185: Versailles Pt. 4 - Racial Equality, Denied. and the Betrayal of China


Both Japan and China would send representatives to the Paris Peace Conference. Their situations coming into the conference could not have been more different, but they both left disappointed.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 185, Racial Equality, Denied, and the Betrayal of China. In this episode we shift our focus onto one specific region that would be discussed at the Paris Peace Conference, the Far East, where the primary players will be Japan and China. This focus on one region will be the format for the next two months or so of episodes as we moved around the globe, looking at how the conference interacted with varioud areas around the world. China and Japan would be on almost completely opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of international prestige, power, and respect before the conference, but at the end they would both walk away disappointed. One one side of the spectum would be Japan, a country that had entered the war near its beginning by jumping in on the side of the Entente. Even before the war the country had good relations with the British, who believed that a good relationship with Japan was a critical piece in maintaining the British position in the Pacific. In this goal the Japanese were seen as a partner, and after entering the war Japan still occupied this position. When it came time to send a delegation to Paris Japan would even be given a seat at the big kid table of the Supreme Council, placed among the most powerful nations in the world. Japan entered the conference full of confidence, thanks in no small part to the treaties, most of them secret, that the country had signed with other victorious countries that contained certain promises and guarantees which meant that Japan had a very good chance of accomplishing many of its goals at the conference, especially when it came to territorial acquisitions. On the other side of the spectrum was China, China had a long history of being exploited and looked down upon by the European powers. It was seen as a country from which resources could be extracted, with a government that was too weak to prevent the country from being used and controlled by other nations around the world. It had joined in the war much later, and even though it had tried to be an important contributor to Allied victory, even attempting to send soldiers to the Western Front, the country’s role in the war would always be minimized by its allies. While the relationship between the two countries and the European powers was very different, the relationship between the two countries was also not very equal. During the war the Japanese had forced the Chinese government to sign a document that would be called the Twenty-One Demands. This treaty, which included the requirement that it remain completely secret, gave Japan wide ranging control over large areas of north eastern China. The existence of this treaty, and the fact that it was signed by the Chinese government, would greatly hinder the efforts of the Chinese delegations at the conference and the end result would be a treaty that would be seen as a disaster in China. For both of these countries we will look at their goals at the conference, the delegations that they sent, and then what happened once they arrived. We will then of course discuss the results of the conference, and how those results were received in both countries, and why both countries say the conference as a failure.

We will start today with Japan. Japan had been preparing for the Paris Peace Conference since they had entered the war. Over the course of four years they would prepare, and when it was time they would send their delegation to Paris, and they would be very prepared. Overall, the war had already been very good for Japan. Japanese manufacturers saw both an increase in foreign orders and the almsot removal of many European companies from the Asian economic scene as those companies focused on European concerns. These economic gains were joined by a huge increase in the Japanese Merchant Marine, which increased Japan’s role in international shipping. This increase was due mostly to a huge increase in demand from China and Russia. Like most countries, in Japan this massive influx of wealth did not benefit all of society equally, but there was enough to go around, and it would not cause any massive problems, at least in 1919. Even with the benfefits from the war, the Japanese were still very concerned about their lack of direct control over natural resources. This drove the government to push for the creation of a Japanese Empire on the European model, one structured around resource extraction. To this end, the two primary goals for the Japanese delegation at the conference was to gain control of the North Pacific Islands that had been German colonies before the war, and then to gain as much power as possible on the Chinese mainland and particularly in the Chinese province of Shantong, which had been under German influence. The third goal of the Japanese delgation was to push for language around racial equality to be added to the League of Nations charter, which would prove to be a very contentious topic. One thing I want to mention about Japan, and this is a big reason why we will not be discussing the Japanese delegation very much after this episode, and that is because Japan was one of the counries at the conference, much like Italy, that did not often get involved with discussions and decisions that did not directly effect Japan. This would limit their role in many of the big decisions that the Conference, and Supreme Council, made about Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, or Germany, and this limitation was at least partially self-imposed.

