What Did President Wilson Mean When He Called for “Peace Without Victory” 100 Years Ago?

The iconic speech revealed the possibilities and the inherent problems with Wilsonian idealism

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson Harris & Ewing

On January 22, 1917, Woodrow Wilson stood before a joint session of Congress and an audience that included his wife, Edith, and one of his daughters, and told the politicians that America must maintain its neutrality in the Great War ravaging Europe at the time. He laid out a vision for a just and peaceful world, a future that included free seas, an international agreement to avoid arms races, a United States that served as a peace broker, and most important of all--peace without victory.

“Victory would mean peace forced upon a loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished,” Wilson said. “It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which term of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.”

It was perhaps the most memorable speech of Wilson’s presidency. Those present in the room seemed to feel the gravity of it; but reactions varied depending on each senator’s stance on the war. Even Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, one of the most vocal isolationists in the legislature, remarked, “We have just passed through a very important hour in the history of the world.” Then there was Senator Francis Warren of Wyoming, whose reaction was one of incredulous dismay: “The President thinks he is president of the world.” And finally, Senator Lawrence Sherman, also a vehement isolationist, who dismissed the speech as outright folly: “It will make Don Quixote wish he hadn’t died so soon.”

The “peace without victory” speech was the culmination of years of desperate diplomacy on Wilson’s part. He had witnessed the Civil War firsthand as a boy, which contributed to his desire to avoid sending men to the meat-grinder trenches in Europe. Despite the German attack on the British liner Lusitania in 1915, when 128 Americans died, Wilson declined to declare war in the immediate aftermath. He did, however, demand that Germany curtail submarine warfare and allowed American banks to make loans to Britain and U.S. munitions were being shipped to Britain and its allies, all acts that betrayed his personal lack of neutrality over the war.

But anti-war rallies from groups as disparate as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (who argued against children using war toys) and the United Mine Workers (who produced most the coal that powered factories and urban homes) added to Wilson’s ambivalence over sending American troops abroad.

“It wasn’t that they wanted the Germans to win, but they didn’t think this cataclysm was one that American intervention would remedy,” says Michael Kazin, the author of War Against War: The American Fight for Peace 1914-1918.

On December 18, Wilson sent letters to foreign embassies to ask for their respective terms of peace, and he thought those terms could be negotiated.   

“I think on the one hand, Wilson didn’t want the Germans to win, he was an Anglophile,” Kazin says. “On the other hand, the U.S. had never fought a war in Europe before and it was clear that either side could actually win. He kept wanting to step in and be a mediator, but it wasn’t clear he had the ability to do that.”

Whatever his personal feelings were, Wilson firmly believed no peace could last if it favored a victor, writes scholar Robert W. Tucker. “But he also believed, and perhaps even more deeply so, that a peace without victory was indispensable for driving home the lesson to all the belligerents of the ‘uselessness of the utter sacrifices made.’”

In other words, the deaths of all the soldiers and civilians in Europe needed to be only that: deaths. Not heroic sacrifices, not martyrs for a cause, but gruesome, unnecessary deaths. It was an incredibly idealistic vision--and also one largely detached from the reality of how the suffering on the Western front was reshaping European psyches.

Just a month before Wilson’s speech, the Battle of Verdun concluded. The 10-month battle resulted in 800,000 casualties and only strengthened each side’s resolve. The Battle of the Somme had also recently ended, and British casualties on the first day were over 57,000. One French soldier who kept a journal during the fighting described life in the trenches as hellish landscapes of mud and blood. “Where the connecting trench joined in, an unfortunate fellow was stretched out, decapitated by a shell, as if he had been guillotined. Beside him, another was frightfully mutilated…” Corporal Louis Barthas wrote. “I saw, as if hallucinating, a pile of corpses… they had started to bury right in the trench.” The toll of the war was so high, it seemed inconceivable for the European powers to accept peace without a clear victor.

In the end, Wilson’s idealism and the crusading anti-war parties in the U.S. couldn’t save the country from getting sucked into the conflict. On January 30, just one week after Wilson’s speech, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare, meaning U.S. merchant and passenger ships would once again be targeted by German U-boats. Wilson responded by severing diplomatic relations with Germany, but still hesitated to ask Congress to declare war. But by the end of March, after Germany had sunk several American merchant ships, Wilson had no choice but to ask Congress to approve a declaration of war against the German Empire.

“It was the genius of Woodrow Wilson which recognized that a lasting peace must be ‘a peace without victory,’” wrote historian John Coogan. “It was the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson that his own unneutrality would be a major factor in bringing about the decisive Allied victory that made a healing peace impossible.”

Kazin says that Wilsonian idealism remained throughout the 1920s and 30s, even though the man himself died in 1924, with attempts at preventing future wars evident in negotiations like the Kellogg-Briand Pact (a 1928 agreement between countries in Europe not to resort to war as a means of solving international issues). But despite the creation of the United Nations, an extension of Wilson’s original idea for the League of Nations, Kazin believes some of that idealism dried up in the years following the Second World War, with the morass of Vietnam and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I think Americans [today] don’t have the same idealism about our military being an instrument of freedom and democracy,” Kazin says, specifically citing the lack of direct action in the Syrian civil war. “I think Americans are not Wilsonians by and large. They don’t want the U.S. to go saving people, even without force of arms.” 

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