The Fourteen Points: A Road to Peace Not Taken

Ishaan Busireddy

As the Great War raged on in Europe for three bloody years from 1914 to 1917, America sat on the sidelines of neutrality and watched. America watched, but America was not idle or aloof. No, the United States was armed and ready to defend its interests and that of global democracy and freedom. And so it did.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, a believer in neutrality, swore to keep the United States out of any foreign war as long as America was unprovoked. He kept to this promise as, in 1914, a Great War engulfed the European continent in bullets, flames, and destruction. The American public at this point stood with Wilson: they did not want to spill their blood and money on foreign soil.

Yet, serenity can be a frail thing, and the relative peace was disturbed in time. Prior and during the Great War, Britain was one of America’s most important trading partners; the American public, keeping in mind the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Britain’s support of the Confederacy, and Britain’s continued global imperialism without reinvestment into colonies, did not necessarily see Britain as a dependable ally. Yet, Americans did not view Britain as an enemy but rather as a useful economic partner and potential political ally as well given Britain’s constitutional monarchy (which was practically a democracy by this point) and desire to preserve the world balance, albeit from an imperialistic lens. Britain was a belligerent in the War on the side of France, Russia, and Italy among other nations. Opposing those nations, which were known as the Entente or “Allies,” were the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. The American public viewed Germany, an authoritarian monarchy, with effectively ambivalent opinions. Many, if not most, Americans were of at least partial German descent, and America had never directly fought with Germany militarily or politically; in fact, some German officers had even aided America during the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Yet, these opinions were destined to change. Both Britain and Germany were key members of their respective alliances. Britain provided most of the Entente’s naval power, and Germany had a far stronger army, navy, and airforce (a relatively new invention) than its allies, who had largely archaic military technology, tactics, and organization. Still, Germany could not match Britain’s navy, one of the strongest and farthest-reaching navies in the world. Additionally, Germany had a more strained resource supply than Britain, which had far more global territory, and was not able to support as large naval operations as the British could. As a result, the Germans had to rely on more fuel-efficient and smaller-scale naval operations: unrestricted submarine warfare and convoy raiding. German submarines began to excessively infest European and Atlantic waters starting from 1915. On February 4th, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered submarines to attack merchant vessels conducting trade for Britain, regardless of whether the other trading partner was a belligerent or not; this tactic was believed to have the potential of crippling the British economy and removing Britain’s economic advantage of having better access to the global market.

As a result of America’s status as an important trading partner of Britain, many American merchant vessels made voyages to the British Isles. This pattern placed American vessels at significant risk of being assaulted and sunk by German U-Boat submarines. A month after the Kaiser’s decree, Germany announced that the Kaiserliche Marine submarines had sunk the William P. Frye, an American private merchant vessel. President Wilson and the American population were infuriated, but tensions were diffused after the Germans apologized and accepted the attack as an unfortunate mistake on their part. But this minor incident was only the beginning of what was yet to come. On May 7th 1915, the British ship, the Lusitania, was sunk by torpedo without warning, killing 128 Americans on board. The German government, to justify its actions, claimed that the ship was carrying munitions shipments, but the U.S. insisted on reparations and the termination of German unrestricted submarine warfare. Germany promised to guarantee the safety of passengers before attacking unarmed vessels. However, the Germans rescinded their word in November, when they sunk an Italian vessel and killed 27 American civilians without warning. The continuation of these attacks drastically shifted Americans’ opinion of Germany. The nation they once viewed as slightly-aggressive but mostly passive and the people they once viewed as brothers were demonized as an aggressive and nearly-barbaric militant race that sought to gain nothing but the expansion of their imperialistic tyranny. Such a significant alteration of public sentiments occurred in the course of just a few months.

After a small-scale withdrawal, the Germans resumed submarine warfare in 1917, and the U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Germany a mere three days later in response to this unacceptable infringement on American sovereignty and the freedom of trade and the seas. Just hours later, the American vessel Housatonic was sunk by German submarines. Congress passed a $250 million rearmament bill on February 22nd. The nation was preparing for war. As the situation spiraled further, the Kaiser gave up on diplomacy.

