From 1914 onwards, immigrant groups in the United States – Irish, Poles, Jews, Italians, Germans, Magyars and nationalities in the Mid-European Union, along with Egyptians, Indians and other nationalist groups outside the US – believed that the Allies' war aims, and, more specifically, those of US president Woodrow Wilson incorporated their particular demands for independence.
His 14 points to Congress on January 8th, 1918, included the right of "every peace-loving nation . . . to live its own life, [and] determine its own institutions" and the establishment of a League of Nations "affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike".
Immigrant activists’ hopes intensified during 1918 as Wilson continued to speak in these general, all-inclusive terms.
All groups, particularly Irish organisations (Friends of Irish Freedom, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Clan na nGael, the Irish Progressive League) along with Irish-American political, labour and religious leaders, were encouraged by Wilson’s rhetoric.
Thus with congressional elections due in November 1918 and Wilson's peace plan the sole blueprint for a post-war settlement, Irish hopes were high despite the president's lack of support for Irish republicans after the Easter Rising and the work of the Committee on Public Information, his propaganda department in Allied recruitment work in Ireland during 1917 and 1918.
October 19th even his arch-enemy, John Devoy, used the columns of the Gaelic American to encourage all Irish-Americans to support Wilson, because he believed that "all peoples are entitled to self-government and self-determination". At the election, the Democrats lost their dominance of the Congress and Wilson entered the Paris negotiations in a weaker domestic position than Lloyd George and Georges Clémenceau.
Despite the altered political landscape, Wilson was in no doubt about the immigrant groups’ expectations of him in Paris. Irish-American agitation continued right up to his departure and climaxed with the “Self-Determination of Ireland Week” on December 8th-15th.
But, what exactly was Wilson’s attitude towards the Irish issue as he prepared to depart for Europe? Wilson had assured Lloyd George that he “would not allow Ireland to be dragged into the peace conference”. But neither could he distance himself from the Irish problem due to domestic pressure from within his own party. Yet, by the time he sailed for Paris on December 4th, Irish republicans still believed that the Irish were included on his list of peoples who would win freedom from the settlement and that he would support the presence of an Irish delegation in the peace negotiations in Paris. The ingredients were present for a violent rupture between Wilson and Irish-American republicans.
By the time Wilson and his party arrived in Paris, the parameters of the Irish problem had changed because of the Sinn Féin victory and the sidelining of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the general election on December 14th, 1918.
But after a visit to London on December 28th where Wilson discussed “the grave menace of the Irish problem”, with Lloyd George, he was even more convinced that it was not America’s responsibility to find a settlement to the Irish problem.
The Paris conference opened on January 18th, 1919. The peace-makers had to handle the consequences of the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires and the rise of Bolshevism. Disagreements soon emerged about the Rhineland, reparations, indemnities, Germany’s colonies and Italy’s territorial claims. Against this background, settling the Irish problem did not appear urgent to Wilson, even if he had wanted to do it. In Paris, Sinn Féin envoys of the new Dáil Éireann failed to meet him. Instead they met individual members of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.
Historians have detailed the way in which the Irish-American campaign inside and outside Congress for US support of the Irish case at Paris, gathered pace from December 1918 onwards. When brought to Wilson's attention, he replied on one occasion that it would not be "wise" for him to intervene and he instructed his private secretary, Irish-American Joseph Tumulty, to keep up the utmost pressure to see that Congress did not act on any Irish resolutions in Congress.
During his trip back to the US in February he encountered the unexpected alliance between the Republicans and Irish-Americans centring on opposition to the League covenant. He agreed to meet
a delegation of the third Irish Race Convention in New York. When Frank P Walsh asked him to use his influence and secure a hearing at the peace conference for an Irish delegation, Wilson replied, "You do not expect me to give an answer to this request now?" Walsh replied that he did not and the meeting ended.
Wilson returned to Paris on March 14th to a tense and delicate situation. The American Commission on Irish Independence (ACII) comprising three prominent Irish-Americans – Frank P Walsh, Michael J Ryan and Edward F Dunne – arrived on April 11th to secure the safe passage from Ireland to Paris for the Sinn Féin leaders in order to present the Irish case for self-determination to the conference and failing this to present the Irish case themselves. Their timing could not have been worse.
Wilson agreed to meet Walsh on April 17th perhaps because of the deteriorating conditions in Ireland due to the Anglo-Irish War of Independence, or to the pressures emanating from US domestic politics.
Nonetheless, the circumstances of the meeting placed the Irish issue in a wider context. (Walsh’s appointment was the 14th of 18 engagements which Wilson fulfilled that day.) The fact that Wilson was prepared to meet Walsh represented progress for the Irish-Americans.
Wilson indicated that he had twice talked with George about the Irish situation and that he had urged upon him the importance of an early settlement, with which Lloyd George agreed. Wilson also indicated that once agreement had been reached on the peace settlement, he would say to Lloyd George that an Irish settlement was vital to US-British relations.
Wilson’s promise to act on the Irish question, albeit in the future, combined with his offer to help to secure permission for the ACII delegation to visit Ireland, represented substantial progress for the delegation, particularly after the low point of the New York meeting and the failure of the Sinn Féin envoys to meet Wilson in Paris. The ACII’s mission seemed close to success.
When the ACII delegation returned to Paris on May 16th after a 10-day tour of Ireland, the earlier goodwill built up with Wilson had dissipated. Wilson noted that their “utterances” in Ireland had given the “deepest offence” to the British and rendered it “impossible” for him “to serve them any further”. It is significant that at this time he was receiving information from the US about the Republicans’ campaign to use the issue of the recognition of the Irish republic as a weapon to defeat the League of Nations in Congress.
By the end of May 1919, as the proceedings moved towards a close in Paris, Wilson’s attitude towards the Irish-American “meddlers” both in Paris and the US remained uncompromising and even hardened, if that was possible.
The ACII delegation had accepted that there was no chance of the Sinn Féin leaders being allowed to appear before the peace conference. They requested Wilson if they could present the Irish case themselves. The request was ignored.
Nevertheless, Wilson approached Lloyd George on June 9th, during a meeting of the Council of Four and asked him “whether it would embarrass him if the Irish issue was to be brought up before the Big Four”.
Lloyd George replied that he “could not consent to hear the Irish in any way” because it would precipitate a parliamentary crisis in London, his government might fall thus jeopardising the peace settlement.
Wilson appreciated his response and promised that “in any action he would take, he would be careful not to embarrass” him. The following day Wilson and his advisers decided to ask Clémenceau “to lay” the Irish resolution “before the peace conference”. Clémenceau did not respond to the request dated June 16th.
Wilson’s final meeting with the Irish-American delegation took place on June 11th. It was a “very frank and open” meeting that deeply affected Walsh and left Dunne in tears by the end of it.
Wilson admitted that Ireland was the “great metaphysical tragedy of today” and he came close to admitting that he had not fully thought through the implications of self-determination.
In early summer 1919, Wilson’s policy of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of Britain, prompted by international concerns, personal annoyance and a continued opposition to hyphenism, remained intact.
The June 11th meeting ended the ACII's mission even though they continued presenting petitions and resolutions passed by the American Federation of Labour and the US Senate to Wilson. They also threatened to work towards the failure of the treaty in the US unless they were heard at the conference.
Walsh and Dunne departed for the US on June 20th, thereby ending the Paris phase of the Irish-American campaign for recognition of self-determination for Ireland.
- Professor Bernadette Whelan is head of History at the University of Limerick For sources, see Bernadette Whelan, United States foreign policy and Ireland. From empire to independence, 1913-29 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006).