In October 1918, the tide of World War I began to shift decidedly in favor of the Allies—comprising France, Britain, the United States, and Italy—as they recognized their impending victory. With foresight towards establishing a lasting peace, they slated a preliminary conference to take place in early 1919 in Paris. The agenda for this conference was to outline the critical issues to be addressed with Germany and its allies. Subsequent discussions were planned with other significant allied nations, notably Japan, followed by engagements with smaller states such as Belgium and Serbia. Ultimately, the leaders of the main Allied powers, known as the Big Four—President Wilson from the USA, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Premier Georges Clemenceau of France—intended to convene with German representatives to forge a treaty.

However, this process proved to be unfeasible as the complexity of the issues far exceeded initial expectations. The Big Four found themselves inundated with appeals from across the globe. In the Middle East, there were demands for sovereignty from Arabs who had opposed the Turks, alongside a parallel petition from Jewish communities. Meanwhile, in Eastern and Central Europe, numerous ethnic groups that had once been part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire aspired for self-determination. The challenge was the demographic diversity of Eastern Europe, making it exceedingly difficult to establish nations such as Poland or Yugoslavia without including minority populations like Germans. 

Photo at right: Washington D.C., 3 February 1917. President Woodrow Wilson before Congress, announcing the break in the diplomatic relations with Germany. Source: War History Network license.

Among the myriad pressing matters that surfaced during the peace talks, one issue stood paramount for Britain, France, and the United States—the question of how to deal with Germany. From January to June 1919, deliberations on this subject overwhelmingly dominated the agenda, underscoring the complexity and significance of achieving a comprehensive peacesettlement.


President Wilson, guided by his Fourteen Points, sought a peace based on self-determination, free trade, and the establishment of a League of Nations to prevent future wars. He believed that Germany should be punished for its role in the war but not crippled, as an unjust peace could breed resentment and lead to future conflict. 

The views of President Wilson of the USA were based on his Fourteen Points: 1. No secret treaties 2. Free access to the seas in peacetime or wartime 3. Free trade between countries 4. All states to disarm to a reasonable level that would not threaten other states - this would reduce tension and reduce the risk of war 5. Colonies to have a say in their own future 6. German troops to leave Russia 7. Independence for Belgium 8. France to regain Alsace-Lorraine 9. The frontier between Austria and Italy to be adjusted 10. Self-determination for the peoples of Eastern Europe (they should rule themselves) 11. Serbia to have access to the sea 12. Self-determination for the people in the Turkish Empire 13. Poland to become an independent state with access to the sea 14. League of Nations to be set up. 

Wilson's Fourteen Points presented a groundbreaking vision for international relations post-World War I, emphasizing transparency, fairness, and cooperation among nations. By advocating for the abolition of secret treaties, Wilson aimed to foster a world order grounded in openness and mutual trust. The call for free navigation of the seas and the removal of economic barriers between countries sought to establish a global economy that would benefit all nations equally. By suggesting a universal reduction in armaments, Wilson aimed to decrease the likelihood of militaristic rivalries spiraling into open conflict. 

Furthermore, his emphasis on colonial populations having a voice in their governance challenged the then-prevailing norms of imperial rule, aiming to create a more equitable international system. The insistence on the evacuation of occupied territories and the recognition of new national boundaries based on ethnic lines were aimed at correcting the injustices perpetrated during the war and restructuring Europe to prevent future conflicts. Wilson's call for an independent Poland and access to the sea for countries like Serbia represented a broader principle of self-determination, where nations have the right to govern themselves without external interference. 

The culmination of Wilson's vision was the proposal for a League of Nations, an international body dedicated to ensuring world peace and cooperation. This institution was to be a forum where disputes could be resolved through diplomacy rather than war, embodying Wilson's idealistic hope for a future governed by dialogue and mutual respect among nations. 


In the aftermath of World War I, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George held reservations about the practicality and implications of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points peace plan. Lloyd George astutely observed that implementing self-determination in Eastern Europe would prove exceedingly difficult due to the complex intermingling of various nationalities seeking autonomy within ill-defined territories, inevitably leading to the presence of minority populations in each newly formed country. Furthermore, he took issue with Wilson's insistence on unfettered access to the seas during both peacetime and war, as Britain's successful blockade of German trade had played a pivotal role in securing victory. 

