World War I: President Woodrow Wilson calls for “peace without victory” in Europe

By the middle years of the Great War, the warring powers settled into a kind of stalemate. Despite their best efforts, and the expenditure of thousands of men and tons of material, neither side could advance much beyond their held territories. The standoff would have been a natural point for the start of negotiations, except the war took on a momentum of its own — the Great Powers had simply come too far to turn back on their stated goals for entering the war in the first place. Recognizing this dilemma was American President Woodrow Wilson, who used the United States’ clout to call on European leaders to agree to a “peace without victory.”

On this day, January 22, 1917, Wilson addressed the Senate in a version of the speech he gave to the Europeans a month before, arguing for “peace without victory.” That “victory” cited by Wilson was one of the main reasons for the continuation of the war: “Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice.”

Wilson’s plea fell on deaf ears in Europe, and Germany escalated their submarine warfare, sinking any ship flying enemy colors. One of those ships was the British luxury ocean liner RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sunk nearly 2,000 people, including 198 Americans on board. The loss of American lives outraged the nation, and Wilson went back to congress just three short months after the “peace without victory” address to ask for war with Germany.