America's Responsibility to Germany


NOT many weeks ago a gasp of shocked amazement was evoked by the news that the German Embassy in Washington had failed to place its flag at half-mast, following the death of Woodrow Wilson. Most of us, perhaps, shrugged our shoulders. This was merely a fresh manifestation of German political psychology, all serious hope of analyzing which we had abandoned during the war. Others, more curious and more intelligent, sought a reasonable explanation for this act of political gaucherie, one which some might argue betrayed a persistent moral obliquity. The result of the search was quite insufficient to explain an inexcusable breach of international manners. But the investigation was not without its value, for it revealed to America a mass of German opinion, little appreciated here, which is likely to be of some political and certain to be of very great historical importance.

The Germans, it seems, are almost universally convinced that they were betrayed by President Wilson, who assumed towards them as a people a responsibility which he was later either unable or unwilling to liquidate. They point to his assurances that America and the Entente Powers were not fighting against the German people, but against their irresponsible rulers; that the purpose of the war was to liberate the Germans as well as all enslaved peoples; that if they would of their own accord remove the militaristic menace lodged in their Imperial system, they might be certain of a peace of justice.

They point further to the fact that, lured to lay down their arms by such assurances, dismissing first Ludendorff and then the Kaiser, fulfilling all of Wilson’s conditions, they trustfully confided themselves to the President’s safekeeping, only to be summarily deposited in the tigerish grip of the French. The Peace of Versailles, they maintain, was exactly the sort of peace they might have expected if they had disregarded every one of Wilson’s injunctions, the sort of peace which they had feared, the sort of peace which Wilson had promised they should avoid. The responsibility must rest upon his shoulders.

The charge is sufficiently serious to deserve critical study, and there is enough truth in it and in some of its implications to account for a wide acceptance on the part of a people seeking some exterior cause for the misfortunes into which they have fallen. Its very plausibility is enough to trouble historians who, in the interests of their calling, are anxious to prevent the creation of a myth which later may be difficult to destroy. As citizens, furthermore, we cannot remain indifferent to the charge of a responsibility which, if it is real, we ought to assume, but with which if unreal, in all fairness, we should not be burdened.

That President Wilson publicly made a distinction between German rulers and the German people is established fact. ‘We are glad,’ he said in his speech of April 2, 1917, asking for a declaration that war existed, ‘to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German people included.’ It is equally a fact that he called for a peace of justice, which he defined in his Fourteen Points, and which in his speech of September 27, 1918, he declared ‘must involve no discrimination between those to whom we wish to be just and those to whom we do not wish to be just. It must be a justice that plays no favorites.’

At the time, the distinction he made between German rulers and people was often bitterly criticized. We ought, I think, to realize that the President’s policy proceeded from no special softness in his heart for Germany. There is ample evidence to show that he had been deeply stirred by the invasion of Belgium in 1914 and by German methods of warfare. At the very moment when Wilson was being accused of blindness to the issues raised by the war, in September 1914, and when accusations of his pro-Germanism were common, his friend and adviser, Colonel House, made a record of a significant conversation. Mr. Wilson was at his summer home in Cornish, where the Colonel visited him.

‘The President,’wrote the latter, ‘spoke with deep feeling of the war. He said it made him heartsick to think how near we had come to averting this great disaster, and he thought if it had been delayed a little longer it could never have happened, because the nations would have gotten together in the way we had outlined.

‘He felt deeply the destruction of Louvain, and I found him as unsympathetic with the German attitude as is the balance of America. He goes even further than I in his condemnation of Germany’s part in this war and almost allows his feelings to include the German people as a whole rather than the leaders alone. He said German philosophy was essentially selfish and lacking in spirituality. When I spoke of the Kaiser building up the German war machine as a means of maintaining peace, he said: “What a foolish thing it was to create a powder magazine and risk someone’s dropping a match into it.” . . . He was particularly scornful of Germany’s disregard of the Belgian treaty as being only a scrap of paper.'

