Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at Coeur D'Alene, Idaho

September 12, 1919

Your excellency, my fellow citizens, it is with the greatest pleasure that I find myself facing an audience in this great State. I echo the wish of the governor that it might be our privilege to stay a long time in Idaho and know something more than her fame, know her people, come in contact with her industries, and see the things that we have all so long read about and admired from a distance; but, unfortunately, it is necessary for us to go back to Washington as soon as we can, though it was a great pleasure to escape from Washington. Washington is a very interesting place, but it is a very lonely place. The people of the United States do not live there, and in order to know what the people of the United States are thinking about and talking about it is necessary to come and find out for yourself. That really is my errand.

I have taken pains since I was a boy so to saturate myself in the traditions of America that I generally feel a good deal of confidence that the impulses which I find in myself are American impulses; but no matter how thoroughly American a man may be, he needs constantly to renew his touch with all parts of America and to be sure that his mind is guided, if he be in public station, by the thoughts and purposes of his fellow countrymen. It was, therefore, with the most earnest desire to get in touch with you and the rest of my fellow countrymen that I undertook this trip, for, my fellow countrymen, we are facing a decision now in which we can not afford to make a mistake. We must not let ourselves be deceived as to the gravity of that decision or as to the implications of that decision. It will mean a great deal now, but it will mean infinitely more in the future. America has to do at this moment nothing less than prove to the world whether she has meant what she said in the past.

I must confess that I have been amazed that there are some men in responsible positions who are opposed to the ratification of the treaty of peace altogether. It is natural that so great a document, full of so many particular provisions, should draw criticism upon itself for this, that, or the other provision. It is natural that a world settlement, for it is nothing less, should give occasion for a great many differences of opinion with regard to particular settlements of it, but I must admit that it amazes me that there should be any who should propose that the arrangement be rejected altogether, because, my fellow citizens, this is the issue: We went into this Great War from which we have just issued with certain assurances given ourselves and given the world, and these assurances can not be fulfilled unless this treaty is adopted. We told the world and we assured ourselves that we went into this war in order to see to it that the kind of purpose represented by Germany in this war should never be permitted to be accomplished by Germany or anybody else. Do not let your thoughts dwell too constantly upon Germany. Germany attempted this outrageous thing, but Germany was not the only country that had ever entertained the purpose of subjecting the peoples of the world to its will, and when we went into this war we said that we sent our soldiers across the seas not because we thought this was an American fight in particular, but because we knew that the purpose of Germany was against liberty, and that where anybody was fighting liberty it was our duty to go into the contest. We set this Nation up with the profession that we wanted to set an example of liberty not only, but to lead the world in the paths of liberty and justice and of right; and at last, after long reflection, after long hesitation, after trying to persuade ourselves that this was a European war and nothing more, we suddenly looked our own consciences in the face and said, "This is not merely a European war. This is a war which imperils the very principles for which this Government was set up, and it is our duty to lend all the force that we have, whether of men or of resources, to the resistance of these designs." And it was America—never let anybody forget this—it was America that saved the world, and those who propose the rejection of the treaty propose that, after having redeemed the world, we should desert the world. It would be nothing less.

The settlements of this treaty can not be maintained without the concerted action of all the great Governments of the world. I asked you just now not to think exclusively about Germany, but turn your thoughts back to what it was that Germany proposed. Germany did direct her first force against France and against Belgium, but you know that it was not her purpose to remain in France, though it was part of her purpose to remain in Belgium. She was using her arms against these people so that they could not prevent what she intended elsewhere, and what she intended elsewhere was to make an open line of dominion between her and the Far East. The formula that she adopted was Bremen to Bagdad, the North Sea to Persia—to crush not only little Serbia, whom she first started to crush, but all the Balkan States, get Turkey in her grasp, take all the Turkish and Arabian lands beyond, penetrate the wealthy realms of Persia, open the gates of India, and, by dominating the central trade routes of the world, dominate the world itself. That was her plan; and what does the treaty of peace do? For I want you to remember, my fellow countrymen, that this treaty is not going to stand by itself. The treaty with Austria has now been signed; it will presently be sent over, and I shall lay that before the Senate of the United States. It will be laid down along exactly the same lines as the treaty with Germany; and the lines of the treaty with Germany suggest this, that we are setting up the very States which Germany and Austria intended to dominate as independent, self-governing units. We are giving them what they never could have got with their own strength, what they could have got only by the united strength of the armies of the world. But we have not made them strong by making them independent. We have given them what I have called their land titles. We have said, "These lands that others have tried to dominate and exploit for their own uses belong to you, and we assign them to you in fee simple. They never did belong to anybody else. They were loot. It was brigandage to take them. We give them to you in fee simple." But what is the use of setting up the titles if we do not guarantee them? And that guaranty is the only guaranty against the repetition of the war we have gone through just so soon as the German nation, 60,000,000 strong, can again recover its strength and its spirit, for east of Germany lies the fertile field of intrigue and power. At this moment the only people who are dealing with the Bolshevist government in Russia are the Germans. They are fraternizing with the few who exercise control in that distracted country. They are making all their plans that the financing of Russia and the commerce of Russia and the development of Russia shall be as soon as possible in the hands of Germans; and just so soon as she can swing that great power, that is also her road to the East and to the domination of the world. If you do not guarantee the titles that you are getting up in these treaties, you leave the whole ground fallow in which again to sow the dragon's teeth with the harvest of armed men.

