The ideas that Wilson presents in the Fourteen Points speech all revolve around fairness and equality between nations. His ethical appeal is based on not playing favorites.
At the beginning of the speech, Wilson gives a version of the Golden Rule: "unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us" (Intro.7). When it comes to determining questions of territory overseas, Wilson pleads for:
A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims. (V.1)
He firmly believed that a long-lasting peace would have to be based on ethical negotiations…but the use of ethos may have been a miscalculation.
Wilson gambled that European leaders, exhausted by the long war, would want to establish new friendships. He appealed to ethics and fairness, but the French and the British were going more for the emotional angle (pathos). As British newspapers declared, they wanted to "Hang the Kaiser!" (source).
Yeah. It was definitely a case of pathos run amok.
Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points are in the tradition of the great list-style documents in American history, like 25 Photos You'll Only Understand If You're Unbelievably Lazy, 23 Pictures That Will Make Every Petty Person Say "LOL, True," and—oh, yeah—the Bill of Rights.
Circulated around the country and the world to build support for his ideas, the speech needed to have a concise format, with clear goals for negotiation. A life hack from Woodrow: number your goals, so you can know which ones you've met.
Wilson claims the moral high ground. He promises an "open" peace process (Intro.1) and says that the U.S. entered the war in order to fight for the world's freedom. Basically, he's playing the part of Team America and asking everybody else to follow along.
The first four points lay the framework for the international process. Instead of nobles and heads of state secretly negotiating with each other, Wilson argues for transparent treaties. He probably had the infamous Zimmerman telegram in mind.
Points V through XIII deal with specific border questions affecting various European countries. Basically: who gets what?
Wilson's final and most significant point calls for the creation of a "general association of nations" to monitor the peace (XIV.1).
Wilson declares that the free world will be unified in the coming peace and promises not to treat Germany unfairly. Given what actually happened, he probably should have spoken for himself.
Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points were aimed at the United States Congress, the leaders of the Allies, and even the Germans. Wilson faced the difficult task of convincing all groups to go along with his ideas for world peace.
That's sort of like trying to win over your in-laws while simultaneously acing a job interview.
To outline his vision, Wilson relied on a soft approach, promising security to all parties involved (even soon-to-be-vanquished Germany), not just the United States:
We entered this war because violations of right had occurred which…made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secure…for all against their recurrence. (Intro.4)
Wilson would have been great at handling break-ups. Hey, it's not you, it's just…violations of right occurred.
Wilson combines long, complex sentences with bold proclamations about what is needed for peace. For example, he concludes his point about restoring the nation of Belgium by stating:
Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired. (VII.3)
When presidents speak, one expects these sorts of firm statements. But compared to modern speakers, Wilson is waaaay more academic and longwinded. (The guy was a professor—what do you expect?)
He waxes at length about how the world has entered a new period of history:
The day of conquest and aggrandizement is gone by; so is also the day of secret covenants entered into in the interest of particular governments and likely at some unlooked-for moment to upset the peace of the world. (Intro.2)
This is a bold proclamation…wrapped up in an insanely lengthy sentence.
From the style, it's clear that the Fourteen Points were intended for well-educated powerbrokers, not American voters sitting in front of the TV (which, um, wasn't around yet). But again: the guy was used to lecturing to other eggheads in various academic ivory towers. He probably couldn't write a doc without throwing in some SAT words and convoluted sentences.
Politicians often come up with numbered plans. There's never just a one-point plan: it's always three points, or five points, or ten points. And there's a good reason for this: numbering helps make complex ideas cohere in an audience's mind.
It also reminds people what a leader promises to accomplish…sort of like a grocery list reminds you what to buy. (Swedish fish, Redbull, and Hot Pockets. Don't judge.)
Wilson's Fourteen Points were the result of the Inquiry's recommendations. The ideas varied from the general (no more secret treaties or alliances!) to the specific (give Alsace-Lorraine back to France, dagnabbit!). Distilling them into the list format signaled to the world that these were concrete and achievable goals, not idealistic pipedreams.
That didn't change the fact that presenting fourteen points is easier than agreeing to them. France and Britain, when they received Wilson's speech, were cautious about his optimism.
When Georges Clemenceau of France heard about Wilson's Fourteen Points, he reportedly quipped:
[…] the Lord gave us Ten Commandments, and we broke them. Wilson gave us Fourteen Points. We shall see. (Source)
And we saw, all right. We saw WWII break out.
It will be our wish and purpose that the processes of peace, when they are begun, shall be absolutely open and that they shall involve and permit henceforth no secret understandings of any kind. (Intro. 1)
Remember, Wilson delivered the Fourteen Points speech before the war had actually ended. But this wasn't just Wilson being super-confident—part of the purpose of the speech was to convince Germans to stop going along with the Kaiser and start making peace.
By promising an "absolutely open" peace process, Wilson hoped to increase the likelihood of reconciling the warring powers early on. He also laid out his clearest goal: no more secret alliances.
World War I started in large part because of the complex networks of alliances between various European powers. In the future, Wilson thought, there should be no more "secret covenants" (Intro. 2). That way, one nation wouldn't risk attacking a small one…and realizing that the small nation had the equivalent of an angry mama bear: a group of powerful nations out for vengeance.
For such arrangements and covenants we are willing to fight and to continue to fight until they are achieved; but only because we wish the right to prevail and desire a just and stable peace such as can be secured only by removing the chief provocations to war, which this programme does remove. (Conclusion.1)
Wilson's call for a "just and stable peace" could be called an instance of historical irony—but the kind that makes you cry, rather than laugh. The peace proved to be neither just nor stable. Germany was treated harshly by the Allies, and another world war broke out within two decades, in 1939.
Wilson's goal of "removing the chief provocations to war" through disarmament and international unity would be filed under "cool ideas." You tried, WW. You really did.
Woodrow Wilson just lurved to speak in long, complex sentences. This speech just screams "old-timey speechifying"—it's complex, shows off its knowledge of SAT words, and doesn't seem to aim to pump up the crowd.
The silver lining? It's extremely short and the list-style makes it easy to break up into manageable chunks.
Think of it like a Dickens novel. The sentences themselves are kind of meandering, but the structure and story itself is totally easy to tackle.
World War I (Intro.4-5)
The Zimmerman Telegram (I.1)
The Russian Revolution (VI.1)
Austro-Hungarian Empire (X.1)
The Ottoman Empire (XII.1)
John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Chapters 3, 4, 5)
Wilson (1944 biopic film by Twentieth-Century Fox)
Members of the Inquiry came up with ideas for new territorial borders over tea. Hey, at least it was non-alcoholic… (Source)
Edward House claimed credit for convincing Wilson to push the United States into war. House wrote in his diary, "I began with him before he became President and I have never relaxed my efforts…I have stirred his ambition to become the great liberal leader of the world." That's probably the greatest brag about another person ever. (Source)
Woodrow Wilson's career as a professor influenced his view of world affairs. To this day, he's the only president to hold a Ph.D. To be fair, Americans didn't like nerds until the 2010s. (Source)
Although Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War I, he campaigned for reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of the war." If it had been the '90s, this would have been a great opportunity to say, "psych." (Source)
Georges Clemenceau, the leader of France, mocked Wilson's Fourteen points by joking, "The Lord gave us Ten Commandments, and we broke them. Wilson gave us Fourteen Points. We shall see." Sounds like he tried really hard. (Source)
Woodrow Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for his efforts at the end of World War I, especially the Fourteen Points. His rival in the 1912 election, Teddy Roosevelt, was the first American president to get the prize. They would have probably compared the size of their medals if TR hadn't died in 1919. (Source)