Nor was Wilson under any illusions as to the German manœuvres for peace during the early years of the war. He realized that the Imperial Government would use him or abuse him for their own purposes without any scruple. Colonel House was in too close touch with German methods not to impress this fact upon him. ‘ I am always suspicious of German diplomacy, wrote the Colonel. ‘What they say is not dependable and one has to arrive at their intentions by inverse methods.'

During the long correspondence with Germany concerning submarine outrages, the President at tunes found a difficulty in preserving his patience which, perhaps, few suspected. And he did not hesitate to express to his friends his conviction that the Germans were merely sparring for time. It was no tenderness for them that led him to continue negotiations, but rather his abiding sense of an impelling responsibility to the American people and the world — that he must prevent America from entering the European conflict. As he said in August 1915: ‘Two things are plain to me: 1. The people of this country count on me to keep them out of the war; 2. It would be a calamity to the world at large if we should be drawn actively into the conflict and so deprived of all disinterested influence over the settlement.'


It is important to underline the fact that Wilson’s determination to remain neutral did not proceed from any emotional fondness for Germany; for there are those who insist that his constant readiness to hold out to the German people the possibility of a peace based upon something other than absolute German defeat, after we had entered the war, reflected a ray of personal desire to get something more than bare justice for them. Even after the armistice Mr. Roosevelt intimated in no uncertain terms that the President was too kindly disposed toward Germany, and he urged the Entente Allies to pay no attention to him: ‘Let them impose their common will on the nations responsible for the hideous disaster which has almost wrecked mankind.’ In reality, as Count Bernstorff insists, Mr. Wilson, especially after 1916, had to fight a definite bitterness within himself aroused by German manœuvres; he felt no temptation to be ‘easy on them’; it was as hard for him as for many another American to be just to them. Thus at Paris, in conference with his advisers, he said: ‘I have no desire to soften the treaty, but I have a very sincere desire to alter those portions of it that are shown to be unjust.’ And again: ‘I think it profitable that a nation should learn once and for all what an unjust war means in itself.’

Wilson’s war attitude toward Germany was dictated by policy and not by sentiment. Like all sound war diplomacy, it had an immediate and an ultimate purpose. In the first place, by insisting that so long as the German people continued the war under the leadership of the Imperialists they must expect utter defeat and no quarter, and by holding out the prospect of fair terms if they would yield, he designed to break their fighting spirit. In the second place, he hoped to commit our associates in the war to a peace of justice, restraining their desire to annihilate Germany as an economic and political power in Europe; thus he trusted to secure a permanent settlement based upon the most complete sense of reconciliation possible.

This was a policy fairly obvious but difficult of execution, and it was carried through with some degree of skill, He planned to use it to secure the defeat of Germany, and then to save Germany from some of the traditional effects of defeat. It was a policy that demanded the utilization of both persuasion and threats. He must hold out to the German people the attractions of an early and a comparatively mild peace; he must picture equally the disasters they would face if they refused his invitation. If the Germans insisted upon making force alone the deciding factor, then he would accept the challenge and they must abide the issue: ‘There is, therefore, but one response possible from us: Force, Force to the utmost, Force without stint or limit, the righteous and triumphant Force which shall make Right the law of the world and cast every selfish dominion down in the dust.’

To the President’s friend and adviser, Colonel House, must go great credit both for the inception and the development of this policy. It was a task for which his fine diplomatic hand was well suited, for the understanding of which he had ample information, and the importance of which he always emphasized. We find him accepting gladly the advice given him by a well-informed correspondent in Switzerland, Carl W. Ackerman: ‘The solution is: War, relentless war with armies and speeches against the German War Government, but peace with the democratic, or reform, peace forces.’ The relation of this policy to the military victory Colonel House continually placed before President Wilson. We may quote from a memorandum which he made in September 1918: ‘I had a good opportunity of giving him [President Wilson] a talk about the necessity of fighting Germany from within as well as from without; that it was as much a part of military tactics to do this as it was to handle the armies in the field. He assented. . . . I took the opportunity to tell him that the German military situation was not so bad, but that the situation was much worse behind the lines and our every effort should be to aid our armies by diplomacy.’

