Woodrow Wilson

18 February 2008
Woodrow Wilson

Quai Gustave Ador, Quai Wilson, Princeton University, governor of New Jersey, US President, Paris Peace Conference, the League of Nations, the Nobel Prize, Palais des Nations, Geneva

In Geneva, on one side of the lake you have the Quai Gustave Ador and on the other side the Quai Wilson. Most people know that the Quai Wilson is named after Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States of America. But did you know that there is link between the naming of these two roads. So who was Gustave Ador? More about him later.

After a distinguished academic career at Princeton University and as governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson was elected US President in 1912 on a Democratic ticket and entered office in March 1913. At first, he had a great deal of success in getting important legislation adopted by the Senate and Congress. This was not too difficult since the Democrats had a majority in these two houses. When the First World War broke out in Europe in August 1914, he was determined to keep the United States out of it. This was particularly wise since the American population was divided about which side to support—the Allies or Germany. Opinion hardened when a German submarine sank the Lusitania on 7 May 1915 with the loss of 123 American lives. Wilson first issued a warning and then an ultimatum that German submarine commanders must ensure for the safety of the passengers and crew of merchant ships. A period of calm followed in 1916—at sea, at least.

In the presidential campaign of 1916, Wilson was re-elected and he began to think about what role the United States could play in any peace process. One of his ideas was that there should be no victor and no vanquished. In January 1917 he stated for the first time that world peace should be guaranteed by an institution called the League of Nations. In a move that must be considered hugely unwise, only a few days later the Germans decided to launch unrestricted submarine warfare. They even encouraged Mexico to invade Texas! Opinion in the United States swung violently against the Germans and, in April 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war.

Massive American involvement on the side of the United Kingdom, France and Italy contributed to the German capitulation in November 1918. Soon after, President Wilson came to Europe to attend the Peace Conference in Paris and was received with tumultuous enthusiasm in England, France and Italy. He called for “a general association of nations” to guarantee security and in April 1919 a document establishing the League of Nations was approved unanimously. Despite Wilson’s good intentions, the Allies insisted that they had won the war and that Germany had started it and had lost. Therefore, Germany must pay “reparations”. This insistence was to destabilize German politics throughout the 1920s and clear the way for the rise of Hitler’s dictatorship and the Second World War.

The question then arose of where the League should be situated. The first choice was Brussels, but this was the capital of a country with which Germany had just been at war. A neutral country would be a better choice and the obvious candidate was Geneva, the seat of the International Committee of the Red Cross. To clinch a deal, the President of the Swiss Confederation, Gustave Ador, went to Paris and met Wilson of the United States, Cl?menceau of France and Lloyd George of the United Kingdom. The outcome was a telegram from Gustave Ador to the Geneva State Council on 28 April 1919 reading: “Pleased to inform you that the Conference has chosen Geneva as headquarters of the League of Nations. Signed: Ador”.

A grateful Geneva renamed the left bank of the lakeshore Quai Gustave Ador and the right bank Quai Wilson. The Palais Wilson was originally constructed in 1872–75 as an administrative building and became the first headquarters of the League of Nations in 1919. Eventually, Geneva assembled its resources to build the Palais des Nations which was opened in 1936. I have not found any evidence that Wilson ever set foot in the city.

The Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919 and Wilson returned to Washington … where political disaster awaited him. Following the latest round of elections, the Democratic Party had lost its majority in the American Congress and Senate. The powerful Foreign Relations Committee was now dominated by Wilson’s political enemies—the Republicans. Wilson conducted an energetic nationwide campaign to have the Treaty of Versailles and the Covenant on the League of Nations ratified. This campaign failed and was, in fact, too energetic since he suffered a stroke. Finally, the United States voted not to join the League of Nations.

This decision was ultimately calamitous for the League since the whole purpose was to impose global economic sanctions on any government that chose to settle its disputes by armed attack rather than negotiation. If the world’s number one economic power would not participate in sanctions, confidence in the League of Nations was undermined. The result was that the League led a not very successful existence until 1939 and ceased to function altogether in 1946.

However, back in December 1920 it was clear that Wilson had already accepted defeat since, in his annual message to Congress, he did not mention the League of Nations. In March 1921, the Republican Warren Hastings took over as President.

For his work in bringing peace to Europe, Woodrow Wilson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1921. With his health broken, he lived until 1924.

Woodrow Wilson had a profound sense of responsibility for the public welfare. He was genial, humourous, considerate and had wide cultural interests. He was an outstanding orator and earned the admiration of all those who worked with him. His major accomplishments in the early years of his presidency were somewhat overshadowed by his tragic defeat at the hands of the senators over the League of Nations. Nevertheless, his wisdom in calling for an international body to maintain world peace was vindicated after the Second World War with the founding of the United Nations.


On 8 January 1918, that is to say eleven months before the First World War ended, President Wilson made a speech to the joint session of the United States Congress in which he stated under fourteen points how he envisaged the post-war settlement. The fundamental ideas running through this speech and Wilson’s subsequent pronouncements are that freedom, equality and justice shall be guaranteed for all peoples with total impartiality. He made specific mention of how potentially explosive European problems will be settled: in Russia, Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Romania, the Balkans, Turkey and Poland. Future relations between nations would be ruled by peace, justice, sovereignty, honour, respect and mutual trust. There would be no secret diplomacy and the consent of the people would be obtained in all territorial, economic and political matters concerning them. Finally, in his fourteenth point, Wilson stated that there would be “a general association of nations” to ensure that political independence and territorial integrity would be guaranteed—the League of Nations was set up in 1919. Problems would be settled there by open discussion and made known to the whole world. These guarantees would be carried out through the imposition of economic sanctions by all the other nations against the offending country. Nevertheless, during the 1930s secret diplomacy would completely undermine the League of Nations, no economic sanctions would be imposed on offending nations and the fate of some countries would be decided without the people concerned being consulted. The outcome was the Second World War.