Study Guide

Fourteen Points

By Woodrow Wilson

Fourteen Points Introduction

Breaking Up (a War) is Hard to Do

The world is chock-full of quotes about the end of wars. From the ones that make weird comparisons—"Love is like war. Easy to start. Hard to end. Impossible to forget"—to the doomsday predictions—"If we don't end war, war will end us"—to the no-brainers "It's harder to end wars than it is to begin them," we've heard them all.

But forget simply ending wars—how do you simultaneously end a war and prevent another one?

Enter: Woodrow Wilson, the brainy Prez with the Princeton degree and the stiff upper lip. And he thinks he has the answer to this conundrum.

After America got involved in World War I, Wilson enlisted scores of academic advisers (once a professor, always a professor) to study the world and give him a framework for global peace. The research they completed culminated in the most official grocery list ever: the Fourteen Points.

To say that everyone got a copy would be an understatement. Wilson formally presented the points in a speech to Congress. The speech was also translated into different languages and sent to leaders of Europe. Copies of the speech were even airdropped in Germany, America's opponent in the war, to try to persuade German soldiers to quit fighting and negotiate.

Wilson's way forward promised a brave new world that would be open, free, and secure. Free trade? Oh yes indeedy. Secret alliances? Nope. Unprovoked invasions of other countries? Forget about it.

  

Come Together. Right Now. Over Me.

The crux was this: the free nations of the world would all sign their names up for an organization to monitor the new peace—the League of Nations. (Unfortunately, they didn't come up with the name "The Justice League" until a few years later.) There was even a provision to allow for "self-determination" of colonized people—the right to decide their own form of government.

Everyone knew it was an ambitious plan. Wilson's idealistic vision of the future looked too good to be true—like an old episode of Star Trek. Still, the Germans were persuaded to sign an armistice. German leaders showed up to peace negotiations in Paris, after years of bloody trench warfare, expecting to toast to the Fourteen Points.

Some of Wilson's ideas ended up in the Treaty of Versailles, the peace agreement that officially ended World War I. The world did create a League of Nations (though the United States never joined). But the Allies squabbled over other points, especially territory. They also slapped Germany with a big, fat war fine, just to rub salt in the wound.

So in the end, the Fourteen Points only made it halfway off the ground. The territorial points in the speech were modified, while others were abandoned entirely.

International watchdog? Sure. Freedom for colonized people? Meh…not really. Peace for all time? Negative.

Turns out, the "War to End All Wars" was followed by…WWII. (Pro-tip: give your wars low-maintenance names like "Vietnam," "Spanish-American," or "Bob.")

What is Fourteen Points About and Why Should I Care?

Two letters: U.N.

As in, the United Nations. You know: the group that helps the world, collectively, deal with its many, many (many, many, many) issues. And while Wilson's Fourteen Points didn't start the U.N., it definitely paved the road that would lead to it.

War. What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing.

Unless you're a supervillain trying to brush up for a history test, chances are you probably don't want to live through another world war. For all the non-mustache-twirling, white-cat-stroking Shmoopers out there, here's the bottom line: Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points kicked off the first serious attempt at international unity and permanent world peace.

You know who really didn't want to live through another world war? Answer: the people who lived through the first one. From 1914-1918, World War I was the most destructive and catastrophic conflict in the history of the world—until World War II came along, of course.

In the aftermath of the war, members of the surviving "Lost Generation" struggled to comprehend what had happened. People abandoned their previous beliefs about morality, politics, and religion. Around the world, everyone wondered how things could ever go back to the way they were before.

The answer was: they couldn't. Once the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson realized that to prevent another catastrophic conflict, the free nations of the world would have to unite and agree to rules of conduct for the future. Otherwise, he predicted, we would just have to run this thing back.

Let's Do This Thing Together

It's hard to overstate how innovative Wilson's ideas were at the time. Nowadays, Americans take it for granted that the government is involved with overseas affairs. But in the early 1900s, many folks in the U.S. thought that Uncle Sam should stick to the homeland. Why bother getting involved in Europe's battles—much less the Middle East or Africa—when we were protected by the Atlantic Ocean?

Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points created the idea for the League of Nations, which preceded the United Nations. The speech—more than anything—worked to create a global community, which you're now a part of.

And the U.N. isn't just about preventing war. These guys do solid work on all sorts of fronts—helping hungry kids (UNICEF), dealing with labor issues (ILO), combating diseases (WHO), and even dealing with the dang weather (WMO). And Woodrow Wilson—and his Fourteen Points—is kind of its unofficial grandpappy.

Fourteen Points Resources

Websites

Our Documents Profile
Get a summary, historical context, and a full copy of the text straight from the horse's—that is, the government's—mouth.

Wilson's White House Bio
A great summary of Wilson's failing health toward the end of his second term—just as he was trying to put the world back together.

American Experience: Wilson
PBS provides a detailed breakdown of Wilson's life and contributions as president. Basically a Wilson encyclopedia.

Presidential Library
In case you can't get enough about Woodrow Wilson.

Movie or TV Productions

Wilson
A 1944 biopic drama about President Woodrow Wilson, which won a few academy awards. That's right, they had Oscar-bait biopics back then,too.

Paris 1919: Un traité pour la
A 2009 French docudrama about the Paris Peace Conference. A multipart, potentially solid sleep aid.

The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin
An American propaganda film about German imperialism. It gives a view of what the public thought of Kaiser Wilhelm. Hint: they didn't love him.

Articles and Interviews

Wilson's Speech to Congress
George Mason University provides the text of Wilson's speech arguing to enter the war.

Wilson's Racism
The Atlantic magazine explores Woodrow Wilson's racist attitudes and questions how they should affect the legacy of his administration.

Video

Margaret MacMillan on Paris
A lecture (it's a bit lengthy) by one of the experts. MacMillan wrote the book on what went down in Paris. Literally, she wrote a book called Paris, 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.

15-Minute History
The University of Texas' "15-Minute History" series explains why we got into WWI.

Images

Fourteen Points in the News
This newspaper headline illustrates a little-known fact about the Fourteen Points: Germany negotiated for peace based on Wilson's promises.

14 Swats
A political cartoon comparing Wilson to George Washington in a less-than-historically-accurate fashion.

Crybaby Cartoon
This cartoon poking fun at European leaders pretty much sums up the American perspective on the WWI peace negotiations.