Wilsons world view

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

A study of the expectations for a more inclusive international order that Woodrow Wilsons rhetoric raised among colonial nationalists.

"In June 1919, Nguyen Tat Thanh, a twenty-eight-year-old kitchen assistant from French Indochina, set out to present a petition to the world leaders then assembled in Paris for the peace conference. The document, entitled The Claims of the People of Annam, echoed the rhetoric of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, who had recently emerged in the international arena as a champion of the right of all peoples on self-determination. In the tumultuous months following the end of the First World War, Wilson was hailed around the world as the prophet of a new era in world affairs, one in which justice, rather than power, would be the central principle of international relations.

The young men from Indochina, who signed the petition as Nguyen Ai Quoc, or Nguyen the Patriot, sought a personal audience with the American President to plead his peoples case before Wilson. According to some accounts, he even rented a formal morning suit in preparation for the occasion. The meeting, however, did not materialise. Wilson probably never even saw Nguyens petition, and he currently did not respond to it. Within less than a year the man, who would later become known to the world as Ho Chi Minh, adopted Bolshevism as his new creed, and Lenin replaced Wilson as his inspiration on the road to self-determination for his people.

Oppressed peoples pin their hopes on any leader who promises change with stirring eloquence. FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] and the Atlantic Charter never aroused the hopes which President Woodrow Wilson did in 1918 with his Fourteen Points. Prof. Erez Manela, Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard, has filled a gap in studies of Wilson with an original work, which describes with a meticulous scholarship Wilsons world view, the origins of the Points, his enormous popularity when he arrived in Europe for the peace conference at Versailles, the subsequent disillusion and the seeds of revolt it sowed. He concentrates on Egypt, India, China and Korea as case studies.

Scholars have hitherto concentrated on how Britain and France foiled his plans for a new order after the collapse of the Hapsburg and the Ottoman empires. This work concerns the Third World, which was charged with the slogan of self-determination. Its representatives flocked to Paris with petitions and memoranda. Ho Chi Minhs experience was typical.

Hundreds of such documents, many addressed to President Wilson himself, made their way to the Paris headquarters of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace at the Hotel Crillon, but most got no further than the Presidents private secretary, Gilbert Close. The President read only a small fraction of them, and he acted on fewer still. The complex and contentious issues of the European settlement were foremost on his mind during his months in Paris, and relations with the major imperial powers Britain, France, Japan loomed larger in the scheme of U.S. interests as Wilson saw them than did the aspirations of colonised groups or weak states.

Though the dispensation of territories that belonged to the defunct empires German colonies in Africa and the Pacific, Ottoman possessions in the Arab Middle East [West Asia] was an important topic in the peace negotiations, the leading peacemakers had no intention of entertaining the claims for self-determination of dependent peoples elsewhere, least of all those that ran against their own interests. To himself and to others, Wilson explained this lapse by asserting that the peace conference already had enough on its plate and that the League of Nations would take up such claims in due time. The Wilsonian Moment failed them. The author does not overlook the rival appeals of Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution.

The ideas of both Wilson and Lenin crossed borders. Of all the four countries, Wilsons appeal was the weakest in India. It was confined to a few. Lajpat Rai was the most prominent among them. He said: Ideas universal ideas have a knack of rubbing off all geographical limitations. It is impossible that the noble truths uttered by President Wilson in his War Message could be limited in their application. Henceforth, his words are going to be the war cry of all small and subject and oppressed nationalities in the world. He has conferred a new charter of democracy and liberty on the latter and the people of Asia are going to make as much use of this charter, if not even more, as are those of America and Europe.

American participation in the war had thrown the imperial powers of Europe into the shade and they would have no choice but to go along with Wilsons plan for the post-war international order. The author remarks: Not all Indian activists shared Lajpat Rais optimism about Wilsons importance for the Indian struggle.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote to Wilson in January 1919 that the worlds hope for peace and justice is centred in you as the author of the great principle of self-determination. He urged the President and the peace conference to apply the Presidents principle of right and justice to India. Tilak enclosed a copy of his letter to Lloyd George, hoping that Wilson put additional pressure on the Premier to do right by India. Tilaks letter to the President also included a handsomely illustrated pamphlet entitled Self-Determination for India, which was published by the India Home Rule Leagues London office. Koreas Synghman Rhee was Wilsons associate at Princeton. It would be fair to say that they were all encouraged but not inspired by Wilson.

The author has no illusions about Wilson. He records his racism and his admiration of British colonialism and espousal of American expansion. The Fourteen Points propounded in his address to Congress on January 8, 1918, did not include self-determination. On the contrary, Point 5 said that the interests of the people concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined. On February 11, 1918, in another address, came his Four Points in which he stressed self-determination. A wag exclaimed that even the Almighty was content with ten.

The impact of Wilsons ideas lasted long. Wilson himself, it is true, had at best only a vague idea of how the principle of self-determination would be practically implemented even in Europe, and he devoted little attention to its implications elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Presidents talk about the right to self-determination and his advocacy of the League of Nations implied a new and more equitable model of international relations, and they took on a life of their own, independent of Wilson and his intentions. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the expectations for a more inclusive international order that Wilsons rhetoric and global stature raised among colonial nationalists were far beyond the Presidents intentions and even further beyond what he would achieve.

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