What happened, and why, at 1919 peace conference in Paris

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Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, by Arthur Walworth. New York and London: W. W. Norton. 618 pp. $35. World War I, optimistically dubbed the ``war to end all wars'' (it was H. G. Wells who coined the phrase), was concluded by what many people more logically hoped would be the peace to end all wars.

Yet, within two decades of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, World War II had commenced. The interval between the wars was so short and so filled with escalating tensions, and the sequence of events leading from the first to the second so clearly marked with the signs of cause-and-effect, that some historians describe the two as a single world war punctuated by an uneasy lull, like the eye of a hurricane.

As if it were not enough that the Versailles Treaty provided Hitler with valuable ammunition for his rise to power, it has also been suggested that the widespread recognition outside Germany of the anti-German bias of that peace may have impeded the ability of Britain and her allies to understand the true nature of the Nazi threat. This is the thesis recently advanced by A. Lentin in his concise, brilliantly argued book ``Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson and the Guilt of Germany: An Essay in the Pre-History of Appeasement'' (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985). Troubled as they were by their own guilt in dealing harshly with Germany, the Allies failed to realize that the new Germany had now become a potential criminal rather than an injured victim.

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Many books have been written about the Paris Peace Conference, where Woodrow Wilson's great and inspiring ideals became increasingly mired in the mesh of nationalisms and where the seeds of tragedy were sown. ``Wilson and His Peacemakers'' may well be the most complete history of what transpired in the course of those world-shaping, world-shattering negotiations. Comprehensive and astonishingly detailed, it provides a richly textured picture of what happened and why, showing us, day by day, event by event, how the best-laid plans for international cooperation and justice were subverted by nationalism, selfishness, and by Wilson's stiff-necked unwillingness to cooperate -- with other leaders abroad or with Congress at home.

Moving from chapter to chapter, Mr. Walworth sometimes deals with the same meetings as they figure in the discussions of different issues. His treatment is always thorough, providing ready access for the reader who may be delving into a single chapter, while affording the cover-to-cover reader with a subtle and intricate view of the entire process as it was evolving.

Born in 1903, Walworth is the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Wilson and, more recently, a study of ``America's Moment: 1918.'' Although he is not an academic, the meticulous research that has gone into this book is precisely what we expect -- but do not always get -- from an academic historian. Not only does Walworth draw extensively on primary documents, but he has also interviewed and corresponded with many of the men who wrote them. His use of secondary sources is remarkably complete and up-to-date.

Walworth's narrative provides more than a mere ``transparent eyeball'' through which the sights of history flow. He also demonstrates the active virtue of sound judgment, commenting cogently on the history-making people and events.

We all still live in a post-Wilsonian age, and so the consequences of his failure to extend to the entire world what he saw as the ban on aggression that the Monroe Doctrine had fostered in the Western Hemisphere are infinite. And not only his failures haunt us, but also the ideals he promulgated. As Walworth points out, two particularly painful problems in the world today -- the Irish and the Palestinian questions -- are traceable to conflicting passions fueled by that most Wilsonian of doctrines: national self-determination. Before leaving the United States for Paris at the end of 1918, Wilson predicted that his peacemaking would result in ``the greatest success or the supremest tragedy in all history.'' As we contemplate the past seven decades with their awful roll-call of names from Auschwitz to Dresden to Hiroshima, and so many more, we know only too well what his failure has cost the world.

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