The close relations of Colonel House with the British leaders, furthermore, made possible British understanding of and coöperation with Mr. Wilson’s policy. In the spring of 1917, during the visit of the British war mission, the Colonel discussed with Mr. Balfour and his secretary, Sir Eric Drummond, both war aims and war methods. ‘I convinced Drummond,’ House wrote to the President, May 20, 1917, ‘that the most effective thing we could do at present was to aid the German Liberals in their fight against the German Government. The idea is for you to say at a proper time and occasion, that the Allies are ready at any moment to treat with the German people, but they are not ready to treat with a military autocracy — an autocracy which they feel is responsible for the troubles that now beset the world. Both Drummond and I think that care should be used not to include the Kaiser. He has a very strong following in Germany, and if he is shorn of his power . . . he could be rendered harmless. In not designating the Kaiser, the hands of the Liberals will be strengthened because there is an element in Germany that would like to see a democratized Germany under a limited monarchy. The situation in Russia will accentuate the feeling that it is better not to make too violent a change from an autocracy to a republic.’

Drummondand House finally reached a definite understanding as to the attitude which the two Governments should take toward the German people, and the British stood committed, at least unofficially, to an approval of the President’s policy.

Later the British propaganda service directed by Lord Northcliffe, who kept in close relations with the Colonel, bent its energies toward distributing by airplane the President’s speeches. The work was done with intelligence and care. Colonel House kept in close touch with German-Americans, and took from them the ideas which German Liberals in the Fatherland were agitating; these he passed on to Mr. Wilson who incorporated them in his speeches. ‘Karl von Wiegand was one of my callers,’ wrote Colonel House on February 7, 1918. ‘I got information from him concerning the German frame of mind and how best to foment trouble between the Liberals and Imperialists in Germany. I am particularly anxious for such information now because of the President’s forthcoming address.’ Thus, when German phrases and doctrines returned to Germany by way of Wilson’s speeches, the Liberals greeted them cordially and as old friends. ‘Self-determination,’ for example, was a term originally made in Germany, and taken over by the Russians. Its use by the President did much to endear him to the German Social Democrats who had themselves coined it.

At times Colonel House found even Mr. Wilson ready to be caught by the prevailing war spirit and unwilling to restrict himself within the verbal bounds necessitated by the policy of friendliness toward the anti-imperialist elements in Germany. Thus the President was inclined to deliver a decided rebuff to the Pope’s appeal for peace in August 1917, or to return no reply whatever. He was persuaded, however, to utilize the opportunity for a fresh attack upon Ludendorff and a fresh invitation to the German people. ‘We cannot take the word of the present rulers of Germany,’ he said on this occasion, ‘as a guarantee of anything that is to endure, unless explicitly supported by such conclusive evidence of the will and purpose of the German people themselves as the other peoples of the world would be justified in accepting.’

There is an Italian delicacy in this phrasing, some explanation of which may be found in Colonel House’s letter regarding negotiations with Drummond, quoted above. Wilson did not demand a republic, for which Germany was not then prepared; all that he asked was a government responsible to the people, which was the very thing that they themselves were insisting upon. Equally skillful was the stress which he laid upon the fact that they need not fear, in case they should yield, the political and economic vengeance which certain Allied leaders were then threatening: ‘Punitive damages, the dismemberment of empires, the establishment of selfish and exclusive economic leagues, we deem inexpedient.’


To assess accurately the effects of the Wilsonian doctrines upon German morale is impossible. The part they played in the final victory must always remain a matter of doubt and opinion. That they did not touch the rulers of Germany until the hour of military defeat is obvious; that in the meantime they had exerted a subtly corrosive influence upon the German masses is asserted generally by those who were in a position to know. Who can determine with any exactness the character of the defeat of Germany? It was manifested upon the field of battle by the retreat of the German armies, and on the face of it the decision finally attained was a military decision. The laurels of Foch and his paladins are secure.

