Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations

At the beginning of the war President Wilson declared the U.S. neutral. In 1915 Wilson was nominated by the Democratic Party, and in his acceptance speech he discussed world peace. "America must contribute to a just and settled peace. No longer can any nation remain wholly apart from world turmoil." He appealed to world opinion to establish "guarantees for peace and justice in a spirit of friendship." Wilson's re-election was promoted under the slogan "He kept us out of war."

In Wilson's famous "Peace without Victory" speech he expressed his hope that peace could be negotiated in Europe and he was convinced that after the war an international concert of power must be created to prevent war. Wilson did not believe that the war should end in a new balance of power but rather in a just and organized common peace. The principles of self determination, freedom, and protection from aggression "are the principles of mankind and must prevail." Wilson struggled to keep America out of war, but when the Germans announced submarine warfare against neutral shipping he broke diplomatic relations with Germany. American intelligence reports indicated that Germany was trying to form an alliance with Mexico against the United States. Wilson had considered entry into the war a crime against civilization, and he loathed the implications. Privately he said, "It would mean that we would lose our heads along with the rest and stop weighing right and wrong. It would mean that a majority of people in this hemisphere would go war mad, quit thinking, and devote their energies to destruction." In March several U.S. ships were attacked, and the President decided to propose a declaration of war to Congress on April 2. Wilson stated his purpose for America's role, "Our object is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the free peoples of the world such a concert of purpose as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles."

He declared that a new age was beginning in which governments must be held to the same standards of responsibility as individual citizens. He indicated that America had no animosity toward the German people. Wilson believed that peace could only be maintained by a partnership of democratic nations. Wilson said, "What we are seeking is a basis that will be fair to all and which will nowhere plant the seeds of such jealousy and discontent as would breed future wars." Wilson formulated the war aims of the United States and presented them to Congress on January 8, 1918 as his famous Fourteen Points. He reiterated that the United States was seeking only a peaceful world that is safe for self-governing nations. His specific points may be summarized as follows:

  1. no secret treaties;
  2. free navigation of the seas;
  3. removal of economic barriers;
  4. armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety;
  5. adjustment of all colonial claims;
  6. the opportunity for Russians to choose their own institutions;
  7. evacuation and restoration of Belgium under her own sovereignty;
  8. liberation and restoration of invaded French territory;
  9. a readjustment of the frontiers of Italy;
  10. the peoples of Austria-Hungary should be freely allowed autonomous development;
  11. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be restored and the Balkan states ought to be established along lines of nationality with guarantees of territorial integrity;
  12. Turkey itself should have secure sovereignty, other nationalities should be freed of Turkish rule;
  13. an independent Poland should include territories of Polish populations;
  14. a general association of nations must be formed for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

By the end of summer 1918 the Central Powers were breaking up, and the idea of a League of Nations was beginning to take a definite shape. The constitution of the League of Nations would be a part of the peace settlement.

On October 6 the German government requested an armistice. The Germans agreed to disarm and wanted a peace according to the points made in Wilson's speeches. The Allied Governments agreed to accept the Fourteen Points. On November 11 Germany signed the armistice agreement. The Germans had agreed to an almost total surrender and to the payment of reparations.

Wilson decided to attend the Peace Conference in France. In Europe Wilson was enthusiastically greeted by thousands of people. The American President who wanted only peace with no special rewards for his country faced an awesome challenge among the European diplomats who were determined to gain all they could for their own national interests.

David Loyd George had just been elected British Prime Minister under the slogan "Be tough on Germany," and Clemenceau of France was even more adamant about making Germany pay. Despite this desire for vengeance the idea of the League as an essential part of the Treaty was adopted unanimously.

In Washington Wilson met with Congress to discuss the League. Congress insisted the Monroe Doctrine be protected and that there must be a way nations could withdraw from the League. Congress also insisted that domestic disputes be exempt from League interference. When Wilson returned to Paris, Britain and France were forcing unbearable reparations on Germany. The French wanted Alsace-Lorraine, the coal mining district of the Saar and a buffer state in the Rhineland. Italy wanted the opposite coast of the Adriatic. England and Japan had already divided up the German colonies in the Pacific Ocean.

In April Wilson reached the limit of his patience and returned home. Opposition in the Senate was growing. President Wilson decided to take his case to the people with a speaking tour across the whole country. Too many young Americans and Europeans had fought and died in France, and he would not give up the struggle for a world of peace without giving all he could. Wilson pushed himself to the limit, traveling 8,000 miles in twenty-two days and giving thirty-eight speeches. He had increasingly bad headaches which became constant until he finally collapsed in Colorado. The train took him back to Washington where he suffered a stroke. Wilson died on February 3, 1924. He still believed his principles would eventually prevail. The Treaty was never ratified by Congress and the United States never joined the League.

Without the United States the League lost its credibility. The League's failure became obvious when the aggressions of Japan, Italy, and Germany brought on the second and greater world war many had feared.

  1. Why did Wilson want to stay out of the war?
  2. Why did Wilson eventually lead the Unites States into the war?
  3. What did Wilson want to get out of the war?
  4. What did France and England want from Germany after the war?
  5. Why did the United States NOT join the League of Nations?