Isaiah Bowman


Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

American geographer, Yale University professor, advisor to President Woodrow Wilson at the . He was born in Waterloo, in the Canadian province of Ontario, to a farming ­Mennonite family that ­moved to the United States ­shortly after his birth­. Bowman studied at Michigan State University and later at Harvard. On the basis of material collected during scientific expeditions to Latin America, he wrote his doctoral thesis and received his Ph.D. degree at Yale University (1909). A member of ­the American Association of Geographers since 1906, ­in which he held numerous positions, including director (since 1915) and president (1931–32). As a member of ­the Association, Bowman initiated a project to create a map of Latin America of unprecedented accuracy.

With the entry of the United States into World War I, Bowman, as the director of the Association, was involved in the work of the . In 1918, as the chief territorial specialist for the ­American delegation, he went to the . During the negotiations, thanks to his organizational skills, he began to play leadership and administrative roles, gaining the trust of both Edward Mandell House and President Wilson himself. He was instrumental in determining the shape of territorial provisions, including those concerning ­Poland. His attitude during the negotiations secured his gratitude from the Poles.

After returning to the United States, Bowman continued his commitment to academic work. In 1935, he was elected president of Johns Hopkins University. During World War II, he became an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on behalf of the State Department, ­helping to establish the United Nations. His achievements were overshadowed by his deep anti-Semitism, which manifested itself, among other things, in his reluctance ­to hire Jewish academics.


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December 1918: Members of the Peace Inquiry Bureau aboard the "George Washington" ship, on their way to the Paris Peace Conference. Isaiah Bowman sits second on the left, James Thomson Shotwell stands in the first row first on the left, Robert Howard Lord stands in the last row first on the right. Photo: Lieut. E. N. Jackson, Signal Corps U.S.A., National Archives at College Park

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December 15, 1918: Isaiah Bowman's pass issued by the American Commission to Negotiate Peace in Paris. Photo: Ferdinand Hamburger University Archives, Johns Hopkins University

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Paris, 1919: Isaiah Bowman's room at the Hotel de Crillon. Photo: Ferdinand Hamburger University Archives, Johns Hopkins University

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1919: Map with delineated borders of Poland and its neighbors prepared by Isaiah Bowman. Photo: Ferdinand Hamburger University Archives, Johns Hopkins University

Deliberations in the middle of the Atlantic

[In the Atlantic] December 10, 1918

After a few introductory remarks to the effect that he was glad to meet us, and that he welcomed the suggestion of a conference to give his views on the impending Peace Conference, the President remarked that we would be the only disinterested people at the Peace Conference, and that the men whom we were about to deal with did not represent their own people. […]

As for the form of Poland’s government and questions like that of the disposition of Danzig, he would only say that he was in favor of them having any government they damned pleased, and that he was for imposing upon them no other provision than those which applied to individuals – the important thing is what a person ought to have, not what he wants.

The President pointed out that this was the first conference in which decisions depended upon the opinion of mankind, not upon the previous determinations and diplomatic schemes of the assembled representatives. With great earnestness he re-emphasized the point that unless the Conference was prepared to follow the opinions of mankind and to express the will of the people rather than of their leaders at the Conference, we should soon be involved in another breakup of the world, and when such a breakup came it would not be a war but a cataclysm.

He spoke of the League to Enforce Peace, of the possibility of an international court with international police, etc., but added that such a plan could hardly be worked out in view of the fact that there was to be only one conference and it would be difficult to reach agreements respecting such matters; and he placed in opposition to this view of the work of the Conference and of the project of a League of Nations, the idea of covenants, that is, agreements, pledges, etc., such as could be worked out in general form and agreed to and set in motion, and he particularly emphasized the importance of relying on experience to guide subsequent action.

As for the League of Nations, it implied political independence and territorial integrity plus later alteration of terms and alteration of boundaries if it could be shown that injustice had been done or that conditions had changed. And such alteration would be the easier to make in time as passion subsided and matters could be viewed in the light of justice rather than in the light of a peace conference at the close of a protracted war. […]

Anticipating the difficulties of the Conference in view of the suggestion he had made respecting the desire of the people of the world for a new order, he remarked, “If it won’t work, it must be made to work,” because the world was faced by a task of terrible proportions and only the adoption of a cleansing process would recreate or regenerate the world. The poison of Bolshevism was accepted readily by the world because “it is a protest against the way in which the world has worked.” It was to be our business at the Peace Conference to fight for a new order, “agreeably if we can, disagreeably if necessary”.

source: Bowman, Isaiah. “Memorandum on Conference with President Wilson” in: James T. Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937.