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Britain and the ‘Great Betrayal’: Anglo-American Relations and the Struggle for United States Ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919–1920*

  • George W. Egerton (a1)

Historians have examined in great detail the dramatic debate in American politics over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles which culminated in the physical collapse of President Wilson and the defeat of his peace programme. The failure of Wilson to carry his programme through the United States senate represented also a distinct setback for the peacemaking strategies of the British government whose policies at the peace conference had been based in large measure on the hope that an enduring trans-Atlantic partnership could be established. The British government followed closely the American treaty debate, sending Viscount Grey, the former Liberal foreign secretary, as a special ambassador, and played a significant if unsuccessful role in the outcome of the drama. It is the intention of this article to examine the attitudes and role of the Lloyd George government through the latter part of 1919 and into 1920 with regard to the fate of the Treaty of Versailles in America, and in particular to reassess the part played by Viscount Grey. It is hoped to shed some new light on the dilemmas of foreign policy and defence strategy encountered at this time by Britain and the empire, as well as to elucidate certain aspects of the American struggle. Since the Covenant of the League of Nations lay at the heart of the American fight over the treaty, it is hoped also that new insight will be provided on the uncertain inauguration of the League.

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1 Imperial War Cabinet minutes, I.W.C., 31 Dec. 1918, Cab. 23/42, Public Record Office. Unless otherwise noted, all unpublished documents cited are located in the P.R.O.

2 The ‘Atlanticists’ are analysed in Fry Michael G., Illusions of security: north Atlantic diplomacy, 1918–22 (Toronto, 1972).

3 Cabinet paper P. 53, ‘The settlement’, Dec. 1918, Cab. 29/2; F.O. 371/4353.

4 In a letter of 30 Dec. 1918, Grey privately advised Colonel House, Wilson's political confidante and diplomatic adviser, that the British ‘great fear’ was that ‘a League of Nations Treaty might be wrecked by the Senate in the United States’. Trevelyan G. M., Grey of Fallodon (London, 1937), pp. 348–9.

5 I.W.C., 20 and 31 Dec. 1918, Cab. 23/42.

6 See Nelson H. I., Land and power: British and allied policy on Germany's frontiers, 1916–1919 (Toronto, 1963), pp. 135–6. Balfour advised Lloyd George that Cambon's overtures for an Anglo-French peacemaking cabal against Wilson were ‘insanity’.Balfour to George Lloyd, 29 11 1918, F.O. 800/199.

7 Cabinet paper P. 39, ‘Our policy at the peace conference’, 3 Dec. 1918, Cab. 29/2.

8 Tillman S. P., Anglo-American relations at the peace conference of 1919 (Princeton, 1961), pp. 101–2, 404–5; Nicholas H. G., The United States and Britain (London, 1975), pp. 68–9.

9 For Anglo-American financial and commercial conflict see Kaufman B. I., Efficiency and expansion: foreign trade organization in the Wilson administration, 1913–1921 (Westport, Conn., 1974). PP. 206–54.

10 Egerton G. W., ‘The Lloyd George government and the creation of the League of Nations’, American Historical Review, LXXIX, 2 (1974), pp. 419–44.

11 ‘Towards a national policy’, 17 July 1919, Cab. 21/159.

12 In 1916 Hankey had argued against putting any faith in a peace league led by the politically unreliable Americans who, in any case, were ‘wedded to the almighty dollar’. Hankey to Balfour, 25 05 1916, Balfour papers, British Library, Add. MSS 49704.

13 Kerr to Hankey, 21 07 1919, Lord Lothian papers, Scottish Record Office, GD 40/17/1323.

14 McDonald J., ‘Lloyd George and the search for a postwar naval policy, 1919’, in Taylor A. J. P. (ed.), Lloyd George: twelve essays (London, 1971), pp. 191222.

15 Milner, The Times, 2 08 1919; Esher to Hankey, 14 09 1919; Roskill S., Hankey: man of secrets (3 vols., London, 19701974), 11, 120. Cecil confided to House at this time that the government was ‘not particularly favourable to any such League of Nations as the rest of us have in mind’ but rather wanted ‘one that will give some advantage to the British Empire’. House diary, 22 Aug. 1919, Yale University Library.

