World War I: 1914–1918

Treaty of Versailles

Wilson's Fourteen Points

On January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to present his Fourteen Points, a vision for peace following World War I.

Throughout the involvement of the United States in World War I, Woodrow Wilson acted as a self-appointed spokesperson for not only the interests of the United States, but for its allies. He gave several speeches outlining the terms that would be acceptable to gain peace in the early part of 1918. The first of these was to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. In this speech, he outlined his Fourteen Points, his vision of the steps that would be necessary to achieve world peace.

Wilson had assembled a committee of experts in the fields of political and social science to formulate a plan for peace in December 1917. Called the Inquiry, this group of about 150 people worked under the direction of Colonel Edward M. House. Wilson based his Fourteen Points on the recommendations of the Inquiry. The first five points described general guiding principles for achieving world peace based on what Wilson perceived were the causes of World War I. These causes included the imperialism and militant nationalism that had gripped the European powers, the web of secret treaties and alliances that had entangled them, and the perceptions of racial distinctness that fueled hatreds in Central and Eastern Europe. The next eight points were commentary on specific territorial and border disputes between warring nations. The final point called for the formation of a "general association of nations" that would serve as inspiration for the League of Nations at the end of the war. Although the speech was delivered to the U.S. Congress, Wilson intended for his speech to be heard by the entire world. It was broadcast across the world, and leaflets containing the Fourteen Points were dropped behind enemy lines. Wilson hoped the speech would increase morale among the Allied forces and demoralize the Central Powers forces, undermining their support for Germany and their will to fight.

Treaty of Versailles and Germany's Response

The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, ended World War I but set the stage for future international conflict.
Germany agreed to a general armistice, or a formal agreement to cease fighting for a period, in October 1918. The German government agreed to this armistice based on the understanding that peace would be negotiated using Wilson's Fourteen Points as outlined in his speech to Congress the previous January. A series of armistice agreements between the nations making up the Allies and the Central Powers brought an end to all fighting by November 1918. However, delegates from the countries did not meet to arrange a formal peace treaty until January 18, 1919. It was on this date that the Paris Peace Conference began.
This photograph shows the Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference, from left to right: David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-29038
The Treaty of Versailles was the formal agreement worked out at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that officially ended World War I. Negotiations were dominated by the leaders of Italy, Great Britain, France, and the United States, known as the "Big Four." Germany and the other defeated Central Powers had no input in the negotiations. The Allies demanded Germany pay reparations, or money paid to those wronged by German aggression during the war, to the Allies in the "war guilt" clause of the treaty. Germany also lost land and population under the treaty. Hoping to avoid German aggression in the future, the Allies forcibly disarmed Germany.

Germans were angry about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. They agreed to armistice based on Wilson's Fourteen Points and felt the treaty violated the spirit in which the armistice was negotiated. Germany protested that the reparations, which it was being forced to pay or face repercussions under the terms of the treaty, would disrupt its economy. The terms of the treaty were exceedingly harsh and built resentment among the German people toward the rest of Europe and the United States. In the years following World War I, Germany violated many of the terms of the treaty without repercussions. All these factors would lead directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of World War II.

League of Nations

Established in 1920, the League of Nations was an international organization proposed by the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference and intended to prevent future international conflicts.

The final item of Wilson's Fourteen Points laid the groundwork for the League of Nations, an international alliance of nations established by the Treaty of Versailles. By establishing such an organization, the leaders of the Allies hoped to prevent future wars. The Covenant of the League of Nations, the document outlining the plan for the League, made up the first 26 articles of the Treaty of Versailles. These articles detailed the proposed structure and purpose of the League of Nations. The Covenant specified that all 13 members of the Allied nations that signed the treaty would be eligible for membership, as well as any nations that had remained neutral during the war and accepted the Covenant in its entirety. Members of Central Powers would need a two-thirds vote of existing League members to be accepted.

Despite the prominent role Woodrow Wilson played in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and establishing a League of Nations, the United States Senate never ratified the treaty and did not join the League of Nations. Henry Cabot Lodge was a Republican senator from Massachusetts. He had supported the war effort but was skeptical of a longstanding international system of alliances that might threaten the sovereignty of the United States. He was particularly concerned about Article X of the Treaty of Versailles, which compelled members of the League of Nations to go to war to protect member nations in the event of unprovoked attack. Lodge wanted to add 14 amendments, called the Lodge reservations, to the treaty before he would agree to its ratification. One such reservation stated the president of the United States must seek approval from Congress before sending armed forces to fight on behalf of other nations as outlined in Article X. Wilson considered the Lodge reservations nullification of the conditions of the treaty and campaigned diligently to seek approval for ratification. Lodge likewise refused to compromise. The Senate voted on the treaty twice, in November 1919 and March 1920. The two-thirds vote needed to ratify the treaty was not reached, and the United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles.

Although the League of Nations would ultimately fail in its goal to prevent future international conflict, it provided the groundwork for the United Nations, which would be formed in 1945 following World War II.
Wilson's proposal of a League of Nations met with strong opposition in the United States. Opponents feared membership would mean the United States would be at the beck and call of other members. Cartoonist and animation pioneer Winsor McCay expressed this fear in 1920. He depicted John Bull (Great Britain) demanding Uncle Sam send more troops even as American soldiers returned wounded or killed from fighting in the Great War.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-85742