On January 8, 1918, Wilson gave what was to become his most famous speech. Known as the Fourteen Points Speech because it outlined the fourteen elements Wilson felt were essential to a lasting peace, it was delivered to establish moral goals for America's participation in World War I. Wilson also hoped the speech would encourage the Central powers to end the hostilities. The plan initially backfired; instead of signaling for peace talks, the German Army actually intensified its efforts on the European western front. Within ten months, however, the German Army conceded and appealed to Wilson to begin a series of peace talks based on the Fourteen Points. An armistice was declared on November eleven, 1918.
Of the fourteen key areas Wilson described, eight concerned specific geopolitical issues that had to be resolved after the war, while the remaining six dealt with general ideology necessary for peace. The most significant of the points included freedom of the seas, an end to secret treaties and negotiations, establishing equal and free trade, arms reduction, welcoming the new Soviet Russia into the international community, granting self-government to the peoples in Central Europe and the Balkans, independence for Turkey and Poland, and establishing a forum of nations to ensure freedom and peace for all peoples of the world.
Wilson's Fourteen Points were unique for several reasons. To begin with, the speech was unprecedented: no major world leader had ever declared such lofty war aims and objectives for establishing peace. In fact, Wilson referred to his vision of the postwar settlement as "peace without victory." Second, Wilson's Fourteen Points were based purely on a sense of morality and righteousness, unlike most of the Allied aims, which were based on vindictiveness and a desire for war spoils. In other words, Wilson's idea of peace did not include punishing Germany and the Central powers for their aggressiveness, nor did it include taking land or money. Finally, the Fourteen Points were based on a sense of liberalism that was new to international politics. The final and perhaps the most famous of the Fourteen Points, for example, called for global cooperation in order to secure true peace.
One of Wilson's primary reasons for entering the war–aside from the immediate threat to American shipping and sovereignty–had ironically been to establish peace. Since the early years of the war, he had believed that no lasting peace would ever be established unless he, or another such impartial statesman, attended the peace accords. Otherwise he felt certain the European powers would fall into further fighting over land and colonial rights. It is no surprise that after the armistice Wilson personally went to Europe to attend the peace conference, despite the protests and advice for his political allies and friends. No previous President had ever done such a thing. Wilson took with him a large team of advisors, including Secretary of State Lansing, and Col. Edward M. House. The First Lady, Edith Bolling Wilson, accompanied him as well. Wilson chose only those men he felt he could trust implicitly, and therefore did not take any powerful Republicans or members of the Republican controlled Senate. This decision proved to be a mistake.
Wilson landed in Brest, France, in December 1918 and then proceeded to Paris. His welcoming party in the capital proved to be unlike anything he or any other American President had seen before. Hundreds of thousands of Parisians lined the streets cheering Wilson's name and celebrating his arrival. Many in the country and throughout Western Europe saw Wilson as their savior and hero. He was given similar greetings in London and Rome. In Italy, Wilson met with Pope Benedict XV, becoming the first U.S. President to meet with a Pope while in office. Wilson also visited American soldiers stationed throughout Europe and celebrated the Allied victory with them; however, he refused to visit any of the battle sites because he feared that seeing such horrors would prejudice him against Germany and prevent him from achieving a just peace.
After a brief tour of Western Europe, Wilson settled down in Paris to discuss peace and to draft a formal treaty to end the war. The treaty convention became known as the Paris Peace Conference. Although thirty-two nations from around the world were represented at the conference, Wilson worked primarily with British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando. Collectively, the men were known as the Big Four. The President often found it difficult working with them because, though they admired Wilson's ideology and desire for peace, they also wanted reparations from Germany including money and land. Wilson knew that if he allowed the other European nations to destroy Germany, the continent would eventually dissolve into war again.
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Here I contrast scholarly viewpoints with historical viewpoints in order to cover the arguments that surrounded and ultimately led the the United States refusing the join the League.