First World War visions: Remembering Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

Centenary commemorations are forming a constant First World War reminder between now and 2018. Those who see the war as four years of senseless capitalistic carnage will be depressed by the litany of ceremonies but that won’t make them disappear any quicker. For better or worse, the First World War is an important marker of human history and one that cannot be ignored. A better question than “why are we marking this anniversary?” is “what is the legacy of the First World War and why is it relevant 100 years later?”

I was confronted by that question last month in Laidley, near Brisbane, where the local historical society had re-enacted a recruitment march through the town. There in 1914 like many other towns across the world, young men enthusiastically signed up for “the cause”. As they marched up the main street to the music of the Salvation Army band, they were cheered on by townspeople while the recruits held signs which asked “Will you Join Us?”.

The 2014 march had the band and a cheering audience and even the sign. But what were the 21st century crowd being asked to join if not a fetish of history? The most important legacy of the First World War is the mess of the Middle East, where Australian forces are still sent on a regular basis. That fact is not noticeable in commemorations in Australia where spending on First World War centennial celebrations outstrips every other country.

It will reach a crescendo when Gallipoli approaches its centenary in April 2015. The motifs will be about mateship, honour and sacrifice and there will be similar breast-beating when it comes to remembering the Somme, Villers-Bretonneux and other places where Aussies died in large numbers. I asked the Laidley organiser why he was arranging their commemoration. “Because,” he said, “they died to preserve our way of life.” I disagreed but didn’t think it polite to argue the point. How, I wondered, did Australians dying in European trenches preserve “our” way of life?

I thought his words were simplistic, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. What was worth preserving in 1914? The First World War has never had the emotional capacity to engage like the Second World War. It wasn’t a fight against totalitarian evil and all parties were culpable of warmongering. There were no figures of evil as stark as Hitler and Stalin and there were no scapegoats like the Jews. Yet millions died between 1914 and 1918 for a war that seemed to have no reason for beginning and no excuse to end. No nation bothered to tell the world what its aims were in fighting the war.

Well, none but one. That was America and it was done in president Woodrow Wilson’s extraordinary Fourteen Points. America was a latecomer to the war but by 1918 had proven it was the world’s superpower in economic capability. The words of its president were listened to as the prognostications of an all-conquering Caesar. In January 1918 Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to publicly declare America’s war aims. Wilson was reacting to political pressure not moral obligation. The US had entered the war nine months earlier and there was resistance by many Americans wanting neutrality. Wilson formed a group of experts he called The Inquiry to produce a report of the aims of all countries in the war and determine what America’s goals should be. Their report formed the basis of the Fourteen Points.

The points are almost completely forgotten today but they were hugely influential as a wide-ranging and optimistic blueprint of how a 20th century democratic world might look. The first five points were about general conduct. The first point called for open diplomacy and no secret treaties, the second for freedom of the seas, the third for removal of economic barriers, the fourth was about reducing arms and the fifth about balance in resolving colonial disputes. The next seven points addressed the world’s trouble spots. Six called for an independent Russia, seven a free Belgium, eight a restored France, nine a genuine Italian nation, 10 the dismantling of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, 11 independence for the Slav countries and Serbian access to the sea, 12 the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire (the point that reverberates today) and 13 the re-establishment of Poland. The last point called for a new general association of nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity”.

Wilson’s international order captured the imagination of people across the world desperate for new ideas after the cynicism and destruction of the war. Wilson, said his biographer John Thompson, had the authority of a pope and the might of an emperor. A former president of Princeton, the professorial Wilson was an unlikely president of America. Elected in 1912, he played a major part in keeping the US out of the war that followed. He was re-elected in 1916 on the promise to keep America neutral. German U-boats dragged him into the war in 1917. In December 1918 he became the first serving US president to travel abroad and was treated in London and Paris like the Second Coming.

The Fourteen Points were delivered when the impact of the American war involvement was beginning to be felt. The Germans fought the allies on two fronts for three years into a gigantic stalemate. American manpower finally breached the trenches. It was a Russian victory though that turned the war into defeat. Though the Russians lost much when they surrendered at Brest-Litovsk, they spread revolutionary ideas into Germany. To protect its own political flank, Germany agreed to end the war and the country itself was never invaded.

The idealism of Wilson’s points struck an immediate chord, even Lenin applauded its vision as he returned to a disintegrating Russia. Wilson was offering not just peace but a new beginning. The plan was popular in Allied countries and among the people of the Central Powers: everyone was war-weary after four years. But the plan had many enemies, particularly among Wilson’s supposed allies who thought he was entrenching American hegemony. French president Clemenceau supposedly said “The Good Lord only gave us Ten Commandments; the American president has given us fourteen.” Clemenceau had reason for his snark. The Points contradicted French and British secret plans for management of the world in the post-war period and they offered no clue how to deal with Germany.

In October 1918, Germany offered peace on the terms of the Fourteen Points and the Points formed the basis for discussion in the Paris Peace Conference. Though Britain and France outfoxed Wilson in Paris and a hostile Senate defeated him in Washington, the Fourteen Points stand alone as a justification for the war. The points were Eurocentric, flawed and opaque – the former Ottoman countries are still working through an achievable form of government and democracy – but Wilson articulated some vision from four years of carnage. I’m still not sure what “our” way of life is, but Wilson’s Points aren’t a bad start for discussion. They deserve better than to be forgotten in the rush of military commemoration.

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