The Fourteen Points
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 Wilson’s 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.
1. Open diplomacy.
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.
2. Freedom of the seas.
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.
3. Removal of economic barriers.
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.
4. Reduction of armaments.
Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
5. Adjustment of colonial claims.
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 claims of the government whose title is to be determined.
6. Conquered territories in Russia.
The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest coöperation 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.
7. Preservation of Belgian sovereignty.
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.
8. Restoration of French territory.
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.
9. Redrawing of Italian frontiers.
A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
10. Division of Austria-Hungary.
The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.
11. Redrawing of Balkan boundaries.
Rumania, 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.
12. Limitations on Turkey.
The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish 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.
13. Establishment of an independent Poland.
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.
The last of the Fourteen Points was another broad issue and the particular favorite of Wilson:
14. Association of nations.
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.
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 Wilson’s 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 Wilson’s 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:
- 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.
Wilson accepted these reservations and forwarded the peace plan to the German government on November 5.
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