Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Another Point of View on Woodrow Wilson

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. 



  1. Interesting photo. Wonder who the other men in the picture are? I assume Edward House is on the left.

  2. Whatever the merits or flaws of Wilson's espousal of self-determination, the program evolved during the War as part of the battle within the British and French left over whether or not to support the war effort. Already in late 1914, G. Lowes Dickinson and other liberals tried to rally support for the War among those who feared that it was simply a struggle amongst empires by arguing the Allies fought for the rights of small nations. By 1916, Ramsay Muir could write, "The Great War appears as the last struggle of the forces hostile to democratic self-government." While czarist Russia was one of the Allies, and the Allies schemed how to take over the Mideast, this was very contested claim, to say the least. With the czarist government gone and the British and French nearing exhaustion, Wilson was able to shift the debate on war aims in a direction that had only been advocated by a minority of western European liberals earlier in the War. Once the War was over, British and French leaders reverted back towards great power politics, although the new eastern European nations, the League mandates, plebiscites, minority guarantees, and impact of Wilsonianism on Asia and Africa show that self-determination had a major impact.

  3. The thirteenth Point, emphasizing the need for a reconstructed Poland, with access to the sea, had been strongly influenced by the Central Power's plans to carve a puppet Poland out of conquered Russian Poland.

  4. The "Roads" issue of Thursday, October 13, identified the uniformed officer on the right as General Tasker Bliss.

  5. There is a copy of this photograph, signed by each person, in the Yale News for 25 August 2014 at .

    In addition to House, Wilson, and Bliss, the gentleman second on the left is Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and second from the right is long-time diplomat Henry White.

    Thanks for the article, Len.

    1. Sorry, I didn't realize it but I failed to indicate that Len Shurtleff had passed away a Few Years Ago. The entry has been modified accordingly. MH