And yet, it is equally clear that there were many factors not strictly military, which contributed directly to the military victory. The economic pressure upon the German people and armies cannot be forgotten. The generals reported that their soldiers left the ranks in France in search of food. In Germany, Scheidemann stated that everywhere workingmen were beginning to say, ‘ Better a terrible end than terrors without end.’ And there is ample evidence that, long before the German attack of July 1918 failed, and Foch began his counter-offensive, the spirit of the people had been seriously touched by the pacifist propagandists, who almost invariably used arguments based upon Wilson’s appeals. Henry Crosby Emery, then a prisoner in Germany, has stated that in June he found the shopkeepers and professional classes convinced that all hope of military victory had vanished and that the only possibility of avoiding complete disaster lay in utilizing Wilson as intercessor with the Allies, before the chance disappeared.

General Ludendorff may be cited as a witness to the effect of declining morale at home upon the ability of the army to carry through the campaign of 1918, both in its offensive and its defensive phases. He wanted soldiers with which to support his great attacks of March and April: ‘More recruits could have been raised,’ he says, ‘if the fighting spirit had been stronger at home. It was on this spirit that the ultimate decision depended — but it failed.’ And again he complains that while he was whipping up the spirit of his troops, ‘nothing had been done to strengthen the warlike spirit at home. . . . The large mass of the people was unaffected, caught in the toils of enemy propaganda. . . . The nation could no longer brace the nerves of the army; it was already devouring its marrow.’ And in April 1918, before the drive upon the Chemin des Dames: ‘I had many conversations with officers of all ranks and they all complained of the tired and discontented spirit which was being brought into the army from home. The leave-men had all been exposed to the influence of agitators, and the new drafts had a bad influence on discipline. All this was lowering the fighting value of the army. . . . It has always been an article of my creed that army and people have but one body and one soul and that the army cannot remain sound forever if the people is diseased.’ We must remind ourselves that this was while the German armies were still triumphant, before the successful advance upon the Marne, more than two months before the British victories of August, which Ludendorff notes as beginning the ‘last phase.’

The very difficulty of determining to what degree Germany’s defeat was purely military in character and how far it resulted from other factors, indirect perhaps, but of indubitable significance, has given rise to a controversy which is apparently closely connected with the question of responsibility. There are those who lay stress upon the military victories of Foch, except for which, as they assert, there would have been no revolution and no yielding to an acceptance of Wilsonian principles. Wilson’s assurances of a just peace, they aver, are irrelevant since they were premised upon an early surrender; Wilson himself had stipulated that, if the Germans held to their Imperialist masters, they could expect nothing but force, without stint or limit. It was not until the war was irretrievably lost that they ‘clutched at the Fourteen Points like drowning men at a straw.’

Those who hold this opinion quote Bernstorff, as they might have quoted other German civilians anxious to place the blame upon the military leaders. The former Ambassador states distinctly that the Germans did not lay down their arms through any love for the Fourteen Points. ‘This is a falsification of history,’ says von Bernstorff, ‘as everyone knows who was present at the negotiations. We laid down our arms because Army Headquarters urgently asked it to avoid catastrophe, and only then we called for President Wilson’s help in connection with his Fourteen Points.’ If this is true, so argue many American editors and so Bernstorff admits, there can be no question of a betrayal of Germany by President Wilson, since Germany was already defeated and helpless when she asked for an armistice; and whatever terms might be granted her would be in the nature of grace and by no means in fulfillment of an obligation.

