Woodrow Wilson’s Deceptive ’14 Points’

Fourteen Points, Six Spoofs

The shysterism of Woodrow Wilson’s January 1918 promises to war-torn Europe

by Gwydion M. Williams

Ireland was just one of many small nations that saw Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points as a promise for their future.  Which must have been a triumph of hope over experience: the actual texts make a number of vague promises followed by some specific guarantees.  And leave Ireland unmentioned.

It is widely believed even by critics of current US foreign policy that Wilson proclaimed some noble ideals that were later muddied by the corrupt politics of Old Europe.  I will show in detail that the first person to muddy the ideals was Wilson himself.

Wilson did not in fact proclaim a general right of National Self-Determination.  The belief he did is widespread: I used to believe it myself.  But he never states it as a general principle.  In several particular cases he was intending to violate it, mostly in line with the worst decisions that were later made at Versailles.

It is simply not the case that a right of National Self-Determination has ever been securely established in International Law.  The United Nations Charter mentions a right of National Self-Determination, but it also mentions Territorial Integrity.  In practice, Territorial Integrity has mostly trumped National Self-Determination.  Claims of atrocities and unfitness to rule always get cited when an existing state is to have a chunk of its territory hacked off of it.

Wilson didn’t even go that far.  Some of his war-aims breach both Territorial Integrity and National Self-Determination.  Serbia and Poland are to be given access to the sea regardless of which nationality lives along such routes.  France is to get Alsace-Loraine back regardless of what the majority living there might wish.

Note that Wilson was in a position of immense strength at the start of 1918.  He had persuaded Congress to declare war on 6th April 1917.  But the USA took an amazingly long time to get substantially involved in the fighting.  They refused to allow individual US citizens to be fed into existing units, which could have been done very quickly.  Instead, entire independent US armies were organised, and they played no significant part  in the fighting until Spring 1918.  Only then did they play a major part in defeating Germany’s Spring Offensive, which had broken through allied lines.  Wilson was in a position to have demanded almost anything, with the threat of not committing troops unless his terms were met.  But his actual demands were not so different from what Britain and France already planned.

The Fourteen Points tried to justify what was an unpopular war among the general public, many of whom had voted for Wilson on the assumption he would go on keeping the USA out of the war.  Even though the establishment were all for the war, they got only 300,000 volunteers, in addition to existing armed forces of 200,000.  They needed conscription to get another 2,700,000,[A] enough to crush Germany and make the USA a decisive influence in the post-war world.

I’ll look at each point in turn and then note its defects:

  1. 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.

Possibly sincere, more likely not.  His later points show a clear awareness of how the Allies intended to carve up Europe if they won the war.

  1. 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.

Blatantly dishonest.  Taken literally, this would have meant the US challenging  the British Empire’s blockade of Germany.  This was unilateral, and included food, in violation of earlier agreements.  But Wilson says nothing about the commonly-accepted notion of prohibiting the shipment of armaments and explosives.

Had he meant it sincerely, he would surely have specified something he could have lived up to, saying that war materials could always be blockaded, and that the USA would respect the existing blockade.

Wilson consented to the continuing blockade and starvation of Germany after the Armistice.  This lasted until the Allies had decided exactly what to impose on Germany.  It was needed to enforce the very harsh terms of a nation that had not been defeated militarily.  It is highly unlikely that the ordinary people of Britain, France and Italy would have been willing to resume the war for such terms if Germany had been in a position to say no.

  1. The removal, of all economic barriers and the establishment of equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.

Global free trade.  Probably sincere.  It would have suited the USA at the time.

  1. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.

Vague, probably sincere.  Of course a nation could refuse to reduce armaments at all, or even build more, without violating the actual wording.

  1. 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.

More rights yet still unequal rights for colonial possessions.  A sincere sentiment from a believer in White Racism – though it would also apply to white territories held as colonies.  This would apply to Malta, for instance, which didn’t get self-government till 1921.  (This is different from the case of Czechs etc. who were full citizens with voting rights in European empires.)

  1. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation 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.

