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Wilson’s 14 Points

Woodrow Wilson’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress on the Conditions of Peace (“Fourteen Points”), 8 January 1918

Wilson issued the Fourteen Points following Bolshevik Russia’s departure from World War I; when Wilson gave the speech, German and Russian leaders were meeting to determine the specific terms of their peace, which would result in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Well before the United States entered the war in April 1917, Wilson had been adamant about being the person to set the terms of the peace, and in January 1918, he needed to seize the moment if he was going to avoid being eclipsed by Lenin’s competing program for the postwar world. He drafted the points in consultation with the newly formed Inquiry, a group of intellectuals who had recently been organized to assist the president with planning for the postwar world. The speech and the points themselves demonstrate the Wilsonian commitment to openness in diplomacy, commerce and the freedom of the seas, and the idea that each national group should have its own state.

Wilson’s 14 Points

    In his wartime speeches, Wilson frequently points to a separation—and, indeed, a conflict—between government and people. This applies not only to his portrayals of Germany and Russia, but the United States as well. When teaching with these speeches, I ask students to look for examples of this construction and to discuss its implications—who is good in this construction, who is evil, and where does Wilson himself fall? How does this rhetorical separation of people and government reflect American and British traditions of thinking about sovereignty and natural rights?

    The Fourteen Points speech is also very important in terms of what Wilson has to say about Russia. I ask students to compare his portrayal of Russia here with that in his April 1917 request for a declaration of war against Germany. Is what Wilson has to say in the first half of the speech about the current Russian government—the Bolsheviks—consistent with Point 6? It’s also fruitful to have students compare Wilson’s portrayals of Russia in World War I with subsequent portrayals by George Kennan and the authors of NSC-68. Does the Cold War really start in the wake of World War II, or was it in place from the very beginning of the Soviet government in 1917?

    Finally, I ask students to think about the implications of Wilson’s speech for colonial populations throughout the world. Did Wilson really mean for self-determination to apply to non-white populations? How did anticolonial movements use his rhetoric? Erez Manela’s book, The Wilsonian Moment, is a great resource for teachers who are looking to deal with these questions and expand their coverage of World War I beyond the United States and Europe and make it a truly global topic. – N. M. Phelps, University of Vermont

    Bibliography:

    Gardner, Lloyd C. Safe for Democracy: The Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 1913-1923. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    Gelfand, Lawrence E. The Inquiry: American Preparations for Peace, 1917-1919. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

    Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Mayer, Arno J. Political Origins of the New Diplomacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

    Rosenberg, Jonathan. “For Democracy, Not Hypocrisy: World War and Race Relations in the United States, 1914-1919.” International History Review 21, no. 3 (1999): 592-625.

    Saul, Norman E. War and Revolution: The United States and Russia, 1914-1921. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

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