On the other hand there are those, and in Germany their name is legion, fully convinced that the German Government yielded in accordance with Wilson’s promises and while the army was yet undefeated in the field. They quote Ludendorff (certainly not himself entirely unprejudiced since he is anxious to transfer the blame for the catastrophe to the shoulders of the civil leaders) to show that the military force was still ready and able to continue the struggle when Prince Max agreed to the conditions laid down by President Wilson in his notes preceding the armistice. Ludendorff asserts that on October 17, discussing Wilson’s note asking whether Germany had really democratized her government, he told the Chancellor that the case of the army was far from hopeless. ‘Of the Western front I repeated what I had said on October 10: “I regard a break-through as possible, but not probable. If you ask me on my conscience, I can only answer that I do not expect it.”. . . Our troops had done what we expected of them. The enemy’s strength in attack seemed to be falling off. The majority of the German people were ready and willing to sacrifice the last of their strength to the army and it was the duty of the Government to carry out this sacrifice.’

The Government, however, refused to accept the demand of Ludendorff for a final appeal to the people and a last-ditch stand, which, so the General asserted, might save the Fatherland. ‘Part of war is luck,’ he told the Government, ‘and luck may come Germany’s way again.’ Instead, they decided to accept the conditions laid down by Wilson’s notes. Hence, according to the current theory in Germany, the responsibility rested on Mr. Wilson to fulfill the conditions in the final settlement. His failure so to do, the Germans insist, constitutes a betrayal.


Fortunately in this welter of opinion there is one definite fact to which we can tie. What Mr. Wilson offered Germany in his October notes, in answer to their request for an armistice, was not peace or even an armistice, but merely the privilege of applying to the Allies for an armistice. Thus, in his note of October 23, the President, acknowledging Germany’s assurance that she accepts unreservedly his peace terms, says merely: ‘The President of the United States feels that he cannot decline to take up with the Governments with which the Government of the United States is associated the question of an armistice.’

Not until November 5 was any definite offer made to Germany of an armistice or peace. On that date Mr. Wilson sent to Berlin a note stating that he had transmitted to the Allied Governments his correspondence with Germany; and that he had suggested that, if they were disposed to accept peace upon the terms and principles indicated, their military advisers and those of the United States be asked to submit the necessary terms of ‘such an armistice as would fully protect the interests of the peoples involved and ensure to the associated Governments the unrestricted power to safeguard and enforce the details of the peace to which the German Government has agreed, provided they deem such an armistice possible from the military point of view.’ In view of the agreement (with qualifications) of the Allied Governments, Mr. Wilson further informed the Germans that Marshal Foch would receive their accredited representatives and communicate the terms of an armistice.

This note is of vital importance. ‘It constitutes the formal and written offer of the Allied and Associated States to conclude with Germany (a) an armistice convention, and (b) a treaty of peace. This offer, it is conceived, was accepted by Germany by the act of sending representatives through military channels, to meet Marshal Foch for the purpose of arranging an armistice. By the acceptance of the offer a solemn Agreement was reached which served, both morally and legally, as the basis of the armistice convention and the treaty of peace.’1

The note of November 5 contains the text of the memorandum of observations by the Allied Governments on the correspondence between President Wilson and Gennany. In this memorandum those Governments ‘declare their willingness to make peace with the Government of Germany on the terms of peace laid down in the President’s Address of January 8, 1918 [the Fourteen Points], and the principles of settlement enunciated in his subsequent Addresses,’ subject to two qualifications. These reserve complete liberty as regards the ‘freedom of the seas,’ and interpret ‘restoration of invaded territory’ as meaning that ‘compensation will be made by Gennany for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea, and from the air.’ To these qualifications President Wilson agreed.

Both the Allied and Associated Powers and the Germans accepted this pre-armistice agreement as the basis of the peace. The protests of the German delegation against the Versailles Treaty in May 1919 were based upon their allegation that the Treaty was not in accord with the principles of the agreement. The Allied and Associated Powers, although they denied the validity of the allegation, explicitly acknowledged the validity of the basis: ‘The Allied and Associated Powers are in complete accord with the German delegation in their insistence that the basis for the negotiation of the treaty of peace is to be found in the correspondence which immediately preceded the signing of the Armistice of November 11, 1918.’2

Great credit again must be assigned to Colonel House for his services in the attainment of unanimity among the Allied and Associated Powers in laying down the pre-armistice conditions. The representatives of France, Great

