Wilson's guiding ideals

A roadmap for peace?

The Fourteen Points were a set of guiding ideals for peace that were to be utilised in talks to put an end to the First World War. President Woodrow Wilson presented the ideas in his address to the US Congress on January 8, 1918, which focused on the objectives of the war and the terms of the peace.

Wilsonian idealism's application, however, was questioned by his principal Allied allies, including Vittorio Orlando of Italy, David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, and Georges Clemenceau of France.

US President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Library of Congress


The United States' entry into the First World War in 1917 marked a significant turning point in the conflict, shifting the balance of power in favor of the Allies.

President Woodrow Wilson had initially maintained a policy of neutrality, striving to keep the nation out of the European conflict.

However, a series of events, including Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram, ultimately compelled the United States to enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente (comprising France, Britain, and Russia).

The resumption of German submarine warfare against merchant ships trading with Allied nations, particularly France and Britain, posed a direct threat to American interests and led to mounting public outrage in the United States.

The sinking of several American vessels and the loss of American lives further intensified calls for intervention.

First World War propaganda poster for enlistment in the U.S. Army

Prints & Photographs Reading Room, Prints & Photographs Division | Library of Congress (loc.gov)

...Wilson's decision to lead the United States into war was guided by his vision of promoting democracy...

Additionally, the interception and publication of the Zimmermann Telegram, a secret communication from the German government proposing a military alliance with Mexico against the United States, inflamed public opinion and solidified support for entering the war.

President Wilson's decision to lead the United States into war was guided by his vision of promoting democracy, self-determination, and international cooperation.

Despite entering the conflict, Wilson sought to distinguish American involvement from the long-standing nationalist rivalries and imperial ambitions of European powers.

He articulated this vision through his Fourteen Points, a set of principles aimed at ensuring a just and lasting peace, which included provisions for disarmament, national self-determination, and the establishment of a League of Nations to promote collective security and diplomacy.

American 'Doughboys' in the trenches during the First World War. 'Doughboy' was the nickname given to American soldiers or marines who served in France as part of the Expeditionary force.  According to one explanation, the term 'Doughboy' dates back to the Mexican War of 1846-48, when American infantrymen made long treks over dusty terrain, giving them the appearance of being covered in flour, or dough.

www.history.com     https://www.ausa.org

...the aftermath of the conflict presented new challenges...

Wilson's approach aimed to position the United States as a moral leader on the world stage, advocating for a new international order based on principles of democracy and cooperation.

While American participation undoubtedly shifted the course of the war and contributed to the Allied victory, the aftermath of the conflict presented new challenges, including the negotiation of peace terms and the implementation of Wilson's vision for post-war reconstruction and diplomacy.

The Inquiry

President Wilson ordered a clandestine series of investigations known as the Inquiry in September 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I.

Its primary objective was to conduct comprehensive research and analysis on various aspects of international affairs in preparation for the post-war peace negotiations.

Led by Colonel Edward M. House, a close confidant of President Wilson, The Inquiry consisted of a diverse group of academics, experts, and professionals.

...delved into geopolitical issues, analyzing territorial boundaries, ethnic demographics, and historical grievances...

These individuals were recruited from prestigious universities, think tanks, and government agencies, reflecting a wide range of expertise in fields such as history, political science, economics, and international law.

The Inquiry's work was multifaceted and covered a broad spectrum of topics relevant to the post-war world order. Researchers delved into geopolitical issues, analyzing territorial boundaries, ethnic demographics, and historical grievances to inform decisions regarding the reorganization of Europe and other regions affected by the war.

Nearly 2,000 distinct papers and documents, plus at least 1,200 maps, were created and gathered by the group.

1919 group photo of Inquiry members at the Paris Peace Conference.

...the Inquiry played a crucial role...

An 1884 French map of the Alsace-Lorraine region, which France and Germany had a long-standing dispute over. The Inquiry recommended it be returned to France.

Economic specialists studied trade patterns, financial systems, and industrial capacities to assess the economic implications of peace settlements and reconstruction efforts.

Additionally, social scientists examined cultural dynamics, ethnic tensions, and minority rights to address social stability and promote principles of self-determination.

The findings and recommendations of The Inquiry played a crucial role in shaping President Wilson's diplomatic agenda and vision for the post-war era.

They informed the formulation of Wilson's Fourteen Points, a set of principles outlining his vision for a just and lasting peace, which included proposals for open diplomacy, disarmament, territorial adjustments, and the establishment of a League of Nations to promote collective security and international cooperation.

Speech to Congress

Wilson presented America's long-term military goals in a speech to Congress on 8th January 1918, as the result of the studies' culmination.

The speech projected Wilson's progressive domestic programmes into the world and was the clearest assertion of intention made by any of the combatant nations.

His speech carried a number of domestically progressive principles into foreign policy. Wilson put forth ideas that would guarantee future world peace.

For instance, he suggested the abolition of trade barriers between nations, the guarantee of self-determination for national minorities, and the creation of a global organisation called the League of Nations that would ensure the political independence and territorial integrity of all nations.

President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress on 8th January 1918. 

woodrow-wilson-speaking-to-congress.jpg (4673×2702) (history.com)

...suggested that the Central Powers pay reparations...

