January 1918: Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Empire as a Way of Life

An excerpt from Empire as a Way of Life (1980), by historian William A. Williams on the subject of President Woodrow Wilson.

New York Times January 9, 1918 headline on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech.

His great admirers, beginning with himself, have sought to discount or even deny his understanding of the capitalist imperative to expand the marketplace, and his enjoyment in exercising police power in order to emphasize his benevolent progressivism. He simply wanted to do good for himself and his country by doing good for others. He can only be understood as a missionary. That is a disarming, even winsome, portrait.

Wilson has a central importance as one who practically and symbolically integrated all the elements of empire as a way of life. He called for (and began to build) a navy second to none, vigorously supported the expansion of American economic strength, repeatedly intervened (militarily as well as politically) to reform and educate societies that he considered wayward or backward, and boldly undertook to institutionalize the Open Door Policy on a global scale.

Whatever one’s judgment of its morality or practicality, and it is open to grave criticism on both counts, it was a grand vision of global benevolence presided over by the United States. To effect that purpose he led the nation into World War I in the righteous conviction that the deployment of American police power was necessary to usher in a millennium of democratic progress based upon the acceptance and observance of the principles and practices of the American marketplace political economy. And Wilson was candid as well as eloquent in explaining his action and his objective.

According to him, the United States entered the conflict in response to violations of its avowed principles “which touched us to the quick and made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secured once and for all against their recurrence.” *Notice well that he did say that the actions of any power or combination of powers posed a direct, immediate or visceral threat to the security or existence of the United States. His emphasis was on the world being defined in the image of America.

Historian William A. Williams. Image courtesy Oregon State University.

“What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing….The program of the world’s peace, therefore is our program….the only possible program.”

Then Wilson echoed Secretary of State Hay with accents borrowed from Presidents Roosevelt and Taft:

“…..the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace…”

“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 populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government, whose title is to be determined.”

“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.”

President Wilson giving his Fourteen Points speech to Congress.

Wilson not only provided an impressive synthesis of the themes of the new imperial outlook; but, as indicated in his remarks about the old colonial system, he understood the nature of the challenge he had defined. The substance of it was that he had to control the disgruntled poor (symbolized by the ongoing revolutions in China, Mexico and Russia) while simultaneously policing the greed of the rich who competed with the United States for the wealth of the world. That awesome undertaking was the inevitable result of defining American freedom and welfare and security in global terms.

There were four primary strategies for attaining the objective. The United States could organize and deploy its resources to police the world – or at any rate those parts of it that refused to accept the American conception of benevolent progress. It could treat the poor as equals and support them to control the rich in the short run, confident that American power would prevail in the medium or long run. It could step aside and let the other rich deal with the poor on the assumption that both groups would eventually be forced to accept American leadership. Or it could use its power in alliance with the other rich to control the poor in return for the rich accepting the American rules for the international marketplace.

The last-mentioned option was Wilson’s choice, and he sought to confine both confrontations within the Open Door system through the creation of a League of Nations led by the United States. That was his vision of a “new world order,” and he tied it to Article X of the League Covenant. “The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” That, Wilson emphasized, “seems to me to constitute the very backbone of the whole covenant. Without it the League would be hardly more than an influential debating society.”

That proposition provoked a traumatic argument among Americans. Wilson ultimately lost because too many people viewed that kind of commitment to the status quo as inevitably involving the United States in an endless recourse to military force or a devolution into old-style empire – or both. The ensuing defeat of the League Treaty (1919-1920) forced everyone to reexamine the accepted strategy and tactics – and even the limits – of empire as a way of life.

*italics added

  • p. 133, 134-136, Empire as a Way of Life by William Appleman Williams, Oxford University Press, 1980.

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