Wilsonian Dreams: Race, Self-Determination, and the US Liberal Internationalism of 1919

Dr. Jason Colby

In January 1919, US President Woodrow Wilson arrived at Versailles with a vision of remaking the international system. Based on his famous “14 points” speech of the previous year, it hinged upon the concept of self-determination for distinct peoples and a proposed “League of Nations” to resolve disputes between nation-states. Yet US political culture constrained this liberal internationalist vision from the start. Rooted in domestic US racial assumptions, Wilson’s understanding of self-determination extended only to Europeans even as colonized peoples around the world espouse his ideas in their pursuit of freedom. At the same time, domestic opposition prevented the United States from joining the League of Nations, leaving it outside the organization as Fascism and Nazism stalked Europe in the following decades.