In addition to the momentous events that finished the First World War, the year 1918 brought one of the most remarkable periods of diplomacy and international politics in American history, as President Woodrow Wilson sought to reshape the world based on the national ideals of democracy and self-determination. The effort reflected Wilson’s belief in American exceptionalism, meaning a special character derived from the United States’ democratic traditions, which gave the American people a historic mission to spread liberty, justice, and the rule of law to the rest of the world.
This sweeping attempt to remake the world based on political and philosophical ideals, though ultimately unsuccessful, wasn’t quite as impractical as it might seem. As Europe destroyed itself in a paroxysm of violence, the United States of America—already the world’s largest economy before the war even began—gathered unprecedented power over the affairs of other nations. U.S. lending to the Allies rose from $2.25 billion in 1917 to $7 billion by the end of 1918, giving Wilson the “whip hand” in negotiations with his European colleagues (in fact, a large portion of these loans were spent on American war supplies, spurring America’s wartime economic boom). France and Britain also imported huge amounts of American grain, meat, butter, and other foodstuffs to ward off starvation, and coal and oil for heat in the winter.
Meanwhile British and French investors were forced by their governments to sell off foreign assets to raise dollars for war purchases, and American investors swooped in to buy up undervalued assets, giving the U.S. even more financial leverage globally: as the total stock of British foreign direct investment around the world fell from £4.26 billion in 1914 to £3.1 billion in 1918, and French FDI fell from 45 billion to 30 billion francs over the same period, American FDI soared from $3.5 billion to $13.7 billion.
Most important was America’s critical contribution in manpower and war production, which finally broke the stasis on the Western Front in the summer of 1918. By the end of the war there were 2 million American soldiers in Europe plus almost 2 million more back home ready for deployment. In the desperate days of June 1918, General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing joined the Allied prime ministers in requesting that the American Expeditionary Force be expanded to 100 divisions, with 80 to be in France by April 1919; the U.S. Army had grown to 62 divisions by the time the war ended in November 1918, including 43 in France.
In this context it was widely hoped that Wilson would use America’s newfound power to dictate a just peace in Europe, and the idealistic president felt summoned to this sacred duty, even if it meant conflict with Britain and France. (Wilson insisted that America was an “Associated,” not “Allied,” power, to highlight America’s freedom from any obligation to respect the Allies’ postwar plans for Europe and the world.)
On January 8, 1918 Wilson outlined a new world order in the “Fourteen Points,” calling for the immediate evacuation of Belgium, Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro by the Central Powers; the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, liberating their oppressed nationalities; the creation of Poland; the return of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany to France; open diplomacy and an end to secret treaties; free trade; arms control agreements; and the formation of an international organization to enforce the rules, later called the League of Nations.
With these specific issues addressed, Wilson moved on to broad ideals in a speech to Congress on February 11, 1918, setting forth some steering ideals for his postwar vision in the “Four Principles.” First, all territorial adjustments to the map of Europe should be made solely “to bring a peace that will be permanent.” Second, the peacemakers had to respect the rights of small nations and regions: “Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty.” Third, the interests of local populations trumped those of the Great Powers: “Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival states.” Fourth, all smaller groups aspiring to nationhood should receive sanction, as long as their goals don’t stir “discord and antagonism” in conflict with other groups.
The Four Principles were broad enough to permit a range of interpretations. Once again officials on both sides of the European conflict were afraid to openly differ from Wilson’s vision, yet accused their enemies of paying Wilson lip service. In a speech on February 25, 1918, the German chancellor, Georg von Hertling, claimed to agree with Wilson’s proposals in the Fourteen Points and Four Principles, but added that Germany had to have security guarantees from Belgium before evacuating the country and also accused the Entente Powers of violating Wilson’s rules. In response British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour blasted German hypocrisy and reiterated the Allied demand that Germany evacuate Belgium before peace negotiations could begin, pointing out that this injustice was the cause of the whole war.
Both sides could agree to the Four Principles in part because they were so vague, but also because they hoped to use them for their own ends. For example, in Eastern Europe the Germans still calculated that supporting the cause of national self-determination would allow them to dominate newly independent states in the Baltic, Poland, and Ukraine, eventually forming a regional trade bloc under German leadership. For their part Britain and France were happy to cancel promises of territory around the Adriatic Sea to Italy on the grounds of self-determination for local Slavic populations. They also clearly intended to disregard Wilson’s ideals, for example with their division of the Ottoman Empire’s old territories in the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Finally, Wilson’s guidelines simply couldn’t reconcile conflicting claims between a jumble of old and new nations in Eastern Europe: On the heels of the First World War the region saw a new round of violence with wars between combinations of Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic.
As the president put forth his vision for a new world order, at home Americans faced growing wartime shortages as well rising prices due to inflation. In one coldly symbolic development, on February 12, 1918 the theaters of Broadway were temporarily closed to conserve coal for the war effort. Most of the theaters remained closed through cold winter months, shutting down the vital heart of New York City around Times Square, although they reopened in the spring.
The heating fuel shortage was real enough, compounding hunger among the urban poor. In January 1918 Philadelphia had suffered a “coal famine,” prompting one widow to tell the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We’re almost starving, my babies and me. It’s all right to almost starve. We’re pretty near used to that, but we can’t freeze. I could, but my babies can’t.”
Across the U.S. and Europe, shortages and rising prices triggered a wave of industrial unrest in the latter years of the war, as complaints about low wages and high prices flowed together with demands for political reform. In Britain the number of strikes per year rose from 532 incidents involving 276,000 workers in 1916, to 1165 incidents involving 1.1 million strikers in 1918. In Germany the number of strikes rose from 137 in 1915 to 772 in 1918, as the number of workers involved soared from 11,639 to 1.3 million. Amid growing privation and suffering on the home front, the sinews of the war economy were beginning to snap.