The Fourteen Points was a statement of principles contained in a speech given by United States President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. The points encompassed war aims as forwarded by Wilson, and a general guideline for a post-war order and frontiers. The address was intended to assure the country, and the world, that the Great War was being fought for a moral cause and for postwar peace in Europe. People in Europe generally welcomed Wilson’s intervention, but his main Allied colleagues (Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy) were skeptical of the applicability of Wilsonian idealism.
The U.S. had joined the Allies 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 had not entered into the war with any affinity with the long-festering almost tribal disputes between the Allies and Germany; if America was going to fight, he would try to unlink the war to nationalistic disputes or ambitions. The need for high aims was made more important, when after the fall of the Russian Regime, the Bolsheviks disclosed secret treaties made between the allies. The speech by Wilson, also responded to Vladimir Lenin’s Decree on Peace of October 1917, which proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war, calling 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.
Wilson’s speech on January 8, 1918 laid out a 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 advisors led by foreign-policy advisor Edward M. House, into the topics likely to arise in the anticipated peace conference.
- There should be no secret alliances between countries .
- Freedom of the seas in peace and war.
- The reduction of trade barriers among nations.
- The general reduction and eventual elimination of armaments.
- The adjustment of colonial claims in the interest of the inhabitants as well as of the colonial powers.
- The evacuation of Russian territory and a welcome for its government to the society of nations.
- The restoration of Belgian territories in Germany.
- The evacuation of all French territory, including Alsace-Lorraine.
- The readjustment of Italian boundaries along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
- Independence for various national groups in Austria-Hungary.
- The restoration of the Balkan nations and free access to the sea for Serbia.
- Protection for minorities in Turkey and the free passage of the ships of all nations through the Dardanelles.
- Independence for Poland, including access to the sea.
- A league of nations to protect « mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike. »
Reaction by the Allies
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’avait que dix!). As the only 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 » Edward M. 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. The Treaty of Versailles had little to do with the Fourteen Points and was never ratified by the U.S. Senate
Influence on the Germans to surrender
The speech was widely disseminated as an instrument of allied propaganda. Copies were also dropped behind German lines, to encourage the Central Powers to surrender in the expectation of a just settlement. Indeed, 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
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, assigned full responsibility for the war and its damages to Germany. The allies would initially assess 269 billion Marks in reparations, the equivalent of nearly 100,000 metric tonnes of gold. Germany’s ability and willingness to pay that sum continue 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, only two foreign armies had entered Germany, and both advances had been brief and ultimately trivial – the advance of Russian troops into the Eastern border of Prussia, and French troops occupying Mühlhausen/Moulhouse for a few days, both at the outbreak of the war. Otherwise no foreign army entered the German 1918 borders during the War. This made the peace seem unfairly punitive to many, particularly Germans.
Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, for his peace-making efforts. He also inspired independence movements around the world including the March 1st Movement in Korea.