President Wilson’s speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, outlining the Fourteen Points—his statement of principles for peace—took Washington by surprise. There was barely enough time for the House and Senate to make arrangements for a joint session. I, on the other hand, knew it was coming, and for the first time My Year in 1918 felt like homework. I decided I might as well turn it into actual homework, and I gave myself a pop quiz: how many of the points could I remember? You can do this too! Just get a piece of paper, write down the numbers 1 to 14, and give it a go!
No? Okay, here they are:
- Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.
- Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.
- The removal of economic barriers and establishment of equal trade conditions.
- Reduction of armaments.
- Free, open-minded, and impartial adjustment of colonial claims.
- The evacuation (by the Germans) of all Russian territory.
- The evacuation of Belgium.
- The restoration of French territory, including Alsace-Lorraine.
- A readjustment of Italy’s borders along the lines of nationality.
- Autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary.
- The evacuation of Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro.
- Sovereignty for the Turkish people and autonomy for other peoples under Turkish rule.
- An independent Polish state.
- A general association of nations.
Here’s what I managed to come up with:
Not very impressive, especially since I was a government major. 32 percent! But I did get some key principles right. On second thought, flunking seems kind of harsh. I’ll bump my grade up to a D+.
If President Wilson hadn’t forced my hand, I would have waited a while to write about World War I. I’m starting to get the gist of what was going on—mostly, totally chaos in Russia—but it’s so complicated. When I was in school, World War I was treated like World War II: The Prequel. A slightly different line-up of combatants, a less morally clear-cut conflict. Afterwards, I read about the tremendous human cost of the war in books like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. But I never understood the war itself very well.
Here, then, are some early thoughts. On the one hand, the American press is completely consumed by the war. Children’s magazines explain the intricacies of U-boat fighting. Women’s magazines talk about doing your bit by cutting down on butter and sugar. (I’m not sure exactly how this helps.) There’s a war-related illustration on almost every magazine cover.
On the other hand, there’s a tremendous sense of confusion and ambivalence. What exactly are we fighting for, and why? There’s lots of carping in the press about the ineffectiveness of the Allied forces. A few days before Wilson’s address, British Prime Minister Lloyd George gave a speech to trade unionists that struck me more as an effort to maintain the loyalty of his people than as a rallying cry. In this context, Wilson’s speech seems as much a justification for the war as a path to peace.
It will be interesting to see how people in 1918 respond to the 14 points. In the meantime, I’d better brush up on my European geography. You never know when there’s going to be another quiz!