Six Months in Paris that Changed the World


Carving Up the World

Think about the really important decisions you have made in your life: choices concerning your education, vocation, spouse, or friends; your spiritual beliefs and commitments. Are you happy with the outcomes? Have you made any bad choices in life that still haunt you?

Choices have consequences and how we make decisions can be critical. In this article, we’ll look back more than eighty years ago at a fascinating gathering of world leaders who made significant decisions that touch our lives today.

In 1919, leaders from around the globe gathered in Paris to decide how to divide up the earth after the end of World War 1. Presidents and prime ministers debated, argued, dined, and attended the theater together as they created new nations and carved up old ones. Margaret MacMillan, an Oxford Ph.D. and University of Toronto history professor, tells their captivating story in her critically acclaimed bestseller, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World.{1} The Sunday Times of London says, “Most of the problems treated in this book are still with us today indeed, some of the most horrific things that have been taking place in Europe and the Middle East in the past decade stem directly from decisions made in Paris in 1919.”{2}

The cast of characters in this drama was diverse. The Big Three were leaders of the principal Allied nations: U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and the prime ministers of France and England, Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George. Joining them was a vast array of “statesmen, diplomats, bankers, soldiers, professors, economists and lawyers . . . from all corners of the world.” Media reporters, businesspersons and spokespersons for a multitude of causes showed up.{3}

Lawrence of Arabia was there, the mysterious English scholar and soldier wrapped in Arab robes and promoting the Arab cause.{4} Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, not yet leaders of their governments, played supporting roles. A young Asian man who worked in the kitchen at the Paris Ritz asked the peacemakers to grant independence from France for his tiny nation. Ho Chi Minh — and Vietnam — got no reply.{5}

This article highlights three of the many decisions from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that still influence headlines today. They concern Iraq, Israel, and China. Fasten your seatbelt for a ride into the past and then “Back to the Future.” First, consider the birth of Iraq.

Creating Iraq

During the first six months of 1919, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson along with French and British prime ministers Clemenceau and Lloyd George considered exhausting appeals for land and power from people around the globe. At times, they found themselves crawling across a large map spread out on the floor to investigate and determine boundaries.{6} The challenges were immense. Clemenceau told a colleague, “It is much easier to make war than peace.”{7}

Eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee, who advised the British delegation in Paris, told of delivering some papers to his prime minister one day. To Toynbee’s delight, Lloyd George forgot Toynbee was present and began to think out loud. “Mesopotamia,” mused Lloyd George, “. . . yes . . . oil . . . irrigation . . . we must have Mesopotamia.”{8}

“Mesopotamia” referred to three Middle Eastern provinces that had been part of the collapsed Ottoman empire: Mosul in the north, Basra in the south, and Baghdad in the middle. (Is this beginning to sound familiar?) Oil was a major concern. For a while back then, no one was sure if Mesopotamia had much oil. Clues emerged when the ground around Baghdad seeped pools of black sludge.{9}

Mesopotamia’s British governor argued that the British, largely for strategic security reasons, should control Mosul, Basra, and Baghdad as a single administrative unit. But the three provinces had little in common. MacMillan notes, “In 1919 there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together.”{10} Kurds and Persians chafed under Arabs. Shia Muslims resented Sunni Muslims.{11} (Now is this sounding familiar?)

Eventually geopolitical realities prompted a deal. In 1920, the Brits claimed a mandate for Mesopotamia and the French one for Syria. Rebellion broke out in Mesopotamia. Rebels cut train lines, attacked towns and murdered British officers. In 1921, England agreed to a king for Mesopotamia. Iraq was born. In 1932, it became independent.{12} Today . . . well, read your morning paper. Decisions have consequences.

Creating A Jewish Homeland

Another major decision made at the Paris Peace Conference affected the Jewish world and, eventually, the entire Middle East.

In February 1919, a British chemist appeared before the peacemakers to argue that Jews of the world needed a safe place to live. Jews were trying to leave Russia and Austria by the millions. Where could they go? Chaim Weizmann and his Zionist colleagues thought they had the perfect answer: Palestine.{13}

Zionism had a powerful ally in British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour. Balfour was a wealthy politician with a strange habit of staying in bed all morning. “If you wanted nothing done,” reflected Winston Churchill, Balfour “was undoubtedly the best man for the task.”{14} Son of a deeply religious mother, he was fascinated with the Jews and Weizmann’s vision.{15}

Prime Minister Lloyd George was another fan. Raised with the Bible, he claimed to have learned more Jewish history than English history. During the war, Weizmann, the Jewish chemist, provided without charge his process for making acetone, which the British desperately needed for making explosives. In return, Lloyd George offered Weizmann support for Zionism. Lloyd George later hailed that offer as the origin of the declaration supporting a Jewish homeland. The French posed an alternate theory: Lloyd George’s mistress was married to a well-known Jewish businessman.{16}

In October 1917, the British issued the famous Balfour Declaration, pledging to help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1919, Weizmann and other Zionist leaders made their pitch to the Paris peacemakers. But there was a problem. The Brits had made conflicting promises. During the war, they had supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine. They had also encouraged the Arabs to revolt against Ottoman rule, promising them independence over land that included Palestine.{17}

President Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was sympathetic to Zionism. “To think,” he told a prominent American rabbi, “that I the son of the manse should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.”{18} But the peacemakers postponed a decision. In 1920, at a separate conference, the British got the Palestinian mandate (a form of trusteeship) to carry out the Balfour Declaration. Palestinian Arabs were already rioting against the Jews.{19} And today? Well, check your radio news.

