Stephen Bonsal


Photo: Francis Randall Appleton, Knickerbocker Club, Library of Congress, D570.85.N5 N66

American journalist, war correspondent, writer and diplomat. Born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was educated in elite schools in the United States. He then studied ­in Europe, including Heidelberg, Bonn and Vienna. From 1885 to 1907 he worked as a war correspondent for the New York Herald – he was one of the first foreign correspondents hired by an American ­newspaper. He reported on conflicts in Europe (in the Balkans) and in other parts of the world, including the Japanese-Russian war in the Far East. In the years 1891–97, he held diplomatic posts at American missions in Beijing, Madrid, Tokyo and Seoul. In the years 1910–11 he worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

During World War I he served with the rank of colonel­ in the ­American Expeditionary Forces, being engaged in propaganda activities ­targeting soldiers of enemy armies. In 1918, he participated in the Congress of Oppressed Nations as a representative of the ­United­ States­. ­With the start of the peace negotiations, he was assigned to serve as an assistant to Edward Mandell House, whom he knew from his pre-war days­. ­His duties included maintaining contact with ­representatives of smaller nations during the . He also served as President Woodrow Wilson’s ­personal interpreter.

During his career, Bonsal visited almost every country in the world, making ­a significant contribution to preparing the American public to follow events in every corner of the globe. A significant part of his writing legacy concerned the negotiations leading up to the signing of the Treaty of ­Versailles. One of his books, Unfinished Business (1944), won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1945. ­He described matters relating to the fate of ­small nations at the in his book Suitors and Suppliants: the Little Nations at Versailles (1946).


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New York, September 9, 1916: Stephen Bonsal (standing first left) among members of the U.S.-Mexico Commission. Photo: Bain News Service, Library of Congress, LC-B2- 3966-13 [P&P]

From the trenches to the salons of Paris

Paris, January 5, 1919

For days now we have been simply deluged with Polish delegations. They have come in ever-increasing numbers not only from Cracow and Chicago, where Poles thrive, but they have come from all the four corners of the earth. Each claims to be the only simon-pure committee duly authorized to represent Polonia Restituta.

The Polish National Committee, seated here in a palace of one of the great territorial lords long in exile but not in want, has been formally recognized by the French government, but unfortunately Pilsudski […] is in control in Warsaw and in many other districts. He fought the Allied liberating forces of democracy for the first years of the war until his eyes were opened, and then his former friends, the German-Austrians, threw him into prison. He does not seem to be on good terms with the National Committee. As a matter of fact, I should say he is on the worst possible terms with its members in fact everybody is on bad terms with everyone else. All apparently are exercising the liberum veto which brought low the Polish state in the olden days. As I sit and listen to the uproar, I recall an old German saying I heard so often in my student days. It is to the effect that wherever four Poles are gathered together, at least five opinions are held and loudly expressed. I am forced to admit that this is a true word. […]

Every delegation demands precedence and priority the credentials to sustain these claims would fill, and probably by dead weight sink, an ocean steamer. The Allies acclaim Paderewski, and he is the choice of the National Committee here; but in Poland, those who have survived the devastating years of war seem to be enamored of Pilsudski. […]

From afar the Colonel surveyed this counterfeit presentment of what the Polish Parliament had been in the olden days, and then he reached a decision which unfortunately involved me. “This is a situation that must be handled sternly but with soft gloves, if you can. All the Poles must be summoned to come to my office tomorrow morning. I will not be there; you must take my place. This is the ultimatum that you must deliver to them: ‘Poland will be allotted two delegates – no more. They must fight it our among themselves as to the choice, but no one will be admitted unless all the delegates agree to his selection. There must be no more of the liberum veto which, as all historians agree, killed independent Poland in other days. If an agreement cannot be reached, then Poland cannot be represented in the Council of Nations, which would be too bad”.

[…] The Poles came at the appointed hour to the number of thirty and, after a little speech, I led them to the smaller conference salle on the third floor designated for the meeting. Unfortunately, the dignity of the proceedings was marred by a little incident for which our inexperienced room clerk, a hard-boiled quartermaster captain, was entirely responsible. What a man he was for giving you wrong numbers!

“Room 360”, he said tersely. But when we got there, the door was locked and while I knocked and knocked the long line of far from harmonious Poles waited with growing impatience. At last, in response to my increasingly angry calls, the door was opened and there stood before us a man who had just sprung from a disheveled bed. But no one had eyes for the bed; the man who opened the door was simply clothed in a union suit of flamingo red. He wanted to know what we meant by waking him up at ten in the morning. [….]

Another appeal to the military room clerk who did not keep his books up-to-date finally straightened things out. We located the conference room and into it I shoved the innumerable delegates. But I did not lock the door – escape must be possible. And, of course, I recognized I might have to rush in at any moment with a police squad. Then I made a little speech, clothing the Colonel’s brilliant idea with my drab words. They must get together. They must all agree upon the choice of two delegates – or else… and then I went.

I came back in an hour. The hubbub in the conference room was terrible. I did not even knock. I listened for a moment outside and went away. An hour later I came back. The uproar was still deafening. When I came back at the end of the third hour, a holy calm seemed to have settled over the place. At first I thought they were all dead. Timidly I opened the door and heard these words: “We have reached complete agreement,” they said in chorus. “St. Michael and all the angels have guided us. By common accord, we have chosen Paderewski and Dmowski as our delegates. All the Poles will stand behind these distinguished men; we are grateful to Colonel House for showing us the way to agreement”. […]

May 13, 1919

This is a black day for Poles; for France; perhaps for all of us. Most reluctantly, it is true, but all the same the President is about to yield to the demand of Lloyd George that a plebiscite be held to settle the Upper Silesia dispute. […]

These are the argument Lloyd George advances in favor of the vote: the Germans will not sign the Treaty unless the doctrine of self-determination is honored in Silesia, as elsewhere, and he adds that if in this matter the Germans are discriminated against there will be an uproar in Parliament and perhaps he could only sigh with reservations.

To save the Treaty, but with unconcealed regret and many misgivings, the President has decided to accept the plebiscite. He admits quite frankly that he is constrained to make a most unwelcome sacrifice, but he says: “At least, House, we are saving the Covenant, and that instrument will work wonders, bring the blessing peace, and then when the war psychosis has abated, it will not be difficult to settle all the disputes that baffle us now.”

House deeply regrets this decision. He considers it the most sinister of all the concessions that have been forced upon the President – to save the Treaty and above all the Covenant. He agrees with the French that in Silesia the Germans will find all the ores that would be needed to rearm and wage another aggressive war.

source: Bonsal, Stephen. “Suitors and Suppliants: The Little Nations at Versailles”, Safety Harbor: Simon Publications, 2001 (1946).