When the Japanese made their territorial demands known to the other countries in the Supreme Council there was generally some concern, but that concern was very different depending on which territory was being discussed. When it came to Japan’s requested territory in mainland China, there was not as much concern, if only due to how many previous agreements had been made with the European powers that generally just reinforced the Twenty-One demands that Japan and China had already signed a treaty about. Obviously China would have some thoughts on these territories, but let’s talk about those here in a bit. Right now lets look at Japan’s request for Pacific Islands, about which there was very large concerns from the Americans. Generally Japan’s expansionist policies in the Pacific were not met by protests from other players in the region, specifically Australia and New Zealand, not because they liked the idea of Japan gaining a bunch of islands in the Pacific, but because they also wanted a bunch of Germany’s Pacific Possessions. The Americans on the other hand hoped that most of these islands could be given back to Germany, who could then barter them away as payment for reparations, with most of them of course going to the United States. When this arrangement proved to be impossible Wilson instead pushed for them to be included as mandates. Mandates are a complicated topic that we will dig far deeper into when discussing the Middle East next episode but Wilson would describe the concept like this “the fundamental idea would be that the world was acting as a trustee through a mandatory, and would be in charge of the whole administration until the day when the true wishes of the inhabitants could be ascertained.” Th concept of mandates would be one of those idea at the Conference that Wilson would push for, many other countries would eventually agree to, and then basically all of the countries given a mandate would completely ignore the restrictions placed upon them by the concept. A great example of this would be the Pacific Islands that would be given as mandates to the Japanese with the understanding that the Japanese could not fortify them, or make them into military bases. The Japanese would agree to these restrictions, and then proceed to make the islands into important military bases to be used in the next war.

While gaining more territory was an important goal for the Japanese delegation at the conference, another goal, and one that was very popular among Japanese civilians was the idea that the League of Nations could be a vehicle for a reduction in the amount of international racial discrimination that was experienced by the Japanese, and really most of the non-European world. Many Japanese, and Asians as a whole, saw this racial discrimination as a kind of badge of shame that was placed upon them by the Europeans. As soon as Wilson pushed forward with discussions about the League the Japanese delegation began work on getting a clause included that prohibited this discrimination. In the League Commission that setup the draft of the League covenant the Japanese had two representatives, and during the process they waited for their chance to add in their racial equality clause. The first attempt to do this would come on February 13th, when they tried to get it added into the clause that addressed religious liberty. This piece of the draft already made it clear that League members should not discriminate against people based on their creed, religion, or belief. The Japanese wanted to add the following amendment “The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.” Opposition to this amendment would come from both the British and Americans. On the British side there were concerns about what such a statement would due to the British Empire, an empire based on the idea that the Europeans were superior. The Australians were also very concerned with what a statement would mean for Australia, with one delegate saying “No Govt. could live for a day in Australia if it tampered with a White Australia.“On the American side there was a general understanding among American representatives in Paris that there were strong anti-Japanese feelings among the American public and especially on the West Coast. Edward House, a close advisor to Wilson was in fact very happy that the British were against the amendment because it allowed the Americans to oppose it without taking center stage, he would say “It has taken considerable finesse to lift the load from our shoulders and place it upon the British, but happily, it has been done.” In the book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World the authors Margaret Macmillan and Richard Holbrooke would say this about this period of deliberations “While Wilson was away in the United States, the British did their best to resolve the issue. The French, who had nothing at stake, watched with amusement.” I kind of just like the mental picture that paints for me of the British and Americans being all angry while the French just hang out, probably drinking some wine, smiling to themselves. Also, if you want my recommendation on the book to read on the Conference, Paris 1919 is definitely that recommendation, it is fantastically detailed and informative while also being very readable. Anyway, back to the conference. The Japanese proposal would not be resolved in February and would instead, like so many other things at the conference, not be resolved until April. It would be on the 11th of April, which was also while the Americans and Wilson were trying to find a way to reconcile the League of Nations and the Monroe Doctrine, that the amendment that the Japanese had introduced would be officially voted on. By this point the Japanese had watered down the language in the amendment to just say “the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals.” But this did not greatly change the overall support or opposition for the amendment. As the commission voted it became clear that their was widespread support for it. The only real opposition was from the Americans, the British, and the Commonwealth, but the opposition was in the minority, and the vote would find a majority of the votes in favor. Seeing the numbers were against him, Wilson relented, just kidding, seeing the numbers were against him, Wilson decided to ignore the vote. He would claim that there was clearly a strong opposition to the amendment, and so it should be rejected even if a majority had been in favor of it. Good old Mr. Making the World Safe for Democracy, ignoring democracy in action.

