The Fourteen Points was a statement of principles for world peace that was to be used for peace negotiations in order to end World War I. The principles were outlined in a January 8, 1918 speech on war aims and peace terms to the United States Congress by President Woodrow Wilson. Europeans generally welcomed Wilson's points but his main Allied colleagues (Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy) were skeptical of the applicability of Wilsonian idealism.
The United States had joined the Allied Powers in fighting the Central Powers on April 6, 1917. Its entry into the war had in part been due to Germany's resumption of submarine warfare against merchant ships trading with France and Britain. However, Wilson wanted to avoid the United States' involvement in the long-standing European tensions between the great powers; if America was going to fight, he wanted to try to unlink the war from nationalistic disputes or ambitions. The need for moral aims was made more important, when after the fall of the Russian government, the Bolsheviks disclosed secret treaties made between the Allies. Wilson's speech also responded to Vladimir Lenin's Decree on Peace of November 1917, immediately after the October Revolution, which proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war, called for a just and democratic peace that was not compromised by territorial annexations, and led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918.
The speech made by Wilson took many domestic progressive ideas and translated them into foreign policy (free trade, open agreements, democracy and self-determination). The Fourteen Points speech was the only explicit statement of war aims by any of the nations fighting in World War I. Some belligerents gave general indications of their aims, but most kept their post-war goals private. The Fourteen Points in the speech were based on the research of the Inquiry, a team of about 150 advisers led by foreign-policy adviser Edward M. House, into the topics likely to arise in the anticipated peace conference.
The immediate cause of the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917 was the German announcement of renewed unrestricted submarine warfare and the subsequent sinking of ships with Americans on board. But President Wilson’s war aims went beyond the defense of maritime interests. In his War Message to Congress, Wilson declared that the United States' objective was “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world.” In several speeches earlier in the year, Wilson sketched out his vision of an end to the war that would bring a “just and secure peace,” not merely “a new balance of power.”
President Wilson subsequently initiated a secret series of studies named the Inquiry, primarily focused on Europe, and carried out by a group in New York which included geographers, historians and political scientists; the group was directed by Colonel House. Their job was to study Allied and American policy in virtually every region of the globe and analyze economic, social, and political facts likely to come up in discussions during the peace conference. The group produced and collected nearly 2,000 separate reports and documents plus at least 1,200 maps. The studies culminated in a speech by Wilson to Congress on January 8, 1918, wherein he articulated America's long term war objectives. The speech was the clearest expression of intention made by any of the belligerent nations, and it projected Wilson's progressive domestic policies into the international arena.
The speech, known as the Fourteen Points, was developed from a set of diplomatic points by Wilson and territorial points drafted by the Inquiry's general secretary, Walter Lippmann, and his colleagues, Isaiah Bowman, Sidney Mezes, and David Hunter Miller. Lippmann's draft territorial points were a direct response to the secret treaties of the European Allies, which Lippman had been shown by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Lippman's task according to House was "to take the secret treaties, analyze the parts which were tolerable, and separate them from those which we regarded as intolerable, and then develop a position which conceded as much to the Allies as it could, but took away the poison. ... It was all keyed upon the secret treaties."
In the speech, Wilson directly addressed what he perceived as the causes for the world war by calling for the abolition of secret treaties, a reduction in armaments, an adjustment in colonial claims in the interests of both native peoples and colonists, and freedom of the seas. Wilson also made proposals that would ensure world peace in the future. For example, he proposed the removal of economic barriers between nations, the promise of self-determination for national minorities, and a world organization that would guarantee the “political independence and territorial integrity [of] great and small states alike”—a League of Nations.
Though Wilson’s idealism pervades the Fourteen Points, he also had more practical objectives in mind. He hoped to keep Russia in the war by convincing the Bolsheviks that they would receive a better peace from the Allies, to bolster Allied morale, and to undermine German war support. The address was well received in the United States and Allied nations, and even by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, as a landmark of enlightenment in international relations. Wilson subsequently used the Fourteen Points as the basis for negotiating the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war.
