Wilson’s “Peace Without Victory” Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When President Woodrow Wilson addressed the United States Senate on January 22, 1917, the Great War in Europe, later known as World War I, had been going on for over two years with no end in sight. The carnage taking place on the battlefields of France and Belgium shocked the world. When Wilson delivered his “Peace without Victory” speech, which was one of a series of speeches that articulated his vision for a just and lasting peace, the United States was officially neutral, though its preference for the Allies–Great Britain and France among others–over the Central Powers–mainly Germany–was clear. Wilson called for a postwar world where the interests of humanity would prevail over the narrowly defined national interests of those already fighting in Europe.

Summary Overview

When President Woodrow Wilson addressed the United States Senate on January 22, 1917, the Great War in Europe, later known as World War I, had been going on for over two years with no end in sight. The carnage taking place on the battlefields of France and Belgium shocked the world. When Wilson delivered his “Peace without Victory” speech, which was one of a series of speeches that articulated his vision for a just and lasting peace, the United States was officially neutral, though its preference for the Allies–Great Britain and France among others–over the Central Powers–mainly Germany–was clear. Wilson called for a postwar world where the interests of humanity would prevail over the narrowly defined national interests of those already fighting in Europe.

Defining Moment

When the young men of England, France, Germany, and other nations marched off to war in 1914, optimism was in the air. Each expected easy victory and the chance for glory that so many of their forebears had found in war. What they found instead was a new kind of warfare comprised of mustard gas, muck-filled trenches, and modern weaponry that could inflict pain and death more easily than the weapons and battlefield strategies of past wars. By January 1917, the optimistic young men who had so far survived were caught in the midst of a stalemate: both sides wanted the war to end, and both sides felt they were too heavily invested in the war to stop fighting. Neither side could make significant territorial gains, and soldiers who were hunkered down in trenches were reluctant to risk “over the top” attacks, since enemy machine guns and artillery would surely cut them down before any significant progress was made.

With governments on both sides committed to a war that the soldiers felt was futile, American president Woodrow Wilson suggested an alternative path to peace, a peace he hoped would prevent this type of war from ever happening again. In order to accomplish that goal, any peace that was accomplished must not be one where the victors imposed their will and desires upon the vanquished. Rather, all sides needed simply to stop fighting and commit to creating a world where the necessity for war would be eliminated.

Author Biography

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton City, Virginia. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from the University of Virginia Law School, and a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. Wilson served as professor of law and politics at Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and Princeton University where he became president in 1902 and served in that role until 1910. He was then elected governor of New Jersey and became president of the United States in 1912.

Once elected, Wilson worked to keep the United States out of the growing conflict in Europe by concentrating on domestic reforms and pursuing a progressive agenda that focused on bettering conditions for families and average working Americans. Running on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” Wilson was reelected to the presidency in 1916. In 1917, when Germany issued its declaration of freedom of the seas and then sunk four American ships, Wilson was compelled to request a declaration of war from Congress, and the United States soon joined the effort to defeat Germany. However, it was Wilson’s pursuit of a lasting and just peace that would form his legacy and create a framework for later generations.

Document Analysis

Though President Wilson addresses the United States Senate in his speech on January 22, 1917, his words are directed toward the entire world. Wilson lays out what he hopes is the framework for a just and lasting peace that will avoid the overlapping alliances between nations. When Wilson presented this speech, World War I was over two years old and was impacting not only the belligerent nations, but also those nations determined to remain neutral. Wilson argues for a peace based on international cooperation, spearheaded by the neutral United States, which would necessarily lead any effort toward world peace.

Wilson’s opinions on American involvement in the war largely reflect the isolationist bent of the majority of Americans, and he does not mention the possibility of the United States joining the conflict in Europe. However, he insists that the peace that is agreed upon to end the war must be more than victors dictating terms to the vanquished and must be broader than an agreement between the belligerent nations of Europe. According to Wilson, the United States and the rest of the world play a vital role in creating a reality in which war is not the sole means to resolve conflicts between nations. He argues that the American form of government lends itself to the task of creating a just world order, to “show mankind the way to liberty.”

Wilson argues that a new order cannot not be achieved by merely punishing the defeated nations and instead must create a “peace without victory” where all nations are equal partners in developing a world that is based on the rights guaranteed to Americans in the US Constitution, “that no nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own polity.” Wilson states the way to accomplish this is to create a diplomatic system that would eliminate the need for “entangling alliances which would draw [nations] into competitions of power.”

Essential Themes

Assessing the impact of Wilson’s “Peace without Victory” speech is complex. Many would consider the speech unsuccessful, since within a few months a series of events drew the United States into the conflict in Europe. An increase in the ferocity of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, for example, and the interception and decoding of the so-called Zimmermann telegram, in which the German government promised to grant Mexico much of the territory they had lost to the United States during the prior century should they join the Central Powers in a war against the United States, both convinced Wilson that American participation in the war was inevitable.

Despite US involvement in the war, Wilson was undaunted in his postwar vision and hoped to use his position as leader of one of the victorious nations to implement his plan. Later speeches, most notably his Fourteen Points speech on January 8, 1918, expanded upon the themes he had sounded almost a year before. He proposed a global body of nations that would guarantee the independence of its members and settle disputes between nations. In all of this, Wilson still held that America must lead, and it was with those thoughts in mind that the points became the basis for the talks at the Paris Peace Conference, which followed the armistice that ended hostilities in November 1918.

The peace that finally emerged, however, did not resemble a “peace without victory.” Extremely heavy reparation payments crippled Germany, and the Central Powers were excluded from the newly formed League of Nations. Scholars have argued that the failure of the Paris Peace Conference to craft a treaty based on Wilson’s ideas led to World War II just twenty-one years later. But some of Wilson’s ideas have stood the test of time. Despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 1919, Wilson was able to keep the Senate from ratifying the Treaty of Versailles; however, he was unable to convince Congress to participate in the League of Nations. The League failed largely because of this, but the United Nations, which was formed after World War II, has had a much greater and enduring role in creating and maintaining peace throughout the world.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cooper, John Milton, Jr. “Reconsidering Wilson’s Progressivism.” Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era 9.2 (2010): 268–71. Print.
  • ___________. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Random, 2011. Print.
  • Nordholt, J. W. Schulte. Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991. Print.
  • Thompson, John A. “The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security.” International History Review 33.2 (2011): 363–5. Print.
  • Tucker, Robert W. Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2007. Print.
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