This rejection would be the end of Japan’s quest to get a racial equality clause built into the League of Nations. In many ways this rejection would be a turning point in 20th century Japanese history. The country had just played the game correctly, they had become a member of the global community, supported her allies during the war, and yet at the end was still destined to be seen as inferior to the Europeans. This would be a contributing factor for what would happen after the war. Japanese political and military leaders would turn away from cooperation with Western Countries, and instead they would push to become stronger through direct control over the Western Pacific. Oddly enough, it was the things that Japan had gained from the Conference that would make this control possible. Influence over the territory on the Chinese mainland would be an important first step in the creation of the Japanese empire. In the Pacific the Japanese also gained valuable footholds that would later become battlefields of the next great war. These islands were in the Marianas, Marshalls, and Caroline Islands, which should sound very familiar to any person with knowledge of the Pacific theater of World War 2. I will end this section of the episode with a quote from the head of the Japanese delegation to Paris, Prince Kimmochi Saionji, which would prove to be quite prophetic. “I am not worried about any general lack of patriotism, but afraid of where an abundance of patriotism might lead us.”

While Japan entered into the Conference in a position of relative strength, its largest neighbor, China, was in a very different situation. China was in a pretty rough spot at this point in history. For almost a century the country had been taken advantage of by the Europeans, with large amount of economic and territorial control having been taken by the Europeans in the last decades of the 19th century. Many Chinese hoped that the war would prove to be a good thing for China, giving the country a chance to join the international community of nations, and to this end the Chinese government enthusiastically tried to help the Entente and then the Allies during the conflict. This included sending the Chinese Labor Corps, in which thousands of Chinese laborers were transported to both Western Europe and Russia to provide manual labor for the Allied Armies. The Chinese would then join the war in 1917, answering the call of the United States which asked countries all over the world to join in the war against Germany. For the rest of the war the Chinese would continue to increase their support for the Allied war effort, this would include attempts to send troops to the Western Front. In these efforts they were thwarted by the British and the Japanese. The British did not want the Chinese troops on the Western Front due to good old classical racism, believing that they would not be worth the shipping it would take to get them there. On the Japanese side they did not want the Chinese to send troops because they themselves had not sent any troops to Western Europe and they did not want the Chinese to contribute more to the war than they had. With all of these contributions, and attempted contributions, the Chinese hoped that they could gain a better position in the post war world and in the deliberations at the peace conference. However, these hopes would be crushed. The first reason for this was agreements made by members of the Chinese government and the Japanese during the war. These had started with the Twenty-One demands that had been signed with the Japanese in 1915 and then later reaffirmed in 1918. This was a secret treaty that was signed by Chinese officials at the time, but was so secret that many within the Chinese government in 1918 did not even know about it. The contents gave the Japanese control over the Chinese territory of Shantung. The Japanese even had it in writing from the Chinese representative that signed the treaty that the Chinese government “gladly agreed” to the treaties. This compromised one of, if not the, main goal for the Chinese at the Conference, and that was the reduction of foreign influence within their country. The second main problem for the Chinese at the conference was the divisions within the country. When it came time to send a delegation to Paris the country was divided in two with a government in the north, at Peking, and one in the south at Canton both claiming to be the official government of China. Both of these governments would send delegations to Paris. While these two delegations would end up agreeing on many topics, they had some important differences. Almost more importantly the presence of two seperate and oppositional Chinese delegations reduced the ability of the Chinese to influence the course of negotiations about China.

Both of the Chinese delegations would get some initial support from the United States, with the Americans helping them to get their demands in order and to present them, but the delegations would never work together in a meaningful way. The biggest reason for this is that they fundamentally distrusted each other, with both sides believing that the other were working with the Japanese. This prevented any of kind of real united Chinese front from being formed. This was a big problem, but was not the biggest problem, that was instead those secret treaties that had been signed with the Japanese. The treatiest were problematic just at a basic level, but skilled diplomats may have been able to prepare for them and could have worked around them, or at least had a good response prepared. There was just one issue with that, remember how I said that the treaties were secret, werll they were so secret that the Chinese delegations at the conference did not know about them. This is a detail that just blows my mind, the Chinese delegations at the Paris Peace Conference were not informed by the Chinese government that there were binding treaties with the Japanese that completely changed the situation with Chinese territory the control of which was the primary objective of the delegations. This was just a gift to the Japanese delegation, and they would wait for the opportune moment to disclose the existence of the treaties, putting the Chinese delegation in a position where they did not have any good response, all they could really say is that the treaties were not valid which would not prove to be an effective defense.

