One hundred years ago today, on January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson convened an impromptu joint session of Congress for an address that would go down in world history as one of the most important statements of ideals ever promulgated. Wilson’s speech, which would come to be known as the ‘Fourteen Points’, came at an incredibly dark time for the Western world. By the beginning of 1918, the war that would come to be known as World War I, or simply ‘The Great War’, was at a stalemate, with British and French soldiers dug in across the lines from German trenches and multiple other belligerent states in total collapse either due to internal revolution (Russia) or failed secret treaty negotiations (Austria-Hungary). At this point, war casualties, including prisoners, had already exceeded 30 million, a nearly incomprehensible figure. Despite all of these negatives, the United States was just choosing to get into this horrific morass of death, disease, and destruction in continental Europe by sending hundreds of thousands of young men to the front, albeit with little in the way of training or armaments, much less popular support.
It was with this background that President Wilson stepped up to the podium in Congress to deliver his address 100 years ago today. The words he spoke did not dwell on the devastation of the nations of Belgium, France, or Italy, but instead dealt with the inevitable process of peace on the continent and around the world. Wilson’s words were prescient, and still ring true to this day. He focused on what led to the disastrous war then being contested, how such a war should never be fought again, and how the people of the world could best assure themselves of avoiding such a massive conflict in the future. His prescriptions included an end to secret treaties, absolute freedom of navigation on the seas, free trade among nations without economic barriers, reduction of militaries and arms to safe levels, fair adjudication of colonial claims, and the creation of an international body made up of the nations of the world that would work together to settle international disputes and help avoid conflicts. Many of these ideas are still in force today, and some of the points, when not heeded, led to the annihilation seen in World War II (secret treaties like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, German & Japanese militarization, failure of the League of Nations).
On this centennial anniversary of President Wilson’s timeless and important address, we as a nation should reflect on these ideals and remember how we Americans were once, and should always be, a shining example of the principles of freedom, justice, and fair dealing to the rest of the world. The institutions that currently govern the world we live in were our creations, based on the ideas laid out in these ‘Fourteen Points’ and hammered home by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War. We need to embrace these global governance structures, work within them to make the changes we want to see internationally, and use them to create the world we wish to live in. That has always been the American way, at least for the last century, and we should stand firm on these sacred ideals.