It is without a doubt that the attitude of the President of the United States, Woodrow
Wilson, towards the First World War had global consequences, many of them unintended,
according to his own words. His infamous Address to the Congress, made in January 1918,
stirred up the hopes of many peoples under foreign occupation, particularly those in the
colonies of the European powers even though the fourteen points were in fact directed at the
situation of Europe. In order to get a better understanding of the events and consequences
which have occurred at the end of the Great War, it is necessary that the position of the United
States and its president is analyzed within the historical context which existed at the time and
that the fourteen points found in the Address be reinterpreted though the perspective of an
American president of the late 19th – early 20th century.
With the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, the policy of the United States of
America had been one of strict neutrality and non-involvement in the European affairs. This
had been a long-going tradition within the United States, the principles of non-involvement in
Europe being laid down by the “Founding Fathers” themselves. However, with the progress of
the war, the USA would soon see itself drifting closer and closer towards the powers of the
Triple Entente and in opposition towards the Central Powers. This drift was initially set in
motion by the very basic need of America to trade with Europe, and since the highly superior
naval power of Great Britain and France (and later Italy) combined could set an unbreakable
blockade on the sea ports of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the only viable option for the
American industry was to sell its goods to the powers of the Entente. Thus, the path for
cooperation with France and the British Empire was opened by simple commercial interests,
and these very same commercial interests would end up pushing the United States into full
blown war with the Central Powers.
For the sake of pacifism, Woodrow Wilson launched a somewhat naive call to the
belligerent powers, asking for a “peace without victory” or a “peace among equals”, but it was
quite obvious from the start that an attempt like this had no chance of succeeding. By the time
this call had been launched, the European Conflict had become too general, and very clear
objectives had already been stated by both war-waging blocks: France, Britain and their allies
had clearly stated their intentions to dismantle the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires
and demand war indemnities, while Germany gave a more evasive answer, stating that its
objectives will only be revealed during an official peace conference. Moreover, by that time
Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare, meaning that neutral ships entering the war-zone could be sunk by German submarines.(1) For Germany, submarine warfare was the only possible way to wage war at sea, since the powerful British fleet held its ports under
blockade, for the USA this was perceived as a threat to the freedom of navigation, vital for its
commercial interest. Ultimately, the call of the United States president for a “peace without
victory” fell through and most certainly can be seen as a naive attempt made by the leader of
an isolationist country to bring peace to a region of which he knew little about.
Moreover, the interception of the famous Zimmermann telegram led to a widespread
perception in the American public opinion that war had been already declared on the United
States themselves, even though the telegram specifically stated that the aim of Germany was
to keep the USA neutral, making a mere suggestion that Mexico offers its support only in the
case of an American attack.(2) A telegram and a promise like this were very common among the European states who were deeply involved in the practice of “Realpolitik”, but for the
isolationist and idealist public opinion of the United States it seemed like a shock and
declaration of war, and in the end precipitated the entrance of America into war against
Germany and its allies.
Lenin’s “Decree on Peace” and Wilson’s Address to Congress: an interpretation
Before launching into an analysis of what the fourteen points of Wilson’s Address to
Congress it is also important to place the whole declaration into a historical context. Several
months before the Address was read, the Bolshevik government of Russia had issued its
“Decree on Peace”, in October 1917, which demanded a peace “without annexations or
indemnities”, not unlike the “peace without victory” proposal made by President Wilson.
What was different from it, however, was the mindset of the Russian officials, which, unlike
the Americans, had been for decades involved in the practice of “Realpolitik” and had a very
clear understanding of European politics. For the new, Bolshevik government, the Decree on
Peace was right from the start just an instrument used to achieve their goals, unlike the peace proposal of the United States President, who genuinely believed such a peace could be achieved. Among other things, the Decree denounced the right of powerful states to annex or hold within its borders smaller, weaker nations, specifying very clearly that it would not matter if the respective nations are in Europe or in the “overseas countries”.(3) Thus, Lenin’s Decree also has a clear rhetoric of self-determination but extends this right, from the start, over the colonies of Europe in a clear way. Combined with the ideology of “perpetual and worldwide revolution” embraced by Lenin, these calls clearly had global intentions and were not meant only for Europe, as Wilson’s fourteen points were. Unlike the idealistic American President though, events that followed proved that Lenin’s words were mere tools of manipulation, meant to attract the support of the Russian peasants, workers and soldiers, who were exhausted from years of war. His goals were in fact very pragmatic and just as imperialistic as those of the European Colonial Empires: the propagation of socialist revolutions throughout the world, clearly showing a global vision, and the creation of a newform of global empire, an ideological one.
