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Clemenceau: A Founding Father of the Atlantic Alliance 

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Share the post "Clemenceau: A Founding Father of the Atlantic Alliance " Editor’s note: this text by Patrick Weil is adapted from the introduction of Georges Clemenceau : Lettres d’Amérique. Translation by Justin Saint-Loubert-Bié. The four years Clemenceau spent in the United States during his youth helped forge his deepest political convictions—a radical attachment to free speech, the fight against racism and colonialism, and a secularism founded on freedom of conscience. But it is less known that the 1917 American entry into World War I rekindled his political relationship with the United States, which would last until his death in 1929. During the negotiations that took place in Paris after the November 1918 armistice, which would eventually culminate in the

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Clemenceau: A Founding Father of the Atlantic Alliance 

Editor’s note: this text by Patrick Weil is adapted from the introduction of Georges Clemenceau : Lettres d’Amérique. Translation by Justin Saint-Loubert-Bié.

The four years Clemenceau spent in the United States during his youth helped forge his deepest political convictions—a radical attachment to free speech, the fight against racism and colonialism, and a secularism founded on freedom of conscience. But it is less known that the 1917 American entry into World War I rekindled his political relationship with the United States, which would last until his death in 1929. During the negotiations that took place in Paris after the November 1918 armistice, which would eventually culminate in the Treaty of Versailles, Clemenceau immediately announced his hatred of colonialism. One morning in January 1919, during one of the meetings held between Wilson, Lloyd George, Orlando, and himself, Clemenceau asked Wilson and Lloyd George: “There has been a great deal of talk about a peace to end war forever, and I am interested in that… But I would like to know whether you mean it, the permanent peace.” After Wilson and Lloyd George firmly reiterated their commitment, Clemenceau continued:

And you have counted the cost of such a peace? … If we give up all future all future wars, if we are to prevent war, we have to give up all our empires and all hope of empire. You, Mr. Lloyd George, you English will have to come out of India, for example; we French shall have to come out of North Africa; and you Americans, Mr. President, you must get out of the Philippines and Porto Rico and leave Cuba alone and Mexico… There are other sacrifices, we the dominant powers, would have to make. It is very expensive, peace. We French are willing, but are you willing, to pay the price, all those costs of no more wars in the world?[1]

The account of this conversation was perhaps a bit embellished. But Clemenceau’s hatred for colonialism was not exaggerated. “Clemenceau’s loathing for colonial politics annoys me,” wrote at that time the French diplomat Paul Cambon, who was working tirelessly to stop Clemenceau from encouraging German colonial withdrawals that would profit the other allied powers [2].

Clemenceau was most interested in France’s future security in Europe. To ensure that security, Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander in 1918, as well as Raymond Poincaré, then president of the French Republic, were lobbying for Germany to cede its territories on the left bank of the Rhine. The English and Americans rejected this proposal, deeming it no better than an inverted Alsace-Lorraine. Clemenceau, for his part, did not see the Rhine as “a barrier of absolute effectiveness.” He wanted the left bank of the Rhine, but as a path to follow to reach other objectives.[3]

Clemenceau’s objectives were the disarmament of Germany and the substitution of the traditional Franco-Russian alliance—which had ceased to exist as soon as the Bolsheviks signed a separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, for Clemenceau a profound betrayal—with an alliance between the French, English, and American democracies: an Atlantic alliance. The political knowledge Clemenceau acquired in his youth from the United States and the trust he had in its liberal institutions cemented in his mind the project of forging this new alliance. He agreed with Lloyd George, who had declared at the end of 1917 that “the great fact of this year which will loom large in the future will be the advent of America for the first time, not into the War, but into world politics—a gigantic event in itself.”[4] “Gradually bringing the United States to the idea of an alliance under the cover of the League of Nations:” this is what the Quai d’Orsay was proposing in November 1918, in agreement with Clemenceau [5].

So it was with some emotion that in mid-March 1919, Clemenceau received from Lloyd George and Wilson the offer of a military guarantee, one that he had perhaps himself suggested. This pact would guarantee the automatic and immediate intervention of England and the United States in favor of France, in case of German aggression.