16 The instructions and published records of Grey's mission are in Woodward E. L. and Butler R. (eds.), Documents on British foreign policy, 1919–1939, first series, vol. v, 1919 (London, 1954). Unpublished material on the genesis of the mission and Grey's instructions can be found in the Lloyd George papers, House of Lords Record Office, F/12/1/30, 35, F/12/2/2; Curzon papers, India Office Library, F 112/211; and House diary, 14, 24, 28 July, 2, 12 Aug. 1919. Frances Stevenson's later version of the Grey mission that Lloyd George and Clemenceau sent Grey over ‘to tell Wilson that they would have no objection to modifying the Constitution of the League if it would make it easier for Wilson to get the U.S.A. Government to pass it’, is inaccurate. Diary entry of 17 Sept. 1934, in Taylor A. J. P. (ed.), Lloyd George: A diary by Frances Stevenson (London, 1971), p. 277.

17 House was doing all he could to recreate the liaison with Grey of 1915–16, following Grey back to America in direct violation of Wilson's advice, convinced that the president ‘was not a good pilot’. At the same time the Colonel was rigorously denying any break with Wilson. House diary, 12, 28 Aug., 4, 21, 30 Sept. 1919; Wickham Steed to Northcliffe, 19 Aug., 20 Sept. 1919. Wickham Steed papers, Archives of The Times. Steed and Northcliffe were, respectively, editor and proprietor of The Times.

18 Wiseman to Balfour, 1 07 1919, Wiseman papers, Yale University Library, 90–65; also, Wiseman to Sir Ian Malcom, 1 July 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 980–1. Intelligence on the American situation can be found also in F.O. 371/4245, 4371.

19 Wiseman to Foreign Office, 18 07 1919, Wiseman papers, 90–25. Also D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 984–5.

20 Lindsay to Curzon, 29 08 1919, ibid. 994–5.

21 For the tactics of Lodge and the Republicans, see Garraty J. A., Henry Cabot Lodge (New York, 1953), pp. 357401; Mervin D., ‘Henry Cabot Lodge and the League of Nations’, Journal of American Studies, IV, 1 (1970), pp. 201–4; Hewes J- E. Jr., ‘Henry Cabot Lodge and the League of Nations’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, CXIV (1970), 245–55; and Stone R., The irreconcilables: the fight against the League of Nations (Lexington, 1970).

22 The Lodge reservations, with subsequent amendments conveniently noted, are reprinted in Bailey T. A., Woodrow Wilson and the great betrayal (Chicago, 1963), pp. 387–93.

23 Curzon to George Lloyd, 6 08 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/12/1/35. Curzon was acting foreign secretary at this time, replacing Balfour officially in October.

24 Curson to George Lloyd, 17 09 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/12/2/4. Perhaps the suggestion that Grey might meet with failure in America was not without a certain attraction for Lloyd George, for whom Grey was still a potentially dangerous political rival.

25 Grey to George Lloyd, 5 10 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/60/3/7. Perhaps Grey also now sensed the liabilities of the political tangle he faced.

26 Grey to George Lloyd, 6 10 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1003–4.

27 D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1007–13.

28 Curzon to Grey, two telegrams 24 Oct. 1919, ibid. pp. 1011–12.

29 Grey to Curzon, 1 11 1919, ibid. p. 1914.

30 Grey to Curzon, 7 11 1919, ibid. pp. 1018–19, and Grey's detailed dispatch toCurzon 7 Nov. 1919, Curzon papers, F 112/211.

31 Kerr P. H. to Campbell R. H., 30 10 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/12/2/3.

32 Untitled memorandum by C. B. J. Hurst, 2 Nov. 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/12/2/3. Hurst's observations were based on a summary of the American reservations printed in The Times, 24 October 1919.

33 Hurst to Campbell, 4 11 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/12/2/3.

34 Note by Hardinge on Hurst's 4 Nov. letter to Campbell.

35 Hurst to Hardinge Lord, 5 11 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/12/2/3.

36 Curzon to the prime minister, 7 11 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/12/2/3.

37 [P. H. Kerr], ‘Memorandum on American reservations and British ratification of the Treaty of Peace’, 10 Nov. 1919, Lord Lothian papers, GD 40/17/62. Also Lloyd George papers, F/89/4/71.

