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World War I: The Fourteen Points

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World War I: The Fourteen Points

President Woodrow Wilson

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Fourteen Points - Background:

In April 1917, the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Previously angered by the sinking of Lusitania, President Woodrow Wilson led the nation to war after learning of the Zimmermann Telegram and Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Though possessing a massive pool of manpower and resources, the United States required time to mobilize its forces for war. As a result, Britain and France continued to bear the brunt of the fighting in 1917 as their forces took part in the failed Nivelle Offensive as well as the bloody battles at Arras and Passchendaele. With American forces preparing for combat, Wilson formed a study group in September 1917 to develop the nation's formal war aims.

Known at the Inquiry, this group was headed by "Colonel" Edward M. House, a close advisor to Wilson, and guided by philosopher Sidney Mezes. Possessing a wide variety of expertise, the group also sought to research topics that could be key issues at a postwar peace conference. Guided by the tenets of progressivism which had steered American domestic policy during the previous decade, the group worked to apply these principles to the international stage. The result was a core list of points which stressed self-determination of peoples, free trade, and open diplomacy. Reviewing the Inquiry's work, Wilson believed that it could serve as the basis for a peace agreement.

Fourteen Points - Wilson's Speech:

Going before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson outlined American intentions and presented the Inquiry's work as the Fourteen Points. He believed that international acceptance of the points would lead to a just and lasting peace. The Fourteen Points as set forth by Wilson were:

The Fourteen Points:

I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

II. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.

III. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.

IV. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.

V. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

VI. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.

VII. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations. No other single act will serve as this will serve to restore confidence among the nations in the laws which they have themselves set and determined for the government of their relations with one another. Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired.

VIII. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.

IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.

X. The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.

XI. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.

XII. The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of an autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.

XIII. An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

Fourteen Points - Reaction:

Though Wilson's Fourteen Points were well received by the public at home and abroad, foreign leaders were skeptical as to whether they could be effectively applied to the real world. Leery of Wilson's idealism, leaders such as David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Vittorio Orlando were hesitant to accept the points as formal war aims. In an effort to gain support from the Allied leaders, Wilson tasked House with lobbying their behalf. On October 16, Wilson met with British intelligence chief, Sir William Wiseman, in an effort to secure London's approval. While Lloyd George's government was largely supportive, it refused to honor the point regarding freedom of the seas and also desired to see a point added regarding war reparations.

Continuing to work through diplomatic channels, the Wilson Administration secured support for the Fourteen Points from France and Italy on November 1. This internal diplomatic campaign among the Allies paralleled a discourse that Wilson was having with German officials which began on October 5. With the military situation deteriorating, the Germans finally approached the Allies regarding an armistice based on the terms of the Fourteen Points. This was concluded on November 11 at Compiègne.

Fourteen Points - Paris Peace Conference:

As the Paris Peace Conference began in January 1919, Wilson quickly found that actual support for the Fourteen Points was lacking on the part of his allies. This was largely due to the need for reparations, imperial competition, and a desire to inflict a harsh peace on Germany. As the talks progressed, Wilson was increasingly unable to garner acceptance of his Fourteen Points. In an effort to appease the American leader, Lloyd George and Clemenceau consented to the formation of the League of Nations. With several of the participants' goals conflicting, the talks moved slowly and ultimately produced a treaty which failed to please any of the nations involved. The final terms of the treaty, which included little of Wilson's Fourteen Points on which German had agreed to the armistice, were harsh and ultimately played a key role in setting the stage for World War II.

Selected Sources

  • First World War: Fourteen Points
  • Modern History Sourcebook: Fourteen Points
  • Interpretation of the Fourteen Points

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