On January 8, 1918—a century ago today—President Woodrow Wilson mounted the rostrum of the U.S. House of Representatives, America’s inner sanctum of democracy, to deliver one of the most consequential speeches in history. The setting was somber; the audience, anxious; the speaker, stern. An ocean away, American soldiers were preparing to fight and die on Europe’s Western Front. Wilson had led the country into the Great War and mobilized its armed forces nine months before with a stirring speech to Congress pledging “to make the world safe for democracy” and secure “ultimate peace.” Now, as American troops finally descended into the trenches and awaited the enemy’s imminent onslaught, Wilson returned to this august chamber to renew his pledge and sanctify their certain sacrifice.

Fittingly, he would do so not with the soaring rhetoric of his earlier call to arms, but with a more subdued speech detailing his vision of a post-war peace. On this occasion, Wilson chose to play the professor, not the preacher. His speech in many ways was the scholarly product of The Inquiry, a secretive circle of experts convened by the president that would later become the Council on Foreign Relations. Drawing upon its recommendations, Wilson outlined in his address a fourteen-point program for settling territorial disputes and answering national aspirations from Alsace-Lorraine to Austria-Hungary, Belgium to Bulgaria. He framed it with policies of open diplomacy (point i), free trade (points ii and iii), disarmament (point iv), and national self-determination (point v). And, in his fourteenth and final point, he advocated for what one senator later called “the one great new idea of the 20th century in the field of international relations”—an international association for collective security, the League of Nations.

Despite its sobriety, what would become known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points address held deep emotive, even spiritual power. In a sense, it baptized U.S. foreign policy, infusing it with renewed moral clarity and revealing the nation’s ministry in a new world order. It recast a European war of realpolitik as a global clash of ideas, with the United States seizing the mantle of liberalism to resist both imperialism and communism. And it reconceived the very practice of international politics, not as a struggle for survival, but as an evangelistic enterprise, aiming to elevate the better angels of mankind’s nature. As Americans prepared to fight in the world war, their Commander in Chief reminded them of the world they were fighting for. Each of his fourteen points sought to achieve one noble ideal: “the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with another, whether strong or weak.”

In the months following the speech, the allies would survive the Central Powers’ spring offensive and, with the help of the American Expeditionary Force led by Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, turn the tide. By November 1918, the war was won, and the work of winning the peace had begun. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, endorsed by all parties, became the basis for peace negotiations held in Paris. To press his program at the conference, Wilson journeyed to Europe, the first sitting U.S. president to do so. In victorious allied capitals, he was greeted by adoring multitudes hailing “Wilson the Just” and “Savior of Humanity.” Even vanquished Germany welcomed the conquering president to the continent and sued for a “Wilson Peace.” Future president Herbert Hoover, on hand for the triumphant arrival, observed that “no such evangel of peace had appeared since Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount.” Less enthused, but no less mindful of the appeal and authority of the president’s message, French premier George Clemenceau grumbled, “The good Lord Himself required only ten points.”

President Wilson, 1919
President Wilson, 1919

Wilson had ended his Fourteen Points speech with a prophecy: “The moral climax of this, the culminating and final war for human liberty, has come.” Indeed, his inspired program for peace represented a moral climax, the height of hope for a bled-white Europe and a pinnacle of purpose for the United States. For many, Wilson appeared as a prince of peace, the leader of the self-described “redeemer nation” to broker a magnanimous and merciful settlement that would save a continent from itself. In this salvific mission, however, he failed utterly. Although the Paris peacemakers enacted the principles of self-determination and collective security called for by Wilson, the resultant Treaty of Versailles imposed a punitive peace contrasting with his vision of charity towards all and malice towards none. It left Germany’s proud people seething, its mighty economy reeling, and its fledgling democracy kneeling. The fragile nation-states that emerged, self-determined, from the wreckage of three empires were largely left defenseless against the radicalized great powers on their flanks. Wilson’s coveted League of Nations was rejected by the U.S. Senate, dealing the organization a mortal blow. Adding injury to insult, the president himself would suffer a debilitating stroke that effectively ended his political career. And, of course, the Great War would prove not to be the “culminating and final war.”

