In an address before a joint meeting of Congress, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson discusses the aims of the United States in World War I and outlines his famous “Fourteen Points” for achieving a lasting peace in Europe.
The peace proposal, based on Wilson’s concept of peace without victory, called for the victorious Allies to set unselfish peace terms, including freedom of the seas, the restoration of territories conquered during the war and the right to national self-determination in such contentious regions as the Balkans. Most famously, Wilson called for the establishment of a general association of nations—what would become the League of Nations—to guarantee political independence to and protect the territorial lines of great and small States alike.
Wilson’s principal purpose in delivering the speech was to present a practical alternative both to the traditional notion of an international balance of power preserved by alliances among nations—belief in the viability of which had been shattered by the Great War—and to the Bolshevik-inspired dreams of world revolution that at the time were gaining ground both within and outside of Russia. Wilson hoped also to keep a conflict-ridden Russia in the war on the Allied side. This effort met with failure, as the Bolsheviks sought peace with the Central Powers at the end of 1917, shortly after taking power. In other ways, however, Wilson’s Fourteen Points played an essential role in world politics over the next several years. The speech was translated and distributed to the soldiers and citizens of Germany and Austria-Hungary and contributed significantly to their decision to agree to an armistice in November 1918.
Like the man himself, Wilson’s Fourteen Points were liberal, democratic and idealistic—he spoke in grand and inspiring terms but was less certain of the specifics of how his aims would be achieved. At Versailles, Wilson had to contend with the leaders of the other victorious nations, who disagreed with many of the Fourteen Points and demanded stiff penalties for Germany. The terms of the final peace treaty—including an ineffectual League of Nations convention that Wilson could not even convince his own Congress to ratify—fell far short of his lofty visions and are believed by many to have ultimately contributed to the outbreak of a second world war two decades later.