On Jan. 8, 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson put forth a new moral standard for international relations with his Fourteen Points. A peace plan to end World War I, the Fourteen Points was also intended to ensure that no such conflict occurred ever again. Much of the substance of the Fourteen Points, however, was ultimately sidelined at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
World War I began in the summer of 1914 when the great powers of Europe unleashed the full fruits of the Industrial Revolution toward killing. Each belligerent's army suffered horrendous losses, with millions of young men slaughtered on the battlefield and millions more returning to civilian life physically and emotionally shattered. The financial cost, which many had predicted would necessitate only a short, sharp war, had reached astronomical proportions relatively quickly.
In April 1917, the United States entered the war alongside Britain, France and a tottering, quasi-democratic Russian regime. When Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany, the president stated firmly, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Having dispatched Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to France, the United States quickly began to build up a major military force in Europe.
Wilson desired to the see a speedy conclusion to the war. Many of the Allied states, however, had proclaimed that they intended territorial annexation, indemnities and other conditions. Wilson feared that the nationalist goals of America's allies would make peace difficult to conclude. Certainly Germany would not lay down its arms if it was expected to hand over sizable territories and pay huge sums of money.
Also, Wilson appreciated that despite the new level of technological barbarity, World War I was essentially being waged as a 19th century conflict — one in which "might made right," and where the winner made the loser pay heavily for the defeat. Wilson hoped, some believed naively, to introduce a new level of idealism into international relations and end World War I in such a manner as to radically alter the way nations conducted themselves. Critically, Wilson hoped, war itself could be abolished from the civilized world.
In Henry Kissinger's book, “Diplomacy,” the former secretary of state wrote: “In late October 1917, Wilson dispatched (Col. Edward M.) House to ask the Europeans to formulate war aims which would reflect his proclaimed aim for a peace without annexations or indemnities safeguarded by a world authority. For several months, Wilson refrained from putting forward his own views because, as he explained to House, France and Italy might object if America expressed doubts about the justice of their territorial aspirations.”
Moving forward on his own, Wilson decided to proclaim America's war aims on Jan. 8, 1918. With sweeping, elegant language, Wilson enumerated the points of his plan to end the war and to secure a free, safe and prosperous post-war world.
Wilson's first point dealt with diplomacy itself. He called for “Open covenants, openly arrived at” and that “diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” Many believed that the outbreak of World War I owed much to the secret machinations of the European states involved, secret treaties and agreements that often conflicted with others. Plain speaking and honesty, Wilson believed, could do much to prevent future wars.
The second point dealt with freedom of the seas. This was a direct challenge to Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that began with the outbreak of war, but was suspended after the 1915 sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania. Over 1,200 people went down with the ship, including 128 Americans. The German reactivation of the policy in February 1917 was one of the reasons why America went to war that year. The point also addressed, perhaps, the British practice of mining the seas.
Point three called for free trade between nations and the removal of tariffs. The conventional belief, then and now, was that nations are less likely to go to war with each other if they trade heavily with one another. (As historian Margaret MacMillan has pointed out in her book “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914,” however, Britain and Germany were each other's greatest trading partners before the Great War.)
The fourth point dealt with arms reductions. Another belief was that World War I began because European armies were too large. Point five called for impartial adjustment of each powers' colonial claims around the globe, the hope being that a small colonial conflict in Africa or the Pacific would not ignite Europe once again. Point six called for all nations to withdraw their militaries from Russia, then in the grip of the communist revolution, and allow that state to decide its own future. Its own actions would determine how it would be treated by the international community.
Belgium, which had been overrun by the German army in 1914, was the subject of point seven. Wilson called for the small state to be reconstituted as an independent nation, free from annexation or territorial readjustment from any nation. Germany's invasion of the neutral nation had been the catalyst for Britain's entry into the war, and now Wilson stated that, “Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired.”
Wilson called for Germany to pull its army out of French territory in point eight. Further, he stated that the German, then known as Prussian, annexation of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which had occurred following the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, needed to be addressed. As he called the annexations a “wrong,” one must assume he intended for Germany to give the provinces back.
Point nine dealt with defining Italy's borders “along clearly recognized lines of nationality,” a prod to the Austrian-Hungarian empire to give up its regions in northern Italy. Point 10 called for the peoples of Austria-Hungary to develop autonomously. The multinational state boasted dozens of languages and peoples, many of whom wanted their countries independent from Vienna's rule. Wilson supported their desires.
The Balkans was the focus of point 11. Wilson called for foreign armies to evacuate the nations of southeastern Europe and for those states to develop autonomously as well. Point 12 called for Turkey to remain sovereign, but other peoples throughout the Middle East, long under the Ottoman yolk, should also be allowed to develop autonomously. Wilson also demanded that the Dardanelles, the straits that connect the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea, should be open to navigation by all nations.
Point 13 addressed Poland, which had not been a sovereign state since the 1790s and had been under the domination of Russia until overrun by Germany during World War I. The ancient state was to be reconstituted as a free and independent nation with access to the sea for trade.
Finally, Wilson's 14th and last point called for the establishment of an international organization to keep the peace, a gathering of permanent ambassadors that could discuss international issues and work out deals before a conflict between nations could escalate into a war. This organization, when eventually given form, would be known as the League of Nations.
In the book “Paris: 1919: Six Months that Changed the World,” MacMillan wrote: “Wilson's League would be powerful because it would represent the organized opinion of humanity. Its members would guarantee, he said in his Fourteen Points, each other's independence and borders. It might use force to protect these but would probably not need to. The war had shown that ordinary people longed for such an organization; it was what they had fought for.”
Though initially indifferent to the Fourteen Points, by late summer 1918, the German government began to see Wilson's plan as a life preserver. With their army faltering on the field under massive American reinforcements and supplies, and fearing a communist revolution on the home front, the Germans saw the Fourteen Points as a way to end the war with honor, a basis upon which peace could be negotiated. Just as the Allies had needed America to win the war, so too now did the Germans need America to help turn the war off.
America's allies, however, did not think much of the Fourteen Points. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau stated, “Mr. Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only 10!” In fact, Clemenceau, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and others were deeply troubled by Wilson's call for a fair peace without annexations or indemnities.
In fact, many Allied leaders had run for office during the war on campaign platforms that called for a harsh peace against Germany. Every wife who had lost a husband and every child who had lost a father in the war was to be taken care of by the state, and Germany would pay for it. The Allied leaders of Europe paid lip service to Wilson's idealism, but when the Paris Peace Conference commenced in 1919, much of Wilson's idealism went out the window. The resulting Treaty of Versailles did indeed punish Germany unfairly, largely by singling it out as being solely responsible for the war.
Wilson, unhappy that so much of his peace plan had been abandoned, nevertheless went along with his allies largely because they agreed to support the creation of the League of Nations, the tool Wilson always considered the most important when it came to preventing future wars. Never popular with the American people, the U.S. Senate rejected the treaty and America did not join the League of Nations.
Wilson's idealistic vision of international diplomacy set a new standard for conduct between nations. It is this standard that makes the world take notice when aggressor nations threaten peace, such as when Adolf Hitler invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia in 1939, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 or when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.