Wilson called for the termination of secret treaties, a decrease in armaments, an adjustment in colonial claims in the interests of both native peoples and colonists, and freedom of the seas in his speech, which directly addressed what he saw to be the causes of the world war.

Three days previously, British Prime Minister Lloyd George had delivered a speech outlining the UK's war objectives, which was somewhat similar to Wilson's address but suggested that the Central Powers pay reparations and was less specific in its pledges to the Ottoman Empire's non-Turkish citizens.

Wilson's Fourteen Points proposal were reported widely in the media.

...the speech was hailed as a turning point in international relations...

Wilson's Fourteen Points were infused with idealism, but he also had more realistic goals in mind. By persuading the Bolsheviks that the Allies would offer them a better peace, he sought to boost Allied morale and weaken German war support in order to keep Russia in the war.

The speech was hailed as a turning point in international relations by the United States, its allies, and even Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.

Later, Wilson based his negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, which put an end to the war, on the Fourteen Points.

The Fourteen Points

President Wilson laid out fourteen themes in his address to Congress that he believed to be the only foundation for a lasting peace:

  • Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
  • Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.
  • The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
  • Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.

Page 1 of the original Fourteen Points speech, January 8, 1918.


  • 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 government whose title is to be determined.

...the best and freest cooperation of the other nations...

  • The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.

Wilson's Fourteen Points as the only way to peace for German government, American political cartoon, 1918.

A. Bushnell - Review of Reviews, Vol. 58, No. 4, October 1918; archived at the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library

...will serve to restore confidence among the nations in the laws which they have themselves set...

  • Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated, and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations. No other single act will serve as this will serve to restore confidence among the nations in the laws which they have themselves set and determined for the government of their relations with one another. Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired.
  • All French territory should be freed, and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.
  • A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be affected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
  • The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.

Wilson with his 14 points choosing between competing claims. Babies represent claims of the British, French, Italians, Polish, Russians, and enemy. American political cartoon, 1919.


...an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development...

  • Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.
  • The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Ottoman rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.
  • An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.
  • A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

The Ottoman Empire: The Fourteen Points pushed for the liberation of various nationalities and the effective dissolution of the empire.

Maps of the Ottoman Empire - The Transformation of the Middle East, 1566-1914 (HIST 335) - LibGuides at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


...The allied forces, however, were requesting stronger sanctions for Germany...


By redistributing captured areas, creating sensible imperialist settlements, and creating a league of states to stop future wars, Woodrow Wilson's 14 principles attempted to bring peace to Europe and avert new conflicts.

The allied forces, however, were requesting stronger sanctions for Germany because they had incurred more losses in the First World War than the United States.

They wanted to recover their assets after the war and did not want any restraints on their imperialist actions.

Stretcher bearers take dead soldiers for burial on the battlefield near a farm in La Bourdonnerie, south of Chavenay in Marne on July 14, 1918. Some 1.3million French soldiers were killed during the First World War from 1914 to 1918. The French Governments push for stronger sanctions on a defeated Germany were understandable.

Frédéric Duriez's images show WWI trenches in COLOUR | Daily Mail Online

Although the allied forces publicly backed his arguments, many of them were contested when it came to the Treaty of Versailles because France was particularly eager to see Germany punished severely.

Further reading

The U.S. National Archives contains a range of documents related to Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, including his presidential papers, State Department records, and materials on the Treaty of Versailles. Researchers may find valuable insights into the formulation, implementation, and reception of Wilson's principles in these archival collections.

This book provides a comprehensive examination of the Paris Peace Conference and the negotiations surrounding the Treaty of Versailles, including the development and impact of Wilson's Fourteen Points.

While not exclusively focused on the Fourteen Points, this influential work analyzes American foreign policy and diplomacy, offering insights into Wilson's ideals and their implications on U.S. international relations.

This book delves into Wilson's approach to international relations during and after World War I, exploring the formulation and reception of the Fourteen Points and their broader impact on global politics.

A detailed biography that delves into the complex life and presidency of the 28th U.S. leader. Thompson analyzes Wilson's political career, his role in the First World War, and his impact on international relations, offering a nuanced portrait of a transformative figure in American history.

Pestritto delves into Wilson's intellectual roots, tracing the ideological foundations that influenced the formulation of the Fourteen Points and their enduring impact on liberal thought in America.

Clements offers a biographical perspective, exploring Wilson's personal evolution and the global context that drove him to articulate the Fourteen Points, providing insights into the man behind the vision.




Library of Congress





A. Bushnell - Review of Reviews, Vol. 58, No. 4, October 1918; archived at the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library

Burt Randolph Thomas, The Detroit News in Review of Reviews, Vol. 59, No. 6, pp. 570


Margaret MacMillan, "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" (2001)

Justus D. Doenecke, "Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America's Entry into World War I" (2011)

John Milton Cooper Jr., "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography" (2009)

Erez Manela, "The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism" (2007)





John Thompson, ‘Woodrow Wilson: Profiles in Power’. (2002)


Meredith Hindley


woodrow-wilson-speaking-to-congress.jpg (4673×2702) (history.com)