October 2007

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Billy Hughes & Woodrow Wilson

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

The president of the United States did not have a high opinion of the prime minister of Australia. “A pestiferous varmint”, he called him. But William Morris Hughes didn’t give a damn what Woodrow Wilson thought of him. He’d been called a lot worse, after all, and it hadn’t done him any harm. The Labor Party had declared him a “rat” and expelled him from its ranks - yet here he was, two years later, still the PM and now backed by a whopping parliamentary majority. The British foreign secretary, Lord Robert Cecil, described him as “that shrimp” - yet he had secured an independent presence for Australia at the postwar negotiating table. President Clemenceau of France referred to him as a “cannibal” - but that was just good-natured Gallic humour.

It was 1919 and the world’s statesmen were gathered in Paris to redraw the map of the world. Australia had expended much blood and treasure to win the peace, and Hughes was there to see that it got its fair share of the spoils. Wilson had grand schemes and high ideals but, when push came to shove, it would take more than a supercilious manner and some high-faluting cant to shut Billy Hughes up.

Wilson, a professor of jurisprudence and a former president of Princeton, had joined the war reluctantly and late. Not much interested in military affairs or the common soldier, he envisaged a peace based on decolonisation, disarmament and a League of Nations. Hughes, a former shearers’ union organiser, had earned his law degree at 40, part-time. An eager warmonger, ‘the little digger’ wanted to hang the Kaiser, reduce Germany to penury and parcel out its overseas possessions to the victors.

The bone of contention was German New Guinea. Wilson wanted it declared a trustee territory of his proposed league. It was Australia’s strategic front door, Hughes reckoned, and the size of our casualty list entitled us to outright ownership. “Am I to understand that Australia is prepared to defy the opinion of the whole civilised world, Mr Hughes?” Wilson brusquely demanded.

Hughes fiddled with his hearing aid and pretended not to have heard. Wilson, dripping sarcasm, repeated the question. “That’s about the size of it, Mr President,” drawled Hughes.

In due course, on a glorious June day, the plenipotentiaries assembled in the Hall of Mirrors to affix their signatures and seals to the Treaty of Versailles. Australia got New Guinea, and the civilised world got the League of Nations. For the national seal, Hughes used a button from an Australian Army uniform.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: October 2007
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