38 The Times, 12 November 1919, p. 20.

39 Wiseman to Tyrrell, 12 11 1919, Wiseman papers, 90–65; Wiseman to House, 12 Nov. 1919, House papers 12–41.

40 New York Times, 15 November 1919, p. 1; London Times, 14 November, p. 13. See also Kerr's memorandum of 14 Nov. 1919, ‘America and the League of Nations’, which reiterated at length the rationale for a policy of no reservations. Lord Lothian papers, CD 40/17/54.

41 Grayson C. T., Woodrow Wilson (New York, 1960), p. 104.

42 Kerr to prime minister, 15 11 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/89/4/23.

43 Parliamentary debates (Commons), 5th ser., vol. 121, 17 November 1919, p. 689.

44 Willert Arthur, The Times' influential Washington correspondent, was now advising Steed that the time had come ‘to play up to the Republicans’ as they were ‘almost certain to win the next election’. Willert to Steed, 26 11 1919, Willert papers, archives of The Times.

45 New York Times, 18 November 1919, p. 1.

46 Grey to Curzon, 17 11 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1023.

47 Curzon to Grey, 18 11 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1023. In a subsequent letter to Grey, Curzon argued that Milner was very much disturbed at the attitude of the dominions who were ‘pressing hard, in every direction, for something that is indistinguishable from independence’. According to Milner, unless they were handled with the greatest discretion a ‘rupture’ could occur at any time. Curzon to Grey, 22 11 1919, Curzon papers, F 112/211.

48 Grey to Curzon, 14, 25 11 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1021–2, 1037.

49 Grey to Curzon, 26 11 1919, and Curzon's note, ibid. pp. 1038–9.

50 Details on the intriguing Crawford Stuart affair can be found in Lansing to John Davis, American ambassador to Britain, 1 Jan. 1920, John Davis papers, Yale University Library; House diary, 20 Nov., 5, 21 Dec. 1919; Chandler P, Anderson diary, Library of Congress; Lockhard R. H. B., Giants cast long shadows (London, 1960), pp. 76–7; Vansittart R., The mist procession (London, 1958), p. 120; and Willert A., Washington and other memories (Boston, 1972), pp. 110, 136. I am indebted to James E. Hewes, Jr. and Arthur Walworth for information on the Crawford Stuart affair. Perhaps Baruch was anxious to promote Crawford Stuart's departure and therefore made sure the Wilsons were fully informed on the alleged misdemeanours.

51 Grey to Curzon, 2 11 1919, Curzon papers, F 112/211.

52 Grey to George Lloyd, 11 11 1919, Lloyd George papers, F/60/3/18.

53 Grey to Curzon, 23 11 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1034. See also House diary, 23 Nov. 1919.

54 Curzon to Grey, 27 11 1919, ibid. pp. 1040–2.

55 Hurst's 18 Nov. 1919 memorandum was subsequently forwarded to Grey and is printed in ibid. pp. 1024–8. Hurst also drafted Curzon's note to Grey. Kerr to Hurst, 25 Nov. 1919, F.O. 800/158.

56 Curzon to Grey, 27 Nov. 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1042–3; Kerr to Hurst, 25 Nov. 1919, Lothian papers, GD 40/17/211; Polk to Lansing, 29 Nov. 1919, United States, Department of State, Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, 1919, The Paris peace conference (13 vols., Washington, 1942–1947), XI, 675–6.

57 A similar tactic had already occurred to Lansing. Private Memoranda, 22 Oct. 1919, Lansing papers, Library of Congress.

58 Hurst's 18 Nov. memorandum concluded that ‘The existing Covenant of the League of Nations is not by any means an ideal instrument, and if within two years it were possible to substitute an improved and simplified draft for the existing one, it would be a great advantage’.

59 Grey to Curzon, 28 11 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1045. Grey's meeting with Root is noted in the Chandler P. Anderson diary, 27 Nov. 1919.

60 Curzon to Grey, 22 11 1919 (sent about 26 Nov., rec. about 3 Dec.), Curzon papers, F 112/211.

61 Grey to Curzon [6 Dec. 1919], D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1054–5.

62 Willert to Steed, 6 12 1919, Willert papers.

63 House diary, 5 Dec. 1919.

64 Willert to Steed, 6 12 1919, Willert papers; Grey to Steed, 29 12 1919, Steed papers.

65 Willert to Steed, 6, 19 12 1919; Willert to Northcliffe, about 14 12 1919, Willert, Washington, p. 138, and Willert papers.

