Address Closing the Washington Conference
MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THE CONFERENCE:
Nearly three months ago it was my privilege to utter to you sincerest words of welcome to the capital of our republic, to suggest the spirit in which you were invited, and to intimate the atmosphere in which you were asked to confer. In a very general way, perhaps, I ventured to express a hope for the things towards which our aspirations led us.
Today it is my greater privilege, and an even greater pleasure, to come to make acknowledgment. It is one of the supreme compensations of life to contemplate a worth-while accomplishment.
It can not be other than seemly for me, as the only chief of government so circumstanced as to be able to address the Conference, to speak congratulations, and to offer the thanks of our nation, our people, perhaps I dare volunteer to utter them for the world. My own gratification is beyond my capacity to express.
This conference has wrought a truly great achievement. It is hazardous sometimes to speak in superlatives, and I will be restrained. But I will say, with every confidence, that the faith plighted here to-day, kept in national honor, will mark the beginning of a new and better epoch in human progress.
Stripped to the simplest fact, what is the spectacle which has inspired a new hope for the world? Gathered about this table nine great nations of the earth—not all, to be sure, but those most directly concerned with the problems at hand—have met and have conferred on questions of great import and common concern, on problems menacing their peaceful relationship, on burdens threatening a common peril. In the revealing light of the public opinion of the world, without surrender of sovereignty, without impaired nationality or affronted national pride, a solution has been found in unanimity, and to-day's adjournment is marked by rejoicing in the things accomplished. If the world has hungered for new assurance it may feast at the banquet which the Conference has spread.
I am sure the people of the United States are supremely gratified, and yet there is scant appreciation how marvelously you have wrought. When the days were dragging and agreements were delayed, when there were obstacles within and hindrances without, few stopped to realize that here was a conference of sovereign Powers where only unanimous agreement could be made the rule. Majorities could not decide without impinging national rights. There were no victors to command, no vanquished to yield. All had voluntarily to agree in translating the conscience of our civilization and give concrete expression to world opinion.
And you have agreed in spite of all difficulties, and the agreements are proclaimed to the world. No new standards of national honor have been sought, but the indictments of national dishonor have been drawn, and the world is ready to proclaim the odiousness of perfidy or infamy.
It is not pretended that the pursuit of peace and the limitations of armament are new conceits, or that the Conference is a new conception either in settlement of war or in writing the conscience of international relationship. Indeed, it is not new to have met in the realization of war's supreme penalties. The Hague conventions are examples of the one, the conferences of Vienna, of Berlin, of Versailles are outstanding instances of the other.
The Hague conventions were defeated by the antagonism of one strong Power whose indisposition to cooperate and sustain led it to one of the supreme tragedies which have come to national eminence. Vienna and Berlin sought peace founded on the injustices of war and sowed the seeds of future conflict, and hatred was armed where confidence was stifled.
It is fair to say that human progress, the grown intimacy of international relationship, developed communication and transportation, attended by a directing world opinion, have set the stage more favorably here. You have met in that calm deliberation and that determined resolution which have made a just peace, in righteous relationship, its own best guaranty.
It has been the fortune of this conference to sit in a day far enough removed from war's bitterness, yet near enough to war's horrors, to gain the benefit of both the hatred of war and the yearning for peace.
Too often, heretofore, the decades following such gatherings have been marked by the difficult undoing of their decisions. But your achievement is supreme because no seed of conflict has been sown; no reaction in regret or resentment ever can justify resort to arms.
It little matters what we appraise as the outstanding accomplishment. Any one of them alone, would have justified the Conference. But the whole achievement has so cleared the atmosphere that it will seem like breathing the refreshing air of a new mom of promise.
You have written the first deliberate and effective expression of great Powers, in the consciousness of peace, of war's utter futility, and challenged the sanity of competitive preparation for each other's destruction. You have halted folly and lifted burdens, and revealed to the world that the one sure way to recover from the sorrow and ruin and staggering obligations of a world war is to end the strife in preparation for more of it, and turn human energies to the constructiveness of peace.
Not all the world is yet tranquilized. But here is the example, to imbue with new hope all who dwell in apprehension. At this table came understanding, and understanding brands armed conflict as abominable in the eyes of enlightened civilization.
I once believed in armed preparedness. I advocated it. But I have come now to believe there is a better preparedness in a public mind and a world opinion made ready to grant justice precisely as it exacts it. And justice is better served in conferences of peace than in conflicts at arms.
How simple it all has been. When you met here twelve weeks ago there was not a commitment, not an obligation except that which each delegation owes to the Government commissioning it. But human service was calling, world conscience was impelling, and world opinion directing.
No intrigue, no offensive or defensive alliances, no involvements have wrought your agreements, but reasoning with each other to common understanding has made new relationship among Governments and peoples, new securities for peace, and new opportunities for achievement and attending happiness.
Here have been established the contacts of reason, here have come the inevitable understandings of face-to-face exchanges when passion does not inflame. The very atmosphere shamed national selfishness into retreat. Viewpoints were exchanged, differences composed, and you came to understand how common, after all, are human aspirations; how alike, indeed, and how easily reconcilable, are our national aspirations; how sane and simple and satisfying to seek the relationships of peace and security.
When you first met I told you of our America's thought to seek less of armament and none of war; that we sought nothing which is another's, and we were unafraid, but that we wished to join you in doing that finer and nobler thing which no nation can do alone. We rejoice in the accomplishment.
It may be that the naval holiday here contracted will expire with the treaties, but I do not believe it. Those of us who live another decade are more likely to witness a growth of public opinion, strengthened by the new experience, which will make nations more concerned with living to the fulfillment of God's high intent than with agencies of warfare and destruction. Since this conference of nations has pointed with unanimity to the way of peace to-day, like conferences in the future, under appropriate conditions and with aims both well conceived and definite, may illumine the highways and byways of human activity. The torches of understanding have been lighted, and they ought to glow and encircle the globe.
Again, gentlemen of the Conference, congratulations and the gratitude of the United States! To Belgium, to the British Empire, to China, to France, to Italy, to Japan, to the Netherlands, and to Portugal—I can wish no more than the same feeling, which we experience, of honorable and honored contribution to happy human advancement, and a new sense of security in the righteous pursuits of peace and all attending good fortune.
From our own delegates I have known from time to time of your activities, and of the spirit of conciliation and adjustment, and the cheering readiness of all of you to strive for that unanimity so essential to accomplishment. Without it there would have been failure; with it you have heartened the world.
And I know our guests will pardon me while I make grateful acknowledgment to the American delegation—to you, Mr. Secretary Hughes; to you, Senator Lodge; to you, Senator Underwood; to you, Mr. Root; to all of you for your able and splendid and highly purposed and untiring endeavors in behalf of our Government and our people, and to our excellent Advisory Committee which gave to you so dependable a reflex of that American public opinion which charts the course of this republic.
It is all so fine, so gratifying, so reassuring, so full of promise, that above the murmurings of a world sorrow not yet silenced, above the groans which come of excessive burdens not yet lifted but now to be lightened, above the discouragements of a world yet struggling to find itself after surpassing upheaval, there is the note of rejoicing which is not alone ours or yours, or of all of us, but comes from the hearts of men of all the world.
Note: The conference is also known as the "Washington Naval Conference".
Warren G. Harding, Address Closing the Washington Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/355746