[January 22, 2019] Leadership often means breaking new ground, going places no one has gone before, and dealing with complex and difficult problems that would overwhelm most people. In 1914 a great war began that was to ravage much of Europe and test the values of the United States. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson concluded that it was in the best interests of his nation that he would stay neutral and be a peace broker; he called it peace without victory.
“Victory would mean peace forced upon a loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished.”
Standing before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, on January 22, 1917, President Wilson laid out a vision for a just and peaceful world; a future that included free seas and an agreement to avoid a military arms race. Europe, on the other hand, was going in a different direction. The 19th Century had brought with it great national economies, nationalism, and the glimpse of vast political power.
European imperialism had been a source of the greatest boost in the standards of living ever in the history of humankind. Several nations in Europe were early in this adventure (e.g., England and France) while others lagged behind (e.g., Germany and Italy). With the growth of the advantages of imperialism (to the conquering nations) and the subsequent growing of military power, there was to be an inevitable clash.
Citizens of the U.S. were able to read about the savagery of World War I in newspapers that give riveting accounts of the war and its unimaginable destruction. They were appalled. Given the imperialism of European nations, President Wilson believed the end of this war would mean terrible things for the loser and seeds for another.
“It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.”
President Wilson firmly believed no peace could last if it favored a victor. But he also believed that a peace without victory was indispensable for driving home the lesson to all of the “uselessness of the utter sacrifices made.” However, Wilson’s idealist leadership and the crusading anti-war parties in the U.S. couldn’t prevent the U.S. form being sucked into the conflict.1