Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at Belle Mehus Auditorium in Bismarck, North Dakota

September 10, 1919

Gov. Frazier, my fellow countrymen, I esteem it a great privilege to stand in your presence and to continue the discussion that I have been attempting in other parts of the country of the great matter which is pending for our determination. I say that it is pending for our determination, because, after all, it is a question for the thoughtful men and women of the United States. I believe that the gentlemen at Washington are trying to assess the opinion of the United States and are trying to embody and express it.

It seems very strange from day to day as I go about that I should be discussing the question of peace. It seems very strange that after six months of conference in Paris, where the minds of more than 20 nations were brought together and where, after the most profound consideration of every question and every angle of every question concerned, an extraordinary agreement should have been reached—that while every other country concerned has stopped debating the peace, America is debating it. It seems very strange to me, my fellow countrymen, because, as a matter of fact, we are debating the question of peace or war. There is only one way to have peace, and that is to have it by the concurrence of the minds of the world. America can not bring about peace by herself. No other nation can bring about peace by itself. The agreement of a small group of nations can not bring about peace. The world is not at peace. It is not, except in certain disturbed quarters, actually using military means of war, but the mind of the world is not at peace. The mind of the world is waiting for the verdict, and the verdict they are waiting for is this, Shall we have in the future the same dangers, the same suspicions, the same distractions, and shall we expect that out of those dangers and distractions armed conflict will arise? Or shall we expect that the world will be willing to sit down at the council table to talk the thing over; to delay all use of force until the world has had time to express its judgment upon the matter at issue? If that is not to be the solution, if the world is not to substitute discussion and arbitration for war, then the world is not now in a state of mind to have peace, even for the time being. While victory has been won, my fellow countrymen, if has been won only over the force of a particular group of nations. It has not been won over the passions of those nations, or over the passions of the nations that were set against them. This treaty which I brought back with me is a great world settlement, and it tries to deal with some of the elements of passion which were likely at any time to blaze out in the world and which did blaze out and set the world on fire.

The trouble was at the heart of Europe. At the heart of Europe there were suffering peoples, inarticulate but with hearts on fire against the iniquities practiced against them; held in the grip of military power and submitting to nothing but force; their spirits insurgent; and so long as that continued, there could not be the expectation of continued peace. This great settlement at Paris for the first time in the world considered the cry of the peoples and did not listen to the plea of governments. It did not listen to dynastic claims. It did not read over the whole story of rival territorial ambitions. It said, "The day is closed for that. These lands belong to the stocks, the ancient stocks of people that live upon them, and we are going to give them to those people and say to them, 'The land always should have been yours; it is now yours, and you can govern it as you please.'" That is the principle that is at the heart of this treaty, but if that principle can not be maintained then there will ensue upon it the passion that dwelt in the hearts of those peoples, a despair which will bring about universal chaos. Men in despair do not construct governments. Men in despair destroy governments. Men whose whole affairs are so upset, whose whole systems of transportation are so disordered that they can not get food, that they can not get clothes, that they can not turn to any authority that can give them anything, run amuck. They do not stop to ask questions. I heard a very thoughtful pastor once preach a sermon which interested me very deeply, on the sequence of the petitions in the Lord's Prayer. He called attention to the fact that the first petition was, "Give us this day our daily bread," and he pointed out that our Saviour probably knew better than anybody else that a man can not serve God or his fellow men on an empty stomach, that he has got to be physically sustained. When a man has got an empty stomach, most of all when those he loves are starving, he is not going to serve any government; he is going to serve himself by the quickest way he can find.

You say, "What has this got to do with the adoption by the United States Senate of the treaty of peace?" It has this to do with it, my fellow citizens, that the whole world is waiting upon us, and if we stay out of it, if we qualify our assent in any essential way, the world will say, "Then there can be no peace, for that great Nation in the west is the only makeweight which will hold these scales steady." I hear counsels of selfishness uttered. I hear men say, "Very well, let us stay out and take care of ourselves and let the rest of the world take care of itself." I do not agree with that from the point of view of sentiment. I would be ashamed to agree with it from the point of view of sentiment, and I think I have intelligence enough to know that it would not work, even if I wanted it to work. Are we disconnected from the rest of the world? Take a single item. If Europe if disordered, who is going to buy wheat? There is more wheat in this country than we can consume. There is more foodstuffs in this country of many sorts than we can consume. There is no foreign market that anybody can count on wherein there is settled peace. Men are not going to buy until they know what is going to happen to-morrow, for the very good reason that they can not get any money; they can not earn any money amidst a disordered organization of industry and the absence of those processes of credit which keep business going.

