In 1919, Japan stood poised to take its place among the world’s greatest powers. After rapidly modernizing, it had just demolished Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan had also joined the Allies in World War I, seizing German colonies across Asia.
But the Western leaders assembling at the Treaty of Versailles had no intention of welcoming Japan into their club. Their deep racism against the Japanese led to a betrayal that historians agree pushed Japan onto the path to World War II.
Japan arrived at Versailles with high hopes. Its delegation proposed an amendment banning racial discrimination and proclaiming equality between nations. Japan knew the racial climate was against them.
Policies like the United States’ Chinese Exclusion Act and Australia’s White Australia policy barred Asian immigrants. But Japan hoped the Allies would reward its WWI contributions with equal status.
Woodrow Wilson’s Controversial Veto and Its Implications
Woodrow Wilson personally vetoed the Racial Equality Proposal at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, even though it had received a majority vote for it to be added to the treaty. As a compromise, he allowed Japan to claim a number of islands in the Pacific.
Wilson’s decision to veto the proposal was controversial. Some historians believe that he was motivated by racism, while others believe that he was trying to appease the other Western powers, which were opposed to the proposal.
Whatever his reasons, Wilson’s decision to veto the proposal had a number of negative consequences. It humiliated Japan and contributed to the rise of nationalism and militarism in that country.
It also led to a decline in trust between Japan and the Western powers, which made it more difficult to resolve their differences peacefully.
The Path to War: Expansionism and Growing Tensions
The fallout proved disastrous. Japan’s moderates lost influence after Versailles while militant ultra-nationalists rose up.
By the 1930s, Japan had quit the League of Nations and signed a pact with Nazi Germany. The racist treatment of Japan at Versailles poisoned the well of goodwill needed to avoid war.
In the end, Wilson’s decision to veto the Racial Equality Proposal proved to be a costly one. It helped to set the stage for the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific just a few decades later.
The sad truth is that Wilson and the Allies betrayed their own principles in 1919. Their racist delusions about keeping Japan and other non-whites down ended up bringing about the very global conflict they had fought to avoid. It’s a searing example of how prejudice can sabotage pragmatism, leading to catastrophe.