November 11 is, of course, Veterans’ Day. Originally called “Armistice Day,” it marked the ending of World War I in 1918. It also marked the beginning of an ambitious foreign policy plan by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Known as the Fourteen Points, the plan—which ultimately failed—embodied many elements of what we today call “globalization.”
World War I, which began in August 1914, was the result of decades of imperial competition between the European monarchies. Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Russia all claimed territories around the globe. They also conducted elaborate espionage schemes against each other, engaged in a continuous arms race, and constructed a precarious system of military alliances.
Austria-Hungary laid claim to much of the Balkan region of Europe, including Serbia. When a Serbian rebel killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, a string of events forced the European nations to mobilize for war against each other.
The main combatants were:
- The Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Turkey
- The Entente Powers: France, Great Britain, Russia
The U.S. in the War
The United States did not enter World War I until April 1917 but its list of grievances against warring Europe dated back to 1915. That year, a German submarine (or U-Boat) sank the British luxury steamer, Lusitania, which carried 128 Americans. Germany had already been violating American neutral rights; the United States, as a neutral in the war, wanted to trade with all belligerents. Germany saw any American trade with an entente power as helping their enemies. Great Britain and France also saw American trade that way, but they did not unleash submarine attacks on American shipping.
In early 1917, British intelligence intercepted a message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to Mexico. The message invited Mexico to join the war on the side of Germany. Once involved, Mexico was to ignite war in the American southwest that would keep U.S. troops occupied and out of Europe. Once Germany had won the European war, it would then help Mexico retrieve land it had lost to the United States in the Mexican War, 1846-48.
The so-called Zimmerman Telegram was the last straw. The United States quickly declared war against Germany and its allies.
American troops did not arrive in France in any large numbers until late 1917. However, there were enough on hand to stop a German offensive in Spring 1918. That fall, Americans led an allied offensive that flanked the German front in France, severing the German army’s supply lines back to Germany.
Germany had no choice but to call for a cease-fire. The armistice went into effect at 11 a.m., on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
The Fourteen Points
More than anything else, Woodrow Wilson saw himself as a diplomat. He had already roughed out the concept of the Fourteen Points to Congress and the American people months before the armistice.
The summarized Fourteen Points included:
- Open covenants of peace and transparent diplomacy.
- Absolute freedom of the seas.
- The removal of economic and trade barriers.
- An end to arms races.
- National self-determination to figure in adjustment of colonial claims.
- Evacuation of all Russian territory.
- Evacuation and restoration of Belgium.
- All French territory restored.
- Italian frontiers adjusted.
- Austria-Hungary given “opportunity to autonomous development.”
- Rumania, Serbia, Montenegro evacuated and given independence.
- Turkish portion of the Ottoman Empire should become sovereign; nations under Turkish rule should become autonomous; Dardanelles should be open to all.
- Independent Poland with access to the sea should be created.
- A “general association of nations” should be formed to guarantee political independence and territorial integrity to “great and small states alike.”
Points one through five attempted to eliminate the immediate causes of the war: imperialism, trade restrictions, arms races, secret treaties, and disregard of nationalist tendencies. Points six through 13 attempted to restore territories occupied during the war and set post-war boundaries, also based on national self-determination. In the 14th Point, Wilson envisioned a global organization to protect states and prevent future wars.
The Treaty of Versailles
The Fourteen Points served as the foundation for the Versailles Peace Conference that began outside of Paris in 1919. However, the Treaty of Versailles was markedly different than Wilson’s proposal.
France—which had been attacked by Germany in 1871 and was the site of most of the fighting in World War I—wanted to punish Germany in the treaty. While Great Britain and the United States did not agree with punitive measures, France won out.
The resultant treaty:
- Forced Germany to sign a “war guilt” clause and accept full responsibility for the war.
- Prohibited further alliances between Germany and Austria.
- Created a demilitarized zone between France and Germany.
- Made Germany responsible for paying millions of dollars in reparations to the victors.
- Limited Germany to a defensive army only, with no tanks.
- Limited Germany’s navy to six capital ships and no submarines.
- Prohibited Germany from having an air force.
The victors at Versailles did accept the idea of Point 14, a League of Nations. Once created, it became the issuer of “mandates” which were former German territories handed over to allied nations for administration.
While Wilson won the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his Fourteen Points, he was disappointed by the punitive atmosphere of Versailles. He was also unable to convince Americans to join the League of Nations. Most Americans—in an isolationist mood after the war—did not want any part of a global organization which could lead them into another war.
Wilson campaigned throughout the U.S. trying to convince Americans to accept the League of Nations. They never did, and the League limped toward World War II with U.S. support. Wilson suffered a series of strokes while campaigning for the League, and was debilitated for the rest of his presidency in 1921.