He says nothing about the rights of the various nations within the Tsarist Empire and its successor states, apart from Poland, covered in Point 13.  In the event, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania did establish themselves as independent nations, by their own efforts but with some German help.  Georgia was briefly independent, under a Menshevik government, until the new Bolshevik government broke a recently signed agreement and conquered it.  Ukraine tried for independence and failed – but Ukrainian nationalists mostly claimed a smaller territory than the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.

Note that in January 1918, there was still some hope of keeping Bolshevik Russia in the war.  Or at least active enough to tie up large German forces till enough US troops arrived.  There was also the possibility of the Bolsheviks being overthrown (as they nearly were later on) by right-wingers who were not intending to give up any part of the Tsarist Empire.

What actually happened was that the Bolsheviks agreed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.  This is often described as outrageous, but the borders it actually established were not unlike what we finally got to in the 1990s.  Germany did more than other powers to create independent states for Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as failed attempts to do this for Belarus and Ukraine.  Wilson was only willing to back Poland, which also claimed and later acquired territory that had been part of Imperial Germany or Austria-Hungary before the war.

Germany’s separate peace with Russia permitted the German Spring Offensive from March 1918, which broke through the Western Front with troops freed from the Eastern Front.  But the arrival finally of US forces stopped this and reversed it with the Hundred Days Offensive.  And the decisive element was hunger caused by the successful British blockade of the imported food that Germany had become dependent on.

The eastern frontiers sorted themselves out in a number of further wars.  Romania took over the Romanian-speaking territories that are now Moldova, apart from what’s now Transnistria and seeking separation.  (It sits uneasily between the rest of Moldova and the former Soviet Republic that became the independent state of Ukraine.  But under the Tsars it was the western edge of “New Russia”,[B] which also include both the Russian-speaking areas trying to secede from Ukraine and the south-east of what’s now Ukraine, including Odessa.  A lot of trouble might have been avoided had ‘New Russia’ been reconstituted during the break-up of the Soviet Union.)

Poland after its successful defeat of a 1920 Bolshevik invasion took territory that was not majority-Polish in what’s now Byelorussia and Ukraine, going well beyond the Curzon Line that the Western allies had specified as a fair division in 1919.  This was taken back by Stalin under the terms of his agreement to split Poland with Hitler.  And was conquered by Germany in their invasion, taken back by the Soviet Union and is broadly the same as the current border.

  1. 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.

Valid.  Of course Germany had only wanted to pass through Belgium to attack France, resultant from what had begun with a confrontation between Serbia and Austria-Hungary.  Belgium chose to make a fight of it.

  1. 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.

France will get its promised reward, regardless of nationality or the will of the inhabitants of Alsace-LorrainePretty much what happened at Versailles.

  1. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.

Italy will get only part of its promised reward.  It actually got more than could be justified by Italian nationality, though less than they were originally promised.  The traditional province of Tyrol was split in four.  North Tyrol and East Tyrol, overwhelmingly German-speaking, remained with Austria.  South Tyrol and Trentino were taken by Italy, even though South Tyrol had a clear German-speaking majority.  But Wilson’s promise may have been useful in saving the rest of the German-speaking areas.

Italian nationalist anger at getting less than they were promised contributed to the rise of Mussolini.

  1. The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.

There was hope of persuading Austria-Hungary to surrender, shortening the war.  This would have been a good reason for Wilson to make no promises to the Czechs, Slovaks or to neighbouring nations with a claim based on regional majorities.

In fact Austria-Hungary fought on and was severely punished, with Hungary in particular stripped down to rather less than its ethnic-Hungarian core.  And Austria was forbidden to unite with Germany, which was irrational.  Had the allies reversed this in the 1920s and allowed Austria to join Weimar Germany if it so wished, history might have gone differently.

  1. Romania, 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.

Serbia was most likely to get access to the sea through taking Bosnia and parts of Croatia, as promised in the 1915 Treaty of London.  Or by the creation of Yugoslavia, which is what actually happened.  Yugoslavia included territory that Italy had been promised.