Decisions have consequences. Next, how Paris 1919 influenced the great Asian dragon.

China Betrayed

U.S. president Woodrow Wilson once described a negotiating technique he used on an associate. “When you have hooked him,” explained Wilson, “first you draw in a little, then give liberty to the line, then draw him back, finally wear him out, break him down, and land him.”{20}

A Chinese-Japanese conflict would challenge Wilson’s negotiating skills.{21} The Chinese had joined the Allies and hoped for fair treatment in Paris. Many Chinese admired Western democracy and Wilson’s idealistic vision.

Shantung was a strategic peninsula below Beijing. Confucius, the great philosopher, was born there. His ideas permeated Chinese society. Shantung had thirty million people, cheap labor, plentiful minerals and a natural harbor. Shantung silk is still fashionable today. In the late 1890s, Germany seized Shantung. In 1914, Japan took it from the Germans.{22}

In Paris, Japan wanted Shantung. Japan sported a collection of secret agreements that remind one of a Survivor TV series. China placed hope in Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points, which rejected secret treaties and included self-determination.{23}

The Chinese ambassador to Washington called Shantung “a Holy Land for the Chinese” and said that under foreign control it would be a “dagger pointed at the heart of China.”{24} Wilson seemed sympathetic at first, but the decision on Shantung had to wait until late April as the Allies finalized the German treaty. By then, an avalanche of decisions was overwhelming the peacemakers. When the Japanese forced their hand, Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George conceded Shantung to Japan in exchange for Japan’s concession on another significant treaty matter.{25}

Chinese blamed Wilson for betraying them. On May 4, thousands of demonstrators rallied in Tiananmen Square. The dean of humanities from Beijing University distributed leaflets. May 4 marked the rejection of the West by many Chinese intellectuals. New Russian communism looked attractive to some. In 1921, radicals founded the Chinese Communist Party. That dean of humanities who had distributed leaflets became its first chairman, Mao Tse-tung. His party won power in 1949{26} and today . . . have you listened to the news recently?

Iraq, Israel, Palestine, China . . . Paris 1919 influenced them all. What does all this mean for us?

Decisions, Consequences, and You

As they departed Paris in 1919 after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Woodrow Wilson told his wife, “It is finished, and, as no one is satisfied, it makes me hope we have made a just peace; but it is all in the lap of the gods.”{27}

As the journalists and delegations left Paris, the hotels that had become headquarters for the conventioneers reopened for regular business. Prostitutes groused that business dipped.{28}

The big three peacemakers did not last much longer in power. Lloyd George was forced to resign as prime minister in 1922. Clemenceau ran for president in late 1919, but withdrew in anger when he discovered he would face opposition. Wilson faced great resistance in the U.S. Senate which never ratified the Treaty of Versailles. In October 1919, a massive stroke left him bedridden and debilitated. In December, he learned he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.{29}

Iraq, a nation patched together in Paris and its aftermath, still boils with religious, ethnic, and cultural dissent. Israelis and Palestinians still clash. China still distrusts the West. Certainly many decisions in intervening years have affected these hotspots, but seeds of conflict were sown in Paris.

What is a biblical perspective on Paris 1919? I don’t claim to know which peacemakers may or may not have been following God in their particular choices, but consider three lessons that are both simple and profound:

First: God’s sovereignty ultimately trumps human activity. God “raises up nations, and he destroys them.”{30} He also “causes all things to work together for good to those who love” Him.{31} History’s end has not yet transpired. Once it has, we shall see His divine hand more clearly.

Second: Decisions have consequences. “You will always reap what you sow!” Paul exclaimed.{32} This applies to nations and individuals. We all face decisions about what foods to eat, careers to pursue and life partners to select, about whether to become friends with God and to follow Him. Our choices influence this life and the next. Our decisions can affect others and produce unforeseen consequences. So . . .

Third: We should seek to make wise decisions. Solomon, a very wise king, wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will direct your paths.”{33}

Decisions have consequences. Are you facing any decisions that you need to place in God’s hands?


1. Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2001). Most of the historical material in this article is drawn from MacMillan’s research.
2. Ibid., back cover.
3. Ibid., xxvii.
4. Ibid., 388-395 ff.
5. Ibid., 59.
6. Ibid., 255, 275.
7. A. Ribot, Journal d’Alexandre Ribot et correspondances indites, 1914-1922 (Paris, 1936), 255; in Ibid., xxx.
8. A. Toynbee, Acquaintances (London, 1967), 211-12; in MacMillan, op. cit., 381.
9. MacMillan, op. cit., 395-96.
10. Ibid., 397.
11. Ibid., 400.
12. Ibid., 400-409.
13. Ibid., 410.
14. Ibid., 413.
15. Ibid., 413-415.
16. Ibid., 415-16.
17. Ibid., 416-21.
18. Ibid., 422.
19. Ibid., 4; 98; 103; 420; 423-427.
20. Ibid., 194.
21. Ibid., 322-344.
22. Ibid., 325-27.
23. Ibid., 328-29; 336; 338; 322; 495-96.
24. Ibid., 334.
25. Ibid., 330-38.
26. Ibid., 338-341.
27. T. Schachtman, Edith and Woodrow (New York, 1981), 189; in MacMillan, op. cit., 487.
28. MacMillan, op. cit., 485.
29. Ibid., 487-92.
30. Job 12:23 NLT.
31. Romans 8:28 NASB.
32. Galatians 6:7 NLT.
33. Proverbs 3:5-6 NLT.

©2003 Probe Ministries

Rusty Wright, former associate speaker and writer with Probe Ministries, is an international lecturer, award-winning author, and journalist who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

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