In exchange, France would no longer demand the left bank of the Rhine, neither for itself, nor as an independent German buffer state. But given the physical distance separating England, and especially the United States, from France, there would always be a period, in case of a German attack, where France would have to defend itself alone. For this reason, Clemenceau demanded, and obtained, a temporary occupation of the left bank of the Rhine for a fifteen-year period, after which France’s evacuation could be delayed if the guaranties against German aggression were insufficient, for example if the guarantee were not ratified. If it were ratified, then for Clemenceau it was “enough to prevent war.”[6] Never would Germany attack France if the United States and England were immediately to intervene. It was a NATO in all but name, which was meant to protect France not from Soviet Russia, but from Germany.

The guarantee was approved unanimously by the English House of Commons. But not by the American Senate. Wilson, who had his eyes set first and foremost on the creation of the League of Nations, introduced the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate without ever mentioning the guarantee. When the Senate demanded that certain minor interpretative clauses be amended to the treaty—mainly the reminder that for every declaration of war the president of the United States had to seek the consent of the Senate—Wilson refused to make the changes, leading to the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the guarantee that was attached to it. Clemenceau had lost his bet on an Atlantic alliance. Then he was defeated in the January 1920 presidential election and retreated, it was believed, from all political activity.

But not quite, because Clemenceau had not given up on America. The war had made Clemenceau, nicknamed there like in France “The Tiger,” very popular in the United States. In 1919, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican Senate majority leader, had been impressed that in American movie theaters, during news segments, the appearances of Wilson and Lloyd George were greeted with polite applause, while those of Clemenceau “provoked an explosion of enthusiasm.”[7] Three years later, Clemenceau decided, with the support of Edward “Colonel” House, to organize an expedition to the United States. Since the United States’ entry into the war in 1917, House had become—like Bernard Baruch, another of Wilson’s advisors—a close friend of Clemenceau’s. “The great service that House accomplished behind the scenes was, in having Wilson’s ear and Clemenceau’s trust, to facilitate agreements between them without either one of them feeling that they had capitulated.”[8] Again in 1922, House would facilitate. The French government was skeptical of Clemenceau’s trip, as were the American authorities who saw him as a warmonger who had imposed Carthaginian peace on Germany, as Keynes had written in his book The Economic Consequences of Peace.

Clemenceau landed in New York on November 18th, 1922, as alarms screamed in the port. “Music rang in the streets, the crowd squeezed together on the sidewalks. On every floor, clerks were at windows unrolling streamers.”[9] House delegated the organization of Clemenceau’s trip to Stephen Bonsal, one of his followers whose interpretations and observations House considered “invaluable.”[10] Later, House would tell Bonsal that had he been president, he would have chosen him as Secretary of State.[11] Bonsal accompanied Clemenceau during all twenty-five days of his United States tour, from November 18th to December 13th.

Starting in New York after his landing—and then in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Washington—everywhere he stopped, Clemenceau spoke in front of packed halls. With every audience, he would discuss Franco-German relations. Clemenceau believed that

After a terrible war that had almost destroyed both countries, the smaller, victorious one is in danger of having to fight again the larger country which might desire to erase the humiliation of its defeat. Preparations for war are underway with some Germans. If the Americans had signed Versailles, joined the League of Nations, the Germans would have understood that it was over.

This was not the case. As Clemenceau explained in another speech:

Imagine the United States bled of six million of its man-power and with its industrial area devastated by a foe. Put that foe on the other side of the Rio Grande or across the Canadian border with the help of England and France and then have the two latter withdraw and tell us to hold our own, to collect our war bill from the enemy they have helped us do subdue, and to pay them the loans they would have made to us to keep our armies in the field and to keep our people from starvation.[12]

In this way, Clemenceau helped thousands of Americans who came to his meetings understand France’s situation, and was constantly arguing that world peace depended on the reestablishment of friendly relations between France, England, and the United States. On his last day, he bade farewell via radio to a million American listeners.

During his trip, Clemenceau and Bonsal developed a friendship. Between conferences and receptions, in the wagon they used to travel between New York, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, and Saint-Louis, they conversed extensively. House had had an idea to guarantee peace for France, which he had shared with Bonsal. House knew, as did Clemenceau, that with President Harding’s government in charge, the time was not ripe to renew transatlantic solidarity with France. So one day, House shared his idea with Clemenceau: Why not organize a meeting with Hindenburg? House knew the mutual respect that Hindenburg and Le Tigre shared. Clemenceau did not refuse. [13] He was not the extremist that Keynes had described.

