Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan. Foreword, Richard Holbrooke

Published by: Random House, 2002
Pages: 570 pp
Price: $35.00

Organizations are better off when they plan and act strategically and ensure that their day-to-day actions build toward larger objectives which are clearly delineated and widely understood. But although ideas are at the heart of strategy, we ignore at our peril the personal predilections of forceful leaders who are driven to settle scores, bring about radical change or transform the world without sufficient understanding of the possible implications or likely consequences of their actions.

That lesson clearly emerges from Paris 1919 , winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, among other honors. The book brilliantly illuminates the fateful six months after World War I when the maps of Europe and much of the rest of the world were redrawn–with consequences that endure today. Margaret MacMillan, Provost of Trinity College and Professor of History at the University of Toronto, provides a compelling portrait of Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and a cast of hundreds more who sought to end “the war to end all wars.”

Although ideas are at the heart of strategy, we ignore at our peril the personal predilections of forceful leaders.
Rich in detail, scrupulously researched and unfailingly lively, this book compellingly portrays the complex political and contradictory human idiosyncrasies of the leaders who wrestled with the major issues that emerged as the war ended. It shows how their personalities determined the decisions reached at the Peace Conference and immediately thereafter, shaped the balance of the twentieth century and led to many of the problems that are today’s headlines–including Bosnia, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Africa, international governance, immigration and human rights, among others.

The great-granddaughter of Lloyd George, MacMillan convincingly argues that the peacemakers have been unfairly tainted as failing to prevent another war. This widely accepted view both distorts the nature of the decisions made in Paris and minimizes the impact of actions taken in subsequent years. The Peace Conference was about much more than producing the treaty that Germany signed.

But the Peace Conference tried to do too much too quickly and early on made decisions that significantly compromised its ability to resolve thoughtfully or carefully the larger matters on its agenda. From the outset, there was confusion over the organization, purpose and procedures of the Conference. The reality in Paris was starkly different from that on the ground away from the peace table: communications were fitful; misconceptions rampant; coordination episodic; and fatigue increasingly dominant.

But most of all it was the powerful men, with their likes and dislikes, their national interests and constraints and their hopes and fears, who are critical in understanding the Peace Conference and its impact on the world over the subsequent eight and a half decades. Britain’s Lloyd George was wily, amusing and pragmatic; France’s Clemenceau was formidable, implacable and controlling, insisting that the Conference be held in Paris, a decision that greatly complicated matters.

And above all, it was President Wilson who played the major role. Idealistic, naïve and noble, he was also remote, rigid and conflicted. He stirred great hopes with his Fourteen Points and the concept of “self-determination”, a phrase that even Wilson at times seemed unclear as to what he actually meant. He was often ill-informed and badly prepared for negotiations. He badly compromised his dreams in Paris and then made the opposite mistake upon his return home when he refused to make relatively minor concessions.

Beyond being a fascinating and sobering history, Paris 1919 is important to nonprofit leaders for a number of reasons. It illuminates how an extraordinary turning point in history came to shape forcefully today’s world and the policy framework–foreign, social and policy–within which nonprofit organizations operate. It illustrates how poorly conceived strategic aspirations and decisions, made with insufficient clarity or precision, can have far reaching consequences. And it vividly tells the story of how damaging overarching ambition, insufficiently informed and grounded, can be in both the short- and longer-term.

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