Did you ever think that in this last quarter of the last
year of the last century of the second millennium, we’d be debating World War
I? Or that a three-line, four-column front-page headline in The New York Times would contain the
words “Versailles Pact”? Those two words haven’t been featured so prominently
in any American newspaper since the last months of the Woodrow Wilson
Administration. Whatever happened to all that chatter about bridges, tunnels
and other conveyances that would take us from the wreckage of the old century
into the safe harbor of the new?
Pat Buchanan, of course, started all of this retro-brawling
with his curiously timed treatise on the century’s two global conflicts. His
thoughts on World War II garnered the most attention, but he also managed to
start an intellectual street fight with his insistence that America’s entry
into World War I, otherwise known as the war that failed to end all wars, was a
mistake whose unintended consequence was the vengeful peace settlement reached
at Versailles, which in turn contributed to the rise of Nazism and fascism. If
America’s doughboys weren’t sharing breakfasts of fried trench rat with the
British and French, Mr. Buchanan argued (as others have), the exhausted empires
of Europe would have fought to a draw and settled their bloody family quarrel
at the negotiating table. Thus, no Allied triumph, no Treaty of Versailles, no
punishment of Germany, no bitterness in the beer halls of Bavaria, no Hitler.
particularly those who do their research in green rooms, didn’t know what to
make of Mr. Buchanan’s unorthodox though hardly radical analysis, for they are
generally more comfortable discussing such earth-shattering events as
Representative Howie Cheatum’s startling admission that he played spin the
bottle at age 9 with a girl who was not his wife. Confronted with
complexity and substance, they reacted as though Mr. Buchanan somehow were siding with Hitler instead of arguing how Hitlerism might have been averted.
Now, within weeks of the
Buchanan historical dustup, we find ourselves yet again recalling the ghosts of
Flanders fields. The U.S. Senate’s stunning rejection of the Comprehensive Test
Ban Treaty on Oct. 13 was described by The Times as “the most
explicit American repudiation of a major international agreement in 80
years”-since the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles. The historical
reference seemed more than a little frightening. After all, those of us who
were lucky enough to learn history before the discipline was converted into an
exercise in self-esteem were taught that the Senate’s defeat of the Versailles
treaty was one of the most spiteful, parochial and disastrous episodes in the
history of American diplomacy. Lunk-headed Republican isolationists, eager to
stomp on the political grave of the lame-duck Wilson, opposed the treaty for
their own petty purposes and therefore blocked America’s membership in the
fledgling League of Nations. Without America the League was powerless, making
World War II and all its horrors inevitable.
Or so went the story.
In fact, as time has demonstrated, the Treaty of Versailles
was one of the most disastrous documents of the 20th century, a triumphalist
“settlement” that humiliated Weimar Germany and did, in fact, lead to the
discontent that Hitler exploited to win the Chancellorship in 1932. (Post-Cold
War cautionary tale: Do not destabilize and encircle vanquished enemies.)
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and France’s President Georges
Clemenceau indulged the naïve Wilson his little lectures on world peace and
self-determination for some small nations, i.e., small nations within the
defeated German and Austro-Hungarian empires. (Small nations under the control
of Britain, France and America were not included in Wilson’s New World Order.)
While Wilson preached, Lloyd George and Clemenceau
eviscerated Germany, depriving it of natural resources and population centers
while limiting its capacity to rearm. The treaty may have given voice to some
Wilsonian ideals, including the League of Nations, but at its heart it was a
cold-blooded and ruthless piece of political and military vengeance, an example
of Old World politics at its worst.
The difference between the two treaties-Versailles and the
Test Ban-is enormous. The world has, in fact, learned some of the lessons that
a century of assembly-line bloodshed has taught: There are some issues, like
nuclear arms regulation, that are too important to be left to international
brinkmen. Rogue states may very well choose to ignore the proposed ban on
underground tests of nuclear weapons, but presumably they would be subject to
global discipline of the sort that has been visited on Iraq, Yugoslavia and
North Korea in recent years. That’s positively Wilsonian in its idealism, but
now we are in the humiliating position of getting lectures in responsibility
from the Chinese Government.
The Test Ban wasn’t
the Versailles Treaty. That’s why it should have been passed.
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