“We entered this war because violations of right had occurred which touched us to the quick,” observed President Wilson, harking back to his decision, in February 1917, to sever diplomatic relations with Germany over the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the declaration of war he had secured from Congress two months later. Now, on the afternoon of January 8, 1918, again addressing a joint session of Congress, he proceeded to unveil his Fourteen Points, a statement of American war aims and ideals that henceforth shaped the discourse about what peace might look like. Discounting the specific provisions for the Dardanelles and Bosporus to be “permanently opened,” and for postwar Serbia and Poland each to have “free and secure access” to a port, only Wilson’s second point, advocating “absolute freedom of navigation…alike in peace and in war” made any reference to the sea or the war’s issues related to it. That same point, ironically, would be the only one that the Allied Supreme War Council never endorsed, because Britain viewed it not just as a condemnation of unrestricted submarine warfare, but of blockades such as the one it had imposed on Germany, which, ultimately, was so important to the Allied victory.
Historians continue to debate the president’s motives in promulgating such a list of aims, and especially his decision to do so without consulting the other Allied leaders. As a message to the Allied nations, the speech sought to assuage critics on the Left by recasting the war as a just cause being fought, at least in part, over universal principles. At the same time, it presented the Central Powers with the framework for a reasonable peace. The Bolshevik Revolution, exactly two months earlier, provided the backdrop for the speech, as Wilson’s preamble made reference to the German–Soviet negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, and his sixth point, reaffirming Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity, reflected his hope that Lenin’s government might yet keep Russia faithful to the Allies. On that account the speech failed, but as a peace overture to the enemy – whose war-weary peoples, including soldiers and sailors, thereafter came to view the Allied leaders as more reasonable than their own – it succeeded brilliantly.