One hundred years ago yesterday, on January 8, 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson gave an address to Congress, setting out the main aims of American policy in the First World War and the basis on which he thought peace could and should be concluded. Fourteen statements, which have echoed in classrooms ever since, first made their way into the newspapers and on the lips of the world. As foreign policy aims, the Fourteen Points were fair, even-handed and progressive. Countries shouldn’t have secret treaties with each other and should arrive at their covenants openly. The seas should be free for navigation. There should be free economic trade and no barriers. Arms and weapons should be reduced. Former colonial societies should be transitioned to just independence. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were thought of as a breath of fresh air, of hopeful idealism in a world that had, by the beginning of 1918, become a ferocious slaughterhouse booming with explosions, chattering with machine-gun bullets and scarred by endless warfare and seething national hatreds.
There was, however, another side to the Fourteen Points. The other Allied leaders, especially Lloyd-George of Great Britain and Clemenceau of France, were skeptical. “Fourteen points?” said Clemenceau. “God had only ten!” In Imperial Germany, the Fourteen Points were printed up in newspapers and denounced as Allied propaganda, hollow promises that the rapacious British-French-American alliance had no intention of honoring. Even American politicians were a bit skeptical. Some of those same politicians, especially Republicans in the U.S. Senate, would be instrumental in deep-sixing Wilson’s overarching dream of a League of Nations, a vaunted congress of international goodness that would keep eternal peace in the world on principles very similar to the Fourteen Points.
Wilson talked a big game, but when it came down to the actual peace negotiations in Paris in 1919, in his dealings with the other Allied leaders–shown here–he easily sacrificed most of the Fourteen Points.
Woodrow Wilson is a strange Jekyll/Hyde figure in world history. A prim and decorous academic–indeed, a Princeton history professor–Wilson peered at the world through his pince-nez glasses and imperiously lectured it on how things could generally be better, fairer, and more just, and a lot of his ideas have much to commend them. The world would be a better place, for sure, with greater fairness and transparency in international relations, and had his counsel been heeded during the fever summer of 1914, maybe the war wouldn’t have happened at all. Wilson’s idealism was the embodiment, to steal a phrase from a later President, of the audacity of hope. Can’t we, shouldn’t we, work together for a better world? That was the basic message of the Fourteen Points.
Yet even in Wilson’s own character there are reasons to see the Fourteen Points as a bit disingenuous. A racist, thoroughly convinced that white supremacy was the natural order of things in the American South, it’s hard to imagine Wilson applying Fourteen Points-style social justice at home. He staunchly opposed the 19th Amendment, giving the vote to women; when it came to politics he was vicious, petty and rigid, browbeating his opponents and eschewing compromise in favor of demanding unswerving fealty to his own vision. Later in 1918, when the terrible influenza epidemic began sweeping the world and the United States, Wilson was in virtual denial, slow to act against the biggest environmental disaster of the 20th century thus far. As visionary as he was, Wilson went around with blinders on.
Though first skeptical of the Fourteen Points, the Germans ultimately concluded the Armistice on the understanding that they would be the basis for peace. They were disappointed.
Precious little of the Fourteen Points made it into the ultimate peace settlement after World War I, the disastrous treaty signed in 1919, dictated partly by Wilson. Although the German military stopped the fighting in November 1918 on the expectation that the Fourteen Points would be the basis of the peace, once he finally arrived in Paris to work on the treaty Wilson bargained away principle after principle, going all-in on the old world style of rapacious diplomacy enthusiastically embraced by Lloyd-George and Clemenceau. The victorious European leaders were eager to punish Germany brutally for having caused the war. The massive reparations Germany owed, if they were to be paid on schedule, would have continued until 1987. The Versailles Treaty was kind of like a bazaar of nation-building. Smaller countries and former colonies came to horse trade with Wilson and the big dogs to see what advantage they could get. A young Ho Chi Minh was the observer for Vietnam, hoping to buy a scrap or two of independence from the French. It turns out neither Clemenceau nor Wilson were selling.
So where does this leave the Fourteen Points, historically? Was Wilson’s missive a beacon of hope for a war-weary world, or a cynical sales job meant to coat a pill of American self-interest in a candy shell of idealism for easier swallowing? I think you can find support for both positions. As we look around our world today, pushed to the breaking point by climate change, ravaged by corporate self-interest, the feckless anti-leadership of charlatans like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and the growing threat of war with North Korea, it’s hard to see much of the spirit of the Fourteen Points anywhere in practice. While we could certainly use a bit of Wilson’s tonic, both at home and abroad, something about his approach seems decidedly quaint. One wonders how Wilson, if he were alive today, might deal with Kim Jong-un of North Korea–perhaps with a genuine overture to rapprochement, but one could also easily envision Wilson ordering a hail of drone strikes on various Middle Eastern countries, as an equally lofty-sounding Barack Obama often did during his terms in office.
One wonders how Wilson might deal with the threat of nuclear war from North Korea. Would Kim Jong-un simply take advantage of his idealism?
After a hundred years, the spirit of the Fourteen Points remains as fresh as ever. But the main problem with the document remains the same as it was in 1918 when Wilson minted it: how to turn the tillers of nations away from pure self-interest and toward a goal of collective justice and security. As much as Wilson hoped that World War I would achieve that change, it didn’t, nor did the second world war that followed a generation later. Maybe the third time will be the charm, or maybe it will be the end of us all. Considering the Fourteen Points leads as easily to nihilism as it does to dreams of a positive future.