Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 264th installment in the series.  

January 22, 1917: Wilson Calls For “Peace Without Victory”

“I would fain believe that I am speaking for the silent mass of mankind everywhere,” President Woodrow Wilson told the U.S. Senate in a landmark speech delivered on January 22, 1917, outlining his plan for a negotiated peace in Europe – and sketching out an almost messianic role for himself in the process. The coming years would see Wilson’s self-image as spokesman for humanity and standard-bearer of universal values endorsed by millions of admirers around the world, even acclaiming him “The Prince of Peace.” But sadly his lofty ideals never overcame the base realities of war and politics; and the meager fruits of this first famous address, with its quixotic call for “peace without victory,” foreshadowed all the disappointments to come.

A Final Bid For Peace

Like the majority of Americans, Wilson reacted to the slaughter in Europe with understandable horror, and initially charted a course of strict neutrality intended to spare the United States this tragedy. However global ties of trade and finance meant there was no way for the U.S. to avoid indirect involvement, leading to repeated confrontations with Germany over unrestricted U-boat warfare and Britain over its naval blockade, which hurt some American businesses. As the war ground on, the American economy benefited from the Allies’ voracious demand for munitions, food, and other supplies, increasingly paid for with loans organized by American bankers, led by J.P. Morgan & Co. Meanwhile American public opinion was outraged by a campaign of industrial sabotage carried out by agents of the Central Powers against munitions factories and mines across the country. 

In November 1916 Wilson won reelection with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” but it was already becoming clear to the president and Secretary of State Robert Lansing that they might not be able to keep this implied promise much longer. The resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare by Germany, plus the prospect of an Allied defeat, which would wipe out billions of dollars of American loans, both threatened to force their hand (for his part Lansing already believed U.S. entry into the war on the side of the Allies was inevitable, and accordingly opposed Wilson’s attempts to mediate in private).  

The looming threat prompted Wilson to make one last attempt to keep America out of the war in January 1917 – by ending the war itself. About to embark on his second term, Wilson believed he could leverage the power and prestige of the United States, the world’s biggest neutral nation, to persuade the opposing sides of the European war to sit down at the negotiating table, perhaps with the U.S. presiding as an impartial arbiter. 

Wilson was convinced that the U.S. could help bring about peace because of its special democratic character, as well as his closely related belief that democracies were inherently peaceful. On that note he also believed that a lasting peace would only be possible with the spread of democracy to the rest of the world, especially Germany, long subject to an authoritarian government with some superficial democratic trappings. Wilson and Lansing believed German militarism was rooted in the country’s authoritarian government, dominated by Prussian aristocrats, requiring a democratic revolution there if peace were to endure.

Wilson and Lansing emphasized principles including democracy and self-determination as the basis for peace, but the president – unlike his skeptical Secretary of State – also called for the creation of a new international organization to keep the peace, laying the groundwork for the League of Nations. In his speech on January 22, 1917 Wilson confidently predicted:

We are that much nearer a definite discussion of the peace which shall end the present war… In every discussion of peace that must end this war, it is taken for granted that the peace must be followed by some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again.  Every lover of mankind, every sane and thoughtful man must take that for granted.

The United States would be indispensable to the formation and operation of this new concert of nations, just as it must participate in the peace negotiations that would give rise to it, in order to ensure that it enshrined the principles of democracy and self-determination: “No covenant of cooperative peace that does not include the peoples of the New World can suffice to keep the future safe against war; and yet there is only one sort of peace that the peoples of America could join in guaranteeing.”

In this democratic spirit, peace should serve the interests of ordinary people, and not the elites who had caused the war: “No peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that no right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property.” This included recognizing the right of oppressed nationalities to self-government, which Wilson illustrated with a specific call for the creation of a “united, independent, and autonomous Poland.” 

Above all Wilson believed that to forge an enduring peace, neither side could be humiliated or destroyed, since this would only lead to fresh conflict: “The present war must first be ended; but… it makes a great deal of difference in what way and upon what terms it is ended.” Therefore, he asserted “it must be a peace without victory.”

Peacemaker Without Partners

Unfortunately Wilson’s refined vision hardly aligned with the mood in Europe. While there was indeed growing opposition to the war, broadly speaking it was still outweighed by fear and anger, as ordinary people and elites alike were deeply embittered by over two years of bloodshed and destruction. 

As the death toll passed five million men, families all across Europe had lost loved ones in the cause of abstract but powerful ideals like patriotism and justice, and many (though not all) of the survivors felt than anything less than total victory and the vanquishing of an “evil” enemy would dishonor their memory. These sentiments were reinforced by government propaganda highlighting enemy “atrocities,” real or imagined, and warning of dire consequences in case of defeat. The same sentiments were shared by European elites, who felt an additional responsibility to see the costly war effort through to victory – and worried about losing their own social status if they failed, with the possibility of violent revolution never far from their minds.

Unsurprisingly, as the pro-Allied Lansing had warned Wilson, the general European reaction to his idealistic peace plan ranged from bemusement to furious indignation (above, a British cartoon mocking his call for “peace without victory”). True, the governments of the Allied and Central Powers played along – chiefly by sending messages outlining their “war aims” as a supposed preamble to negotiations – but in fact both sides were really just playing for time. 

On the Central Powers side, the Germans were stringing the president along in order to blunt American reaction to unrestricted U-boat warfare, set to resume on February 1, 1917, in hopes of keeping the U.S. out of the war as long as possible, giving the U-boat campaign time to starve Britain into submission. On the Allied side, the British were also counting on the impending resumption of U-boat warfare to bring the U.S. into the war, and also held a trump card in the form of the Zimmermann Telegram, still unknown to the Americans.

See the previous installment or all entries.