When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States vowed to remain neutral. The American people had no interest in becoming entangled in European alliances and empires. President Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat, won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war.”

But that promise proved impossible to keep. Germany, which had temporarily paused unrestricted submarine warfare after the 1915 sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania, declared open season on American vessels in 1917.

Vowing to defend American lives and make the world “safe for Democracy,” Wilson and the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany in April of 1917.

“Wilson was very conscious that America didn’t want to get in the war,” says John Thompson, author of Woodrow Wilson: Profiles in Power. “The only way he could resolve that dilemma was to do everything he could to bring the European war to an end.”

Wilson and his advisors recruited a team of 150 political and social scientists to research the root causes of the war in Europe. That group, known as “The Inquiry,” produced nearly 2,000 reports and 1,200 maps that were boiled down to 14 key recommendations to achieve a stable peace in Europe.

In a speech before Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson laid out his “14 Points,” an ambitious blueprint for ending World War I that emphasized “national self-determination” for both small and large nations, and included the creation of a cooperative League of Nations to peaceably resolve all future disputes.

In 1919, Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference with hopes that the 14 Points would form the backbone of the Treaty of Versailles. But Wilson’s ideas met fierce resistance from the Allies, who were more interested in punishing Germany than pursuing an idealistic plan for world peace.

The failure of the 14 Points is widely seen as one of the factors leading to the outbreak of World War II just two decades later.

Envisioning a ‘Peace Without Victory’

Months before the U.S. officially entered World War I, Wilson was already thinking about how it would end. In January of 1917, he gave a speech before Congress that laid the philosophical groundwork upon which the 14 Points would stand. Chief among Wilson’s ideas was the notion of “peace without victory.”

“Victory would mean peace forced upon a loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished,” Wilson said. “It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last.”

Wilson understood that such a “peace between equals” would be a hard sell, particularly to the French. France suffered an unthinkable number of casualties during World War I—more than 1.3 million soldiers killed and another 600,000 civilian deaths. Russia, too, buried more than 2 million of its soldiers and citizens.

In drawing up what would become the 14 Points, Wilson and his advisors had to strike a balance between their progressive ideals and satisfying the demands for justice called for by allies like France, Britain and Russia.

5 Rules for a Peaceful World

Wilson was an idealist, but he wasn’t naive. He didn’t expect the warring powers of the world to simply drop their weapons, hold hands and promise to get along. Lasting peace required a new global framework based on a firm set of rules and governing principles.

When Wilson presented the 14 Points to the world in 1918, the first five proposals were dedicated to these governing principles:

  1. Public and transparent treaties and diplomatic agreements

Secret treaties and alliances sowed distrust between international governments. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, for example, Leon Trotsky published the secret treaties between the Tsarist government and the Allies. While Wilson was not a supporter of the Bolsheviks, he agreed that honest and open negotiations were the only way to achieve a permanent peace.

  1. Free navigation of the seas during times of both war and peace

The sinking of commercial and passenger vessels by German U-boats was what drew both Britain and the U.S. into World War I. Wilson believed that free and safe passage in international waters was essential for safeguarding peace.

  1. Equal trade conditions and opportunities

While falling short of “free trade,” Wilson’s third general principle called for “the removal, so far as possible,” of economic barriers to trade between all nations, both large and small. “Economics was one of the major reasons why Wilson wanted to be involved [in shaping the postwar world],” says Christopher Warren, chief curator at The National WWI Museum and Memorial. “Freedom of navigation, open trade—it would be incredibly economically advantageous for the U.S. to have a say in the stability of Europe.”

  1. Reduction of armaments among all nations

Well before the advent of nuclear weapons, Wilson called for all nations—both the winners and losers of global conflicts—to reduce their arms to “the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” 

  1. ‘Adjustment’ of colonial claims

The 14 Points called for “a free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims,” which sounds like a strong anti-imperialist stance. In practice, Wilson’s progressive commitment to “national self-determination” wasn’t applied universally. “Wilson was anti-imperialist when it came to the Central Powers—Austria-Hungary, Ottomans, Germany— but he didn't have any intention of touching Britain and France,” says Warren. “They weren't going to discuss any type of reduction of their overseas empires.”

