BRIA 24 4 Woodrow Wilson Quest to Change the World

Bill of Rights in Action
SPRING 2009 (Volume 24, No. 4)

Reform and Change

The Teapot Dome Scandal  |  Woodrow Wilson’s Quest to Change the World | John Stuart Mill and Individual Liberty 

 Woodrow Wilson’s Quest to Change the World

Even before the United States entered the “Great War” in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to change the world. He sought a way for nations to join together to guarantee a permanent peace.

In 1796, President George Washington set the course for American foreign policy by cautioning the new nation “to steer clear of permanent alliances.” This isolationist policy reflected Washington’s desire to keep the United States out of Europe’s frequent wars.

In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned the Europeans against establishing any new colonies or interfering in the affairs of independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. It also reaffirmed that the U.S. would stay out of Europe’s alliances and wars except when American rights were threatened.

In the 19th century, the United States expanded. Through the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of Florida, negotiations for Oregon, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the Gadsden Purchase, and the Indian Wars, the nation grew. By the turn of the 20th century, many thought it should play a role as a world power.

Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft pushed an aggressive nationalist foreign policy. They argued for an American empire and for the U.S. to act abroad for its own national interests.

Many Americans agreed. But many Americans remained isolationists, both Republicans and Democrats. They preferred that Americans tend to business at home. They believed two vast oceans could protect the U.S. from foreign threats.

When Democrat Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913, he remarked to a friend, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Wilson, a former professor of American government, expected to spend most of his time working for domestic progressive reforms such as a new income tax aimed at the rich.

‘Moral Diplomacy’

When Wilson entered office, European imperial powers dominated much of the world. They attempted to maintain a “balance of power” through opposing military alliances.

Progressives like Wilson had another vision for the world. They wanted to disarm nations and end war to create a world where democracy would thrive. The progressives believed that Americans had a God-given mission to spread their democratic ideals to the rest of the world.

In office only a few days, Wilson faced a foreign policy crisis involving Mexico. That country was in the middle of a revolution. General Victoriano Huerta had seized power, imprisoned the Mexican president, and probably issued the order to have him killed. Wilson considered Huerta’s regime illegitimate and demanded that he resign. Wilson announced he would not recognize any Mexican president whom the people had not freely elected.

Mexicans opposing Huerta, calling themselves Constitutionalists, raised an army. They defeated Huerta’s troops in several battles but could not take Mexico City. In April 1914, Wilson ordered U.S. forces to occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz to cut off Huerta’s supply lines. Within three months, Huerta resigned, and Wilson withdrew U.S. troops.

After this intervention in Mexico, Wilson began to express his ideas for a new American “Moral Diplomacy.” At its core was the principle of “self-determination,” the moral right of people to choose their form of government and leaders by democratic elections.

Wilson the Peacemaker

On August 19, 1914, shortly after the “Great War” in Europe began, President Wilson declared American neutrality. Wilson tried to mediate peace between the two warring European alliances.

In May 1915, a German U-boat, a submarine, sank the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing more than 1,200 men, women, and children (including 128 Americans). This shocked Americans and prompted Wilson to demand that Germany end its U-boat warfare against civilian ships. Germany agreed to reduce its submarine operations when Wilson promised to try to persuade Britain to lift its blockade of German ports.

In 1916, Wilson was re-elected president by a slim margin on the strength of his slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Soon after his re-election, Wilson delivered a revolutionary foreign policy speech to Congress. He argued that the fighting in Europe should end with a “peace without victory.” Wilson explained that “victory” meant a peace forced on the losers who would surely harbor resentments leading to yet another war.

Wilson stated the moral principles he believed necessary for world peace. Governments, he said, must exist by the “consent of the governed” and enjoy the right to self-determination. Nations must reduce their armies and navies. All must enjoy “freedom of the seas” to engage in trade. But most important, Wilson declared that nations large and small should join together in a “concert of power,” an international organization.

Despite Wilson’s attempts to mediate a just peace, the war continued as did Britain’s blockade of Germany. In February 1917, Germany announced it would resume sinking without warning any ships approaching British or other Allied ports. The U.S. also intercepted a German telegram, seeking to enlist Mexico as an ally if America declared war. These German actions persuaded Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war.

