On this day in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for "peace without victory" in World War I. It was a last forlorn hope to fulfill the campaign promise on which he had recently won a narrow re-election victory: "He kept us out of war." In less than three months from this speech, the U.S. was nonetheless at war.
Even discounting the benefit of hindsight, it would seem logical for such an appeal to have won a more receptive audience among the leaders of warring Europe. Why didn't it? This can never be known for certain, but almost certainly one factor was the common belief that only victory could redeem the rivers of blood that both sides had already shed. Great Britain believed that its naval blockade of Germany would force the Germans to sue for peace. France was planning yet another ill-fated offensive that would assuredly throw "Les Boches" out of France. Germany's armies were entrenched in seemingly impregnable positions on the Western Front, while Austria-Hungary was shielded from invasion from the south by the granite wall of the Julian Alps.
The Allied Powers would shortly have occasion to rue their dismissal of Wilson's initiative. The overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in Russia lay only five weeks in the future. It was this (perhaps more than anything else) that motivated the Germans to believe that unrestricted submarine warfare would tip the balance in their favor. That proved to be the fatal miscalculation that forced Wilson's hand.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that Wilson persisted in his hope that a peace without imposing vindictive terms on the losers might lay a foundation for a lasting international order. His actions have gained much criticism over the ensuing decades, much of it justified. Yet when we consider the long-run cost of a peace that was achieved without victory followed by a deeply flawed peacemaking process, his actions look much better in posterity's eyes than do those of many of the critics.