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Explain the course and significance of President Wilson’s wartime diplomacy, including his Fourteen Points, the League of Nations, and the failure of the Versailles treaty.

Wilson Portrait Postcards, 1912-1916
Wilson Portrait Postcards, 1912-1916

Focus Question: What was the significance and impact of President Wilson’s wartime diplomacy during and after the war?

Topics on the Page
Overview of Wilson's Diplomacy
  • Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
The Decision to Enter the War
Wilson's Fourteen Points
The Treaty of Versailles
League of Nations
America and the League of Nations
  • America's Decision Not to Join the League of Nations
The Sedition Act of 1918
Additional Resources
  • Lesson Plans
  • Women and World War I
  • African Americans and World War I

rotating gif.gifSee WHII.18 for more information of the failures of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations.

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for an interactive timeline WWI

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Multimedia.pngView this video from Crash Course to get an overview of the United States' entry in the War and Wilson's wartime diplomacy.

WhiteHouseSouthFacade.JPGPresident Wilson was initially opposed to entering the war, arguing instead for American neutrality. In his 1916 presidential re-election campaign the slogan "he kept us out of war" may have helped Wilson achieve his narrow victory.
  • However, in January 1917, in his famous "Peace Without Victory" speech, Wilson was already declaring the importance of the American role in building a peaceful postwar world order, based on equality among nations and the consent of the governed.
  • The Fourteen Points was a speech that was delivered by President Woodrow Wilson to Congress on January 8th, 1918. This speech laid out fourteen points on which he envisioned a permanent postwar peace would be built.
    • The fourteen points drew on the themes of equality among nations, free trade and the consent of the governed much like his earlier speeches but offered a more specific description of how Wilson's new world order might be achieved.
    • It also called for the creation of a "general association of nations...for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike," which led to the creation of the League of Nations under the Treaty of Versailles.
  • Although many people in Europe welcomed this Wilsonian philosophy, many of his colleagues including France's George Clemenceau, Britain's David Lloyd George and Italy's Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, were very skeptical of Wilson's proposition.
    • With the entrance of the United States into World War I, President Wilson said that the United States intervention was intended to "vindicate principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power".
    • He continued by accusing that Germany had "filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity of counsel, our peace within and without our industries and our commerce".

external image Edith_Wilson.png
womens history.jpgEdith Bolling Galt Wilson, wife of Woodrow, was very involved with her husband's Presidency. She accompanied him to Europe while the Allies worked on creating a peace deal. She came back to the United States to campaign for Senate approval of the peace treaty and the League of Nations Covenant.
  • When President Wilson had a stroke in September 1919, she took over many of the routine duties and details of the government. She referred to this as her "stewardship".
  • For more on her role and why some call her America's first woman President, see Edith Wilson from the American President site at the University of Virginia.
  • See also material on Edith Bolling Galt Wilson from the PBS film, Woodrow Wilson

Click here to see a video on Edith Bolling Galt Wilson detailing her life and experience during the Wilson presidency.

Multimedia.pngClick for a video on what happened during Woodrow Wilson's health crisis.

The Decision to Enter the War

Multimedia.pngClick here for an explanation of the factors that led to the US to enter the War from Khan Academy.

  • Many people believe it was the sinking of the British passenger ship the Lusitania that led President Wilson to seek a formal declaration of war against Germany, but his declaration came two years after the sinking of the Lusitania.
  • The US entered the War due to four factors: The Germans' continuing unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmerman Telegram, the fall of the Russian Tsar, and the massive loans the US gave to Britain.

Read this article to gain a better understanding of these factors.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the contents of the Zimmerman Telegram.

external image Political_Cartoon_--_The_Fourteen_Principles_of_Wilson%27s_Peace_To_German_Government.png

primary_sources.PNGWilson’s Fourteen Points

The image to the left is a political cartoon based on The Fourteen Principles of Wilson's peace to German government. Caption: "It's the only way out, Wilhelm!",1918.

The Fourteen Points can be thought of in three groups.

The first group dealt with concerns to prevent future war.

Secondly, Wilson faced border issues.

Lastly, Wilson called for the development of the League of Nations.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on Wilson's Fourteen Points.

To compare these Fourteen Points to Wilson’s initial declaration of war leads to the following similarities:

  • Concern for the rights of people of sovereign nations
  • Concerned with the rights of people for peace and justice against harsh power both from within and outside forces.

The Treaty of Versailles and its Failure

President Wilson Leaving the Versailles Peace Conference
President Wilson Leaving the Versailles Peace Conference

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Treaty of Versailles
Multimedia.pngClick here for a short clip "Why the Treaty of Versailles Failed" from BBC
lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on the Treaty of Versailles

League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles

  • The League of Nations was created by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
  • It was created to ensure that war would not break out again.
  • Based in Geneva, Switzerland
  • The League of Nations could:
    • Call members to discuss disputes in an organized and civil fashion
      • These discussions would take place in the League's Assembly
      • The Assembly would listen and brainstorm solutions
    • If one nation was found at fault, the nation would be given a "verbal sanction"
      • The nation at fault would leave the other nation immediately
      • If they refused to leave, they would suffer "economic sanction"
        • Refuse trade with the nation at fault
        • Push nation at fault towards bankruptcy, have the people in that nation force its government to accept League's orders
      • Last step would be "physical sanction"
        • Military action would force nation at fault to leave
        • However, the League of Nations did not have a military force to use and could not carry out the last step
        • Many country's military was depleted in the war
  • Other weaknesses:
    • America, the creator of the League, refused to join
    • Germany was not permitted to join
      • According to the Treaty of Versailles, not considered part of the international community
    • Russia was not allowed to join because of the threat of Communism
    • Powerful countries not joining, or being barred from joining, meant the organization lacked influence
  • Click here for a fun song about why the League of Nations failed ultimately: Failure of the League of Nations Song

Why Did the United States refuse to join the League of Nations?

