On January 8, 1918, nine months after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress and presented his program for peace, which became known as the Fourteen Points. In it, Wilson outlined the basic principles he believed would bring about a just and lasting peace among the nations of the world. The Fourteen Points are significant because they translated many elements of American domestic reform, known as Progressivism, into foreign policy. Wilson argued that morality and ethics—not self-interest—serve as the basis for a democratic society's foreign policy. The program made clear that America's goals for the war differed from those that motivated France, Italy, and Great Britain. The United States, unlike its European allies, did not have imperial ambitions, designs on European territory, or desires for monetary reparations. The Fourteen Points profoundly affected the outcome of the war, the peace negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and the Treaty of Versailles.
Inspiration for the Fourteen Points
The United States was a reluctant participant in World War I, and Wilson had tried to remain neutral for as long as he could. It was only after repeated entreaties from Allied forces and the resurgence of the German U-boat campaign, especially the sinking of the Lusitania, that Wilson finally gave in and declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917.
The European nations, on the other hand, had been preparing for war for many years. Motivated by aspirations of seizing enemy empires, both the Allied and Central Powers had, over time, managed to construct a complex web of secret treaties and agreements that served to bind various nations together. The United States had never been a party to any of these agreements, and Wilson desperately sought a basis for ending the war that would allow both sides to participate in building a lasting peace. He began by asking all combatants to state their war aims, but both sides refused, because many of their aims involved territorial ambitions. Frustration led Wilson to approach Congress with his Fourteen Points—basic principles, including freedom of the seas, geographic arrangements upholding the principle of self-determination, and the formation of a League of Nations, an organization designed to enforce global peace.
The Principles Behind the Fourteen Points
More than just a shortsighted prescription for a peaceful resolution to World War I, Wilson's Fourteen Points captured the president's idealistic vision of future world diplomacy. As a progressive, Wilson promoted notions of free trade, open agreements, democracy, and self-determination in his domestic programs. Those notions were carried into the Fourteen Points and served to influence foreign policy beyond World War I. One of Wilson's more contentious motives behind the Fourteen Points, at least in the opinion of the many countries that let self-interest guide their foreign policy, was his belief that for democracy to endure, ethics and morality had to serve as the basis for foreign policy decisions. Many subsequent American presidents shared Wilson's view of morality and its role in foreign and domestic policy. Finally, the Fourteen Points constituted the only statement by any of the active World War I nations of its war aims. Therefore, they became the only standard with which to craft the peace treaty that would end the war.
The Fourteen Points, inspired by world events and Wilson's assessment of the path to a just and lasting peace, were these: 1) an end to secret treaties and the beginning of open agreements among nations; 2) freedom of the seas; 3) free international trade; 4) a reduction of armaments; 5) an impartial adjustment of colonial claims to respect the rights of both the colonizers and the colonized; 6) the evacuation (withdrawal of foreign forces) of Russian territory; 7) the evacuation of Belgium; 8) the evacuation of French territory and the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France; 9) the redefinition of Italian frontiers; 10) autonomy for Austria and Hungary; 11) the evacuation of Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, and security for the Balkan states; 12) self-determination of the peoples of the Turkish empire; 13) independence for Poland; and 14) the formation of a general association of nations. Because Wilson knew his allies and Europe's neutral states would not be in favor of all of his points, he decided not to consult with those allies and states prior to his speech before Congress. Great Britain, for instance, would surely be wary of the second, "freedom of the seas" point. The island nation had long relied on the strength of its navy and its control of the seas for security reasons. According to the Fourteen Points, Britain would, for example, be unable to repeat the blockade of Germany that had successfully weakened that nation.
The Effect of the Fourteen Points
The Germans did not respond publicly to the Fourteen Points until late September 1918. At that time, it was becoming clear to the German forces that the Allied counterattacks in the summer and fall were having their desired effect. The German armies were being pushed back and their defeat seemed imminent. A new civilian government took office in Germany and appealed to Wilson directly for an armistice based on his Fourteen Points. Wilson and the new German administration under Prince Max von Baden (1867-1929) immediately began a complex and delicate series of negotiations while the Allies watched warily from the sidelines. In the end, Wilson negotiated a settlement that equaled a German surrender. In addition to evacuating all occupied territories, Germany agreed to the Allied occupation of portions of western Germany as a guarantee against the resumption of the war. The Fourteen Points, then, guided the end of World War I on November 11, 1918.
The Fourteen Points continued to play a vital role in negotiations for peace following the armistice. Wilson was one of the "Big Four" at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which was held in the Palace of Versailles. The other three leading negotiators for peace were David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Orlando (1860-1959) of Italy. Of the five treaties they wrote during the conference, the German treaty, more famously known as the Treaty of Versailles, was the only treaty to include any of Wilson's Fourteen Points. But it was one that meant a great deal to Wilson. Although it was a struggle, he had finally convinced his European counterparts that the formation of a general association of nations "for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike" was necessary. This association, the League of Nations, was the precursor to the United Nations, an institution that continues to work for international peace to this day.