I’ve spent the last few years trying to shine a little light on those aspects of the First World War that get left out of most heritage history, but sometimes even those events it does commemorate get such superficial or inaccurate treatment that I feel compelled to give their windows a polish. A couple of those are floating around our media ether at the moment.
I’m tempted to spend the day explaining why modern focus on Emmaline Pankhurst, the very definition of a self-serving opportunist, is a betrayal of the women who made real sacrifices in pursuit of female suffrage, but that will have to wait. Right now I’m exercised about the superficial nod delivered by posterity to the Fourteen Points, US President Wilson’s quintessentially liberal recipe for a peaceful world.
Wilson’s recipe has since been almost universally dismissed as a naive failure, which would explain why it hasn’t garnered much in the way of centenary action. It that has also been blamed – often by the same people – for much that went wrong with the peace process at the end of the First World War, and by extension for the League of Nations, the Second World War and almost everything we remember as bad about the rest of the twentieth century. That view reflects its enormous contemporary impact on what you might call the global psyche, and makes virtually ignoring it a hundred years on look pretty ridiculous. So here’s a briefing.
I’ll start with the anniversary, by way of clearing up a nomenclature issue. Wilson originally announced his principles for creation of a lasting peace in Congress on 8 January 1918, and there were fourteen of them. On 11 February he again addressed Congress, and added four more principles to the list, but by that time news of his original speech had spread as fast as wildfire could travel in 1918. The Fourteen Points were famous – had in fact provoked so much popular excitement and political irritation all over the world that they are a small watershed moment in the emerging age of mass communication. Nobody was about to start calling them the Eighteen Points just because it was accurate.
So what exactly were they? Compiled by Wilson with help from his special advisor, Colonel House, and a team of political experts (Wilson was, of course, an academic), the original fourteen were a very sketchy peace programme delivered to Congress as a statement of US war aims. The first of Wilson’s fourteen paragraphs renounced secret treaties, calling for ‘open covenants openly arrived at’, and the second demanded absolute freedom of the seas outside of territorial waters, rendering the kind of blockade tactics carried out by the British illegal. The third point called for the removal of trade barriers wherever possible, the fourth for worldwide arms reduction and the fifth for impartial arbitration of all colonial disputes.
After that, Wilson got down to specifics. Point six required an end to all occupation of Russian imperial territory by the Central Powers, a sop to the Bolsheviks locked into peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Point seven demanded the complete restoration of Belgium, point eight accepted French claims to Alsace and Lorraine, both absorbed by Germany since 1871, and the ninth point recognised some but not all of Italy’s territorial claims.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire received relatively lenient treatment from the tenth point, which only called for ‘autonomous development’ of its separatist elements, but point eleven was more firm on the future of the Balkans, insisting on an end to the occupations of Romania, Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter to have access to the Adriatic coast. Point twelve guaranteed Ottoman sovereignty of the empire’s Turkish heartlands, but granted autonomy to its subject peoples and declared the Dardanelles an open sea, while point thirteen recognised the existence of an independent Poland, and that it should have access to the sea.
Having passed principled judgment on the world’s most pressing international disputes in the space of a few minutes, Wilson went on, in point fourteen, to recommend the establishment of ‘a general association of nations’ as a means of keeping the peace.
The four points added on 11 February were less easily said, even more vague and even less easily done. The first accepted that no general formula for peace could be applied to every post-War claim, and that each must be judged on its individual merits, while the second stated that peoples and provinces could not be bartered as diplomatic currency between empires. The third declared the benefit of local populations to be the basis upon which all future territorial agreements should be made, and the fourth gave the world a get-out, stating that ‘well-defined national aspirations’ could only be satisfied if they didn’t introduce or perpetuate causes for war.
Faced with social injustice, socialists and liberals have always agreed about some short-term aims, and in 1918 Wilson’s prescription for peace agreed in many ways with the version presented by the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk. I think I’ve already mentioned that Bolshevik peace proposals had an enormous impact on populations all over the world, and contributed directly to permanent political and social change for some of them, but the Fourteen Points made an even bigger splash thanks to a propaganda machine that really knew its business.
