Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points

WASHINGTON D.C. - APRIL 2: President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to send U.S. troops into battle against Germany in World War I, in his address to Congress in Washington D.C. on April 2, 1917
WASHINGTON D.C. - APRIL 2: President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to send U.S. troops into battle against Germany in World War I, in his address to Congress in Washington D.C. on April 2, 1917. The Stanley Weston Archive / Getty Images

One of the key US contributions to the end of World War I was President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. These were an idealistic plan for rebuilding Europe and the world after the war, but their adoption by other nations was low and their success wanting.

American Enters World War I

In April 1917, after several years of entreaties from the Triple Entente forces, the United States of America entered World War I on the side of Britain, France, and their allies. There was a range of reasons behind this, from outright provocations, like Germany restarting unrestricted submarine warfare (the sinking of the Lusitania was still fresh in people’s minds) and stirring up trouble via the Zimmerman Telegram. But there were other reasons, such as America’s need to secure an allied victory to help, in turn, secure the repayment of the many loans and financial arrangements the US had organized, which were propping up the allies, and which may be lost if Germany won. Some historians have also identified US President Woodrow Wilson’s own desperation to help dictate the terms of the peace rather than being left on the international sidelines.

The Fourteen Points Are Drafted

Once American had declared, a massive mobilization of troops and resources took place. In addition, Wilson decided America needed a firm set of war aims to help guide policy and, equally as importantly, begin to organize the peace in a manner which would be lasting. This was, in truth, more than some of the nations went to war with in 1914… An inquiry helped produce a program that Wilson would endorse as the "Fourteen Points."

The Full 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.

The World Reacts

American opinion was warmly receptive to the Fourteen Points, but then Wilson ran into the competing ideals of his allies. France, Britain, and Italy were hesitant, with all wanting concessions from peace that the points weren’t prepared to give, like reparations (France and Clemenceau were stiff supporters of crippling Germany through payments) and territorial gains. This led to a period of negotiations between the allies as ideas were smoothed through.

But one group of nations who began to warm to the Fourteen Points was Germany and its allies. As 1918 went on and the final German attacks failed, many in Germany became convinced they could no longer win the war, and a peace based on Wilson and his Fourteen Points seemed to be the best they would get; certainly, more than they could expect from France. When Germany began arrangements for an armistice, it was the Fourteen Points they wished to come to terms under.

The Fourteen Points Fail

Once was the war was over, Germany having been brought to the verge of military collapse and forced into a surrender, the victorious allies gathered for the peace conference to sort the world out. Wilson and the Germans hoped the Fourteen Points would be the framework for negotiations, but once again the competing claims of the other major nations – mainly Britain and France – undermined what Wilson had intended. However, Britain’s Lloyd George and France’s Clemenceau were keen to give in some areas and agreed to the League of Nations. Wilson was unhappy as the final agreements – including the Treaty of Versailles – differed markedly from his goals, and America refused to join the League. As the 1920s and 30s developed, and war returned worse than before, the Fourteen Points were widely considered to have failed.

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Wilde, Robert. "Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/woodrow-wilsons-fourteen-points-1222054. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/woodrow-wilsons-fourteen-points-1222054 Wilde, Robert. "Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/woodrow-wilsons-fourteen-points-1222054 (accessed June 9, 2023).