Ultimately, Lenin’s decree might have rushed the creation of Wilson’s fourteen point peace
program, which, unlike the Bolshevik declaration, did not have ulterior motives, even though
its formulation was ambiguous at best on some of the points. Wilson did not really imagine
how his words would affect the rest of the world, merely thinking that his fourteen points will
be taken for what they actually were: a peace program for Europe, not intended to be applied
to the rest of the peoples from Africa or Asia who were under European colonial rule.
The first points of Presidents Wilson Address were referring to general principles, and
might have even had a more pragmatic component, that of safeguarding the commercial
interest of the United States, as it referred to the freedom of navigation and removal of trade
barriers. The first point in particular, stipulating that diplomacy should be only public, could
be interpreted as an attempt at leveling the playing field for the United States, as it was far
less experienced in the “backstage games” of underground diplomacy compared to its
European counterparts. Regardless if the interpretation on the first points of his Address to
Congress is made from a pragmatic or idealistic perspective, these general principles were
unlikely to cause objections or any other unintended consequences from the parties involved.
It was however the fifth point of Wilson’s peace program that was to have indeed
involuntary global ripples. It stipulated: “A free, open-minded, and absolutely 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 claims of the government whose title is to be
determined.”(4) While this point did not in any way mention the right to sovereignty of the
people of the colonies, it would nevertheless be used later by anti-colonial fighters to
legitimize their claims of independence. In fact, this point actually acknowledged the fact that
the colonial overlords should still have sovereignty over their possessions, and merely
remarked that the interests of the natives should be taken into account when running the
affairs of the respective colonies. Wilson did not see imperialism and colonialism as
something evil, and in fact was himself an opponent of the American anti-imperialist voices
who opposed the annexation of the Philippines; it was in fact his belief that the USA (and
inherently the other Western powers) had the task to prepare the natives for self-governance,
“if they are fit” and instruct the “less civilized”.(5) From this attitude displayed by the President,
one might even draw the conclusion that he himself was actually an imperialist and saw
colonialism as civilizing and thus justified, having therefore no intention to stir up the wave of
The points of Wilson’s peace program which refer to territorial changes and
evacuation of territories can be interpreted as somewhat ambiguous and as upholding double standards at best. When it comes to the powerful states, like France or Russia, the President calls for a complete evacuation of their territories and, in the case of France, a territorial rectification in its favor by the re-incorporation of Alsace-Lorraine in its territories, having in fact nothing to do with the principles of self-determination and nationality since the majority of the population of those regions were German-speakers. The fact that he speaks of safeguarding the place of Austria-Hungary among nations, with the “autonomous” development of the peoples can even put into question if the rhetoric of the whole speech is one of self-determination of people in the first place, likewise his position on the Ottoman Empire when he speaks of the non-Turkish populations given the chance of autonomous development as well. The formulation is most likely made to sound ambiguous on purpose, since this is after all an official document linked with diplomacy, but no matter if the language is plain, technical or diplomatic “autonomous” can never mean “sovereign” or “independent”.
As for the smaller states, particularly those in the Balkans, Wilson simply had a plan to
return them to the “status-quo ante bellum”, trying to apply his principles of “peace without
victory” at least on smaller nations which had less power to protest. It was quite obvious
however that this was really impossible to apply unless a grossly arbitrary action was taken
above the heads and behind the backs of these states, many of whom had gone to war in order to achieve their goals of national unity.