We have managed in the process of civilization, my fellow citizens, to make a world that can not be taken to pieces. The pieces are dovetailed and intimately fitted with one another, and unless you assemble them as you do the intimate parts of a great machine, civilization will not work. I believe that, with the exception of the United States, there is not a country in the world that can live without importation. There are only one or two countries that can live without imported foodstuffs. There are no countries that I know of that can live in their ordinary way without importing manufactured goods or raw materials, raw materials of many kinds. Take that great kingdom, for example, for which I have the most intimate sympathy, the great Kingdom of Italy. There are no raw materials worth mentioning in Italy. There are great factories there, but they have to get all the raw materials that they manufacture from outside Italy. There is no coal in Italy, no fuel. They have to get all their coal from outside of Italy, and at the present moment because the world is holding its breath and waiting the great coal fields of Central Europe are not being worked except to about 40 per cent of their capacity. The coal in Silesia, the coal in Bohemia, is not being shipped out, and industries are checked and chilled and drawn in, and starvation comes nearer, unemployment becomes more and more universal. At this moment there is nothing brought to my attention more often at Washington than the necessity for shipping out our fuel and our raw materials to start the world again. If we do not start the world again, then we check and stop to that extent our own industries and our exportations, of course. You can not disentangle the United States from the rest of the world. If the rest of the world goes bankrupt, the business of the United States is in a way to be ruined. I do not like to put the thing upon this basis, my fellow citizens, because this is not the American basis. America was not founded to make money; it was founded to lead the world on the way to liberty, and now, while we debate, all the rest of the world is saying, "Why does America hesitate? We want to follow her. We shall not know which way to go unless she leads. We want the direction of her business genius. We want the suggestions of her principles, and she hesitates. She does not know whether she wants to go or not." Oh, yes, she does, my fellow citizens. Men among us do not know whether we want to go in or not, but we know. There is no more danger of America staying out of this great thing than there is of her reversing all the other processes of her history and forgetting all the principles that she has spilt so much precious blood to maintain. But, in the meantime, the delay is injuring the whole world and ourselves, of course, along with the rest, because we are a very big and, in my opinion, an extremely important part of the world.

I have told many times, but I must tell you again, of the experience that I had in Paris. Almost every day of the week that I was not imperatively engaged otherwise I was receiving delegations. Delegations from where? Not merely groups of men from France and other near-by regions, but groups of men from all over the world—as I have several times admitted, from some parts of the world that I never heard the names of before. I do not think they were in geography when I was at school. If they were, I had forgotten them. Did you ever hear of Adjur-Badjan, for example? A very dignified group of fine-looking men came in from Adjur-Badjan. I did not dare ask them where it was, but I looked it up secretly afterwards and found that it was a very prosperous valley region lying south of the Caucasus and that it had a great and ancient civilization. I knew from what these men said to me that they knew what they were talking about, though I did not know anything about their affairs. They knew, above all things else, what America stood for, and they had come to me, figuratively speaking, with outstretched hands and said, "We want the guidance and the help and the advice of America." And they all said that, until my heart grew fearful, and I said to one group of them, "I beg that you will not expect the impossible. America can not do the things that you are asking her to do. We will do the best we can. We will stand as your friends. We will give you every sort of aid that we can give you, but please do not expect the impossible." They believe that America can work miracles merely by being America and asserting the principles of America throughout the globe, and that kind of assertion, my fellow citizens, is the process of peace; and that is the only possible process of peace.

When I say, therefore, that I have come here this morning actually to discuss the question with you whether we shall have peace or war, you may say, "There is no war; the war is over." The fighting is over, but there is not peace, and there can not be peace without the assistance of America. The assistance of America comes just at the center of the whole thing that was planned in Paris. You have heard some men talk about separating the covenant of the league of nations from the treaty. I intended to bring a copy of the treaty with me; it is a volume as thick as that, and the very first thing in it is the league of nations covenant. By common consent that was put first, because by common consent that is the only thing that will make the rest of the volume work. That was not the opinion at the beginning of the conference. There were a great many cynics on that side of the water who smiled indulgently when you spoke hopefully of drawing the nations together in a common consent of action, but before we got through there was not a man who had not as a hard, practical judgment, come to the conclusion that we could not do without it, that you could not make a world settlement without setting up an organization that would see that it was carried out, and that you could not compose the mind of the world unless that settlement included an arrangement by which discussion should be substituted for war.