Despite the fact that President Wilson was one of the League's strongest proponents, the bill that would have solidified America's membership in the League of Nations died in Congress. The reasons why the bill never passed are:
  • Some were concerned that countries in the League would compromise America's global influence.
  • Some thought it would violate America's sovereignty.
  • Many were afraid that the League would have the power to drag the United States into a war that would otherwise not involve them.

Consequences of The United States not joining the League of Nations

After the First World War the empires of Europe were bankrupt and in most cases dismembered. The League of Nations was meant to ensure a new era of peace in Europe and by extension the world. There was only one problem with this system, enforcement. The League of Nations Achilles' heel was that it had no way to enforce the rules it set for European nations. The League was toothless; it was being led by nations that were struggling to look after themselves. Germany was in an economic hyper depression because of the Treaty of Versailles, Russia had just gone through a Communist revolution which saw many aspects of its economy severely changed, Britain and France were short on man power and had just acquired the lands of the Ottoman Empire which strained the resources of the two countries in every way. Therefore the only nation that was in a position to prop up the League of Nations and act as the enforcer of the laws was the United States. The United States had only been in the war for a short while (1917 - 1918) and had manpower and economic capital to spare. If furthermore, had no large empire to manage leaving it free to divert its attention where it wanted. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's plea to join the League Congress would have none of it. This effectively divorced the brain and inspiring force of the League, Woodrow Wilson, from the body. The failure of Wilson to persuade the United States to join the League is the single biggest failure in his foreign policy after the war. With no European nation wanting to be responsible for policing the other nations, The League was left to brave the storm of the 1920's and 30's without a captain at the helm.

It does have to be stated however, that it is not solely the fault of the US for allowing the events that led up to the Second World War. By the time the 1930's rolled around the European nations had gotten their footing back for the most part. They would never return to their pre-World War I status but they were fully capable of stopping the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and China, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Nazi seizure of Austria and The Czech Republic. They did not do so because the European powers did not want to start another world war. Unfortunately the policy of appeasement didn't work and the world would be plunged into a World War yet again.

This political cartoon illustrates the idea that the League couldn't support itself without the United States. Created by Leonard Ravenhill December 10, 1919
This political cartoon illustrates the idea that the League couldn't support itself without the United States. Created by Leonard Ravenhill December 10, 1919

League of Nations Documentary --A YouTube video with primary footage and interviews regarding the League of Nations.
Click here for more information and a list of successes from the League
lessonplan.jpgClick here for a short unit "The Debate in the United States over the League of Nations"

Multimedia.pngClick here for the League of Nations Photo Archive maintained by Indiana University.
external image 1024px-League_of_Nations_Anachronous_Map.PNG

Despite the failure of the League of Nations, President Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for coming up with the idea and for his efforts in ending World War I. There was debate among the committee as to whether he should be awarded this prize, but eventually a majority agreed.

WWI Propaganda Poster
WWI Propaganda Poster

The Sedition Act of 1918

The Sedition Act of 1918 was passed in Congress during the aftermath of World War I.

  • Though commonly thought as a separate act from the previous Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act was actually the addition of several new amendments to the Espionage Act.

  • The new laws prohibited Americans from engaging in unpatriotic diatribe. One could be sentenced up to twenty years in prison if caught breaking this new law.

  • The Act itself contributed to America's isolationism. The Sedition Act was met with disapproval from other nations, which also contributed to America's isolationism that characterized the years between the World Wars.

  • Clip from John Adams displays reactions to the Sedition Act and the assumed threat to security.
  • Click here to learn more about Wilson's decision to for the Committee on Public Information in order to gain more public support for the war effort.

primary_sources.PNG Wake Up America, World War I propaganda posters

Additional Resources

external image Red_apple.jpgLesson Plans
  • Click here for four lesson plans on President Wilson from EdSitement.

War and Peace from PBS

womens history.jpgWomen and WWI

rotating gif.gifInfluential Women in American History: View this page to learn more about the leaders of the Suffrage movement, such as Alice Paul.

multicultural.pngAfrican Americans and WWI

  • Click here to read about how WWI played a role in the Great Migration and the role of African Americans during WWI.
  • Click here to learn about the all black 369th infantry or the "Harlem Hellfighters," one of the most highly decorated regiments of WWI.

primary_sources.PNGPrimary Sources
Eugene Debs Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act
Charles Schenck's Pamphlet
Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes dissent in the Abrams v. U.S. case where the Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act.

Oliver  Wendell Holmes
Oliver Wendell Holmes

New York Times: This Day in History: August 4, July 23, April 2

Websites to explore:
http://www.woodrowwilson.org/ Presidential Library website.
The Clear and Present Danger Test--"What approach did the Court use in analyzing World War I era First Amendment cases involving subversive advocacy?" from the Exploring Constitutional Conflicts website of the University of Missouri Kansas City.

Danzer, Klor de Alva, et al., G, J.J (2007). The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21 st Century Oklahoma Teacher's Edition. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell.
Faragher, Buhle, et.al., John Mack, Mari Jo (2003). Out of Many: A History of the American People 4th Ed., (Documents Set). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.