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Wilson's Fourteen Points



During the bloody battles of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson began to explain his plans for the peace following the war.  Most widely known was his message of a "peace without victory" most completely explained in his "Fourteen Points" speech before Congress on 8 January 1918.  The first five points consisted mainly the idea of an "open" world after the war.  Simply rendered, these represented public covenants between nations, freedom of navigating the seas, equal trading practices and elimination of protective tariffs, reduction of armaments, and an end to imperialism.  The next eight points focused mainly upon the idea of granting "self-determination" to national minorities in Europe.  Most significant, however, was point number fourteen which stressed a "general association of nations" to ensure "political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike."  Essentially, these Fourteen Points signaled a generous, non-punitive postwar settlement.

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The first point requires "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at."

The second point, "freedom of navigation upon the seas," regards a key reason for US entrance into the war: Germany's unlimited submarine warfare.

The third is consistent with the liberal argument for economic association to prevent war: "equality of trade conditions among all nations consenting to the peace."

The fourth point calls for arms reduction.

Points five through thirteen address national self-determination, an important issue to President Wilson. Point five calls for "adjustment of colonial claims" giving equal voice to the colonial governments.

Russia and Belgium are to be evacuated in points six and seven. France is also to be freed in point eight, with Alsace-Lorraine returned. Prussia (currently Germany) had taken this territory from France in 1871, and Wilson "righted" this wrong of fifty years. Italy's borders were addressed in point nine, to "be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality." Austria-Hungary is "accorded . . . autonomous development" in point ten. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro are to be evacuated in point eleven, and Serbia given sea access. Point twelve assures Turkey as well as other portions of the Ottoman Empire under Turkish rule "sovereignty" as well as demands guarantees for free passage through the Dardanelles. Point thirteen calls for "an independent Polish state."

The final point was the most controversial and yet most important to Wilson: the League of Nations. The League of Nations was the brainchild of Wilson, a body which would enforce the peace settlement and international law in general. The theory behind the League was collective security, described in the Article Ten of the League Covenant of 1919 as commitment by members of the League "to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League."

Congress, wary of losing its sole power to declare war to the League, expressed its fears in the Lodge Reservations of 1919 . The United States wished to be under no obligation to enter into another foreign war. In order to get his proposal for the League passed, Wilson compromised on the issue of German reparations, allowing them to exist in the peace settlement. This compromise undermined the spirit of the Fourteen Points and lost Wilson the support of the League advocates.

The League was voted in (though not given powers) by the rest of the Allies, yet it was never approved by the United States. The US finally voted on the Versailles Treaty, without the League articles, in 1921.


Paterson, Thomas G. and Dennis Merrill, eds. Major Problems in American Foreign Relations. Vol. II: Since 1914. (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1995).

Paterson, Thomas G., J. Garry Clifford, and Kenneth J. Hagan. American Foreign Relations: A History Since 1895. Vol. II. (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1995).

The Fourteen Points

Edited, Researched and Written by: 
Jennifer N. Harlow
November 21, 1997

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