Post-World War I Search for an Order in the Pacific: Reexamination of the Versailles-Washington Treaty System
A century after World War I, more historians are making conscious efforts to evaluate the consequences of the war from truly global perspectives. As part of such effort, my paper will examine how the outcome of the First World War altered the trans-Pacific world. The outbreak of the war in Europe initially appeared to be a contingent factor in the Asia-Pacific region, but by the end of the war, fundamental structural changes occurred in the region.
Geopolitically, the balance of power between West and East significantly shifted in the Pacific. Germany lost all colonial possessions in China and the Pacific. The Russian revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union shook the entire Eurasia and caused instability from Asian Siberia, Manchuria, all the way to the northern Pacific. Two non-European powers, the United States and Japan emerged as great powers capable of competing for naval supremacy with the British Empire in the Pacific.
Ideologically, these two Pacific powers, the United States and Japan aspired to reshape the Asia-Pacific region with their respective world visions at the Paris Peace Conference. President Woodrow Wilson tried to apply his liberal peace program manifested in his Fourteen Points, including the ideal of self-determination, unilaterally to the reality of Asia. Japanese leaders, on the other hand, were determined to takeover Germany’s Asia-Pacific empire, and advance their vision of a Japan-centric regional order in the Asian Pacific by establishing Japan’s supremacy over China under slogans such as “kyoson kyoei” (coexistence and co-prosperity) and the Asian Monroe Doctrine. The Treaty of Versailles was a compromise that satisfied neither parties, only to frustrate nationalist aspirations of colonized peoples in Asia.
When the United States Senate failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty, the new Republican administration under President Warren Harding convened the Washington Conference (1921-22) in order to deal with the shift in the balance of power in the Pacific. However, historians continue to debate the historical significance of the Versailles-Washington Treaty system in the 1920s in a broader context of the continuities and discontinuities from World War I to World War II in the Pacific theater. Did the Versailles-Washington system create a new order in the Pacific? Did it become a lost opportunity to achieve a lasting peace? Or, did the Versailles-Washington Treaty system merely redress imperialism with different actors in a new format? Or even worse, did it pave the way for the rise of Japanese militarism and showdown with the Anglo-American powers?
My paper will address these questions by primarily examining the attitudes of Japanese political leaders, such as Hara Takashi, Makino Nobuaki, and Konoe Fumimaro, toward the Versailles-Washington Treaty system. I suggest that despite the rhetoric of a new liberal Japan and “Taisho democracy” in the 1920s, Japanese leaders continued to pursue an autarkic empire and a Japan-centric regional order. Those who reluctantly adhered to the Versailles-Washington Treaty system for pragmatic reasons increasingly came to believe that U.S. efforts to maintain the status quo in Asia and the Pacific amounted to the containment of Japan as a second-rate nation. Those who advocated accommodation with the Anglo-American powers shared the goal of Japan’s national greatness as an empire, but they disagreed with hawks primarily as to how to achieve that goal.
Contesting the Colonial Culture of Victory in the French Empire
More than any other imperial power, France had relied heavily on the economic and military contribution of its colonies to the cause of National Defence during the Great War. The presence of hundreds of thousands of colonial subjects on the battlefields and in the factories of wartime France would surely have important implications for the shape the new postwar imperial order would take.
In this paper, I consider the efforts of actors across the French Empire to impose their vision of a new postwar imperial polity. I explore the extent to which the postwar embrace of concepts of self-determination in territories such as Egypt, India and Korea was replicated in the French colonies. Were activists in Senegal, Madagascar and Algeria echoing the calls of their fellow subject peoples in other parts of the colonial world or did the ‘Wilsonian Moment’ simply pass the French Empire by?
In answering this question, I also consider the range of alternative visions of the postwar imperial order advanced by indigenous political leaders throughout the Empire. In particular, I highlight the new concept of imperial citizenship articulated by indigenous political leaders during and after the war, asking if their quest for enhanced rights within the imperial polity represented a rejection or a reconfiguration of the idea of self-determination.
Finally, I compare postwar political activism in the French Empire with its equivalents around the colonial world, highlighting commonalities and underlining contrasts. This analysis points to the cultural specificity of supposedly universal concepts such as Wilsonian self-determination and French republican citizenship.
The integration of the case of the French Empire into our narrative of the reordering of the postwar world is essential for historians who seek to measure the transformative impact of the Great War beyond the boundaries of Europe.