Earlier this year we published a highly critical article on the influence of Woodrow Wilson. I remember that one of our readers took exception to another article critical of "Wilsonianism" that I had recommended in our newsletter the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire. His argument is more limited, but makes an a point that I think ought to be considered. These comments are from the late Len Shurtleff, one of the founding members of the Western Front Association and its American Branch, as well as one-time president of the World War One Historical Association. Len was a professional foreign service officer, serving as U.S. Ambassador to Congo-Brazzaville from 1987–1990.
|President Wilson and the U.S. Peace Commission, 1919|
I believe it is wrong to blame Wilson alone for the rise of self-determination as a rallying cry for nationalists.
The seeds of rampant nationalism existed in the multi-ethnic Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires even before the war. Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Montenegro were hived off from the Ottomans in the 19th century. France, Italy, and England conspired for tactical and imperial reasons in 1915 and 1916 to promise bits of both empires to each other and to would-be independent rulers like Emir Faisal and King Peter of Serbia even before the war was over. The postwar peace treaties largely ratified these secret agreements, despite Wilson's active opposition to many of them during the Paris peace negotiations among the Allies .
All these actions predated Wilson's Fourteen Points speech of January 1918. Indeed, London and Paris were horrified by the breadth and scope of the Fourteen Points. In one sense, Wilson was only recognizing a fact of political life in Europe and the Near East — the thirst for self-government.