8 Terms of Postwar Peace

After establishing those five general principles, the 14 Points made eight specific recommendations for resolving some of the major territorial disputes of World War I in places like France, Belgium, Russia, Italy and Poland.

While Wilson’s recommendations came down firmly in favor of the Allies, he was also careful not to alienate the Central Powers. In accordance with the philosophy of a “peace without victory,” the Central Powers would be held accountable, but their territorial claims wouldn’t be fully ignored.

Take the case of Austria-Hungary, whose empire stretched across most of Central and Eastern Europe. The British, under Prime Minister David Lloyd George, called for the total breakup of Austria-Hungary into a slew of independent nations. But Wilson, in his 10th point, was far more reserved, saying only that “the peoples of Austria-Hungary… should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.”

“Wilson was trying to strike a compromise between the two goals that he had,” says Thompson, “stability on the one hand and liberal principles of self-determination on the other.”

The 14 Points took a similarly measured approach in settling territorial disputes within the Ottoman and German empires. Germany would be required to return all of Alsace-Lorraine to the French, and to concede an independent Poland, but Wilson’s recommendations focused on “restoring” invaded territory, not exacting economic punishment.

“One of the reasons why German politicians became amenable to an Armistice is because they believed that Wilson was going to advocate on their behalf with his 14 Points,” says Warren. “They believed that the peace after the Armistice will be based on these 14 Points, which was much more palatable to them.”

The League of Nations, International Peacekeepers

The League of Nations
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images
The first informal meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Wilson’s 14th point is perhaps the best-known, a call for “a general association of nations” charged with safeguarding the “political independence and territorial integrity [of] great and small states alike.” This organization, the first international peacekeeping organization of its kind, came to be known as the League of Nations.

Wilson knew that a postwar Europe composed of large, weakened empires and small independent nations would be inherently unstable.

“He truly believed that if these small and large states couldn't solve their issues diplomatically, then this League of Nations—backed by the major democratic powers—could step in before they festered into a larger conflict,” says Thompson. 

Failure at the Paris Peace Conference

When Wilson arrived in Paris in December 1919, he was the first sitting American president to travel to Europe. America, previously isolationist, was ready to claim its place as a global power and Wilson hoped that 14 Points would set a new standard for global diplomacy. 

From the start, his hopes were dashed. For the peace process to work, the Central Powers needed to have an equal seat at the negotiating table. But the rest of the Allies took a hardline, refusing to participate if nations like Germany and Austria-Hungary had a say in the proceedings.

“Wilson conceded in the end,” says Thompson. “That was one of the major reasons why the peace failed to gain any sort of legitimacy in Germany. The Treaty of Versailles was seen as a diktat, not a peace in which all sides helped to shape.”

Other major provisions of the 14 Points were scuttled or watered down beyond recognition. Free navigation of the seas, for example, was rejected by the British, who controlled the most powerful navy in the world.

Several recommendations of the 14 Points were adopted by the Paris Peace Conference, including many of the territorial questions, and notably the creation of the League  of Nations.

But the progressive spirit of the 14 Points, the one that gave Germany hope that this treaty would be different, was absent from the Paris Peace Conference. Instead, the Allies voted to impose stiff economic penalties on Germany in the form of war reparations totaling 132 billion gold marks, or more than $500 billion today.

In the end, Wilson’s bold framework for world peace failed to gain traction and the Treaty of Versailles became a bitter pill that the German people were forced to swallow. In the 1930s, when Germany’s economy was crippled by a global Depression, Adolph Hitler tapped into resentment over the punitive Treaty of Versailles to place the blame on scheming politicians and Jews.

Interestingly, the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles was also used as a justification for the appeasement policies of Britain and other European nations in response to Hitler’s aggressions. “They ceded ground to Hitler partly on the reasoning that the Versailles treaty had been unjust to Germany,” says Thompson.

The one potential bright spot for Wilson should have been the creation of the League of Nations, but even that victory eluded him. Congress at the time was in the hands of Republicans, whom Wilson excluded from the Paris peace talks. Republicans repaid Wilson by refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which kept the United States out of the League of Nations.

HISTORY Vault: World War I Documentaries

Stream World War I videos commercial-free in HISTORY Vault.