Reaction by the Allies
President Wilson at first considered abandoning his speech after Lloyd George delivered a speech outlining British war aims, many of which were similar to Wilson's aspirations, at Caxton Hall on January 5, 1918. Wilson was persuaded by his adviser Colonel House to go ahead, and his speech overshadowed Lloyd George's, and is better remembered by posterity.
The speech was made without prior coordination or consultation with Wilson's counterparts in Europe. Clemenceau, upon hearing of the Fourteen Points, was said to have sarcastically claimed The good Lord only had ten! (Le bon Dieu n'en avait que dix!). As a major public statement of war aims, it became the basis for the terms of the German surrender at the end of the First World War. After the speech, Colonel House worked to secure the acceptance of the Fourteen Points by Entente leaders. On October 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson and Sir William Wiseman, the head of British intelligence in America had an interview. This interview was one reason why the German government accepted the Fourteen Points and the stated principles for peace negotiations.
The report was made as negotiation points, and later the Fourteen Points were accepted by France and Italy on November 1, 1918. Britain later signed off on all of the points except the freedom of the seas. The United Kingdom also wanted Germany to make reparation payments for the war, and thought that that should be added to the Fourteen Points. The speech was delivered 10 months before the Armistice with Germany and became the basis for the terms of the German surrender, as negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
Reaction by the Central Powers
The speech was widely disseminated as an instrument of Allied propaganda and was translated into many languages for global dissemination. Copies were also dropped behind German lines, to encourage the Central Powers to surrender in the expectation of a just settlement. Indeed, in a note sent to Wilson by Prince Maximilian of Baden, the German imperial chancellor, in October 1918 requested an immediate armistice and peace negotiations on the basis of the Fourteen Points.
Wilson's speech vs. Treaty of Versailles
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President Wilson became physically ill at the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference, giving way to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to advance demands substantially different from Wilson's Fourteen Points. Clemenceau viewed Germany as having unfairly attained an economic victory over France, due to the heavy damage German forces dealt to France's industries even during the German retreat, and expressed dissatisfaction with France's allies at the peace conference.
Notably, Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which would become known as the War Guilt Clause, was seen by the Germans as assigning full responsibility for the war and its damages on Germany; however, the same clause was included in all peace treaties and historian Sally Marks has noted that only German diplomats saw it as assigning responsibility for the war. The allies would initially assess 269 billion marks in reparations. In 1921, this figure was established at 132 billion marks. However, only a fraction of this total had to be paid. The figure was designed to look imposing and show the public that Germany was being punished, while it also recognized what Germany could not realistically pay. Germany's ability and willingness to pay that sum continues to be a topic of debate among historians. Germany was also denied an air force, and the German army was not to exceed 100,000 men.
The text of the Fourteen Points had been widely distributed in Germany as propaganda prior to the end of the war, and was well known by the Germans. The differences between this document and the final Treaty of Versailles fueled great anger in Germany. German outrage over reparations and the War Guilt Clause is viewed as a likely contributing factor to the rise of national socialism. At the end of World War I, foreign armies had only entered Germany's prewar borders twice: the advance of Russian troops into the Eastern border of Prussia, and following the Battle of Mulhouse the settlement of the French army in the Thann valley. This lack of any important Allied incursions contributed to the popularization of the Stab-in-the-back myth in Germany after the war.
Nobel Peace Prize
Woodrow Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, for his peace-making efforts.
The Fourteen Points
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In his speech to Congress, President Wilson declared fourteen points which he regarded as the only possible basis of an enduring peace. They were according to him:
- 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 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 re-adjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
- X. The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.
- XI. Romania, 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 portion 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 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.
League of Nations
- 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.
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- Text and commentary from ourdocuments.gov
- Interpretation of President Wilson's Fourteen Points by Colonel House
- "President Wilson's Fourteen Points" from the World War I Document Archive
- Wilson's shorthand notes from the Library of Congress
- Arthur Balfour's speech on the Fourteen Points to Parliament, on 27 February 1918 – firstworldwar.com
- Woodrow Wilson Library Wilson's Noble Peace Prize is digitized. From the Library of Congress