The Big Four

Sarah Hyden

The Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference

Over 30 countries sent representatives to the Paris Peace Conference to determine the regulations of the Versailles Treaty that would officially end the Great War. However, the US, France, Great Britain, and Italy were known as the Big Four and were the main players in determining the outcomes of the treaty.

What were the objectives of each of the four major powers in the Versailles peace negotiations: France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States? To what extent were those objectives met?

France (Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau):

  • reparations from Germany for damages

    • Met; France received the most reparations as their territory saw the most destruction during fighting

  • limits placed upon German army to prevent further invasion

    • Met; due to close proximity France feared German retaliation, as did the rest of the world, so the army was limited to 100,000 men

  • return of Alsace-Lorraine

    • Met

  • annexation of the west bank of the Rhine River

    • Denied; instead received 15-year occupation rights in the Saar Basin that was rich in resources

Britain (Prime Minister David Lloyd George):

  • German stability to maintain trade relations

  • Reduction of German armed forces

    • Met; aided protection of the British naval reputation

  • German and Turkish provinces

    • Met; received control of several mandates, which they wanted in order to maintain their international reputation

Italy (Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, who spoke limited English and thus was assisted by Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino):

  • Land promised from Austria-Hungarian territory along the Adriatic, Dalmatia

    • Denied; when it became clear Italy may not receive Dalmatia due to the principle of self-determination promoted by Wilson, Sonnino agreed to accept a principal port on the Adriatic, Flume, as a settlement. However, Orlando was not willing to cede the full territory so they ended up with nothing.

The US (President Woodrow Wilson):

  • Outlined in the 14 points

    • Fair peace to prevent further outbreak of war

    • Promotion of democracy

    • Fair trade

    • Freedom of the seas/international territory

  • Implementation of international authority to maintain peace (League of Nations)

    • Denied; the US Senate did not ratify as the majority of public opinion favored a return to isolationism to avoid involvement in war

All: trial for Kaiser Wilhelm and other leaders of Germany as war criminals

  • Met

To what extent were the negotiations of the process carried out in pursuit of self-interest, and to what extent were they done to bring a meaningful peace?

The desire to achieve self-interested goals at the Paris Peace Conference ultimately influenced the outcome of the treaty. While the Big Four seemed to hold interest in promoting peace in the wake of the war, it is arguable that most stipulations they promoted were driven by self-interest. This was probably inevitable, as every country desired to leave the war victorious and thus fought to secure their goals when given the chance at the Paris Peace Conference. While the conditions of the treaty did promote peace by nature, as they comprised the resolution of the conflict, the countries writing them were influenced by their individual goals and desire to satisfy them.

For example, justification in the name of peace promotion can be seen in the desire to reduce German armed forces, which would prevent them from attacking neighboring countries again. The avoidance of further conflict (though this would prove unsuccessful) was sought for peacekeeping purposes. However, the self-interest of both France and Britain was benefitted by this as well. France’s border was made more secure and Britain was able to protect their powerful reputation as a result.

To what extent could blame for the failure of the treaty to bring a meaningful peace be placed on the Big Four?

There was much dissent among the Big Four at times and this led to a conflicting dominating force at the Paris Peace Conference. As the US entered the war late, in 1917 as an Associated Power, it was not required to uphold any part of previously established Allied agreements. Because of this, US President Woodrow Wilson tended to disagree with the other three representatives over subjects such as European land redistribution. Self-interested goals of the Big Four hindered negotiations on all sides, complicating agreements between the major players at the Conference.

Due to Italian Prime Minister Orlando’s lack of proficiency in English, he clashed with the other representatives and Italian demands were not met, causing a rift between Italy and the more powerful countries. Additionally, the Big Four’s statute that prohibited Germany from voicing any say in the contents of the treaty would be a large source of animosity from the German government and leaders. The conditions of the treaty that Germany was subjected to posed large economic and political detriments to the country’s stability, causing them to become even more embittered. This hostility, which contributed to the cause of the next World War, can be linked to the Big Four’s actions.


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