The reasons behind the spectacular ascent and catastrophic collapse of Wilson’s program for peace is of historical interest—and contemporary relevance. At the Paris negotiations, Wilson is said to have assured the American delegation skeptical of his idealistic designs by asserting he was “playing for a hundred years hence.” Having reached this time horizon, a critical examination of his worldview is called for, in part because our world today bears ominous resemblances to Wilson’s on the eve of World War I. Now, as then, autocracies such as Russia and China are increasingly energized and militarized; democracies, including our own, seem embattled and besieged, from within and without. Civil wars, particularly in the Middle East, have become powder kegs for Great Power confrontation, with terrorist organizations poised to light the fuse, not unlike proxy wars in the Balkans and the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke by terrorists that sparked the first global conflagration. The “guns of August” World War I historian Barbara Tuchman famously described find their parallel today in the ballistic missile technology and nuclear ambitions of rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. And just as industrialization enabled the new total war and large-scale slaughter that shocked military planners a hundred years ago, the rapid digitalization of economies and militaries today is unleashing unpredictable forces with apocalyptic potential. Should we ignore the history of Wilson’s time, we risk repeating it.

The sine qua non of Wilson’s vision was the League of Nations, which he deliberately unveiled as the culminating point of his speech to underscore its crowning importance. Ultimately, he staked his legacy upon it. He believed fervently in the ability of nations, preferably democracies, to settle differences peaceably and cooperate in the preservation of world order if they were organized equitably and held accountable morally. This faith in collective security sprang from Wilson’s intellectual and religious convictions. He was one of our nation’s most learned presidents, the first and only to earn a doctorate, and was also one of the most devout, the son of a prominent Presbyterian clergyman in the Confederate South. The influence of the academy’s allegiance to Enlightenment rationality and his church’s notion of the covenantal community is pronounced in his worldview, as manifested in his Fourteen Points and especially the League of Nations. As former senator and scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, “Wilson’s vision of a world order was a religious vision: of the natural goodness of man prevailing through the Holy Ghost of Reason.”

The hope that Wilson and much of the world vested in the League of Nations was practically religious. During the Paris Peace Conference, the president was forced to compromise on nearly every one of his Fourteen Points, bowing to geopolitical realities and accommodating Britain’s and France’s continued insistence on balance-of-power politics. But on his fourteenth point, he would not yield, and his success in embedding the Covenant of the League of Nations as the first article of the Versailles Treaty ultimately won him the Nobel Peace Prize. His steadfast advocacy for establishing an international association for collective security was based on Wilson’s belief in its ability to address, through what he called “common counsel,” unresolved irritants to peace and future ones as well. As he confided to his trusted aide, Colonel Edward House, “At least, House, we are saving the Covenant, and that instrument will work wonders, bring the blessings of peace, and then when the war psychosis has abated, it will not be difficult to settle all the disputes that baffle us now.”

Wilson’s choice of the term “covenant” to characterize the League’s charter was deliberate, saturated with religious meaning. As scholar Malcolm Magee describes in his searching analysis of the president’s political theology, “To Wilson, the word ‘covenant’ was the starting place for the integration of the sacred and secular.” His reformed Presbyterian faith preached this synthesis, upholding founder John Calvin’s vision of Christian statesmen leading communities patterned after the biblical covenants that codified God’s will for his chosen people. The concept developed further with the seventeenth-century Scottish Covenanters, who broke from the established church of the day and to whom Wilson traced his ancestry. As the president remarked during a barnstorming tour of the American West to campaign for U.S. entry in the League, “My ancestors were troublesome Scotchmen, and among them were some of the famous group that were known as the Covenanters. Very well, here is the Covenant of the League of Nations. I am a Covenanter!”

The League of Nations would form such a sacred pact and establish a “presbytery of nations,” headquartered, perhaps not coincidentally, in Calvin’s Geneva. It would instill in member nations moral accountability, compelling them to prevent war and promote humanity’s shared interest, and God’s Providence, in peace. This imperative was most apparent in Article 10, the crux of the Covenant that Wilson claimed “strikes the taproot of war.” This provision called for all nations to “respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” Article 10 implied, as Wilson’s nemesis Senator Henry Cabot Lodge argued, that the United States might be obligated to intervene militarily in conflicts against its self-interest and potentially counter to democratic values to preserve the political status quo. It might also be required to refrain from intervening to protect innocents or support freedom fighters. Had Article 10 been in force, “France could not have assisted this country to win the Revolution,” Lodge averred. Nor could the United States have “rescued Cuba from the clutches of Spain” in 1898.