In the spring of 1919, Clemenceau had, by way of two secret envoys to Berlin, reestablished contact with the Germans. Clemenceau understood that an economically viable Germany was necessary for the reconstruction of France, and he also wanted to prepare France for the potential absence of the Americans. Through his contacts, Emile Haguenin and René Massigli, Clemenceau understood that for Germany, territorial losses like Alsace-Lorraine were less important than the attack on its economic potential; and that Silesia, which produced 44 million tons of coal, was more important for Germany than the Saarland with its 13 million tons.[14] So when Lloyd George suggested to determine the status of Silesia through a referendum, rather than granting it automatically to the new Poland, which had been the plan outlined in the initial treaty submitted to the Germans, Clemenceau stood with him. There again, in November 1922, in preparation for the potential failure of his American tour, he had not refused a meeting with Hindenburg.

But the invasion and occupation of Ruhr ordered by Poincaré in January 1923 rendered this project impossible. It failed and put France in a position of weakness. The Dawes Plan of summer 1924 provided for, in exchange for Wall Street’s financing of Germany, the latter’s payment of a part of its debts to France and England, which would allow them to subsequently reimburse part of their American debts. But it also forced France to accept reductions in the power of the Reparations Commission, thus strengthening a committee of experts arbitrated by an American, and forced France to pull back from Ruhr and to abandon all future prospects of preserving its interests through another independent military intervention.[15]

So when in 1924 House contacted Clemenceau again to argue that “the suitable psychological moment was approaching to undertake his German adventure,” Clemenceau reacted sharply: Colonel House made me “an extravagant proposition that I had to refuse immediately in two lines.”[16] Nevertheless, House persisted, arguing that peace depended now on Franco-German reconciliation. This time Clemenceau did not answer. A meeting with Hindenburg was no longer in the cards.[17]

In 1925, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and Great Britain mutually recognized their borders through the Pact of Locarno. However, it established Great Britain as guarantor not only in defense of France, but also in defense of Germany in case of French reoccupation. House bragged to Clemenceau that he had personally contributed to the Pact’s ratification. Clemenceau rebuffed him: “For me, the Pact of Locarno puts France in the hands of England, whose present disposition is far from favorable to us.”[18]

In the face of these successive defeats—including the prospect of a new Anglo-American pact which seemed to treat France as a former ally, perhaps treating it worse even than Germany—Clemenceau turned towards the Americans once more. Without consulting House, he first wrote an open letter to President Coolidge on August 9th, 1926: “There has arisen between the three great allied countries of the war in France differences of opinion which threaten to seriously undermine the future of the civilized world.” Clemenceau was concerned about the state of mind in France, England, and the United States. He was offended by their bookkeeping mentality: “If nations were nothing but corporations, bank accounts would decide the fate of the world. You demand that we repay a debt, not of money but of war, and you know just as well as we do that the account is empty.” Clemenceau was pointing out that, just like Russia at Brest-Litovsk, America had signed a separate peace with Germany, without even pretending to compromise with its allies: “Must the lie of German reparations now end with Americans cashing in?”

Coolidge did not answer him. But Clemenceau had written to him with the goal of once more winning over the American people.[19] At 86 years of age, in November of 1927, Clemenceau discussed with Bonsal, without consulting House—in the greatest secrecy, using encoded messages—the possibility of another trip to the United States. Bonsal suggested that he come immediately, at the end of November, and this time speak at American universities like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, whose presidents were sympathetic to his cause and beyond the reach of all German lobbying, in addition to two or three public meetings. Bonsal reassured Clemenceau: “The Loud Speaker has greatly improved since you were here in 1922 and from a small hall or indeed from your own room you could, without raising your voice, be heard by sixty million people.”[20] But they were unable to select a date. Clemenceau did not want to make this new trip before the French legislative elections in April 1928.[21] And after those elections, the primaries for the American presidential election of 1928 would be in full swing. Clemenceau’s final tour of the United States thus never came to pass.[22]

Clemenceau ended up spending the next year, his last, it battling with Ferdinand Foch, who, in a book published in April 1929 by Raymond Recouly, Foch: My Conversations with the Marshal, had taken up his old attacks on Clemenceau.[23] It was the same refrain as before: the retreat from the left bank. Clemenceau maintained that he had had no choice. He could not have imposed a permanent occupation of the Rhineland against the will of those who lived there and wished to remain Germans. It would have violated the French revolutionary principle of national sovereignty. House confirmed that the Allies would never have agreed to it, and never would have signed a treaty with France under such conditions.[24]

It was either France alone on the Rhine, or the Franco-Anglo-American alliance.[25] Clemenceau chose the Atlantic alliance. He pointed out that he had guarded against the possibility that the Americans might refuse to ratify the guarantee by including in the treaty of Versailles (Article 429) the possibility of pursuing the occupation of the Rhineland beyond the fifteen-year period initially agreed to, if the guarantees against German aggression were not deemed sufficient—a possibility now ruled out by Poincaré’s disastrous actions.