66 Smuts to prime minister, 29 Nov. 1919, included in Curzon to Grey, 8 12 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1056–7.

67 Drummond Eric to Fosdick Raymond [15 12 1919], Fosdick R., Letters on the League of Nations: from the files of Raymond B. Fosdick (Princeton, 1966), pp. 82–3. Fosdick was the American under secretary-general of the League until his resignation in Jan. 1920.

68 Bliss's memorandum began as ‘An imaginary letter to two prime ministers’, composed on 2 Dec. after conversations with a French journalist close to Clemenceau. It was given to Polk on 3 Dec. for purposes of talks with Clemenceau, then shown on 5 Dec. to Derby, the British ambassador to France, who tried unsuccessfully to have Bliss send a copy to Curzon. After amendment it was communicated on 8 Dec. to John Davis, the American ambassador to Britain. No copy of the memorandum appears to have been given directly to the British government by the Americans, but a copy was given to Clemenceau, probably by Polk. Bliss to Polk, 3 Dec. 1919, Polk papers, Yale University Library, 74/35; Derby to Curzon, 5, 16 Dec. and Bliss to Derby, 6 Dec. 1919, Curzon papers, F 112/196; Bliss to Davis, 8 Dec. 1919, Davis papers, 4/170. See also Bliss papers, Library of Congress, Box 71, for varying drafts of his ‘Imaginary letter’, and Palmer, Bliss, peacemaker: the life and letters of General Tosher Howard Bliss (New York, 1934), pp. 422–7. The memorandum, author unidentified, is reprinted in D.B.F.P., first ser., II, 766–70.

69 ‘Pour ratification américain du traité: suggestion d'une déclaration franco-Anglais [sic] acceptant 10 ou 11 des 14 Réserves du Sénat américain, à condition que les trois ou quatre réserves incompatibles avec le traité disparaissent’, 9 December 1919, F.O. 371/4251. See also Sterling R., ‘Memo on paper commt. by M. Clemenceau’, F.O. 371/4251.

70 Hewes, ‘Lodge’, p. 254; Grey to Curzon, 23 11 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 851–2.

71 According to Lodge, he had ‘many talks’ with Grey whose stay in America had taught him that the treaty contest was not simply a matter of partisan politics but involved a ‘great Constitutional question’ as between the executive and congress. Lodge to George Otto Trevelyan, 19 Jan. 1920, cited in Garraty, Lodge, p. 387. Guarding their absolute secrecy, Grey made no mention of exchanges with Lodge in any of his official or private communications. See also House diary, 20 Nov. 1919, and New York Times, 2 February 1920, p. 1.

72 Lodge to Anderson Chandler P., 6 12 1919, Anderson papers.

73 Grey's three telegrams to Curzon were received 12 Dec., D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1059–61.

74 International Conference, I.C.P., 13 Dec. 1919, Cab. 29/81. Also D.B.F.F., first ser., II. 753–4.

75 Parliamentary Debates (Commons), 5th ser., vol. 12, 18 December 1919, pp. 727–8.

76 Ibid. pp. 733–5.

77 Ibid. pp. 767–72.

78 Grey to Curzon, 24 12 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., v, 1064.

79 New York Times, 28 December 1919, p. 1; London Times, 29 December 1919, p. 10.

80 Steed to Northcliffe, 16 01 1920, Steed papers.

81 Kerr to Drummond, 18 12 1919, Lothian papers, G.D. 40/17/56.

82 League of Nations, Official Journal, 1, 02 1920, ‘Proces-Verbal of the First Meeting of the Council of the League of Nations’, 16 January 1920, pp. 20–2.

83 Stone, Irreconcilables, pp. 154–60.

84 Grey held up publication of the letter while senate negotiations continued, not wishing ‘to seem to play into the hands of Lodge’. Steed to Northcliffe, 18 Jan. 1920, Steed papers. Publication followed immediately upon news that the senate talks had failed.

