The United States entered World War I on the Allies’ side on April 6, 1917. However, the U.S. entered the war reluctantly. Unlike many European nations, the U.S. was not fighting over territory or revenge for past wars. Instead, Wilson wanted the end of the war to bring out lasting peace for the world. In early January 1918, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and American president Woodrow Wilson issued public explanations of what they hoped to accomplish through a victory over the Central Powers.
Wilson received input from his closest advisor, Colonel Edward House, and several academics and had them put together a peace plan. This play became the Fourteen Points. The primary purpose of the Fourteen Points was to outline a strategy for ending the war. He set out specific goals that he wanted to achieve through the war. If the United States was going to fight in Europe and soldiers were going to lose their lives, he wanted to establish exactly what they were fighting for. Through this speech and the Fourteen Points Wilson became-the only leader of the countries fighting in the war to publicly outline his war goals.
These were the goals of the United States in the peace negotiations after the war. He announced the Fourteen Points to Congress in early 1918. The Fourteen Points also served as the foundation of the truce signed between the Allies and the Central Powers. The promise of the Fourteen Points helped bring the Germans to peace talks at the war’s end. However, the actual results of the Treaty of Versailles were much harsher against Germany than the Fourteen Points.
A brief outline of the 14 points is as follows:
(i) Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings, but diplomacy shall always proceed frankly and in the public view.
(ii) Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or partly by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.
(iii) The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
(iv) Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
(v) A free, open-minded, and impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.
(vi) The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia will secure the best and most accessible cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded to Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their goodwill, their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.
(vii) Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored without any attempt to limit the sovereignty that she enjoys in common with all other free nations. No other act will serve as this will restore confidence among the nations in the laws they have set and determined for the government of their relations with one another. Without this healing act, international law’s whole structure and validity are forever impaired.
(viii) All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored. The wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the world’s peace for nearly fifty years, should be righted so that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.
(ix) A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
(x) The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the most accessible opportunity to autonomous development.
(xi) Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea, and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.
(xii) The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty. However, the other nationalities now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an unmolested opportunity for autonomous development. The Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under International guarantees.
(xiii) An independent Polish state should be erected, which should include ‘the territories, which should be assured free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
(xiv) A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants to afford mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states.
In short, the first five of the Fourteen Points dealt with issues of broad international concern. The following eight points referred to specific territorial questions.
Allied governments paid lip service to the Fourteen Points while the fighting continued. Those nations needed American financial might to assist in their rebuilding after the war and did not want to risk offending Wilson. In addition, there was some fear in Europe that the United States might seek a separate peace with Germany, freeing that nation to continue the fight without the presence of American forces.
The French and British were particularly unhappy with Wilson’s plan. Both had felt the impact of German militarism much more deeply than the United States and were committed to taking steps that would preclude further German aggression. Nevertheless, the Allies agreed to accept the Fourteen Points as the basis for the coming peace negotiations if Wilson would agree to two reservations:
- The delegates would not be committed to accepting a provision guaranteeing freedom of the seas (Point 2) — a measure demanded by Britain.
- The French insisted that the provision is having to do with German evacuation from French territory (Point 8) be interpreted to allow for the collection of compensation (reparations) for civilian damages incurred in the war. Wilson accepted these reservations and forwarded the peace plan to the German government on November 5.