During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson secretly gathered academic experts to devise a plan that would both demoralize the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) and prevent future wars. After reviewing some 2,000 reports and 1,200 maps, the plan was itemized into fourteen “points.” Wilson revealed this plan before a joint session of Congress.
Goals of the Fourteen Points
The first five points addressed international relations, while the next eight addressed territorial claims. One of the underlying themes of these first thirteen points was Wilson’s notion of “national self-determination,” or granting independence to ethnic minorities within established countries. From this came many new nations, including Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Albania and Croatia.
The final point called for a “league of nations” that would serve as an international policeman to arbitrate future conflicts. This was the centerpiece of Wilson’s plan, and it proved to be the most controversial point of them all.
The Fourteen Points represented Wilson’s progressive vision of what a postwar world should look like. However they did not necessarily coincide with the visions of other Allied or world leaders.
International Opposition to the Fourteen Points
British and French leaders were not impressed by Wilson’s points; French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau exclaimed, “Even God Almighty has only ten!” Allied leaders were also dismayed by Wilson’s presumptiveness in dictating peace when the U.S. had not yet even been involved in the war for a full year.
In addition, Wilson’s idealistic vision of “national self-determination” proved fateful. Because the new nations of Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia were predominantly German-speaking regions, Adolf Hitler later annexed them back into Germany, ironically citing Wilson’s principle of self-determination as justification. And other new nations such as Albania and Croatia became puppets to Allied colonialism.
Moreover, Wilson insisted that the fourteenth point (creating a League of Nations) be implemented. Allied leaders used his insistence as leverage by threatening not to join the League if Wilson did not relent on other points. As a result, many of Wilson’s points were never implemented even though the Central Powers surrendered on the premise that the peace settlement would incorporate them all. This led to future animosity between the warring nations.
American Opposition to the Fourteen Points
When the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, it did not contain many of Wilson’s Fourteen Points but it did contain provisions for creating the League of Nations. Because of this, Wilson returned from the peace talks eager to persuade Americans to support the treaty. But when he returned to the U.S., Wilson found much more opposition than he had anticipated.
A two-thirds Senate majority was required to approve the treaty, and the Senate was controlled by Republicans who generally opposed the Democratic president. Rather than working with the senators on a compromise, Wilson went on a national speaking tour to convince the people to support him. However most Americans were wary of foreign entanglements after having just returned from a world war, and Wilson found little support.
Defeat of the Fourteen Points
Wilson’s refusal to compromise destroyed any chance for the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Ironically, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on both the treaty and the League of Nations, even though the U.S. never endorsed either one. Peace was not made with Germany until a congressional resolution passed declaring the war over in 1921.
Although the Fourteen Points were devised with good intentions, they reflected a naïve worldview that was generally opposed by international leaders. Wilson’s contentious debates over the points during the peace talks created more hostility among the warring nations and indirectly led to World War II a generation later. Wilson’s idealistic internationalism has since served as a model for “idealists” to emulate and “realists” to condemn.
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael: A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc., 2004)
- Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving: The People’s Almanac (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975)
- Woods Jr., Thomas E.: The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2008)