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The "Fourteen Points" was a statement given on January 8, 1918 by United States President Woodrow Wilson declaring that World War I was being fought for a moral cause and calling for postwar peace in Europe. Europeans generally welcomed Wilson's intervention, but his main Allied colleagues (Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy) were skeptical of the applicability of Wilsonian idealism.
The U.S. had joined the Allies in fighting the Central Powers on April 6, 1917. Its entry into the war had in part been due to Germany's resumption of submarine warfare against merchant ships trading with France and Britain. However, Wilson wanted to avoid the U.S.'s involvement in the long-standing European tensions between the great powers; if America was going to fight, he would try to unlink the war from nationalistic disputes or ambitions. The need for moral aims was made more important, when after the fall of the Russian Regime, the Bolsheviks disclosed secret treaties made between the allies. Wilson's speech also responded to Vladimir Lenin's Decree on Peace of November 1917, immediately after the October Revolution, which proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war, calling for a just and democratic peace that was not compromised by territorial annexations, and led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918.
The speech made by Wilson on January 8, 1918 laid out a policy (free trade, open agreements, democracy and self-determination). The Fourteen Points speech was the only explicit statement of war aims by any of the nations fighting in World War I. Some belligerents gave general indications of their aims, but most kept their post-war goals private.
The Fourteen Points in the speech were based on the research of the Inquiry, a team of about 150 advisors led by foreign-policy advisor Edward M. House, into the topics likely to erect in the anticipated peace conference.
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The speech was made without prior coordination or consultation with Wilson's counterparts in Europe. Clemenceau, upon hearing of the Fourteen points, was said to have sarcastically claimed The good Lord only had ten! (Le bon Dieu n'en avait que dix!). As the only public statement of war aims, it became the basis for the terms of the German surrender at the end of the First World War.
After the speech, "Colonel" Edward M. House worked to secure the acceptance of the Fourteen Points by Entente leaders. On October 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson and Sir William Wiseman, the head of British intelligence in America had an interview. This interview was one reason why the German government accepted the Fourteen Points and the stated principles for peace negotiations.
The report was made as negotiation points, and later the Fourteen Points were accepted by France and Italy on November 1, 1918. Britain later signed off on all of the points except the freedom of the seas. The United Kingdom also wanted Germany to make reparation payments for the war, and thought that that should be added to the Fourteen Points.
The speech was delivered 10 months before the Armistice with Germany and became the basis for the terms of the German surrender, as negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The Treaty of Versailles had little to do with the Fourteen Points and was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.
The speech was widely disseminated as an instrument of allied propaganda. Copies were also dropped behind German lines, to encourage the Central Powers to surrender in the expectation of a just settlement. Indeed, a note sent to Wilson by Prince Maximilian of Baden, the German imperial chancellor, in October 1918 requested an immediate armistice and peace negotiations on the basis of the Fourteen Points.
President Wilson became physically ill at the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference, giving way to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to advance demands substantially different from Wilson's Fourteen Points. Clemenceau viewed Germany as having unfairly attained an economic victory over France, due to the heavy damage German forces dealt to France's industries even during the German retreat, and expressed dissatisfaction with France's allies at the peace conference.
Notably, Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which would become known as the War Guilt Clause was seen by the Germans as assigning full responsibility for the war and its damages on Germany, however the same clause was included in all peace treaties and historian Sally Marks has noted that only German diplomats saw it as assigning responsibility for the war. The allies would initially assess 269 billion Marks in reparations. In 1921, this figure was established at 132 billion marks. However, only a fraction of this total had to be paid. The figure was designed to look imposing and show the public that Germany was being punished, while it also recognized what Germany could not realistically pay. Germany's ability and willingness to pay that sum continues to be a topic of debate among historians.
Germany was also denied an air force, and the German army was not to exceed 100,000 men.
The text of the Fourteen Points had been widely distributed in Germany as propaganda prior to the end of the war, and was well known by the Germans. The differences between this document and the final Treaty of Versailles fueled great anger in Germany. German outrage over reparations and the War Guilt Clause is viewed as a likely contributing factor to the rise of national socialism.
At the end of World War I, foreign armies had only entered Germany's pre-war borders twice: the advance of Russian troops into the Eastern border of Prussia, and French troops occupying Münchausen/Mulhouse for a few days, both at the outbreak of the war. This lack of any Allied incursions contributed to the popularization of the Stab-in-the-back myth in Germany after the war.
Woodrow Wilson's 14 points relates to rhetoric because its main purpose is to persuade. Wilson was the first national leader to address the world—including Western Europe, South America, and Asia—through radio transmission. He hoped to persuade the governments and people of American and their new allies to support his vision, particularly a league of nations. Wilson's Fourteen Points address was also broadcast into the enemy nations, where he hoped he would persuade the German and Austrian people to pressure their governments to make peace.
Wilson's first point states, "Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view." Wilson's disdain for closed door meetings and secret agreements can surely be seen in the succeeding presidents' rhetoric.
The next piece of rhetoric in Wilson's speech is his ideas on egalitarianism applied on a global scale and enforced by this multi-national organization. Wilson states that he wishes for "Equality among the peoples of the world...An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak."
The most rhetorical influence of the speech was Wilson's closing paragraph: "For such arrangements and covenants we are willing to fight and to continue to fight until they are achieved; but only because we wish the right to prevail and desire a just and stable peace such as can be secured only by removing the chief provocations to war, which this program does remove. We have no jealousy of German greatness, and there is nothing in this program that impairs it. We grudge her no achievement or distinction of learning or of pacific enterprise such as have made her record very bright and very enviable. We do not wish to injure her or to block in any way her legitimate influence or power. We do not wish to fight her either with arms or with hostile arrangements of trade if she is willing to associate herself with us and the other peace-loving nations of the world in covenants of justice and law and fair dealing. We wish her only to accept a place of equality among the peoples of the world – the new world in which we now live – instead of a place of mastery." This is Wilson's greatest point in his rhetoric. He gives justification to his persuasion and his reasoning of why the worldwide peace is needed.