Finally, the final point stipulated the creation of an international body, an “association of
nations” as the President put it, with the purpose of safeguarding the independence and
territorial integrity of all states. This provision as well had a ripple effect in the colonies, as
most nationalists from the colonies saw this new-to-be-formed international body as some sort of supranational structure which all states would be accountable to. The Egyptian nationalists in particular thought they might even bring Great Britain in front of a tribunal of the League of Nations in order to advocate for their independence. These ideas would ultimately prove to be way to idealistic, almost dream-like, as in the years that followed, the League of Nations would prove its total ineffectiveness.
The ambiguity and position in favor of the preservation of Austria-Hungary can be seen as
proof that indeed the consequences the fourteen points had over the nationalism in the
colonies was completely unintentional, since Wilson himself, as shown above, was actually an imperialist and the self-determination rhetoric of his speech is somewhat questionable. For the most part, the Bolshevik government in Russia was much more radical in its “Decree on Peace” when it came to self-determination, which can be seen as one of the reasons why many colonial nationalists ended up embracing socialism. Obviously, what happened in practice only served to prove that the Bolsheviks had no real intention of holding true to their promise and were just buying time to consolidate their rule. The Bolshevik military actions against the newly formed Polish state, part of which had broken free from what was formerly a territory of Tsarist Russia can be seen as conclusive proof of this, as can also be the military operations against the province of Bessarabia, which was as well a former part of the Russian Empire but had an overwhelming Romanian majority and had declared unification with Romania in 1918.
Ultimately, the very idea that self-determination of nations is the core rhetoric of Wilsons
“Fourteen Points speech” can be put into question on several grounds, and the fact that it in no way referred to the self-determination of the colonies was even admitted by the President
“When I gave utterance to those words I said them without the knowledge that nationalities
existed, which are coming to us day after day… You do not know and cannot appreciate the
anxieties that I have experienced as the result of many millions of people having their hopes
raised by what I have said.”(6) W. Wilson, June 1919
These words show Wilson was not entirely fit to create a “global body of nations” that was
supposed to act as some sort of global government since, according to his own words, there
were many nations of the world of which he had no idea existed. Furthermore, the fact that he
was the first ever American president to leave the territory of the USA during his term in
office shows how uninvolved and isolated from true, global diplomacy American leaders
actually were at that point in time.
The entrance of the United States into the First World War proved decisive, and the joined offensives of the Triple Entente armies managed to inflict decisive defeats on the Central Powers. One by one, the allies of Germany were knocked out of the war, starting with Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire and ending with the surrender of Austria-Hungary, which almost immediately began a process of disintegration, breaking up into its constituent nations.The actions of the US government led the United States into having a big say at the peace talks which concluded the war. For the first time in history, a non-European power was involved in the peace talks involving the European continent, and Wilson sought to uphold his principles, stated in his Address to Congress.The League of Nations was created, as stated on point fourteen of his speech, and just for a moment it appeared like the idealism of the American President would prevail. The nationalist movements from the colonies of Europe gained momentum and representatives of peoples from around the world saw a unique opportunity to pursue their goal of independence. It was believed even that this would mark a new era in international relations, one of equality among nations and one into which justice, not power, would become the central principle.(7) This was what later became known as the “Wilsonian moment”, and just as its name might suggest, it was just a brief moment of global idealism. Wilson was unable to withhold some of his principles even when it came to the European affairs, since, for instance, Austria-Hungary was dismantled, even though he had basically guaranteed its existence. Also, the mere return to status-quo ante bellum for the Balkan countries, which was stipulated in the eleventh point of the Address, proved inapplicable as well, as Bulgaria was stripped of its access to the Aegean Sea in favor of Greece and also lost some strategic military points in favor of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Furthermore, even though the League Of Nations was actually created, the Congress of the United States would end up blocking America from joining it, plunging once more into isolationism and leaving an idealistic construction which was the League, into the hands of the European Powers, far more used to pragmatism and balance of power than to concepts such as reduction of armies and having equal positions for all nations involved.It is indisputable however, that even though unintended, the attitude of the American President gave new energy to the anti-colonial nationalists and claims were laid, by weaker nations, against the victorious powers of the war, a fact which was unheard of until that point,since the victor of war would be the one making claims in the framework which had previously existed. Animated by a preferential interpretation of Wilson’s fourteen points,nations such as the Irish, Chinese, Indians and Egyptians demanded independence, and when the nationalist leaders realized that the Wilsonian moment had passed and was a mere illusion, protests broke out on the territories of the oppressed nations.Chinese revolutionary leader, Sun Yat-sen, would quickly embrace the ideas of self determination and created a Chinese nationalist movement, which succeeded in overthrowing the old imperial order and gave birth to the Republic of China. Judging by his “Three Principles of the People”, it can be concluded that he was influenced by Wilson’s ideas of self determination, considering the Chinese nation morally superior.(8)At the opposite end of the political spectrum and of the self-determination principles stood the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, who adopted the Leninist approach and looked for immediate end of colonial rule.(9)
By comparing the two, one can draw the conclusion that bigger, stronger nations favored the Wilsonian approach, while small, weak ones were more prone to be attracted by Leninism, as it in no way promoted the idea of moral superiority of one nation over the other.