Wilson maintained that the League would foster enlightened and disinterested peacekeeping by appealing to shared national interests in upholding international order and, in particular, democracies’ inherent pacific proclivities. He predicted that the federation would “operate as the organized moral force of men throughout the world, and that whenever wrong and aggression are planned or contemplated, this searching light of conscience will be turned upon them, and men everywhere will ask, ‘What are the purposes that you hold in your heart against the fortunes of the world?’” Furthermore, he conceded in a speech to Congress a month after his Fourteen Points address, “That unless [global problems] are dealt with in a spirit of unselfish and unbiased justice…no permanent peace will have been attained.”

It was Wilson’s optimism that humanity could overcome “war psychosis” and embrace a “spirit of unselfish and unbiased justice” that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pinpointed as the fatal flaw in the League of Nations’ covenant and the inflection point in the president’s tragic trajectory. The theologian sympathized with Wilson, “the president that most disappointed him”; his school of Christian realism furnishes a constructive critique of Wilson’s worldview, given its grasp of both the theoretical and theological influences upon them. Based on their “view [of] history from the standpoint of the moral and social imperatives which a rational analysis of a situation generates,” Niebuhr asserts that idealists such as Wilson “require a ‘federation of the world’” that “disregards the problem of power” and operates under “the illusion that ‘national sovereignty’ is merely the fruit of faulty conceptions of international law.”

In contrast, Niebuhr inverts the moral hierarchy to argue that nations, and furthermore, international associations such as the League of Nations, are inclined, even compelled, to act egotistically rather than altruistically. In his groundbreaking work Moral Man and Immoral Society, penned by Niebuhr during the interwar period as the League of Nations proved impotent in preventing the rise of fascism or preserving peace, he grapples with the paradox dooming schemes for collective security. “The moral obtuseness of human collectives makes a morality of pure disinterestedness impossible,” Niebuhr writes. This obtuseness reflects the dilemma characterizing any principle-agent relationship in which a representative is bound to faithfully serve the interests of his clients or constituents. Quoting conservative Hugh Cecil, Niebuhr continues: “Everything which falls under the heading of unselfishness is inappropriate to the action of a state. No one has a right to be unselfish with other people’s interest.” No human organization, however sanctified in covenantal terms, can sustain a “spirit of unselfish and unbiased justice,” in Wilson’s words, and uphold a “permanent peace.” In Niebuhr’s view collective security, relying on moral behavior of member states, is utopian.

A Christian realist critique of the Fourteen Points on the centennial of Wilson’s delivery of its maiden speech exposes its unfounded faith in the moral capacity of nations and the futility of collective security. However, it also affirms the moral merits of the liberal ideals they embody—ideals such as the defense of democracy, preference for international cooperation, support for political and economic freedom for all peoples, and a unique world leadership role for the United States. Despite the abject failure of the League of Nations, the worldview captured by President Wilson’s Fourteen Points has evolved and endured, embraced by successors of his from both parties—from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. It continues to capture the moral imagination of Americans a hundred years hence, to a depth and degree that even the most hardened realists concede. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed, it is “to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency and continues to march to this day.”

And it continues to sanctify to this day the selfless sacrifice of America’s servicemen and women deployed not merely to defend our nation but the principles our nation stands for as well. To stem mounting opposition within the U.S. Senate to the centerpiece of his Fourteen Points agenda, the League of Nations, Wilson made a desperate, direct appeal to the American people in a series of campaign-style speeches across the nation in the summer of 1919. His last stop on his tour was Pueblo, Colorado, where he delivered what proved to be his swan song just twenty months after his Fourteen Points address and on the eve of his life-limiting stroke. Wilson’s words on this occasion impart transcendent value to his vision:

Again and again, my fellow citizens, mothers who lost their sons in France have come to me and, taking my hand, have shed tears upon it not only, but they have added, “God bless you, Mr. President!” Why, my fellow citizens, should they pray God to bless me? Because they believe that their boys died for something that vastly transcends any of the immediate and palpable objects of the war. They believe, and they rightly believe, that their sons saved the liberty of the world. They believe that wrapped up with the liberty of the world is the continuous protection of that liberty by the concerted powers of all civilized people… These men were crusaders. They were not going forth to prove the might of the United States. They were going forth to prove the might of justice and right, and all the world accepted them as crusaders, and their transcendent achievement has made all the world believe in America as it believes in no other nation organized in the modern world.

Matt Gobush served at the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, and as chair of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on International Peace and Justice. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas.

Photo Credit: President Woodrow Wilson discusses his plan for peace before Congress on January 8, 1918, via Wikimedia Commons.