Wilson’s Fourteen Points Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to outline his goals for the peace that would follow the end of World War I. Nine months after entering the war, Wilson had the vision to look beyond the struggle. No other leader, on either side, had presented such a vision. He began with points regarding free trade, one reason the United States had been drawn into the war. Wilson then went on to outline several goals for the restoration, or creation, of sovereignty for a variety of nationalities. The most radical idea, however, Point XIV, was that a “general association of nations” should be formed. In the concluding portion of the speech, Wilson offered his advice that a friendly, peaceful relationship with Germany, once it had renounced military aggression, would serve the world better than relegating it to secondary status. After the armistice, the Allies incorporated many of these points into the armistice agreement, but the final treaty neglected the overtures of friendship toward Germany, which Wilson believed was essential for a lasting peace.

Summary Overview

In January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to outline his goals for the peace that would follow the end of World War I. Nine months after entering the war, Wilson had the vision to look beyond the struggle. No other leader, on either side, had presented such a vision. He began with points regarding free trade, one reason the United States had been drawn into the war. Wilson then went on to outline several goals for the restoration, or creation, of sovereignty for a variety of nationalities. The most radical idea, however, Point XIV, was that a “general association of nations” should be formed. In the concluding portion of the speech, Wilson offered his advice that a friendly, peaceful relationship with Germany, once it had renounced military aggression, would serve the world better than relegating it to secondary status. After the armistice, the Allies incorporated many of these points into the armistice agreement, but the final treaty neglected the overtures of friendship toward Germany, which Wilson believed was essential for a lasting peace.

Defining Moment

Although hostilities among the major European powers had started in July, 1914, the United States did not enter the war against Germany until April 6, 1917, and against the Austro-Hungarian Empire on December 7, 1917. The war did not end until November 11, 1918, but with the entry of the United States on the side of the Allies (France, Great Britain), the additional men and resources clearly pushed the balance of power to the Allies. Thus nine months after entering the war, President Wilson was confident in the eventual outcome and wanted to discuss peace plans. In September, 1917, Wilson had appointed a committee, named The Inquiry, to study what might be needed to construct an enduring peace. The results of their study were incorporated into the ideals outlined in the speech’s Fourteen Points. No other country involved in the war had made, or did make, a similar formal public announcement of its goals at the war’s end.

Although the speech was given in front of a joint session of Congress, its audience was much wider. Wilson was seen as an idealist, and this applied not only to the contents of the speech but also to the potential of the speech. Wilson had made preparations for the speech to be distributed around the world. This included dropping translations of the speech into Germany. The speech had been developed and written without consultation with any allies, as Wilson clung to the traditional American view that the United States should stay out of European politics and alliances, as much as possible. Thus, after the speech was made American diplomats had to work hard to try to convince the other leading Allied powers to accept the goals set forth in the speech. While there was reluctant public acceptance of the points by the other countries, by the end of the war, the idealistic vision for Europe, and the world, was not high among France’s or Britain’s priorities. Thus, the tone and content of the Treaty of Versailles was much different from the tone of Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech. However, the speech was not without a positive effect. It strengthened support for the Allies among some ethnic groups seeking self-determination after the war. Also, when the leaders of Germany accepted the fact that the war needed to end, the German chancellor contacted Allied leaders to begin discussion of the cessation of hostilities based on the points of Wilson’s speech.

Author Biography

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856 and died February 3, 1924. His strongly religious family lived in Georgia during the Civil War. He earned his baccalaureate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from the University of Virginia, and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. Eventually, he returned to Princeton University as a professor and later president. He was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910 and president of the United States in 1912. He served two terms as the US president, from 1913 to 1921. Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died in 1914 and he married his second wife, Edith, in 1915. Domestically, Wilson implemented the income tax, the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, rail workers’ eight-hour days, and an end to child labor. When American shipping was under attack and Germany tried to get Mexico as an ally, Wilson led America into the war. Although awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, he failed to secure the peace he desired or membership for the United States in the League of Nations.