Britain, and Italy were loath to accept the Fourteen Points and it was only by dint of the exercise of his most persuasive faculties, not unmixed with the sort of threats which that astute diplomat knew how to make without ruffling the temper of his colleagues, that he finally secured their adhesion. It was the fulfillment of Wilson’s policy, which had aimed at first breaking Germany’s morale and then winning the European Powers to the plan of a peace of reconciliation based on Wilsonian doctrines. The advantage to Germany was obvious, and at the time Germans rejoiced that the Entente, as well as the United States, had committed themselves by the agreement. As Bernstorff later wrote, ‘We got by it a moral right.’ He might have added, a legal right.


Germany thus surrendered, not unconditionally nor upon the basis of vague promises and assurances made by President Wilson, but upon the basis of a formal agreement with the Allied and Associated Powers. It is true that the content of the agreement was nothing other than the principles enunciated by Mr. Wilson, modified slightly by two reservations. But responsibility rested not upon the President, who had not entered into any separate agreement with Germany, but upon the Allied and Associated Powers. Insofar as he had previously incurred any moral responsibility in the assurances given the Germans, that responsibility was now transferred to the Powers, and the German Government by accepting the pre-armistice agreement as the basis of the peace implicitly recognized that fact. As chief of one of the Powers, President Wilson might still be regarded as sharing to that extent the obligations contained in the Note of November 5. But any attempt to place upon his shoulders an undivided responsibility for the fulfillment of such obligations rests upon a distortion of historical fact.

The thesis that Germany was lured into surrender by President Wilson and then betrayed by him into the hands of France can thus hardly be maintained. She laid down her arms, possibly in disregard of the counsel of desperation given by Ludendorff, certainly on the basis of an understanding with all the Allied and Associated Powers. She was warned that the terms would be severe, although she might expect that they would be just insofar as there was justice in the Fourteen Points. The fact that the thesis of betrayal is so widely held in Germany is merely evidence of the extent to which the passions of war and its aftermath can distort intellectual processes.

If one raises the question of the responsibility of all the Powers to Germany, a different and a separate problem must be faced. How far did the Allied and Associated Powers fulfill or evade the obligations of the pre-armistice agreement when they imposed the Versailles Treaty upon Germany? It is a question the answers to which have already filled many volumes. This much may be said for Wilson’s liquidation of America’s share in the joint obligation: it was chiefly through his efforts, and von Bernstorff admits it, that Germany was not permanently despoiled of the Rhineland and Saar; it was due to his firmness that the hideous total of indirect war costs was not added to the bill of indemnity which France and Great Britain desired to present.

There is, indeed, a larger responsibility that rests upon American shoulders of which President Wilson was acutely aware, a moral obligation for the fulfillment of which he strove gallantly to the end. It is not of a legal nature, but he looked upon it as compelling. During the war and in the making of the peace, one principle was assumed as valid by all American leaders: the principle of solidarity with our associates in the war. It was affirmed by Mr. Wilson, it was reaffirmed with equal or greater emphasis by Senator Lodge. We would not desert them during the war nor would we make a separate peace.

That principle of solidarity we destroyed, regardless of the appeals of President Wilson. By our withdrawal before the settlement was complete, before the job was done, we encouraged Germany to evasions and left France in a position where she had no recourse but the exercise of her own force. In deference to the principle of solidarity, France and Great Britain had both made serious concessions, yielding major war aims to the American demand for a peace that pointed the way to a new international order. Such concessions on the part of the Entente were made always upon the assumption of continued American coöperation. America did not fulfill her side of the implied bargain. We left our associates who had carried on the struggle for two and a half years before our entrance into the war, and we made a separate peace with Germany. In this situation is to be found an unfulfilled obligation to those who fought by our side in the war, beside which our responsibility to our late enemy would, in any event, sink to infinitesimal proportions.

  1. TEMPERLEY: A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, I, 382.
  2. Reply of the Allied and Associated Powers to the Observations of the German Delegation on the conditions of peace, p. 2.