85 Grey's letter, which probably came as no surprise to Lodge, was generally viewed as being officially inspired despite Lloyd George's public and private disclaimers of any responsibility or foreknowledge. Davis to Lansing, 6 Feb. 1920, Lansing papers, container 51; New York Times, 6 Feb. 1920; London Times, 6, 7 Feb. 1920. Most historians of the topic, including Bailey, Garraty, Stone and Boothe L. E., ‘A fettered envoy: Lord Grey's mission to the United States, 1919–1920’, Review of Politics, XXXIII, 1 (1971), pp. 7894, have portrayed Grey's letter as having his government's secret support. The available evidence shows that those most closely involved in the drafting of the letter included several Republicans in America, and Cecil, Steed and Northcliffe in Britain who, in fact, were attempting to have Grey resume a political career in the hope of dishing Lloyd George. Hammond J. H., The autobiography of John Hays Hammond (2 vols. New York, 1935), 11, 649–53; Steed to Northcliffe, 16 01, 10 Feb. 1920, Steed to House, 11 Feb. 1920, Steed papers; The history of The Times (4 vols., London, 1952), IV, 118–19; Robbins K., Sir Edward Grey (London, 1971), p. 355. Grey, however, must have reported fully to Curzon and Lloyd George, and there was ample opportunity to do this when the three of them were together in Paris, 16 Jan. 1920, for meetings of the Supreme Council and, in Grey's case, the inauguration of the League. Grey probably convinced British as well as French leaders of the wisdom of his issuing a private appeal if the senate factions deadlocked again. When published, Grey's letter received warm support not only from French newspapers close to the government (notably Le Temps and Echo de Paris) but also from the Daily Chronicle, a Lloyd George organ. On 2 Feb. the Daily Chronicle editorial suggested that Grey's counsel might ‘weigh a little with Senator Hitchcock and his friends when they finally come to decide whether they will let the mutilated treaty go through’.

If Curzon and Lloyd George viewed Grey's private démarche as tactically convenient, this did not mean that they were converted to Grey's position of accepting the Americans on their own terms. Had the treaty and the reservations passed the senate and not been pocketed by Wilson, the British government would probably have acquiesced in the reservations only on the basis of simultaneously calling for a conference to revise the Covenant so as to allow all members' responsibilities to be shared equally.

86 For the changes, see Bailey, Wilson, pp. 387–93.

87 R. S. Baker, Notebook, 3–7 Feb. 1920, R. S. Baker papers, Library of Congress; Wilson papers, Library of Congress, microfilm reel 106; New York Times, 6 February 1920.

88 Sir Auckland Geddes, the new British ambassador to Washington, could write to Curzon in the summer of 1920 that Wilson had never forgiven the government ‘for what he firmly believes to have been a British government repudiation of the League of Nations Covenant’. Geddes to Curzon, 29 06 1920, Lloyd George papers, F/60/4/4; also Geddes to Curzon, 1 07 1920, F.O. 800/158.

89 Stone, Irreconcilables, p. 166.

90 See Tillman, Anglo-American relations, ch. XIV.

91 Only the intervention of Grey and other pro-Americans prevented Lloyd George and the French from replying in kind to Wilson's threatening Adriatic note of 10 Feb. The tone of Wilson's note may well have derived from the Allied conspiracy he saw in Grey's letter. Tillman, Anglo-American relations, pp. 380–2; Steed to Northcliffe, 17 02 1920, Steed papers; Lloyd George papers, F/60/1/14.

92 Tilley to Alston, 11 12 1919, D.B.F.P., first ser., VI, 880; Fry, Illusions of security, p. 85.

93 See Curzon's speech to the Primrose League, 16 02 1920, New York Times, 18 February 1920, and Nicolson H., Curzon: the last phase (1934), p. 111.

94 Grey to Seymour, 4 07 1928, cited in Tillman, Anglo-American relations, p. 400. Grey held Wilson himself primarily responsible for the catastrophe. House diary, 15 July 1920.

95 See [Kerr P. H.] ‘The British empire, the League of Nations and the United States’, Round Table, x (03, 1920), 221–53.

96 Davis to Lansing, 5 12 1919, John Davis papers.

* The author wishes to express gratitude to the Canada Council and the University of British Columbia for support in financing the research on this article.

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