If the war that we have just had had been preceded by discussion, it never would have happened. Every foreign office in Europe urged through its minister at Berlin that no action should be taken until there should be an international conference and the other governments should learn what if any processes of mediation they might interpose. And Germany did not dare delay it for 24 hours. If she had, she never could have begun it. You dare not lay a bad case before mankind. You dare not kill the young men of the world for a dishonest purpose. We have let thousands of our lads go to their death in order to convince, not Germany merely, but any other nation that may have in the back of its thought a similar enterprise, that the world does not mean to permit any inequity of that sort, and if it had been displayed as an iniquity in open conference for not less than nine months, as the covenant of the league of nations provides, it never could have happened.

Your attention is called to certain features of this league—the only features to which your attention ever is called by those who are opposed to it and you are left with the impression that it is an arrangement by which war is just on the hair trigger. You are constantly told about article 10. Now, article 10 has no operative force in it unless we vote that it shall operate. I will tell you what article 10 is; I think I can repeat it almost verbatim. Under article 10 every member of the league undertakes to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and the existing political independence of the other members of the league. So far so good. The second sentence provides that in case of necessity the council of the league shall advise what steps are necessary to carry out the obligations of that promise; that is to say, what force is necessary if any. The council can not give that advice without a unanimous vote. It can not give the advice, therefore, without the affirmative vote of the United States, unless the United States is a party to the controversy in question. Let us see what that means. Do you think the United States is likely to seize somebody else's territory? Do you think the United States is likely to disregard the first sentence of the article? And if she is not likely to begin an aggression of that sort, who is likely to begin it against her? Is Mexico going to invade us and appropriate Texas? Is Canada going to come down with her nine or ten millions and overwhelm the hundred millions of the United States? Who is going to grab territory, and, above all things else, who is going to entertain the idea if the rest of the world has said, "No; we are all pledged to see that you do not do that." But suppose that somebody does attempt to grab our territory or that we do attempt to grab somebody else's territory. Then the war is ours anyhow. Then what difference does it make what advice the council gives? Unless it is our war we can not be dragged into a war without our own consent. If that is not an open and shut security, I do not know of any. Yet that is article 10.

I do not recognize this covenant when I hear some other men talk about it. I spent hours and hours in the presence of the representatives of 13 other Governments examining every sentence of it, up and down and crosswise, and trying to keep out of it anything that interfered with the essential sovereignty of any member of the league. I carried over with me in March all the suggestions made by the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, and they were all accepted, and yet I come back and find that I do not understand what the document means. I am told that plain sentences which I thought were unmistakable English terms mean something that I never heard of and that nobody else ever intended as a purpose. But whatever you may think of article 10, my fellow citizens, it is the heart of the treaty. You have either got to take it or you have got to throw the world back into that old conquest over land titles, which would upset the State of North Dakota or any other part of the world. Suppose there were no guaranty of any land title in North Dakota! I can fancy how every farmer and every man with a city lot would go armed. He would hire somebody, if he was too sleepy to sit up all night, to see that nobody trespassed and took squatter possession of his unsecured land. We have been trying to do something analogous to that with the territories of Europe; to fix the land titles, and then having fixed them, we have got to have article 10. Under article 10 these titles are established, and we all join to guarantee their maintenance. There is no other way to quiet the world, and if the world is not quieted, then America is sooner or later involved in the melee. We boast, my fellow citizens—but we sometimes forget— what a powerful Nation the United States is. Do you suppose we can ask the other nations of the world to forget that we are out of the arrangement? Do you suppose that we can stay out of the arrangement without being suspected and intrigued against and hated by all the rest of them. And do you think that is an advantageous basis for international transactions? Any way you take this question you are led straight around to this alternative, either this treaty with this covenant or a disturbed world and certain war. There is no escape from it.

