"Have To" History - The Treaty of Versailles / The Fourteen Points

Stuff You Don’t Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About Paperwork at the End of World War I

Three Big Things:

1. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points proposed a bold new touchy-feely “besties 4-evah” approach to international relations after World War I, including the formation of a “League of Nations.” It didn’t pass.

2. The Treaty of Versailles officially concluded World War I and placed full blame and financial responsibility on Germany, with ongoing humiliation thrown in as a bonus.

3. Wilson’s thinking, while rejected at home, has proven more influential over time than the Versailles Treaty, which is commonly considered the number one cause of Hitler’s rise to power and the onset of World War II.


You should recognize both of these as related to the end of World War I – the war many people (mistakenly) think was only important because it led in so many ways to World War II.

The Fourteen Points is a perfectly valid document-that-was-actually-a-speech to study as part of “real” history, but nevertheless hangs uncomfortably far off the edge of “What If?” You’d be hard pressed to find many other complete and total busts that still make every set of state standards and APUSH course outlines EVER. Amendments that were never passed, candidates who never won – they're usually footnotes within a few years. The Fourteen Points, on the other hand, remains strangely relevant… not to mention eternally popular on multiple choice exams and in mid-semester essay prompts.

The thing that actually was signed and approved and happened – the Treaty of Versailles – we hardly recognize without some prodding or guiding context. (To be fair, half the treaties in the universe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were called the “Treaty of Versailles.” It was a pretty important place and lots of big meetings were held there over the years.) You should know the basics of the thing that passed as well as the one that didn’t, along with why they mattered – then, later, and even today.


By the end of 1918, it was clear that the “War to End All Wars” was pretty much over and that the Central Powers (Germany and its cohorts) had lost. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who was hardly a role model for neo-Enlightenment values, had a rather ambitious remodel in mind for the world moving forward. Prior to the war, peace had been maintained (at least in theory) by an international “balance of power” and a complex series of treaties guaranteeing that the smallest conflict would almost immediately set off an apocalyptic chain-reaction ending all life on the planet. At the time, this was thought to be a pretty good system.

Turns out it wasn’t.

The Fourteen Points

Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” outlined his vision for a new world order, but not the scary kind right-wing vlogs and podcasts obsess over. He proposed a “League of Nations” (similar to what would later become the United Nations), free use of the oceans, unrestricted trade across the globe, dramatic arms reductions worldwide, and no more secret treaties or slumber parties where they didn’t invite the weird girl.  The key phrase to remember in association with all of this is “peace without victory” – a tad poetic, with just enough room for intentional misunderstanding to keep the conservatives all worked up (back when that wasn’t simply a given).  

Wilson presented his “Fourteen Points” to Congress in January of 1918 and… they were wholeheartedly unimpressed. This was especially unfortunate given that Germany kinda thought this was the deal they’d been promised in exchange for laying down their pointy helmets and ending the war in the first place. Oops.

The Treaty of Versailles

Instead, the Allies (the “good guys”) had their own plan – the Treaty of Versailles (pronounced “verse-EYE”). This is the one which was eventually approved by all parties (some under duress, but that happens when you lose a war) and it took a very old-school approach to discipline. Germany had been very, very naughty, and they deserved whatever humiliation and subjugation the rest of the world decided on. England and the U.S. tried to work a little “restorative justice” into the mix, but the rest of the Allies had skipped that workshop and weren’t buying it. Plus, they didn’t try all that hard.

The Treaty of Versailles took away territory, placed all sorts of future limitations on Germany, and – this was a biggie – required extensive, seemingly eternal “war reparations.” In other words, it demanded that a nation which had just bankrupted itself losing a world war pay for everyone else’s expenses as well, all well as wearing a perpetual series of hand-scrawled “shame signs” like those dogs on Tumblr and Facebook.

The next part you probably know. The humiliation and perceived degradation created resentment and swelling outrage in Germany, creating fertile ground for Hitler to come along and promise to make Germany great again. (It’s amazing what sorts of crazy talk and horrifying behavior people can overlook if they believe the demagogue of the moment can somehow project his magical “bad-ass” shield around them as well.) As any educator can tell you, once someone believes they can’t possibly satisfy a set of expectations, they tend to say “screw it” and stop trying, whether they’re openly defiant or not. In the 1930s, Germany became that kid.

