January 8, 1918: Woodrow Wilson issues his “Fourteen Points”.
Ten months before the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson delivered to a joint session of Congress a speech in which he detailed specific points that would provide for a secure and long-lasting peace and not a rebalancing of power that had been the go-to solution for so many past wars. In September of 1917, Wilson set up “the Inquiry”, a group of 150 men that included historians, librarians, professors, geographers, lawyers, and other academics whose research helped the president prepare his plans for this idealistic peace plan. Their research formed the basis of the Fourteen Points, which can be paraphrased as:
1. No secret alliances or agreements between nations.
2. Freedom of the seas during both wartime and peacetime.
3. Lowered or removed economic barriers between nations, which would ideally result in an “equality of trade… among all nations”.
4. A reduction in “national armaments”.
5. An “absolutely impartial” adjustment of colonial claims to suit the interests of both the colonial powers and colonized populations.
6. The evacuation of Russian territory, and treatment of Russia by foreign nations demonstrative of “their good will… their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.”
7. The evacuation of Belgian territories.
8. The evacuation of French territories and the restoration to France the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been lost to Prussia in the settlement of the Franco-Prussian War.
9. “The readjustment of Italian boundaries along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.”
10. Autonomy for the various people of Austria-Hungary.
11. The evacuation of the Balkans and free access to the sea for Serbia, and guaranteed “political and economic independence and territorial integrity” for these states.
12. Free passage for all nations through the Dardanelles, and protection for non-Turkish people living under Turkish rule.
13. Independence and access to the sea for Poland.
14. The formation of a league of nations “for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
Reception was mixed. Georges Clemenceau declared, upon hearing of Wilson’s speech (which had been delivered without prior consultation with the United States’ allies) and his “Fourteen Points” that “The good Lord only had ten!” But his points were eventually incorporated into the 1918 armistice that ended the war, because his speech was really the only specific statement of war aims officially issued by leaders on either side. Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the next year for his efforts. But at the Paris Peace Conference that same year, President Wilson was outmaneuvered, to Germany’s dismay, by his European allies, who demanded that Germany be punished and held responsible for the war and regarded this aim as a higher priority than an American president’s idealistic plans for world peace. Although Wilson arrived at the conference with great purpose, John Maynard Keynes noted that the president was “ill-informed”, “slow and unadaptable”, and “incompetent”. His League of Nations was formed as a result of the conference, but the United States never joined, and it proved useless in preventing the series of aggressions that led to World War II. By then, Wilson’s points and lasting peace were far-off dreams.