundred years will have passed by then, commemorating the entry of the U.S. into what Professor MacMillan and many other historians regard as Europe’s first ‘civil war’.  It was an occasion poignantly marked by General John J Pershing’s declaration before the tomb of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis of LaFayette: “LaFayette, nous sommes ici” –  “LaFayette, we are here”.  Pershing, made commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force by Wilson, was acknowledging an old debt about to be repaid to the French soldier and statesman who had hugely assisted America in its War of Independence against the British.

If, as some argue, President Trump is ill-prepared for the vagaries and intricacies of international diplomacy, none of these shortcomings applied to Wilson.  Well into his second term, Wilson had the mind and manner of an academic and an intellectual.  The author of four scholarly books on American history and government, he already had one war ‘under his belt’ before he faced the consequences of the European conflagration.

Ironically, given President Trump’s insistence on building a “big, beautiful wall” along America’s lengthy border with Mexico, a century earlier Wilson had taken a far more aggressive approach to the United States’ southern neighbour.  He assumed office during the Mexican Revolution, and didn’t like the outcome – the victory of Victoriano Huerta.  Demanding democratic elections to replace what he rather indelicately called a “government of butchers,” Wilson showed no hesitation in interfering with the affairs of Mexico and other regimes in Latin America.  Indeed, when Huerta arrested a handful of U.S. sailors in the port of Tampico, Wilson sent the navy to occupy Veracruz.  War was averted, but there was more to come.

A new threat had arisen from ‘South of the Border’ –  Pancho Villa.  In the turmoil, Huerta had fled the country, and a new leader – Venustiano Carrranza – had taken control.  It was a signal to his subordinate, Villa, to act.  He raided a town in New Mexico, now part of the U.S., killing several Americans.  Wilson reacted with fury, ordering General Pershing – then virtually unknown – to cross the border with 4,000 troops.  It was the beginning of a campaign that would hugely boost Pershing’s profile, lead to more violence, and ultimately to negotiations between the two countries.  As the war in Europe entered its second year, threatening to suck in the U.S., Wilson moved to end the Mexican adventure, recognized Carranza’s government, and turned his attention east, across the Atlantic.[i]  He was about to abandon his policy of neutrality for a crusade.

Pershing’s arrival in Europe turned the tide.  Although he came with only 14,000 troops, their numbers would soon swell to a million, and with them incalculable amounts of American military hardware.  While late to participate in the conflict, the American presence was critical.  Military historian Edward M Coffman:

. . .beginning September 12, 1918, Pershing commanded the U.S. First Army, comprising seven divisions and more than 500,000 men, in the largest offensive operation ever undertaken by United States armed forces. This successful offensive was followed by the Meuse-Argonne offensive, lasting from September 26 to November 11, 1918, during which Pershing commanded more than one million American and French combatants. In these two military operations, Allied forces recovered more than 200 sq mi (488 km2) of French territory from the German army. By the time the Armistice had suspended all combat on November 11, 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces had evolved into a modern, combat-tested army.

Edward M Coffman, The War to End All Wars: American  Military Experience in WWI (1998)

Whatever Wilson brought to the table in Paris, less than a month after the war had ended, it was not a lack of experience.   While President Trump has had his challenge in the form of Vladimir Putin, Wilson faced two wily and well-rehearsed politicians – Britain’s Lloyd George and the French Premier Georges Clemenceau.  Neither were adverse to ‘backroom’ deals.  Moreover, Wilson confronted a staggering array of representatives from virtually every national group in Europe and beyond – and there were dozens.  All expected a hearing from the author of the new doctrine of ‘Self Determination’ – what they saw as a sacred text.  From Arab chieftains to Balkans revolutionaries, and even the man who was to later become Ho Chi Minh – the lobbies of the Versailles Palace were crowded.  All had huge expectations of Wilson. It would not end well.