Document Analysis

Having studied political science and history for his doctorate, Woodrow Wilson had given great thought not only to how governments worked, but how they should work. With World War I, Wilson broadened his horizons to consider the best way for nations to interact with one another. Initially he tried to mediate between the two sides, but eventually the United States was drawn into the conflict. With input from a large committee he had gathered to assist him, Wilson made a public proclamation of the American goals, i.e., his goals, for what should be gained as a result of the war. The Fourteen Points, with an equally important addendum regarding non-punitive treatment of Germany, lifted up some of the central tenets of twentieth-century international relations. These were national self-determination, free trade, an organization to encourage international cooperation, compassion for the people of a vanquished country, and, to a lesser extent, arms control and public diplomacy.

Within the Fourteen Points, the majority (five through thirteen) of the items deal with nationalities, and how post-war borders should result in self-determination. The first of these points was a radical step forward in bringing a non-Europeans into global politics. Wilson advocated that a post-war colonial borders should be drawn, based not only on Europe’s interests but also upon the “interests of the populations concerned.” While most European leaders supported his later points, they were less enthusiastic about this one. Specifying a number of nationalities in points VI through XIII, Wilson advocates self-determination for each nationality, under whatever form of government is acceptable to the group. When people in many of these groups first heard about his proposal, they became much more willing to support the Allies against the Central powers. They thought that if the Allies were victorious, the Allied leaders would support Wilson’s point of view. While many new countries were formed as a result of World War I, this dream of real self-determination for all groups and for the general population was not always implemented in the new states.

Points II and III, as well as part of the point dealing with the Turkish people, deal with free trade. Point II deals with one of the principle reasons why the United States had entered the war, freedom of the seas. Although the British never accepted this point as a valid, it would have been inconceivable for Wilson not to attempt to solve the issue that had drawn the nation into war. The freedom of the seas, for Wilson, even included passages within the borders of a nation, if the passages were vital to international trade, hence his desire for the Dardanelles to be opened to all.

Finally, Wilson proposes a new order in international affairs. He speaks out against the type of covert treaties that had led to the war in Europe. Instead, in Point XIV, Wilson outlines how this new order would operate, by pushing for “a general association of nations” that would allow “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” Because of this, military forces and expenditures can be kept to a minimum. The “mutual guarantees” would apply to all nations, even to Germany. Wilson believed in, and advocated for, restructuring the international order in such a way that open diplomacy through a recognized international body would replace war and conflict in the relations among the nations of the world. This would bring about a just peace that would also be an enduring peace.

Essential Themes

Although Wilson was not the first person to believe that international organizations could contribute to peace, he differed with many by advocating a “general association” with membership open to all, “great and small states alike.” As a result of the strength of his vision, the League of Nations was formed in 1920, the structure having been developed at the Paris Peace Conference that drew up the treaty ending World War I. Its charter included the Wilsonian ideals of disarmament and world peace through collective security. Ultimately, the League was unable to stop the conflict up to and including World War II, although it did successfully arbitrate many minor territorial disputes. The United Nations, formed during the final days of World War II as the heir to the League of Nations, continued with many of the same ideals that had been a part of the League’s Covenant. Somewhat more successful than the League, the United Nations has been a vital player in global politics. Thus Wilson’s influence continues into the twenty-first century, even though his goals have never been fully realized.

In a similar manner, Wilson’s description of nation-states in eight of the fourteen points, was predicated upon his view that this was the most viable form for a country and would lead to fewer conflicts between neighbors. Again, Wilson was not the first one to hold such a view. However, he was in a position to push Europeans in that direction. Even though his poor health did not allow him to play as major a role in the peace talks as he would have desired, many new states were created for groups that previously had been small minorities in a larger country. Thus, the nation-state ideal became more firmly entrenched in twentieth-century political thought. Statehood has continued to be the goal of many nationalities in Europe, as was demonstrated at the end of the twentieth century in the new countries that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Woodrow Wilson sought to create a peaceful world, based upon his belief in the equality of nations and the right of all groups to have political independence. Because of his legacy, this view has been reflected in many decisions and actions in the last century.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brands, H.W. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Times Books, 2003. Print.
  • Cooper, John Milton. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
  • National Archives. “President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points (1918).” College Park, MD: National Archives and Records Administration, 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
  • Nelson, Michael. The Evolving Presidency: Landmark Documents, 1787–2008. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008. Print.
  • Office of the Historian. “Milestones: 1914–1920, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, 1918.” Washington, DC: US Department of State, 2010. Web. 5 June 2014.
Categories: History Content