The idealistic Wilsonian moment was over just as suddenly as it had began, and would take
several decades for colonies such as Egypt or India to gain their independence, although
China can be considered an immediate success, managing to achieve the abrogation of the
unequal treaties which had been imposed on it over the previous century. As unintentional as
it might have been, the clumsily and somewhat naively written Address to Congress,
commonly known as the “Fourteen Point speech” changed the world and saw the rise of anticolonial nationalism as a new major actor on the international scene.(10)
Over the following two decades, the members of the League of Nations would embark into
an unsuccessful attempt to uphold the idealistic principles and ideas which had been the basis of the League to begin with. However the period of attempted disarmament and mimicking of idealism would end up in complete disaster a mere 20 years after the Wilsonian moment, when the world went to total war once more and the international arena reverted to the more traditional practices of balance of power.
Author: Bogdan Cristea, M.A. International Studies
1 George Brown Tindell, David E. Shi, America, o istorie narativă, Bucureşti, Editura Enciclopedică, 1996, p. 674
2 Telegram of the Foreign Secretary of Germany, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassadors in the United States and Mexico, 16th and 19th of January 1917, http://www.archives.gov/global-pages/larger-image.html?i=/education/lessons/zimmermann/images/decoded-message-l.jpg&c=/education/lessons/zimmermann/images/decodedmessage.caption.html
3 Vladimir Lenin’s Decree on Peace presented to the Second Congress of Soviet Workers, Soldiers and Peasant’s Deputies, 26th of October 1917, http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/decreeonpeace.htm
4 The address of the President of the United States of America, Woodrow Wilson, to the American Congress, January 8,1918, http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/President_Wilson%27s_Fourteen_Points
5 Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment. Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 29.
6 Ibidem, p. 215.
7 Ibidem, p. 3.
8 Sun Yat-sen, Three Principles of the People, in Prasenjit Duara (ed.), Decolonization. Perspectives from now and then, London and New York, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2003, p. 21-29.
9 Ho Chi Minh, The Path that Led me to Leninism, in Ibidem, p. 29-31.
10 Ibidem, p. 5
The address of the President of the United States of America, Woodrow Wilson, to the American
Congress, January 8, 1918, http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/President_Wilson%27s_Fourteen_Points (last retrieved January 30, 2012).
The telegram of the Foreign Secretary of Germany, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German
ambassadors in the United States and Mexico, 16th and 19th of January 1917,
http://www.archives.gov/global-pages/larger-image.html?i=/education/lessons/zimmermann/images/decoded-message-l.jpg&c=/education/lessons/zimmermann/images/decoded-message.caption.html (last retrieved January 30, 2012).
Vladimir Lenin’s Decree on Peace presented to the Second Congress of Soviet Workers, Soldiers
and Peasant’s Deputies, 26th of October 1917,
http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/decreeonpeace.htm (last retrieved January 30, 2012).
Duara, Prasenjit (ed.), Decolonization. Perspectives from now and then, London and New York,
Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2003.
Manela, Erez, The Wilsonian Moment. Self-Determination and the International Origins of
Anticolonial Nationalism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Tindell, George Brown, Shi, David E., America, o istorie narativă, Bucureşti, Ed. Enciclopedică,
1996 (translations made by author of the essay).