Study Guide

Fourteen Points Historical Context

By Woodrow Wilson

Historical Context

An assembly of great thinkers once declared, to the hum of thrilling '80s synth, "We are the world. We are the children."

In 1985, basically every famous musician alive got together on one stage and sang a song to raise money for international charity. Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan…the list (and the hair) was truly huge.

But was it true? Are "we" really the world? Or is the world just a bunch of "I's" and "me's?" To answer that question, you have to go back to before 1985. In fact, you need to go all the way back to 1918 (when the hair wasn't so huge, but the hair bows definitely were.)

The song "We Are the World" might not have been possible without Woodrow Wilson and his famous Fourteen Points. Sure, he couldn't sing like Michael Jackson. But Wilson was the grandfather of modern American foreign policy and introduced everyone to the idea of nations forming a global community.

From Isolation to League of Nations

Prior to the 20th century, America mostly stuck to the two T's (that'd be territory and trade) when it came to international relations. Sure, we signed treaties with other nations. And we definitely fought to take territory away from other nations, like Mexico. But in general, when it didn't come to making money or conquering, Americans favored a spirit of isolationism.

With all our natural resources and two oceans bordering us, why bother with the rest of the world? We had all we needed: purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain, and dang fruited plains. George Washington himself, the father of the country, warned America to avoid entangling, permanent alliances in his farewell address. (Source)

And because ol' George never told a lie—about chopping down cherry trees or anything else—you know he thought that advice was pretty sound.

That attitude worked out pretty well in the 1700s and 1800s. But in the 1900s, the world got a lot more complicated. The Industrial Revolution had created technology that increased the ease of transportation, making travel and business easier.

Oh, and another thing…the whole world went to war.

In 1914, the alliances between various European countries exploded into the biggest war ever. Wilson supported isolationism in the beginning, but the foreign policy of sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting "Nyah, nyah, nyah—I don't hear any war" wasn't to last. German submarines attacked American ships, and the conquering kingdom threatened the U.S. with the Zimmerman telegram, a secret message that promised Mexico American land.

In the end, America just couldn't resist getting in on the global action.

Wilson realized that the human cost of World War I was too great for the world to keep fighting. Once America was involved, he knew that things could never be the same. The biggest countries had gotten too powerful to go on treating each other like stepsiblings.

The Wilson administration worked to come up with a solution in the form of the Fourteen Points. Before the war was over, the numbered document was sent around the world, including behind enemy lines. The ideas in it were simple, and boiled down to a simple premise: make nations recognize each other's rights. It was kind of like the Bro Code for global friendships.

As an enforcement mechanism, Wilson came up with the League of Nations. The idea was essentially a global parliament. To make the world safe for freedom (i.e., democracy), you needed an assembly where different countries could get together and figure out what was best for everyone. "The programme of the world's peace…is our programme," Wilson wrote in the Fourteen Points (Intro.8).

Hey, we think that's pretty close to "we are the world."

And it worked, to a certain degree. Nowadays we're affected by what happens in the rest of the world—think of it as a sort of global butterfly effect. If a butterfly flaps its wings (or, you know, a bomb goes off or a politician is found to be corrupt or a coup breaks out) the United States knows—and cares. The United Nations (basically the Charizard to the League of Nations' Charmander) holds actual votes on what countries can and can't do.

Not everybody is a fan of "the global community." Isolationism persists in some conservative American circles, and many people criticize the U.N. for being relatively weak. (Source)

But that doesn't change the facts: we might not always be the world, but after the Fourteen Points we're always going to be involved in it.

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