Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lessons of Imperialism: Points, Versailles, and the Failure of the League of Nations

The causes of World War I were imperialistic in nature and the results of this conflict were not satisfied with Treaty of Versailles.  Many of the imperialistic capitalist state, and private sector, goals were botched by post-World War I international structural errors and many of the achieved goals did not reach the possible maximum levels of capital profitability.  These shortcomings would not be corrected and achieved until after World War II.  

Imperialism and World War I

World War I was started by the imperial motives of Britain, France and pre-October Revolution Russia, forming the Triple Entente, to hinder, and destroy, the economic-industrial growth and growing military power of Germany in Europe.  As with most major international conflicts, the spark that started the regional fighting was centered on smaller state pieces; in the case of World War I those pieces were the states of Serbia and Austria-Hungary.  Allied forces, supported by the geographically isolated United States and the capitalist private sector that influence her interests, quickly implemented a naval blockade around Germany in order to strangulate German supply lines.  Despite the creativeness of the German Schlieffen Plan, a plan for rapidly striking France to the East before quickly realigning German forces to the western frontier against a slower Russian military, World War I should have been a quick win for the Allied states, and the United States should have never been required to physical action.  The unforeseen event that prolonged the conflict and required entry by the United States was the Russian Revolution of 1917 which “began on 24 October, the eve of the meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets, when the forces of the Soviet’s Military-Revolutionary Committee began to occupy key government institutions” and “encountered almost no violent resistance”[1].  With the withdrawal of Russia, who would be troubled by domestic political struggles after the revolution, and the entry of United States military and capital power, the World War I conflict was extended in duration even though Germany’s days were numbered.

Points, Paris, and Treaties

On January 8, 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson gave his famous Fourteen Points speech where he outlined conditions for possible peace and justified American entry into the conflict based on the empty concern “that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace­loving nation”[2].  What Wilson probably meant was that “after the United States came into the war her financial assistance was lavish and unstinted, and without this assistance the Allies could never have won the war”[3].  In short, the United States had private sector interests in Europe, and saw greater possible private sector interests in the war-ravished continent of Europe.

 Approximately ten months after the Fourteen Points speech, Germany signed the proposed peace armistice on November 11, 1918 and four years of conflict ended with wet blood still drying in the trenches of the front lines.  Within two months after the cessation of war, the Allied powers, known in history books as the ‘big four’, met at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles with many other smaller state participants to establish terms for post-war peace.  Even though “Russia had fought as one of the Allies until December 1917, when its new Bolshevik Government withdrew from the war”, the Allied states did not “recognize the new Bolshevik Government and thus did not invite its representatives to the Peace Conference”[4].  With the late war entry of the United States, the United States “was not bound to honor pre-existing agreements between the Allied powers” and President Wilson “strongly opposed many of these arrangements” to include promises made to Italy in the 1915 Treaty of London[5].  The Treaty of Versailles was presented to Germany for signature on June 28, 1919.

Reparation Committee and the League of Nations

Two major creations emerged from the Treaty of Versailles.  The first was the Reparations Committee implemented to oversee Germany’s reparation commitments and abilities, which many political economists felt too harsh, damaging to Europe as a whole, and economically impossible.  The Reparation Commission contained “delegates of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy” in all areas concerning German reparation capabilities and decisions with “diplomatic privileges, and its salaries” paid by Germany[6].  German reparations would later be postponed until after World War II through the Lausanne Conference in 1932.

The second creation that was adopted at the Paris Peace Conference was the League of Nations, an attempt at global governance and international democracy.  The League of Nations was built on faulty wiring from the beginning of its existence.  The first problem that weakened the League of Nations was that the United States never ratified the treaty to join the League.  Despite the fact that “American public opinion was overwhelming in favor of ratifying the treaty, including the Covenant of the League of Nations”, U.S. Senate opposition argued that Article 10 “ceded the war powers of the U.S. Government to the League’s Council”[7].  The second, and more problematic, issue in the structure of the League of Nations was the requirement that decisions could only be obtained by unanimous vote.  Unanimous vote, the equivalent of equal veto power, greatly illustrated the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations as an international organization because various state alliances existed within the League of Nations which created an environment as if there were no international body in place at all.

Imperial Lessons

The lessons learned from World War I were many, but there were two very important lessons for imperial capital powers, especially in the private sector.  The first lesson was that the United States and the capitalist private sector realized new levels of profitability during the four-year World War I conflict through inter-allied debt accumulated with compound interest, as well as the profitable accumulation of post-war reconstruction loans. This realization would eventually lead to the post-World War II Bretton Woods creations which would end colonial imperialism and begin globalization.  The second realized lesson was the flaw of equality in any international organization established to maintain international peace and, more important to post-colonial private sector interests, stability.  Conflict and reconstruction were profitable opportunities for the private sector, but instability caused problems for the exportation and exploitation of natural resources from post-colonial states.  The private sector required an international government body controlled by a only handful of the strongest military states in order to pick and choose their profit opportunities whether in the format of stability or conflict.  This adjustment would also be corrected after World War II with the establishment of the United Nations Security Council permanent member veto.          


[1]  Fitzpatrick, Sheila.  2008.  The Russian Revolution, 3rd ed.  New York: Oxford Universtity Press, p. 64.

[2]  Wilson, Woodrow.  Janruary 8, 1918.  Fourteen Points Speech.  Public Domain.  Accessed from the Fordham Univeristy Website on July 21, 2013,

[3]  Keynes, John Maynard.  1920.  The Economic Consequences of the Peace.  Public Domain.  P. 298.

[4]  United States Office of the Historian.  The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles,

[5]  United States Office of the Historian.  The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles,

[6]  Keynes, John Maynard.  1920.  The Economic Consequences of the Peace.  Public Domain.  P. 251.

[7]  United States Office of the Historian.  The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles,



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