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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Wilson’s Idealism and the First World War

Woodrow Wilson successfully 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 military equipment, America shifted the balance of power in favor of the Entente Powers. But the problem was that the American military assistance came with Wilsonian idealism and utopianism. The First World War became dissociated from the nationalistic and historical disputes and ambitions—it ceased to be a simple geopolitical conflict between the Entente Powers and the Central Powers. Now it was a Wilsonian war for creating a utopia where people would live in “everlasting peace.” 

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.” Only he could have known what that meant and how it could be achieved. His idealism led to confusion about the aims of the war—what were the Entente Powers fighting for? To create a Wilsonian utopia or to achieve their material goals. 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.” Not just the Central Powers but also the Entente Powers (America’s allies) were skeptical and secretly contemptuous of Wilson’s idealism.

The entry of Wilson’s America destroyed any prospect of the original war aims of Tsarist Russia and Greece being achieved. Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish faction (which had, by 1921, become the voice of all subjects of the Ottoman Empire) and Lenin’s Bolsheviks often 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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