Another possibility is that Albania would have been abolished and taken over by Serbia, which already held the majority-Albanian province of Kosovo.  It had been loyal to the Ottoman Empire, but claimed independence in November 1912 after the Ottoman defeat.  The 1915 Treaty of London divided most of it between Serbia, Greece and Italy.  Wilson’s promises seem designed to be compatible with this.

Serbia had access to the sea via its long-time ally Montenegro, so there was even less justification for giving it extra than there was for Poland..

  1. The Turkish portion 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.

The Ottoman Empire was to be reduced to its ethnic-Turkish core.  But the British and French wanted to carve up the Arab portion.  Nothing is said about Arabs having independence, despite promises made by Britain to encourage the Arab Revolt.  This could be seen as sincere from a White Racist viewpoint, considering that Arabs were unfit to rule themselves.

The actual settlement tried to go further, giving huge chunks of Anatolia to non-Turks.  But Ataturk successfully resisted and defeated this scheme.

It is interesting to wonder how history would have gone if the Arabs had been given an independent state in return for allowing unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine.

  1. 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.

Note the tricky formula, something different from saying it should be places of Polish nationality, which was the rule for Italy.  Germany had established a Polish state on territory they had captured from the Russian Empire.  At the time, it was unclear which way most Poles would  jump.

Large parts of the historic Kingdom of Poland had a German-speaking majority, thanks to a mix of settlement and assimilation.  Many individuals counted as German had names indicating a Slavonic origin, including the noted commando Otto Skorzeny.

Access to the sea was blatantly impossible unless areas with a clear German majority were to be included.  This became the Polish Corridor, plus the “Free City” of Danzig.  Hitler was actually willing to accept this, provided he got an extra-territorial road to link it to East Prussia, and provided Danzig was returned to Germany. 

After World War Two, Poland was reconstituted on its traditional territory, with vast numbers of Germans expelled from Danzig (Gdansk) and East Prussia.

  1. 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.

Sincere.  Note that he says states and not nations.  Since it promises ‘territorial integrity’ to states rather than nations or peoples, it implicitly guarantees that all existing states can hold their existing sovereign territory.  Presumably the League would support this regardless of national aspirations, as has been done in most cases by the United Nations.

To summarise, points 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 14 were sincere or probably sincere.  Points 1 and 12 are dubious.  Points 2, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 13 are what I count as the six spoofs.

Wilson chose to do nothing for Ireland, at a time when the British Empire was in no position to resist any demands he might make.  He may well have agreed with the widespread British and Irish Protestant view that Catholics should not be put in charge of a Protestant population.

He also ignored the non-white colonies, and the status of the Chinese province of Shandong, taken by Japan from Germany.  China had been an ally and had sent 145,000 labourers to help the allies, taking 20,000 casualties from work near the front line.[C]  But Versailles awarded Japan the rights Germany had possessed in Shandong, which caused the Chinese government to refuse to sign the treaty.

Wilson’s proposals make perfect sense if he was aiming at a global hegemony built around a Triple Alliance of the British Empire, French Empire and the newly internationalised USA.  The USA had ruled the Philippines since 1898, though probably planning to give it independence eventually under some docile and obedient government, as it had earlier been done for Cuba.  Had such a system emerged, it would have needed allies of the second tier, probably Italy, Poland, Romania, Serbia / Yugoslavia and Japan.  Possibly a slightly diminished Austria-Hungary if it had been ready to abandon Germany.  Possibly a revived Russian Empire or Russian Republic with most of its former territory, if they could get rid of the Bolsheviks.  The new League of Nations would have been a convenient cover for this hegemony.

In the event, a lot of things went wrong and the USA stayed out of the League of Nations.  This was probably no bad thing.  And the idea of Wilson as a noble idealist whose schemes unfortunately failed is pure illusion.


Appendix: the United Nations

Chapter 1 Article 1 section 2 says “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace“.[D]  But it also says

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state“.

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.”.[E]


[A]              [http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/fall/military-service-in-world-war-one.html]

[B]              [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novorossiya] as at 8th August 2014

[C]              [http://english.cctv.com/program/newfrontiers/03/10/]

[D]              [http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter1.shtml]

[E]               Ibid, Chapter 1, Article 2, sections 4 and 7,