"Fourteen Points" Speech

by Woodrow Wilson
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Last Updated on September 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

President Woodrow Wilson delivered his “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, during the devastating international conflict that would come to be known as World War I. The war had begun in July 1914, but the United States, under Wilson, had so far resisted joining the fray. Most Americans agreed with Wilson’s desire to maintain neutrality; however, in February 1917, the German navy resumed its engagement in unrestricted submarine warfare. This act—and previous attacks on merchant and passenger ships—turned American public opinion against Germany. In April 1917, after several American merchant ships were attacked, the United States declared war on Germany and officially entered World War I.

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By the time the United States entered the war, the other nations involved were already entangled in various treaties and alliances. The United States was not equally entrenched, giving Woodrow Wilson a unique voice in the conflict. As an emerging superpower, and offering somewhat of an outside perspective, the United States exerted great influence over the terms of peace and the course of world politics.

One important element of Wilson’s speech concerns the political situation in Russia at the time. In November 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks had overthrown Russia’s provisional government and formed the world’s first Communist state. Then, in December 1917—mere weeks before Wilson’s speech—the new Soviet Russia signed an armistice with Germany. In this context, Wilson’s special attention to Russia is understandable. As well as having been devastated by the external conflict of World War I, in which it proved no match for industrialized Germany, Russia had been torn apart by internal revolution. In his speech, Wilson reminds the United States and its allies that Russia is in need of support, encouraging other states to lay aside their own interests and allow the nation to develop its own political institutions.

Along with addressing specific historic events, Wilson’s speech also addresses the underlying beliefs shaping global politics at the time. Nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism in particular served as currents that led the world to World War I. Nationalism—the support for one’s own nationality over others—was tearing apart diverse geopolitical entities such as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Meanwhile, individual ethnic groups, from Poles to Serbs to Turks, were demanding the right to rule themselves. In his speech, Wilson supports these nationalistic endeavours, agreeing that borders should be drawn and governments structured to allow for each group to have sovereignty over itself. He calls for colonial power to be dismantled, demanding that the colonized be given a voice in determining their own future. The unraveling of colonial power and the determining of national boundaries would be, of course, much more complex than is suggested in this short speech.

Nationalism often advocates pursuing the cause of one’s own nation at the expense of others, but Wilson rejects this element of nationalist ideology. Instead, he insists that nation-states must flourish alongside each other and that seeking peace and justice for other states is critical for ensuring peace and justice for one’s own. He also denounces imperialism and the drive for one nation to exert power over another. In this way, Wilson’s speech reflects momentous shifts occurring in global politics at the time—movements away from colonialism and imperialism toward democracy and national sovereignty.

Wilson is deeply idealistic, and while outlining specific points for peace, he steps back to reflect on core principles. These principles and ideals became foundational for American diplomacy; though they were not always followed in the decades to come, they continued to be held as standards. Wilson’s belief that there must be an association of states helped shape the League of Nations and, eventually, the United Nations.

Wilson also reflects on grand shifts in history. He speaks of a larger movement, the end of an era, declaring that “conquest,” “aggrandizement,” and “secret covenants” are all part of an age that is “dead and gone.” Humanity, he believes, is moving forward into a new era of justice and peace. In his optimism, he refers to World War I as “the culminating and final war for human liberty.” Wilson saw the conflict as a “moral climax” in global history and believed that when it ended, the world would be “secured once for all” against the “violations of right” that had drawn the United States into the war in the first place.

This optimistic view of World War I, and the era that would follow it, was common at the time. Many people believed the conflict would be “the war to end all wars.” A relatively short time later, however, the world would be plunged into World War II with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. At the end of World War I, the terms of peace did not reflect Wilson’s hope that Germany would be invited to sit alongside other nations as an equal. Instead, the Treaty of Versailles enforced harsh terms for Germany and assigned it much of the blame for World War I. These terms were a source of deep resentment and humiliation for the German people, helping propel the Nazi party to power. Historians can only speculate about what might have happened if the spirit of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” had been realized and the ensuing decades of war avoided. Over a century later, however, there can be no doubt of the enduring legacy left by Wilson’s democratic ideals and his vision of a “stable and lasting peace.”

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