America recalls, I am sure, all the assurances that she has given to the world in the years past. Some of the very men who are now opposing this covenant were the most eloquent advocates of an international concert which would be carried to a point where the exercise of independent sovereignty would be almost estopped. They put it into measures of Congress. For example, in one, I believe the last, Navy appropriation bill, by unanimous vote of the committee, they put in the provision that after the building program had been authorized by Congress the President could cancel it if in the meantime he had been able to induce the other Governments of the world to set up an international tribunal which would settle international difficulties. They actually had the matter so definitely in mind that they authorized the President not to carry out an act of Congress with regard to the building of great ships if he could get an arrangement similar to the arrangement which I have now laid before them, because their instinctive judgment is, my instinctive judgment and yours is, that we have no choice, if we want to stop war, but to take the steps that are necessary to stop war.

If we do not enter into this covenant, what is our situation? Our situation is exactly the situation of Germany herself, except that we are not disarmed and Germany is disarmed. We have joined with the rest of the world to defeat the objects that Germany had in mind. We now do not even sign the treaty, let us suppose, that disarms Germany. She is disarmed, nevertheless, because the other nations will enter into the treaty, and there, planted in her heart, planted in the heart of those 60,000,000 people, is this sense of isolation; it may be this sense that some day, by gathering force and change of circumstances, they may have another chance, and the only other nation that they can look to is the United States. The United States has repudiated the guaranty. The United States has said, "Yes; we sent 2,000,000 men over there to accomplish this, but we do not like it now that we have accomplished it and we will not guarantee the consequences. We are going to stay in such a situation that some day we may send 2, 000, 000 more over there. We promised the mothers and fathers and the wives and the sweethearts that these men were fighting so that this thing should not happen again, but we are now to arrange it so that it may happen again." So the two nations that will stand and play a lone hand in the world would be Germany and the United States.

I am not pointing this out to you, my fellow citizens, because I think it is going to happen. I know it is not. I am not in the least troubled about that; but I do want you to share fully with me the thought that I have brought back from Europe. I know what I am talking about when I say that America is the only nation whose guaranty will suffice to substitute discussion for war, and I rejoice in the circumstance. I rejoice that the day has come when America can fulfill her destiny. Her destiny was expressed much more in her open doors, for she said to the oppressed all over the world, "Come and join us; we will give you freedom; we will give you opportunity; we have no governments that can act as your masters. Come and join us to conduct the great government which is our own." And they came in thronging millions, and their genius was added to ours, their sturdy capacity multiplied and increased the capacity of the United States; and now, with the blood of every great people in our veins, we turn to the rest of the world and say, "We still stand ready to redeem you. We still believe in liberty. We still mean to exercise every force that we have and, if need be, spend every dollar that is ours to vindicate the standards of justice and of right."

It is a noble prospect. It is a noble opportunity. My pulses quicken at the thought of it. I am glad to have lived in a day when America can redeem her pledges to the world, when America can prove that her leadership is the leadership that leads out of these age-long troubles, these age-long miseries into which the world will ? not sink back, but which, without our assistance, it may struggle out of only through a long period of bloody revolution. The peoples of Europe are in a revolutionary frame of mind. They do not believe in the things that have been practiced upon them in the past, and they mean to have new things practiced. In the meantime they are, some of them, like pitiful Russia, in danger of doing a most extraordinary thing, substituting one kind of autocracy for another. Russia repudiated the Czar, who was cruel at times, and set up her present masters, who are cruel all the time and pity nobody, who seize everybody's property and feed only the soldiers that are fighting for them; and now, according to the papers, they are likely to brand every one of those soldiers so that he may not easily, at any rate, escape their clutches and desert. Branding their servants and making slaves of a great and lovable people! There is no people in the world fuller of the naive sentiments of good will and of fellowship than the people of Russia, and they are in the grip of a cruel autocracy that dare not, though challenged by every friendly Government in Europe, assemble a constituency; they dare not appeal to the people. They know that their mastery would end the minute the people took charge of their own affairs.

Do not let us expose any of the rest of the world to the necessity of going through any such terrible experience as that, my fellow countrymen. We are at present helpless to assist Russia, because there are no responsible channels through which we can assist her. Our heart goes out to her, but the world is disordered, and while it is disordered—we debate!

Woodrow Wilson, Address at Belle Mehus Auditorium in Bismarck, North Dakota Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317950

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