“Foch’s Histoires are nothing, but they force me into tiring research which I cannot avoid. I am starting to be too old, and I am in the first stages of looking forward to death,” wrote Clemenceau to Bonsal.[26] In this political will and testament, Clemenceau reiterated the sharp critiques he had addressed to Coolidge regarding the American policy of abandoning the Atlantic alliance. But he especially criticized the French government and general staff for their lack of strategic thinking, their delay in constructing a modern air force, and the absurdity of the Maginot line.[27]

House was sick, and could not come to France in the summer of 1929, as he had done regularly since 1920, so Clemenceau bade him farewell: “When you return to Europe, next year, I may have changed planets. Wherever I go, I will not forget you because, without jeopardizing your homeland, you gave a good bit of help to my own country in dangerous times.”[28]

In late September, 1929, Bonsal saw Clemenceau for the last time in the Vendée. He was revising a chapter of Grandeur and Misery of Victory: “I shall write and rewrite that chapter to-morrow. I shall keep on writing and rewriting until the middle of October. Then I will correct the proofs, and then I will go. I will go, I hope, promptly. This disagreeable business of dying – I do not want to dawdle over that,” Clemenceau told him.[29] His wish was more than granted. He died three days later, on November 29th, 1929, without ever finishing his book. Bonsal was inconsolable: “With him has gone so much of warmth and vitality that without him the world is a cold and shivering place to live in.”[30] A few months later, he published a long article that was, in the United States, the most noteworthy of the posthumous homages to Clemenceau. “The greatest personality produced during the war,” Walter Lippmann wrote to him, after having read it.[31] In the article, Bonsal reported Clemenceau’s words to him during his final visit:

I have liked many Germans immensely. But they were like dough in the hands of their emperor-kings. Now they are learning what are the rights of man – learning in sorrow and in suffering, in the Valley of Death. If this course is pursued without interruption for fifty years I do not despair. There may be peace along the Rhine and in the foothills of the Vosges, and the Germans and the French may yet sit side by side and work in friendly competition in a disarmed world. But we must not rush things. We must go slow. There is a streak of light in the east, but it may be – though I think not – a false dawn. We must go slow.[32]

Fourteen years later, in the middle of the Second World War, Lippmann returned to that remark:

We must now admit, I believe, that Clemenceau was right and that Wilson was wrong. In 1919, what the world needed first of all was a lasting settlement with Germany: convincing measures for keeping Germany at peace until her ruling classes, who had made the war, died out and the Germans of the Weimar Republic were firmly in power and had acquired the habits of democratic government. Wilson’s insistence on making the German settlement secondary to a plan of universal and perpetual peace denied France the security which only dependable allies could have provided.”[33]

In this last article, Bonsal reminded readers how, during his 1922 expedition, Clemenceau would begin all of his speeches in front of packed halls, in a perfect English and with a New York accent that surprised his listeners from the moment he opened his mouth, by telling them this:

I beg of you to consider me an American citizen and in doing so you will be committing such a trivial illegality – one of those little ones which, as Lincoln said, count as nothing between friends! You see, I spent four years and four months in America when I was here before. I studied hard to prepare myself for the honors and the duties of American citizenship. Only eight more months to wait, and I should have had the same rights as you have to speak your mind upon any subject under the sun. But that Napoleon was behaving so disgustingly I had to go home and help to kick him out. So bear with me, my friends, and listen to Georges Clemenceau, who came so near being an American citizen.[34]

After such an introduction, an American journalist remarked, “he could get away with murder.”[35]

All the while Clemenceau undertook the difficult studies to become, if possible, an American citizen, he also shared what he had learned about American democracy in his American letters published by Le Temps in 1865 and 1870. And if he decided to finally return to his country and serve France, now a republic, all his life, he never forgot, until the end, what those four years in the United States and the Americans had taught him.