In his war speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, Wilson condemned German U-boat killing of civilians as “warfare against mankind.” He went on to famously state, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

Congress declared war by a large margin, but not before isolationists like Republican Senator George Norris of Nebraska blamed a rush to war on Wall Street bankers and munitions makers. “We are going into a war upon the command of gold,” he said.

The Fourteen Points

Most Americans quickly mobilized behind the slogan, “A war to end all wars.” The first military draft since the Civil War produced the largest American army ever created up to that time. Nevertheless, pacifists, political radicals, certain churches, and some immigrant groups actively protested America’s participation in the war.

In January 1918, as American troops fought on European soil for the first time, Wilson again appealed for peace. In an address before Congress, he spelled out his “Fourteen Points” program for peace, expanding on his previous principles for peace:

1.  Open covenants of peace must be arrived at, after which there will surely be no private international action or rulings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

2.  Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.

3.  The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.

4.  Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest points consistent with domestic safety.

5.  A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the population concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

Except for the 14th point, Wilson’s remaining points dealt with territorial matters, including returning and adjusting borders of the combatants in the war and providing for eventual self-rule for peoples in the Balkans, Poland, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire (an ally of Germany).

In the last of his Fourteen Points, Wilson returned to his dream for an international organization for world peace:

14.  A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution had broken out. Russia was one of the Allied nations fighting Germany. When Communists took control of the Russian government, they negotiated a separate peace. This freed thousands of German troops to join a final offensive against the U.S. and the other Allies on the Western Front in France.

When their offensive failed in the spring of 1918, Germany negotiated to end the fighting, hoping to reach a peace agreement based on the Fourteen Points. A temporary agreement, an armistice, was made on November 11, 1918. (For years, November 11 was celebrated as Armistice Day. Today it is called Veterans’ Day.) By the end of the war, more than 53,000 Americans and millions of Europeans had died in battle.

The League of Nations Covenant

In December 1918, President Wilson arrived in Europe to help negotiate the treaty formally ending World War I. This was the first time an American president in office had ever visited Europe.

Huge cheering crowds greeted Wilson as a hero. One banner proclaimed him the “Savior of Humanity.” The other Allied leaders, however, were focused on redrawing the map of Europe and punishing Germany.

The conference to write a peace treaty began in Paris in January 1919. The victors excluded the Germans from treaty negotiations. Wilson persuaded the other major Allied leaders from Britain, France, and Italy to first work on a covenant, a written agreement, to create an international organization: the League of Nations.

The League Covenant covered many issues, including fair working conditions and a mandate system to guide colonial peoples toward independence. But to Wilson, the most important purpose of the League was stated in the opening words of the Covenant:

The High Contracting Parties, In order to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war . . . Agree to this Covenant of the League of Nations.

The covenant created new mechanisms to maintain permanent world peace, including: 

    • An Executive Council, consisting of five big powers and four smaller ones, to decide questions of war and peace by a unanimous vote.
    • The authority for the Executive Council to order economic penalties and to recommend necessary military means against a war-making nation.
    • A pledge by member nations to reduce armaments to a level necessary only to preserve order within their borders.
    • A Permanent Court of International Justice to settle disputes between nations.
    • Article X of the covenant committing members to guarantee “the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League” against any “external aggression.” This meant an attack on any League member obligated all other members to come to its defense.

The Covenant of the League of Nations represented a revolutionary change in international relations and a radical departure from traditional American isolationism. Wilson had seemingly achieved his dream. But he had made a fatal mistake: He had not included any Republicans in his delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. In the congressional elections of 1918, the Republicans regained majority control of the Senate, which had to approve any international treaty by a two-thirds vote.

Wilson learned that nationalists and isolationists in the Senate had serious concerns about Article X. They feared it would force American troops to act as policemen of the world. Even progressives had doubts, arguing that the peacemaking authority of the League was too weak.

Wilson agreed to some changes in the covenant, particularly a new article to safeguard the Monroe Doctrine. But he refused to compromise on Article X, which he viewed as essential for enforcing world peace. After concluding that the League would correct any flaws in the rest of the treaty with Germany, Wilson signed the treaty at Versailles, the palace of the old French kings, on June 28, 1919.

