Following the Allied victory at the end of World War I, a consensus was reached that the world should seek to avoid such a destructive conflict in the future. Politicians in the United Kingdom and France, weary after four years of bitter fighting, sought to punish Germany as an aggressor and, it was hoped, not only limit the Germans from being able to wage war in the future, but also recoup some of the material and financial losses that Paris and London had incurred as a result of the war.
American President Woodrow Wilson had a different perspective. Instead of crippling the Germans, he sought to build a more peaceful global environment by bringing freedom to more people. His plan was encapsulated in the Fourteen Points.
The Fourteen Points
The points themselves can be divided into two broad groups. The first of these make up the majority of the points and apply to specific geographic and political situations throughout Europe and the world. A number of these points make perfect sense today. For example, Italy’s borders should be based on ethnic and linguistic realities, Turkey, Poland, and Serbia should exist, and the territories of the old Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires should be allowed to govern themselves according to the will of the people. Germany would not escape unscathed; France would get the territories that were, according to the Allies, wrongly taken after the Franco-Prussian War.
The rest of the points apply to broad policies to be adopted on a global level. Some of these are idealistic: Diplomacy should be a public process, for example. Others, such as a guarantee of freedom of navigation on the world’s oceans, are much more pragmatic. Freedom of world trade and arms limitation were well ahead of their time.
The most controversial point was the last one. Wilson called for the establishment of the League of Nations, a global body that would seek to settle disputes through diplomacy rather than war. Ultimately, the League was established, but was largely toothless. The United States itself failed to ratify the treaty that would have allowed it to join.
Released less than a year into American involvement in the war, Wilson’s ideas were praised by many Europeans as a step in the right direction, if a bit idealistic. Among the leaders of the Western Allies there was a different reaction. The belligerents had been fighting for years and now Wilson was offering Germany a relatively easy way out. Wilson’s slant towards liberalism continued into the Versailles Peace Conference; while France and Britain wanted more concessions, Wilson advanced his points.
Ultimately, the points became an inspiration for the final Treaty of Versailles, often in watered-down interpretations. The territorial points were largely adopted, with the powers happy to take territory from the Germans, the Ottomans, and the Austro-Hungarians. Others saw less support. The Western powers were hesitant to release their own colonies, using the language of the Points and the newly-formed League of Nations to justify a system of “Mandates” that were similar in many ways to colonies. The League itself was established, but largely lacked the ability to enforce its own rulings.
Germans obviously embraced the terms of the treaty once it became apparent that they had lost the war, and the Western reluctance to honor the terms offered by Wilson became the source of considerable consternation and fueled hatred towards the West. It was not until well after the Second World War that many Germans would learn that it was a cause of considerable division between the United States and its allies.