Despite these points of contention, both Wilson and Lloyd George sought a peace treaty that would administer punishment to Germany without inflicting irreparable damage. Lloyd George recognized the importance of Germany's economic recovery, as it would enable the payment of reparations to Britain and restore Germany's position as Britain's second-largest trading partner, a status it held prior to the war. The creation of new jobs in Britain, particularly in industries exporting goods to Germany, was contingent upon Germany's ability to recover economically. A crippled Germany would, in turn, lead to unemployment in Britain. 

Photo at right: Versailles, Paris, France, 28 June 1919. The Treaty of Versailles, signing of the German Peace Treaty, to negotiate post World War I conditions, Official U.S. Signal Corps photo.  Source: War History Network license.

Moreover, Lloyd George harbored grave concerns regarding the events that had transpired in Russia. The strains of war had culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917, ultimately leading to the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seizing power in early 1918. The Bolsheviks, adherents of Communism, rejected the principles of Christianity, democracy, and the free market economy. They advocated for the abolition of the class system, leaving only workers, and demanded the redistribution of property and wealth from the affluent to the masses. These ideas resonated with the impoverished and famished populace of Russia who had long endured exploitation at the hands of the wealthy. The Bolshevik ideology stood in stark contrast to the prevailing beliefs in Britain, where the majority of citizens identified as Christians, championed democracy, and upheld the right to accumulate wealth and own property. 

Lloyd George feared that a crippled Germany would give rise to misery and chaos, potentially driving the German people to embrace Communist ideals. The most apparent solution, in his view, was to avoid crippling Germany altogether. If the German populace could envision a path to prosperity, they would be less likely to succumb to the allure of Communism. 

Although these arguments held merit in Lloyd George's eyes, he faced two significant obstacles: the French leader, Georges Clemenceau, and the sentiment of the British public, who clamored for a harsh treaty that would severely punish Germany. Navigating this precarious situation required a politician of Lloyd George's caliber—a shrewd, charismatic, and somewhat elusive figure with a proven track record of successful negotiations. 


France, led by Georges Clemenceau, took a much harder line against Germany. France had suffered immensely during the war, with much of its territory occupied and devastated by German forces. Clemenceau, bitter about the damage and loss of life inflicted upon his country, sought to break up Germany into smaller states and impose heavy reparations. He believed that only by crippling Germany could France ensure its future security, citing Germany's history of aggression, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk imposed on Russia in 1918. 

12543392877?profile=RESIZE_584xHowever, Clemenceau faced a significant obstacle in achieving his aims: France lacked the military and financial resources to unilaterally occupy and split up Germany. He would need the support of British and American forces, but his allies did not share his views on a punitive peace. 

Photo at right: Versailles, Paris, France. 26 September 2017 : The Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles. Source: War History Network license.

As the peace conference unfolded, the competing visions and interests of the Big Four shaped the final terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty included elements of Wilson's Fourteen Points, such as the creation of the League of Nations and self-determination for various peoples, but also imposed significant territorial losses, military restrictions, and financial obligations on Germany. While not as severe as Clemenceau had hoped, the treaty left Germany weakened and resentful, sowing the seeds for future conflict.



Cooper, John Milton, Jr. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Fleming, Thomas A. The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Page references are to the 2004 edition.

Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig. Decisions for War, 1914-1917. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Page references are to the 2004 edition.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1979.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2003.

Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.

Seymour, Charles. Woodrow Wilson and the World War- A Chronicle of Our Own Times. Lexington: Fili-Quarian Classics, 2010. First published 1921 by Yale University Press.

Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. Cambridge: Basic Books, 2005.

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  • "President Wilson, guided by his Fourteen Points, sought a peace based on self-determination, free trade, and the establishment of a League of Nations to prevent future wars. He believed that Germany should be punished for its role in the war but not crippled, as an unjust peace could breed resentment and lead to future conflict. "

    President Wilson nailed that one.

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