Little did the Kaiser know that he had eradicated Germany’s potential for victory and world dominance the minute he uttered the words “This is the end of negotiations with America, once and for all! If Wilson wants war, let him provoke it and then have it.” in mid-March. In the following two week, four more American merchant vessels were attacked. The Germans had tested the patience and civility of the American for far too long: it was time to act. On April 2nd, Wilson requested a formal declaration of war on the German Empire from Congress. Congress followed his advice four days later, and the U.S. officially entered the Great War.

Two million American soldiers would go on to fight in the fields, waters, and skies of Europe; 50,000 of them would sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their nation and the democratic ideals of their forefathers. As the war came to a close given the hopeless situation of Germany’s allies, President Wilson began to organize his vision for the post-war world. He outlined his ideas in his “Fourteen Points.” These idealistic points included plans for border adjustment, other territorial reorganization, new international laws, and an international organization to mediate disputes and prevent future conflicts.

When outlining territorial adjustments and reorganization, Wilson attempted to take into account the history and self-determination of a region’s inhabitants. For example, Wilson wanted to divide the Ottoman Empire based upon historical and ethnic lines. Western Anatolia was to be given to Greece as it has been an integral part of Greek civilization since ancient times and had a considerable Greek population that had been oppressed for centuries. Eastern Anatolia was to be granted mostly to a new Armenian republic as compensation for centuries of Turkish oppression and genocide, including the genocide that occurred during WWI; additionally, this land was historically Armenian until it was conquered by the Turks. The Kurdish portions of the Empire were to be granted independence. There was a disputed tract of land which was populated by both Armenians and Kurds. Wilson aimed to solve this issue by partitioning the tract into two to prevent future conflict and promote regional harmony. Finally, Ottoman Arabia was to be divided based on self-determination with its unity as a new Caliphate under the Sharif of Makkah and 37th generation descendant of Muhammad, Hussein bin Ali of the Hashemite Clan, a possibility if the people of Arabia desired it.

Regarding new international laws, Wilson notably proposed the international freedom of the navigation of the seas. Wilson observed that many diplomatic incidents that were later turned into casus belli, including the sinking of the USS Maine prior to the Spanish-American War and sinking of the Lusitania and other merchant vessels prior to WWI, were naval incidents that resulted from a lack of defined boundaries in the seas. It was simply assumed throughout history that whoever happens to be present in or around a body of water controlled it, but no de-jure sea-boundaries were established. Wilson proposed that the sea be free to navigate in order to avoid disputes over and in the sea.

Finally, Wilson put forward the concept of the League of Nations, an international organization of the world’s nations that had the purpose of mediating disputes between nations and maintaining international law in order to solve conflicts peacefully and diplomatically to prevent violent conflict from occurring in the future.

Wilson was an important and influential, albeit not very immediately effective in the last aspect, war-time leader and peacemaker during and after WWI. Wilson attempted to put the safety and will of his people above American global interests as he believed that no interests were more important than that of the people. Yet, when the situation got too out of hand and Germany continued to antagonize the U.S., Wilson responsibly reacted to the situation and entered WWI. He helped pass legislation that prepared the military for war so that it could deal the final knockout blow to the ailing Central Powers. After the Great War, Wilson drafted Fourteen Points that were remarkably progressive for his time. He attempted to put historical and the people of a region’s interests above Western imperialism. Although his League of Nations was not successful, it inspired the United Nations and the peace it has brought to our world since WWII.

What one can observe from all of these ideas is that Wilson cared to a considerable extent about the interests of the actual people who lived in these territories rather than allowing himself to be blinded by Western bigotry and selfishness. He was keen in this regard, yet his visions could not be realized, potentially leading to WWI and many other conflicts, such as the Turkish War of Independence.