[1] The autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (New-York: Harcourt, 1931), 780-3.

[2] Paul Cambon, Correspondance 1870-1924, III, (1912-1924), letter of Jan. 28, 1919 to his son (Paris: Grasset, 1946), 300.

[3]Jean Martet, Le Tigre, (Paris: Albin Michel, 1930), 196.

[4] House of Commons, Dec. 20, 1917 Hansard, 20th Century, Fifth Series, Vol. 100, 2212.

[5] Confidentiel memorandum, Nov. 26,  1918, L’opinion française et le Président Wilson Archives of the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) Vincennes 94300, France, 6N137

[6] Georges Clemenceau, Grandeurs et misères d’une victoire, (Paris: Plon, 1930), 209.

[7] Letter of Cabot Lodge à Henry White, April 18,  1919, Henry White papers Library of Congress, P-C File

[8] Georges Wormser, Clemenceau vu de près, (Paris: Hachette, 1979), p. 180.

[9] F. Crucy, « Le Voyage de Clemenceau aux Etats-Unis », L’illustration, Dec. 30, 1922, 652-3.

[10] Edward Mandell House, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House / Arranged as a Narrative by Charles Seymour, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1928, vol IV, 228.

[11] House to Bonsal, March 14,  1933, Stephen Bonsal Papers, Library of Congress (SBC)/Special correspondence-Edward House 1933-1938

[12] Clemenceau Plain talk, Nashville Tennessean, Nov. 23, 1922.

[13] Stephen Bonsal, What Manner of Man was Clemenceau, World’s Work, Feb. 1930, 72.

[14] Georges Henri Soutou, « la France et l’Allemagne en 1919 », in Bariéty, Guth, Valentin, La France et l’Allemagne entre les deux guerres mondiales, pp. 9-19 et Marion Aballéa, “Une diplomatie de professeurs au cœur de l’Allemagne vaincue. La mission Haguenin à Berlin (mars 1919-juin 1920)”, in: Relations internationales 150, 2012.

[15] Cf. Patrick O. Cohrs, The First ‘Real’ Peace Settlements after the First World War: Britain, the United States and the Accords of London and Locarno, 1923-1925, Contemporary European History, Vol. 12, 1, (Feb. 2003), pp. 1-31.

[16] Letter de Clemenceau à la Comtesse d’Aunay, 26 août 1924,in Jeanneney, Jean‑Noël, Georges Clemenceau. Correspondance (1858‑1929), (Paris: Robert Laffont/BnF,  2008), 712.

[17] Bonsal, What Manner, 72.

[18] House to Clemenceau, Dec. 15, 1925 and Clemenceau to House, Dec. 28, 1925, Edward House Papers, Yale Sterling Library (EHY) 27/877.

[19] House to Clemenceau, July 9 1927, EHY27/878.

[20] Bonsal to Clemenceau, Nov. 19,1927, SBC/Georges Clemenceau, 1922-1972 A-Z.

[21] Telegram of Douglas to Bonsal, Nov. 21, 1927, SBC/James Stuart Douglas, 1927-1947.

[22] Bonsal to Clemenceau, Nov. 19, 1927, SBC/Georges Clemenceau, 1922-1972 A-Z.

[23] Publié aux Editions de France, Paris, April 14, 1929.

[24] House to Clemenceau, May 15, 1929, EHY27/878.

[25] Antony Lentin (1997) ‘Une aberration inexplicable’? Clemenceau and the abortive Anglo‐French guarantee treaty of 1919, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 8:2, 31-49.

[26]  June 24 1929, SBC/Georges Clemenceau, 1922-1972 A-Z.

[27] Clemenceau , Grandeurs…, 304-6.

[28] Clemenceau to House, May 20,  1929, EHY27/878.

[29] Bonsal, What Manner, 110.

[30] Bonsal to House, Nov. 27, 1929, EHY17/540.

[31] Walter Lippmann à Stephen Bonsal, Feb. 28,  1930, SBC, Georges Clemenceau, 1922-1972 A-Z.

[32] Bonsal, What Manner,75.

[33] Walter Lippmann, US War Aims, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1944), 99.

[34] Bonsal, What Manner,71.

[35] idem.

Photo Credit: Traité de Versailles, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

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