The immediate cause of America’s entry into World War I in April 1917 was the German announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the subsequent sinking of ships with Americans on board. But President Wilson’s war aims went beyond the defense of U.S. maritime interests. In his War Message to Congress he declared our object “is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world.”
President Woodrow Wilsons delivering his Fourteen Points to Congress
Wilson used several speeches earlier in the year to sketch out his vision of an end to the war that would bring a “just and secure peace,” and not merely “a new balance of power.” He then appointed a committee of experts known as The Inquiry to help him refine his ideas for peace. In December 1917 he asked The Inquiry to draw up specific recommendations for a comprehensive peace settlement. Using these recommendations, Wilson presented a program of fourteen points to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. Eight of the fourteen points treated specific territorial issues among the combatant nations. Five of the other six concerned general principles for a peaceful world: open covenants (i.e. treaties or agreements), openly arrived at; freedom of the seas; free trade; reduction of armaments; and adjustment of colonial claims based on the principles of self-determination. The fourteenth point proposed what was to become the League of Nations to guarantee the “political independence and territorial integrity [of] great and small states alike.” Wilson’s idealism pervades the fourteen points, but he also had more practical objectives in mind: keeping Russia in the war by convincing the Bolsheviks that they would receive a better peace from the Allies; bolstering Allied morale; and undermining German war support. The address was immediately hailed in the United States and Allied nations, and even by Lenin, as a landmark of enlightenment in international relations. Wilson subsequently used the Fourteen Points as the basis for negotiation of the Versailles Treaty that ended the First World War. Although the treaty did not fully realize Wilson’s unselfish vision, the Fourteen Points still stand as the most powerful expression of the idealist strain in American diplomacy.