Woodrow Wilson's Presidency

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president, serving for two terms from 1931 and 1921. Regarded as one of the best American presidents, Wilson’s background as an academician greatly influenced his progressive leadership style. As the president of Princeton, he developed a reputation around the country for his educational reform policies. He entered politics in 1910 and was elected governor of New Jersey. His forward-thinking policies caught the attention of the Democratic Party’s hierarchy. The party nominated Wilson for president in 1912. In his campaigns, he promised liberal reform. He won 435 electoral votes in the subsequent elections, capitalizing on divisions within the Republican Party. Wilson led the U.S. through the First World War and helped negotiate a global peace treaty that ended the war. This paper will explore Wilson’s handling of World War I. In addition, the discourse will evaluate Wilson’s 14 points as a specific accomplishment in his political career.

            When World War I started in 1914, it was largely a European affair. Wilson was determined to maintain neutrality throughout the conflict. He hoped that the United States would play a significant part in bringing peace to the world. However, neutrality proved more difficult that Wilson’s administration first anticipated.[1]

Most Americans were sympathetic towards the Allied forces due to longstanding cultural ties. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine attack sunk a British passenger ship killing 1,198 people. The incident caused massive uproar since 128 Americans were among the victims. However, Wilson maintained the government’s inaction but warned the Germans against similar attacks in the future. Wilson was re-nominated by the Democrats for a second term in office, and in his presidential campaign, he used the slogan, “He kept us out of the war.” This decision illustrates how much Wilson appreciated the country’s neutrality.

            Woodrow Wilson’s second term was predominated by World War I. Despite numerous protests by his administration, German submarine attacks persisted. The Germans targeted neutral shipping since they felt that it was the only way they would win the war. When they sunk three U.S. ships in early 1917, President Wilson was fed up. In addition, the United States learned of the German attempts to enter into an alliance with Mexico against the U.S. On April 2, 1917, he went to Congress and urged a declaration of war on Germany.[2]

In his speech, President Wilson declared that the world had to be made safe for democracy. The statement formed the foundation for American foreign policy for the rest of the 20th century. America’s entrance into the war was a welcome relief for the Allied forces. The coalition resisted the last German offensive in the spring of 1918 with the help of the fresh American troops. The Germans ultimately surrendered on November 11, 1918. The American presence helped expedite the war which had destroyed major sections of Europe.

            When the United States joined the war effort, Wilson was positive that the conflict was nearing its conclusion. He had an idea on how to achieve and maintain global peace after the war. Wilson advanced his statement of principles for peace in a speech to Congress on January 8, 1918. He urged the victorious Allies to consider unselfish peace terms with the defeated powers. President Wilson saw the devastation of the war and acknowledged that American national security was inescapably affected by international stability. He, therefore, sought to translate progressive ideas such as free trade and democracy into foreign policy. In the long run, these strategies would ensure national security and world peace.

            President Wilson’s speech was well-researched with most ideas based on the findings of a team of about 150 policy advisers. The fourteen points are regarded as a perfect illustration of Wilson’s idealism especially considering that he developed the diplomatic points in the speech. The first five points dealt with diplomatic issues. Point I sought to eradicate the traditional practice of maintaining an international balance of power through alliances among nations. The new diplomatic practice would involve open peace agreements that are arrived at by both parties. Wilson preferred this new idea since the viability of traditional alliances was significantly challenged by the eruption of World War I. Wilson’s second point emphasized the absolute freedom of the seas. His vision of a free and open world was further accentuated by the proposal to remove all economic barriers and establish equality of trade conditions among all nations that consent to the peace agreement. Wilson’s fourth point required all nations to reduce their armaments to the lowest point that would still ensure domestic safety. He intended to prevent weapons stockpiling and consequently another world war. The last of the diplomatic points required that Western powers rethink their colonial claims. The rationale of Wilson’s thinking, in this case, was national self-determination.[3] He advocated for the increased sovereignty of colonies which was in line with his progressive views.

            Points 6 to 13 in Wilson’s speech addressed territorial issues that contributed to the global conflict. He demanded the evacuation of all Russian and Belgium territory in addition to the liberation of France. Accordingly, Germany had to return the regions of Alsace and Lorraine, which were captured in 1871, to France. Wilson also called for the readjustment of Italy’s frontiers to conform with recognizable lines of nationality. Wilson also called for the evacuation of occupation forces from Austria-Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. Additionally, he recommended the establishment of an independent Poland with free access to the sea. The last point of Wilson’s speech is perhaps his most famous: a general association of nations under specific conventions to help all members maintain political independence and territorial integrity.[4]

This idea was the ideological foundation of the League of Nations which was formed in 1919.   

            Wilson’s idealism was a recurring theme of his political career. In the speech, he did not explain how the aims would be achieved. However, his proactive thinking provided a basis for the peace agreement after the war. The United States never joined the League of Nations, but President Wilson’s efforts were appreciated with the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. The other Allied Powers disagreed with Wilson’s leniency and implemented the Treaty of Versailles which punished Germany for its role in the war. The humiliation of the Germans by the punitive treaty led to the rise of national socialism and eventually a more devastating world war. President Wilson will always be remembered as an icon of diplomacy in international politics.




Kennedy, Ross A., "The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security." New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations, 8. 2009

Lynch, Allen. "Woodrow Wilson and the principle of ‘national self-determination’: a reconsideration." Review of International Studies 28, no. 2 (2002): 419-436.

Throntveit, Trygve. "The fable of the Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson and national self-determination." Diplomatic History 35, no. 3 (2011): 445-481.

Wilson, Woodrow. "Woodrow Wilson: War Message." 65th Congress Document, no. 5. 2013.


Wilson, Woodrow. "Woodrow Wilson: War Message." In 65th Congress Document, no. 5. 2013.


Kennedy, Ross A., "The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America’s Strategy for Peace and Security". In New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations, 8. 2009.


Throntveit, Trygve. "The fable of the Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson and national self-determination." Diplomatic History 35, no. 3 (2011): 447


Lynch, Allen. "Woodrow Wilson and the principle of ‘national self-determination’: a reconsideration." Review of International Studies 28, no. 2 (2002): 422

November 13, 2023

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