Wilson did get his League of Nations, a consolation prize that would have been far more comforting if the U.S. had agreed to join. Instead, Congressional Republicans refused to even consider it unless a long list of amendments were added basically assuring that the U.S. didn’t actually have to follow any of the rules, because “FREEDOM!” They weren’t, and that was that.   

Why It Matters

Obviously, the whole “pretty much guaranteed World War II” issue is a biggie you can’t overlook, and often the number one thing teachers and state tests want you to remember about the end of WWI. Long-term, however, the Treaty of Versailles and its eventual consequences dramatically altered the way civilized nations view defeated enemies – or even nations or groups with the potential to become problems in the future.

If oppression and hopelessness fuel greater hostility and end up costing more lives and resources down the road, maybe it’s more practical to “nation build” or offer “foreign aid” before things reach that point. After World War II, the Allies didn’t double down on punishing Germany – they tried to rebuild it under close supervision. Sure, results were mixed, but less than a century later, we have Angela Merkel and really good beer instead of World War III – at least so far. Japan had barely admitted defeat before the U.S. swooped in with financial aid and a new constitution for them to embrace freely under no duress at all or else. Again, maybe not the perfect system, but way better than how things went after the previous war.

Foreign policy today is largely an effort to navigate this dichotomy. Ideally, the U.S. maintains enough strength to seem threatening, but simultaneously seeks trade relationships or offers financial aid (LOTS of it) and other forms of assistance. The hope is that this increases the odds of new allies and expanded markets down the road instead of more expensive, messy wars. At the very least, Uncle Sam hopes to muddy the waters enough that angry nations end up shooting at each other before they can agree on whether or not to go after us and risk losing all that support. It doesn’t always work, and motives aren’t always quite that pure, but it’s way closer to what Wilson’s Fourteen Points envisioned than what the Treaty of Versailles demanded.

How To Remember This

Every adult authority figure goes through this same basic decision-making dilemma multiple times each day. Should I discipline or redirect? Arrest her or recommend wraparound services? Fire him or train him better? Police forces around the country are being pressured to do more “de-escalation” workshops and use fewer chokeholds. School districts are exploring “restorative justice” in place of suspensions. And parents who spank their children have learned to use hardback copies of Love and Logic because they leave fewer bruises and look better lying around if company drops by unexpectedly.

So it was with Wilson’s Fourteen Points (the “kumbayah” approach) vs. the Treaty of Versailles (the “beat them down” method). It doesn’t mean one approach is always right or the other always wrong, but you’ll sound way smarter if you point out that the underlying dilemma is both ongoing and universal.

What You’re Likely To Be Asked

State standards tend to be pretty dry while mentioning both documents by name. The Texas TEKS, for example...

(4) History. The student understands the emergence of the United States as a world power between 1898 and 1920. The student is expected to... (F) analyze major issues raised by U.S. involvement in World War I, including isolationism, neutrality, Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and the Treaty of Versailles.

APUSH, as it is wont to do, presents the same basic expectation more loftily:

Despite Wilson’s deep involvement in postwar negotiations, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations (KC-7.3.II.C).

If you are in APUSH (or any other advanced class), however, keep in mind that both the Fourteen Points and the Treaty of Versailles are primary sources. Any document analysis method can be easily utilized if you have sufficient specifics.

How To Sound Like You Know More Than You Do

The modern foreign policy angle mentioned above has great potential, especially if you can throw in a few specific examples from the twenty-first century.  The Treaty and the Fourteen Points also make nice details in a “Change & Continuity” essay – how things changed as a result of WWI and how they stayed the same, or how the U.S. approach to foreign affairs evolved between the end of WWI and the end of WWII, or between then and today.

If you prefer a more biographical approach, contrast Wilson’s vision for global warm-fuzzies with his arguably racist ideology at home or his resistance to women’s suffrage. You’ll need additional specifics, but teachers love anything reeking of “historical figures are often complex individuals.” (Just ask Hamilton.)

Add new comment