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Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points: From Shorthand Notes to a Nobel Prize

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Original shorthand draft, Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” address of January 8, 1918

At first glance, most students, and even many adults, might dismiss these shorthand notes as a page of  scribbles, but they sketch out a plan for international peace. The United States officially entered “The Great War” – World War I – on April 6, 1917, and a few months later, on January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson presented his “Fourteen Points” plan in an address to Congress, casting a vision of international peace to include freedom of the seas, arms limitations, and a new association of nations to guarantee political independence and territorial integrity. As he did with many of his speeches, Wilson drafted it in shorthand, but read from a typescript copy.

Students might compare the typescript  reading copy and the original shorthand draft. Why might Wilson have drafted in shorthand? Why might he have preferred to read from a typed copy?

The general public at the time might have encountered the details of Wilson’s plan in a newspaper, such as this compilation from the New York Times Mid-Week Pictorials. Allow students time to read “The ‘Fourteen Points'” and discuss them as needed. Then encourage students to examine other articles on the page or preceding pages. What information catches their attention? How does that information shape their response to Wilson’s proposed plan? As a class, generate a list of questions prompted by seeing the proposal in the context of other events of the time. Support students in researching to find answers as time allows.

Students might wonder how effective the proposed plan was. Present them with these cartoons and challenge them to discern a perspective or response in each.

At last! July 10, 1919

The lamb from the slaughter, Sep 5, 1919

There remains, then, only the fifteenth point, 1919?

Deepen students’ engagement with the question of how the proposed peace plan was received by offering newspaper articles, such as “Wilson has open mind on his 14 peace points.” Again, ask what additional ideas or questions are sparked by seeing the article in context. (The advertisement occupying the bulk of the page offers interesting commentary on the war, for example.)

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward peace through the League of Nations, which incorporated many of the fourteen points. Though the United States did not join the League of Nations, and a second world war might be offered as evidence that the League was not effective, the Peace Prize recognized Wilson’s vision for world peace. Students might read further to better understand why the Wilson’s vision was not realized.

Let us know in the comments what your students discover from these and other primary sources.



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