On 8 January 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech to Congress calling for an end to World War One and outlining his proposals for a postwar peace settlement. His 14 principles for America’s long-term war aims and peace terms became famously known as ‘the 14 points’.
America had entered the war only months before
When war broke out across Europe in 1914, Wilson pledged neutrality. He had initially hoped that America could be “impartial in thought as well as in action”.
By 1917, however, US isolation had become untenable.
On 2 April 1917, Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany, telling members:
The world must be made safe for democracy.
4 days later, the US officially joined its Triple Entente allies – Britain, France and Russia – to fight in World War One.
Wilson’s dream of a new world order
Wilson wanted his 14 Points to lay the groundwork for the establishment of a new order based on democracy and self-determination for all people, including Germans.
The proposals outlined in Wilson’s speech were the result of a secret series of studies he commissioned from a committee of experts known as The Inquiry.
The group included geographers, historians and political scientists who were asked to draw up recommendations for a comprehensive peace settlement.
The 14 points
1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at
2. Freedom of the seas
3. The removal so far as possible of all economic barriers
4. The reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety
5. Impartial adjustment of all colonial claims
6. The evacuation of all Russian territory
7. The evacuation and restoration of Belgium
8. The liberation of France and return to her of Alsace and Lorraine
9. Readjustment of the frontiers of Italy to conform to clearly recognisable lines of nationality
10. The peoples of Austria-Hungary should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development
11. Evacuation of occupation forces from Romania, Serbia and Montenegro; Serbia should be accorded free and secure access to the sea
12. Autonomous development for the non-Turkish peoples of the Ottoman Empire; free passage of the Dardanelles to the ships and commerce of all nations
13. An independent Poland to be established, with free and secure access to the sea
14. A general association of nations to be formed to guarantee to its members political independence and territorial integrity.
Response from Britain and France
Upon hearing Wilson’s 14 Points, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was said to have remarked sarcastically, “The good Lord had only 10!” He believed Wilson’s peace terms were far too lenient to Germany.
France had suffered heavy losses in the war. Clemenceau wanted to make sure Germany would be punished and weakened to the point that it would never be able to invade his country again.
Prime Minister of Britain, David Lloyd George, also wanted Germany to make reparation payments, telling the British public that he would ‘make Germany pay’. However he claimed that he wanted justice, not revenge like Clemenceau.
The Paris Peace Conference
The 14 Points became the basis for the terms of German surrender. In early October 1918, Prince Maximilian of Baden, the German imperial chancellor, sent a note to President Wilson requesting an immediate armistice and the opening of peace negotiations on the basis of his 14 Points.
The 1919 Paris Peace Conference saw the victorious Allied Powers meeting with the defeated Central Powers to officially declare the end of World War One.
The Conference saw the creation of the League of Nations – a direct brainchild of Wilson’s 14th Point. However the most significant result was the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919.
The War Guilt Clause
Wilson was too physically ill to attend the start of the Paris Peace Conference, which allowed France’s Clemenceau to advance demands that were significantly different from the 14 Points.
Most controversially was Article 231, which became known as the War Guilt Clause, and served as a legal basis to compel Germany to pay reparations.
The Allies would initially assess 269 billion marks in reparations. In 1921, the figure was established at 192 billion marks, roughly equivalent to £6.6 billion.
In addition, Germany was forced to give up the territories of Alsace-Lorraine and Danzig, as well as all of its colonies. In total, the Reich lost about 13 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population.
The 14 Points in Nazi propaganda
The text of the 14 Points had been widely distributed in Germany and was familiar to Germans prior to the end of the war.
The differences between Wilson’s peace terms and the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles fuelled great anger in Germany, with many viewing the War Guilt Clause as a national humiliation.
The outrage over Article 231 and reparations contributed to the rise of National Socialism. It was used by Hitler and the Nazi Party to claim that the Weimar government had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ by signing the Treaty.