Wilson’s Fight for the League

At first, the American public showed widespread support for the Treaty of Versailles, including having the U.S. join the League of Nations. But the League troubled Republican senators. Nationalists such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, developed a series of “reservations.” These were conditions for American membership in the League, mainly preserving the right of the U.S. to act in its own national interest.

One of the reservations required Congress, not just the president, to approve any U.S. military action under Article X. A few isolationists in the Senate objected to the U.S. joining the League at all, with or without reservations.

This left progressives in both parties to carry Wilson’s cause for the League. But many objected to the requirement for unanimous action by the Executive Council. They thought it weakened the League’s authority to guarantee peace. They also expressed anger that Wilson had done little to restore free speech and other civil liberties that had been severely restricted in the U.S. during the war.

By September 1919, the treaty faced certain defeat in the Senate, mainly because of opposition to U.S. membership in the League. Wilson decided to go on a speaking tour of the country to gather public support for America’s participation in the League.

Wilson opposed making any changes in Article X, arguing that this would undermine the idea of nations acting together to stop wars. He predicted that failure of the U.S. to the join the League would surely lead to “another struggle in which not a few hundred thousand fine men from America would have to die, but . . . many millions . . . .”

Wilson spoke to large enthusiastic crowds but finally collapsed from exhaustion. Back in Washington, he suffered a massive stroke, which prevented him from continuing his campaign for Senate ratification of the Versailles Treaty with its League Covenant.

The Senate finally voted against ratification. Heartbroken, Wilson abandoned plans to run for president a third time. The big victory of Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920 was widely viewed as a vote against American membership in the League of Nations.


Woodrow Wilson attempted to change the world by promoting such principles as self-determination, disarmament, and the cooperation of nations to preserve the peace. This new approach to American foreign policy, sometimes called “Wilsonianism,” was an idealistic alternative to the balance of power between opposing military alliances. The League of Nations operated for two decades but ultimately failed to stop World War II.

Although Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920, most Americans turned back to the isolationist attitude that the U.S. should have as little to do with the rest of the world as possible. This sentiment prevailed until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Although Wilson died in 1924, his reputation revived during the Second World War. Many believed that if the U.S. had become a member, the League of Nations could have prevented that war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to vindicate Wilson’s idealism by identifying “Four Freedoms” worth fighting for: freedom of speech and worship; freedom from want and fear. After the war, the U.S. helped found the United Nations.

The Cold War undercut Wilsonian idealism by producing a “balance of terror” among distrusting nuclear powers. Yet even during this period, elements of Wilsonianism survived. One example was the 1975 Helsinki Accords, signed by 35 nations, including the U.S. and USSR. In this document, countries promised to respect the borders created at the end of World War II. But they also promised to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” Another example was President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, which pushed all nations to pay greater attention to human rights.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Wilsonianism surfaced again. People in almost every part of the world wanted democracy, free trade, a ban on the spread of nuclear weapons, and an effective United Nations. All these things are rooted in Wilson’s vision for peace in 1919.

President George W. Bush promoted a foreign policy to make America safe by extending democracy to those who do not yet enjoy it. Some have called Bush’s foreign policy a form of Wilsonianism.

For Discussion and Writing

1.  Why did Wilson argue for “peace without victory”? Do you agree or disagree with his view? Why?

2.  Why do you think Wilson failed in his fight for the U.S. to join the League of Nations?

3.  Do you think President George W. Bush was a “Wilsonian”? Use evidence from the article to support your answer.

4.  Do you think U.S. officials should be concerned with human rights abuses in other countries? Explain.

For Further Reading

Dawley, Alan. Changing the World, American Progressives in War and Revolution. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

“Woodrow Wilson.” American Experience. PBS Online, 2001. URL: This web site includes Wilson’s key speeches and other primary sources.


The Fourteen Points

In this activity, students evaluate six of the Fourteen Points.

1.  Divide the class into small groups.

2.  Each group should read and discuss Points 1–5 and Point 14. For each point, the group should discuss and answer these questions:

a.  What does it mean?

b.  Is it relevant today? Why or why not?

c.  Should it be part of international law today? Why or why not?

3.  Call on groups to report and discuss their answers.




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