The Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson's Blueprint for Peace

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President Woodrow Wilson in a Jan. 8, 1918 speech to the U.S. Congress proposed a number of elements that he hoped would lead to the end of World War I. These came to be known as the Fourteen Points.

The Great War, as it was then known, had begun in the summer of 1914. The United States had begun fighting with the Allies in April of 1917. Wilson and his advisers wanted to create an outline for ending the war and for postwar planning that could conceivably prevent further wars.

The Fourteen Points were these:

  • open covenants of peace, openly arrived at
  • freedom of the seas
  • the removal so far as possible of all economic barriers
  • the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety
  • impartial adjustment of all colonial claims
  • the evacuation of all Russian territory
  • the evacuation and restoration of Belgium
  • the liberation of France and return to her of Alsace and Lorraine
  • readjustment of the frontiers of Italy to conform to clearly recognizable lines of nationality
  • the peoples of Austria-Hungary should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development
  • evacuation of occupation forces from Romania, Serbia and Montenegro; Serbia should be accorded free and secure access to the sea
  • autonomous development for the non-Turkish peoples of the Ottoman empire; free passage of the Dardanelles to the ships and commerce of all nations
  • an independent Poland to be established, with free and secure access to the sea
  • a general association of nations to be formed to guarantee to its members political independence and territorial integrity.

Some of these points would be familiar to anyone looking to negotiate a peace, such as the removal of troops from occupied nations, a reduction in armaments and other weapons of war, the removal of unfair trade conditions between nations, and a guarantee of freedom of the seas. It was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany and the subsequent sinking of the Lusitania that put the U.S. on the path toward entering the war.

The aim of the first Point was to do away with the sort of secret treaties like the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente that had provoked the European nations to go to war. As well, the fifth Point urged the resolution or ending altogether of European colonial claims in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere in the world.

Perhaps the most famous of the Fourteen Points was the last one, which was the basis for the League of Nations.

Wilson's speech was the culmination of a monthslong effort of consultation with 150 academics, economists, diplomats and other experts. Col. Edward House, one of Wilson's principal advisors, led this process, which was colloquially referred to as "the Inquiry." The group studied thousands of maps and reports in order to better inform Wilson as to what was desirable in terms of a peace process.

The leaders of France, Georges Clemenceau, and Great Britain, David Lloyd George, welcomed the idea of ending the war but thought that Wilson's proposals were more idealistic and did not go far enough in finishing the war that was being fought. In particular, Clemenceau and Lloyd George wanted to blame Germany for starting the war and to punish Germany severely as part of the peace process. Lloyd George, in fact, had given a similar speech in Britain three days before Wilson gave his speech; Lloyd George made clear in his speech that his country and France would insist on reparations from Germany as part of any peace agreement.

Another motivation for the Allied leaders to seek to end the war was that one of their number, Russia, had withdrawn from the war in November 1917, after the October Revolution that overthrew the Czar and resulted in a Communist government led by Vladimir Lenin.

Wilson's Fourteen Points largely made up the language of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war. In between Wilson's announcement of the Fourteen Points and the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles, however, Wilson was taken seriously ill and was not part of the ultimate peace negotiations. Whether his presence would have made any difference, France and Great Britain succeeded in including in the Treaty of Versailles a War Guilt Cause, which assigned to Germany sole blame for starting the war and demanding an astronomical sum of reparations.

Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts to bring about peace.

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