The fate of Shantung would first be discussed in the Supreme Council in late January. On the 27th the Japanese would attempt to bring up Shantung during discussions of Germany’s pacific colonies. There was not Chinese representatives present at the time, but the Japanese claimed that they were not required because it was an issue strictly concerning Japan and Germany, who had control over the area before the war. The other leaders said that China would need to be involved in any discussions about Shantung, and so the topic was tabled for later discussion. This discussion would not occur until April. An important feature of this delay until the month of April was the state of the conference during April. This would be the point in the conference where everybody, and especially the Supreme countil, were very busy and they were deep into discussions trying to finalize the details of the treaty, which involved many heated discussions and trying to hash out compromises where neither party actually wanted to compromise. This would also be around the time that the Italians would just straight up walk out of the Conference due to disagreements with the other countries, although they would eventually come back. Basically, this was not a good time for the Chinese if they wanted to get a well considered, thoroughly thought out, and nuanced decision on the fate of Shantung, but this would be the situation that they would have to deal with. On the 21st of April the Japanese would once again push for a settlment on the situation in China and they would threaten to leave the conference if a decision was not made soon. This forced the hand of the other leaders. Wilson’s solution, instead of just giving the territory to the Chinese was to terminate all of the currently agreed upon spheres of influence in China by the European powers, and then to place all of Germany’s previous territory under the joint control of the Big Five, Britain, France, Italy, the United States, and Japan. Wilson would gain some acceptance for the removal of the other European spheres of influence, with support for this decision coming from the Japanese, who knew that the more European interests they could get out of China the better since it would put them in a better position to take advantage of being in the region. The Japanese still wanted their control over Shantung, and they would eventually get it. The Chinese delegation, who were present for many of these discussions and the final decision, spoke out against it, they denied the validity of the agreements made by China and Japan during the war, they claimed that such a decision would have drastic negative consequences within China, and they appealed to the ideals of the 14 points, but none of it mattered. Wilson and the other leaders would say that their hands were tied both by the agreements made between China and Japan and between Japan and the Allies. Wellington Koo, the lead Chinese delegate present at the time, would say that this was a colossal error, it would cause issues in China, and perhaps even turn the country away from cooperation with the West. He would end his speech by saying that “It is a question of whether we can guarantee a peace of half a century to the Far East, or if a situation will be created which can lead to war within ten years.”, but none of his words would matter. While the Allies would hide behind international treaties for their decision, it would prove to be another example of very selective adherence to principals. At this same moment that they were claiming that they simply could not ignore official international treaties signed between the Allies and Japan, Italy was preparing to walk out on the Conference because the Americans and British refused to acknowledge the Treaty of London which the British had signed with the Italians in 1915. But in regards to China treaties simply could not be ignored, of course. While there were many reasons for this selective adherence, and remember that racism will play a role in all of these decisions. There is also another reason, and in our story here China will prove to be the first of many sacrifices upon the alter of the League of Nations. Wilson would say, when told by one of his secretaries that world opinion would be in favor of China gaining control over Shantong that “I know that too, but if Italy remains away & Japan goes home, what becomes of the League of Nations?” Wilson would provide assurances to the Chinese that the League would prevent any future Japanese aggression against China, what would not work out so well.

The decisions made about Shantung would completely sour the Chinese on the entire conference. In fact, when it came time to sign the treaty, the Chinese woul refuse, they would not even attend the ceremony. They had put their faith in the Allies, and especially Wilson and his Fourteen Points, and they had been betrayed. I consider this the second largest betrayal by the Allies at the Conference, second only to the betrayal of the Arabs, but this is mostly just because the betrayal of the Arabs is on just a different level of betrayal. Back in China, news of what had happened in Paris would send shockwaves through Chinese society and it would cause people to make decisions that would spiral out into almost 40 years of conflict. One Chinese student who would just a few days later be involved in the Maty 4th Movement, would say this about his experience in the days after the information arrived at his university “When the news of the Paris Peace Conference finally reached us we were greatly shocked. We at once awoke to the fact that foreign nations were still selfish and militaristic and that they were all great liars. I remember the night of May 2nd and very few of us slept. A group of my friends and I talked almost the whole night. We came to the conclusion that a greater world war would be coming sooner or later, and that this great war would be fought in the East. We had nothing to do with our Government, that we knew very well, and at the same time we could no longer depend upon the principles of any so-called great leader like Woodrow Wilson, for example. Looking at our people and at the pitiful ignorant masses, we couldn’t help but feel that we must struggle.” China would continue to be split in two until after the Second World War, first in Civil War, and then by the Japanese, and then once again by Civil War. In 1920 the Chinese Communist Party would be formed, under the leadership of many participants of those same May 4th demonstrations. It would contain such names as Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai who would go on to change Chinese history. As with many other areas of the world the Treaty of Versailles would not be the cause of lasting peace in China and Japan, but instead it would just be the beginning of a new age of war. There would be constant friction in the region, Civil War in China, then war between China and Japan, and then war between Japan and the world. for the Japanese the shadow of Versailles would last until 1945, for the Chinese it would last much longer.