Wilson had already expressed some doubts – privately.  He realized what awaited him in Paris while still on board the George Washington, steaming toward Brest.  He told George Creel, America’s first propaganda chief, “whether you have not unconsciously spun a net for me from which there is no escape . . .what I seem to see – with all my heart I hope that I am wrong – is a tragedy of disappointment.”  It was to be a prescient remark. Nothing was to go to plan in the talks that followed.

Wilson finally left Paris in the summer of 1918, ill and profoundly disappointed at his own failure. The French and the British had carved up the Middle East, imposed crippling sanctions on a defeated enemy, presented Germany with reparations the country could not meet, retained and strengthened their colonial possessions, all of which set the stage for the tragic drama that was to playout for virtually the remainder of the century.  Few of those who had lobbied the conference achieved anything – leaders of the Arab revolt in the desert, Polish nationalists in Warsaw, rebels in the Greek islands, Koreans trying to shake off Japan’s control – all failed.  And they blamed Wilson.

In his only break from the deliberations in France – his brief return to Washington in February – Wilson knew he was grappling with the flames he himself had ignited.  He told Congress:

Well-defined national aspirations should be satisfied without introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would likely in time to break the peace of Europe, and consequently of the world.

In contrast to the present occupant of the White House, Wilson had no hesitancy in admitting to his own ignorance and failings.  The next year he told Congress: “When I gave utterance to those words – all nations had the right to self-determination, I said them without the knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day.”  In fairness, Wilson cannot be held responsible for the surge of European nationalism – Marx had railed against it more than a half-century before, and, correctly predicted its eventual outcome.  Nor can he be be blamed for the behind-the-scene machinations of the British and the French.  Wilson had unwittingly become the focus of the aspirations of millions.  He – in his idealistic innocence – had given it voice.

And the League of Nations, the other major strand of Woodrow Wilson’s dream?  The League was to be a new and pioneering way of managing the affairs of the world’s nations.  He believed the balance of power did not work.  Nor should there be a vindictive settlement to the war – no retribution, unjust claims, indemnities and fines.  Ironically, there would be all of this but no League of Nations with American participation, Congress saw to that.  Wilson’s fault? He certainly had not brought Congress along, especially his Republican opponents whom he had intentionally slighted even though many supported his goals in Paris.  Meanwhile, his illness worsened – some thought he had suffered a stroke while in Paris – leaving his vision lacking its author and chief supporter.  His wife, Edith, became virtually thede facto President during his long absences as he lay isolated in his sick bed.

Today, in contemplating the legacy of Wilson, the list of the President’s critics is long, some savage in their condemnation.  Sigmund Freud: “. . . the impression of the method of Christian Science applied to politics.”  Or this scathing comment by economist Maynard Keynes, a British adviser at Versailles:

He (Wilson) could not, all in a minute, take in what the rest were saying, size up the situation with a glance, frame a reply, and meet the case by a slight change of ground; and he was liable, therefore, to defeat by the mere swiftness, apprehension, and agility of a Lloyd George. There can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent than the President in the agilities of the council chamber.

John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of Peace (1919)

Thursday night, before the annual celebrations to mark France’s most important national holiday, Emmanuel Macron will treat Donald Trump to dinner in what some regard as the finest restaurant in the French capital, the Jules Verne on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.  As they gaze out from a facility that allows probably the best views of the ‘City of Light’, one wonders if the ‘War to End All Wars’ will even be mentioned.  Certainly the Wilson legacy is unlikely to be a topic.

Let the last word be his, this dreamer, this romantic who became President:

We grow great by dreams. All big men are dreamers. They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter’s evening. Some of us let these dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which comes always to those who sincerely hope that their dreams will come true.

[i] This skirmish with Mexico had more than one bizarre result.  Not only did it provide the U.S. Cavalry with one of its last chances for a mounted charge, it also produced the notorious Zimmermann Telegram.  In January of 1917, British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico, von Eckhardt, offering United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. This message helped draw the United States into the war and thus changed the course of history. The telegram had such an impact on American opinion that, according to David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, “No other single cryptanalysis has had such enormous consequences.” (U.S. National Archives)


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