That, my fellow citizens, is what article 10, that you hear so much talked about in the covenant of the league of nations, does. It guarantees the land titles of the world; and if you do not guarantee the land titles of the world, there can not be the ordered society in which men can live. Off here in this beloved continent, with its great free stretches and its great free people, we have not realized the cloud of dread and terror under which the people of Europe have lived. I have heard men over there say, "It is intolerable. We would rather die now than live another 50 years under the cloud that has hung over us ever since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, because we have known that this force was gathering, we have known what the purpose was ultimately to be, we have known that blood and terror lay ahead of us, and we can not and will not live under that cloud any more." America, my fellow citizens, is necessary to the peace of the world. America is absolutely necessary to the peace of the world. Germany realizes that; and I want to tell you now and here—I wish I could proclaim it in tones so loud that they would reach the world— Germany wants us to stay out of this treaty. Not under any deception. Not under the deception that we will turn in sympathy toward her. Not under the. delusion that we would seek in any direct or conscious way to serve Germany, but with the knowledge that the guaranties will not be sufficient without America, and that, inasmuch as Germany is out of the arrangement, it will be very useful to Germany to have America out of the arrangement. Germany knows that if America is out of the arrangement America will lose the confidence and cooperation of all the other nations in the world, and, fearing America's strength, she wants to see America alienated from the peoples from whom she has been alienated. It is a perfectly reasonable program. She wants to see America isolated. She is isolated. She wants to see one great nation left out of this combination which she never would again dare face. Evidences are not lacking—nay, evidences are abounding—that the pro-German propaganda has started up in this country coincidently with the opposition to the adoption of this treaty. I want those who have any kind of sympathy with the purposes with which we went into the war now to reflect upon this proposition: Are we going to prove the enemy of the rest of the world just when we have proved their savior? The thing is intolerable. The thing is impossible. America has never been unfaithful and she never will be unfaithful.

Do not let anybody delude you, my fellow citizens, with the pose of being an American. If I am an American I want at least to be an intelligent America. If I am a true American I will study the true interests of America. If I am a true American I will have the world vision that America has always had, drawing her blood, drawing her genius, as she has drawn her people, out of all the great constructive peoples of the world. A true American conceives America in the atmosphere and whole setting of her fortune and her destiny. And America needs the confidence of the rest of the world just as much as other nations do. America needs the cooperation of the rest of the world to release her resources, to make her markets, above all things else to link together the spirits of men who mean to redeem the race from the wrongs that it has suffered. This western country is par excellence the country of progressivism. I am not now using it with a big P." It does not make any difference whether you belong to the Progressive Party or not; you belong to the progressive thought, and I hope every intelligent man belongs to the progressive thought. It is the only thought that the world is going to tolerate. If you believe in progress, if you believe in progressive reform, if you believe in making the lot of men better, if you believe in purifying politics and enlarging the purposes of public policy, then you have got to have a world in which that will be possible; and if America does not enter with all her soul into this new world arrangement, progressives might as well go out of business, because there is going to be universal disorder, as there is now universal unrest.

Do not mistake the signs of the times, my fellow countrymen, and do not think that America is immune. The poison that has spread all through that pitiful nation of Russia is spreading all through Europe. There is not a statesman in Europe who does not dread the infection of it, and just so certainly as those people are disconcerted, thrown back upon their own resources, disheartened, rendered cynical by the withdrawal of the only people in the world they trust, just so certainly there will be universal upsetting of order in Europe. And if the order of Europe is upset, do you think America is going to be quiet? Have you not been reading in the papers of the intolerable thing that has just happened in Boston? When the police of a great city walk out and leave that city to be looted they have committed an intolerable crime against civilization; and if that spirit is going to prevail, where are your programs? How can you carry a program out when every man is taking what he can get? How can you carry a program out when there is no authority upon which to base it? How can you carry a program out when every man is looking out for his own selfish interests and refuses to be bound by any law that regards the interests of the others? There will be no reform in this world for a generation if the conditions of the world are not now brought to settled order, and they can not be brought to settled order without the cooperation of America.

