One result of the October Revolution1 in Russia in 1917 was to force the Allies to issue statements of war aims. The Bolsheviks acted to discredit the previous regime by publishing the contents of a number of secret treaties that revealed the blatantly imperialistic aims of some of the European powers.
In early January 1918, both British prime minister David Lloyd George and American president Woodrow Wilson issued public explanations of what they hoped to accomplish through a victory over the Central Powers. Wilson received input from his closest advisor, Colonel Edward House, and a number of academics, who were known as "The Inquiry." The resulting Fourteen Points were presented in a speech before both houses of Congress and were intended to generate support for Wilsons vision of the postwar world, both at home and also among allies in Europe. Further, the president hoped that the promise of a just peace would be embraced by the populations in enemy nations and generate momentum for ending the war.
The first five of the Fourteen Points dealt with issues of broad international concern. The next eight points referred to specific territorial questions.
These ideas were distributed worldwide by government propagandists working for George Creel in the American Committee on Public Information. Millions of copies of booklets and pamphlets that explained Wilsons plans were distributed to Allied nations and dropped from planes above Germany.
Allied governments paid lip service to the Fourteen Points while the fighting continued. Those nations needed American financial might to assist in their rebuilding after the war and did not want to risk offending Wilson. There was some fear in Europe the United States might seek a separate peace with Germany, freeing that nation to continue the fight without the presence of American forces.
The French and British were particularly unhappy with Wilsons plan. Both had felt the impact of German militarism much more deeply than the United States and were committed to taking steps that they felt would preclude further German aggression.
The Allies agreed to accept the Fourteen Points as the basis for the coming peace negotiations if Wilson would agree to two reservations:
Wilson accepted these reservations and forwarded the peace plan to the German government on November 5.
The delegates would not be committed to accepting a provision guaranteeing freedom of the seas (Point 2) a measure demanded by Britain.
- The French insisted that the provision having to do with German evacuation from French territory (Point 8) be interpreted to allow for the collection of compensation (reparations) for civilian damages incurred in the war.
1. Date references in pre-Soviet Russia are somewhat confusing. The "February Revolution" that overthrew Tsar Nicholas II occurred March 8-15, 1917 on the new style or Western calendar. The "October Revolution" that forced out the Kerensky government and brought the Bolsheviks to power occurred on November 7, 1917.
See also Wilson's Search for Peace.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes regarding The Fourteen Points.
By George Clemenceau
The good Lord only had ten! (Le bon Dieu n'avait que dix!)
Spoken on hearing that Woodrow Wilson had Fourteen Points.