Published: 14 November 2023
By Dave Roos
via the History Network web site
President Wilson’s blueprint for ending World War I and avoiding all future global disputes was ambitious—but ultimately a failure.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States vowed to remain neutral. The American people had no interest in becoming entangled in European alliances and empires. President Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat, won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war.”
But that promise proved impossible to keep. Germany, which had temporarily paused unrestricted submarine warfare after the 1915 sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania, declared open season on American vessels in 1917.
Vowing to defend American lives and make the world “safe for Democracy,” Wilson and the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany in April of 1917.
“Wilson was very conscious that America didn’t want to get in the war,” says John Thompson, author of Woodrow Wilson: Profiles in Power. “The only way he could resolve that dilemma was to do everything he could to bring the European war to an end.”
Wilson and his advisors recruited a team of 150 political and social scientists to research the root causes of the war in Europe. That group, known as “The Inquiry,” produced nearly 2,000 reports and 1,200 maps that were boiled down to 14 key recommendations to achieve a stable peace in Europe.
In a speech before Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson laid out his “14 Points,” an ambitious blueprint for ending World War I that emphasized “national self-determination” for both small and large nations, and included the creation of a cooperative League of Nations to peaceably resolve all future disputes.
In 1919, Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference with hopes that the 14 Points would form the backbone of the Treaty of Versailles. But Wilson’s ideas met fierce resistance from the Allies, who were more interested in punishing Germany than pursuing an idealistic plan for world peace.
The failure of the 14 Points is widely seen as one of the factors leading to the outbreak of World War II just two decades later.
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