Sunday, July 4, 2021

Wilson’s Idealism and the First World War

Woodrow Wilson ran the 1916 reelection campaign on the slogan: “He kept us out of the war.” But on April 2, 1917, he dragged America into the First World War. By deploying two million troops and a lot of cutting-edge military equipment, America shifted the balance of power in favor of the Entente Powers (America and its allies). The problem was that the American military assistance came with Wilsonian idealism, which led to confusion about the aims of the war—it was not clear what the Entente Powers were fighting for? 

In his message to the Congress, Wilson declared that the aim of the war was "to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world.” Could all this be achieved by fighting a world war? In his speech on January 8, 1918, Wilson outlined his doctrine of “Fourteen Points,” which was his list of principles that were to be used during the postwar negotiations. The twelfth of Wilson’s Fourteen Points assured the Arabs and the Turks (the subjects of the Ottoman Empire), “an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.”

The war ceased to be a simple geopolitical conflict between the Entente Powers and the Central Powers. It became a Wilsonian war for creating an ideal world where people would live in “everlasting peace.” 

More than anything else, it was Wilson’s idealism that hindered Tsarist Russia and Greece from achieving their original war aims. Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish faction (which had, by 1921, become the voice of all subjects of the Ottoman Empire) and Lenin’s Bolsheviks used Wilson’s Fourteen Points to crush the aspirations of not only Greece and Tsarist Russia but also Britain, France, and Italy. The Turkish negotiators and the Bolsheviks repeatedly invoked Wilson’s Fourteen Points doctrine during the postwar negotiations.

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