The man in charge of US wartime propaganda was George Creel, a committed social reformer and ‘muckraker’ journalist, well known for his exposés of commercial and political corruption. Creel had been a strong supporter of Wilson during the 1912 and 1916 election campaigns, and was appointed to head the Committee of Public Information (CPI) in 1917. Energetic and confident, though inclined to impulsive verbal outbursts, he turned what had been no more than a government news agency into a sprawling propaganda service.
The wartime CPI expanded rapidly to include a Pictorial Publicity Division, employing the nation’s most celebrated painters, sculptors and cartoonists, and a Motion Picture Division. It also employed an estimated 75,000 ‘Four-Minute Men’, trained public speakers who roamed the country giving short speeches in schools, churches and movie theatres, promoting food conservation, War Bonds or any other federal policy. Each Four-Minute Man gave an average of more than a thousand wartime speeches, reaching a total audience of almost 315 million and proving a highly effective propaganda tool in a nation still thoroughly hooked on declamatory speechifying.
Partly to promote peace, and partly to make sure the world knew why the US was going to war, Creel’s department was charged with selling the Fourteen Points abroad, and did a fabulous job, albeit working with audiences desperate to believe in any plan that promised a workable peace. Wilson found himself lionized across six continents, his programme hailed as visionary genius by foreign populations, even those who stood to lose by its propositions, wherever they were able to express their views. Governments were generally less impressed.
Without making any formal protest, Allied governments rejected the reduction of Italy’s territorial claims (as they were bound to do by the 1915 treaty that bribed Italy into the War) and the proposed ban on naval blockade tactics. They also objected to Wilson’s complete silence on the subject of reparations, an issue turned into a political hot potato in Britain, France and Italy by their own propaganda, which consistently accused Germany and Austria-Hungary of forcing war on Europe. On the other side of the lines, the governments of the Central Powers viewed the Fourteen Points as inimical to the survival of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and greeted them with predictable derision.
Given popular opinion’s relative lack of worldwide clout in 1918, even in countries dependent upon public support for survival at war or in the midst of populist revolution, rejection by belligerent governments on both sides could easily have consigned the Fourteen Points to history’s dustbin then and there. That they avoided the fate of all the previous attempts to broker peace did have something to do with the sheer breadth of their popular appeal, and with a growing sense in all the belligerent states (encouraged by the collapse of Russia and the imminent involvement of US forces) that the War’s long stalemate was finally nearing breaking point. Above all though, their continued currency during the months that followed was a reflection of the USA’s particular place in the world of early 1918.
The United States was the success story of the age, a model nation built on strict democratic principles that was entering the world stage as powerful economic, diplomatic and (potentially) military force. It was already showing signs of losing its halo, on the back of military adventures inspired by greedy and corrupt corporate interests, but was still essentially admired around the world, carrying none of the world policeman’s baggage that has soiled its reputation ever since. If any nation on Earth stood a chance of being trusted as an international peacemaker, and of bullying those incapable of trust, the USA was it.
A self-conscious guardian of the American halo and a president elected on a pacifist ticket, Wilson not only believed in the righteousness and practicability of his peace formula, he couldn’t afford to let it fade from the global agenda. He needed his home constituents and the world at large to recognise that the US was going to war for noble, selfless reasons, in tune with the liberal ideals he and his supporters espoused. So US propaganda and diplomacy kept up pressure for the Fourteen Points through the spring and summer of 1918, and were rewarded in the autumn.
Facing military defeat, the Central Powers demanded that Wilson’s programme form the basis for peace negotiations, primarily because it was far more lenient to defeated states than the punitive war aims of the European Allies. Wilson publicly insisted on the same thing while making a few amendments to the Points as sops to Allied objections, leaving Britain and France, let alone Italy and the smaller Allied nations were, in no position to argue. That put everyone concerned on a path to attempt the reconstruction of a shattered global civilisation using a blueprint nobody believed in, except the liberal wing of the US political class. There will be more to say about the Fourteen Points, but in the meantime that’s your briefing.