Woodrow Wilson, 1919 (wikipedia)

Wilson’s fourteen points

On January 8, 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson presented the principles of postwar settlement in his congressional speech. The USA entered the First World War only in 1917,  and thereby Wilson partly also tried to convince the Americans that the United States was fighting for noble purposes. However, only a few of the 14 points of Wilson were implemented and, even so, they were not used for too noble purposes.  

The “government of the Russian revolution is trying to remove all obstacles from the path of universal and democratic peace with a strong and self-conscious move. This act has such a suggestive and wakeful power, and the potential and hope of peace has moved the souls of the masses everywhere so much that it is necessary to talk about peace”, Népszava wrote on January 10, 1918, when introducing the article on the 14 points of Wilson. By this, the paper indicated that Lenin issued a decree on peace already on November 8, 1917, forcing the Entente to take sides.

Finally, only a few declarations were made during the war that had such an effect on “the soul of the masses” as the 14 points of President Wilson on January 8, 1918. However, this congressional speech did not really have much influence on the end of the war, and was rather referred by the losers as a mine of principles that have not been respected.

It is no coincidence that French Prime Minister Clemenceau, who was a determining figure in the peace treaties closing the First World War, later boasted that he had not even read Wilson’s 14 points. It should also be known that the US was not officially an “ally” of the Entente, so Wilson’s points were just the principles of a state “associated” to the Entente. The British accepted them temporarily (and seemingly) with understanding, but the French did not deal with them in particular. And it was the US that left the post-war peace negotiations pre-maturely.

However, if someone watched the events in January 1918 more closely, he did not let himself be misled by high-sounding statements of Wilson and British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Pursuant to Az Est, the British Prime Minister declared: “we do not fight to destroy Hungary and Austria”. Instead, it would have been worth following the acts of Clemenceau and the French politics – of course, the Hungarian press did not notice this in January 1918.

The head of the Czechoslovak movement, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk however followed the events, and recalled in his book later: while on January 8, Wilson, and on January 6, Lloyd George published their statement, almost supporting the survival of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, “the decree on establishing an independent Czechoslovak army in France was published after the agreement of Clemenceau and Beneš doctor, on January 7, 1918”. That is, the French government supported the Czechoslovak National Council. This meant that Clemenceau took the side of “Czechoslovakism”, established by Masaryk és Edvard Beneš, aiming at the disruption of the Monarchy. Meanwhile, Wilson’s 10th point, according to Népszava, merely referred to the fact that “the autonomous development of peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose position we wish to safeguard and secure among the nations, should be made possible as soon as possible“.

This Wilsonian “autonomy” was more tolerable for the Monarchy than the French position, but it has intertwined with the people’s right to self-determination in the historical consciousness of many nations involved. However, this idea was still so much for the leadership of the Monarchy: On January 24, Czernin Austrian-Hungarian Foreign Minister replied to Wilson as follows: “I hereby have to politely, but firmly refuse advices on how to do our internal affairs. We do not intervene in American affairs, and we do not wish the guardianship of any foreign states either.”

However, it was not only the Monarchy that rejected Wilson’s moderate proposals, according to Masaryk, the “allies” (the Entente) “demanded our liberation in their response to Wilson“, i.e. stood for the aspirations for the formation of Czechoslovakia.

But what were the other points of Wilson about? According to the first five, there should be “open covenants of peace“, “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas” should be guaranteed, “all economic barriers” should be removed, armaments should be reduced to a minimum and “a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims” should be implemented. Point 6 referred to the following: “an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of Russia’s own political development and national policy” It is no coincidence that after this, on January 14, “the Bolsheviks welcomed Wilson’s recent message and said it was a great victory for the preparation of general democratic peace”. However, Wilson’s words did not have much to do with reality: the British and the French agreed two weeks earlier to intervene in Russia against the Bolsheviks.

Wilson’s points 7, 8 and 13 were exceptionally successful: after the war, Belgium was “restored”, France regained Alsace-Lorraine lost in 1871 from Germany, and the independent Polish state was formed. Pursuant to point 9, „A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” The realization of this is again very questionable. Though Italy has won territories after the First World War, but it was not satisfied with it (this dissatisfaction also contributed to the rise of fascism in the 1920s in Italy). On the other hand, a large Austrian-German minority melted in South Tyrol, which increased the tensions in the Italian-Austrian relationship. Thirdly, due to the mixed ethnic conditions of the Adriatic ports and their neighbourhood, it was not possible to set a fair border, which contributed to the mainly Italian-Yugoslav border disputes following the First World War. (Having lost Fiume, Hungary ceased to be a factor here.) The parties did not agree on the Trieste until 1954 – this is when the city became Italian, and the neighbourhood became part of Yugoslavia. However, in the Piran Bay, maritime borders are still debated in 2018, now controversy  is present between Croatia and Slovenia.

Returning to 1918, point 11 of Wilson proposed restoring Romania, Serbia and Montenegro as well as “Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea”. Pursuant to Népszava, the most important part of point 12 stated: “The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities (…) should be assured an (…) absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”.

The last, 14th point was about the formation of “a general association of nations” – leading to the establishment of the League of Nations, but the US did not even join this association.

Wilson üzenete = Népszava, 1918. január 10.
A bolsevikiek helyeslik Wilson üzenetét = Az Est, 1918. január 16.
Czernin békeprogramja = Budapesti Hírlap, január 25.
L. Nagy Zsuzsa: A Párizs környéki békék, 1919–1920 = História, 1979/1.
Wilson Woodrow. In: Holger H. Herwig – Neil M. Heyman: Biographical Dictionary of World War I. Westport, Connecticut – London, England. 1982. 358-360.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk: A világforradalom 1914–1918. Budapest, 1990. 304.
Oroszország és a Szovjetunió XX. századi képes történeti kronológiája, 1900–1991. (Szerk.: Krausz Tamás–Szilágyi Ákos.) Budapest, 1992.
Glenda Sluga: The Problem of Trieste and the Italo-Yugoslav Border: Difference, Identity, and Sovereignty in Twentieth-Century Europe. Albany, 2001.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő