The Exhibit

President Wilson as Peacemaker in Paris

President Wilson’s principal role vis-à-vis Austria-Hungary came with his role in breaking up the Habsburg Monarchy. On January 8, 1918, he presented his 14-Points as his principal contribution to the American postwar peace program. Point No. 10 proclaimed: “The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.” Wishing to “safeguard” Austria-Hungary and granting autonomy to its peoples was a contradictory statement. Wilson’s academic experts in his advisory body “The Inquiry”—even though none of them was an expert on the Habsburg Monarchy—began advocating for the formation of the new nation states Czechoslovakia, Yugo-Slavia, and Poland in Central Europe.

Based on Wilson’s principle of “self-determination” and racialist thinking in the American government—and reinforced by strong ethnic Bohemian, Slovak, Polish, and South Slav lobbies in the U.S.—the Wilson administration advocated for homogenous national communities and willy-nilly accepted the break-up of the autocratic Habsburg Monarchy with its support of these new democratic nation states when they proclaimed their independence from the Habsburg Monarchy in October 1918. Wilson was no longer willing to mediate in the Habsburg lands, when Emperor Charles suggested a “federalist” solution late in the war.

President Wilson came to Europe to preside over the Paris Peace Conference. He was cheered wildly on his visits to Paris, Rome and London, but did not visit Vienna or Berlin, the capitals of the defeated powers. The “Inquiry” experts (usually relying on anti-Habsburg British expertise) served on the American Commission to Negotiate Peace in Paris and completed the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy with the drawing of new borders in Central Europe, not always responding to the argument of clear ethnic-linguistic borders. In the spring of 1919, an American Commission headed by the Harvard historian Archibald Cary Coolidge visited Vienna, supporting plebiscites in the drawing of the Austrian borders. Even though the Americans would have accepted the “Anschluss” (annexation) of the new German rump-state of Austria to Germany, the French and Austria’s neighbors were dead-set against it. Hence, the prohibition of “Anschluss” was written into the peace treaty with Austria signed in the Paris suburb on St. Germain.

Source: Nicole M .Phelps, U.S.-Habsburg Relations from 1815 to the Paris Peace Conference. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson.

Library of Congress