I am not speaking with conjecture, my fellow citizens. I would be ashamed of myself if upon a theme so great as this I should seek to mislead you by overstatement of any kind. I know what I am talking about. I have spent six months amidst those disturbed peoples on the other side of the water, and I can tell you, now and here, that the only people they depend upon to bring the world to settled conditions are the people of America. A chill will go to their heart, a discouragement will come down upon them, a cynicism will take possession of them, which will make progress impossible, if we do not take part not only, but do not take part with all our might and with all our genius. Everybody who loves justice and who hopes for programs of reform must support the unqualified adoption of this treaty. I send this challenge out to the conscience of every man in America, that if he knows anything of the conditions of the world, if he knows anything of the present state of society throughout the world and really loves justice and purposes just reform, he must support the treaty with Germany. I do not want to say that and have it proved by tragedy, for if this treaty should be refused, if it should be impaired, then amidst the tragedy of the things that would follow every man would be converted to the opinion that I am now uttering, but I do not want to see that sort of conversion. I do not want to see an era of blood and of chaos to convert men to the only practical methods of justice.

My fellow citizens, there are a great many things needing to be reformed in America. We are not exempt from those very subtle influences which lead to all sorts of incidental injustice. We ourselves are in danger at this present moment of minorities trying to control our affairs, and whenever a minority tries to control the affairs of the country it is fighting against the interest of the country just as much as if it were trying to upset the Government. If you think that you can afford to live in a chaotic world, then speak words of encouragement to the men who are opposing this treaty, but if you want to have your own fortunes held steady, realize that the fortunes of the world must be held steady; that if you want to keep your own boys at home after this terrible experience, you will see that boys elsewhere are kept at home. Because America is not going to refuse, when the other catastrophe comes, again to attempt to save the world, and, having given this proof once, I pray God that we may not be given occasion to prove it again! We went into this war promising every loving heart in this country who had parted with a beloved youngster that we were going to fight a war which would make that sacrifice unnecessary again, and we must redeem that promise or be of all men the most unfaithful. If I did not go on this errand through the United States, if I did not do everything that was within my power that is honorable to get this treaty adopted, and adopted without qualification, I never could look another mother in the face upon whose cheeks there were the tears of sorrowful memory with regard to the boy buried across the sea. The moral compulsion laid upon America now is a compelling compulsion, and can not be escaped. My fellow countrymen, because it is a moral issue, because it is an issue in which is mixed up every sort of interest in America, I am not in the least uneasy about the result.

If you put it on the lowest levels, you can not trade with a world disordered, and if you do not trade you draw your own industries within a narrower and narrower limit. This great State, with its untold natural resources, with its great undeveloped resources, will have to stand for a long generation stagnant because there are no distant markets calling for these things. All America will have to wait a long, anxious generation through to see the normal courses of her life restored. So, if I were putting it upon the lowest conceivable basis of the amount of money we could make, I would say, "We have got to assist in the restoration of order and the maintenance of order throughout the world by the maintenance of the morale of the world." You will say, "How? By arms?" That, I suspect, is what most of the opponents of the league of nations, at any rate, try to lead you to believe, that this is a league of arms. Why, my fellow citizens, it is a league to bring about the thing that America has been advocating ever since I was born. It is a league to bring it about that there shall not be war, but that there shall be substituted for it arbitration and the calm settlement of discussion. That is the heart of the league. The heart of the league is this: Every member of the league, and that will mean every fighting nation in the world except Germany, agrees that it will never go to war without first having done one or the other of two things—either having submitted the matter in dispute to arbitration, in which case it agrees absolutely to abide by the result, or having submitted it to consideration by the council of the league of nations, in which case it promises to lay all the documents, all the facts, in its possession before the council and to give the council six months in which to consider the matter, and, if it does not like the opinion of the council at the end of the six months, still to wait three months more before it resorts to arms. That is what America has been striving for. That is what the Congress of the United States directed me to bring about. Perhaps you do not know where; it was in an unexpected place, in the naval appropriations bill. Congress, authorizing a great building program of ships and the expenditure of vast sums of money to make our Navy one of the strongest in the world, paused a moment and declared in the midst of the appropriation bill that it was the policy of the United States to bring about disarmament and that for that purpose it was the policy of the United States to cooperate in the creation of a great international tribunal to which should be submitted questions of international difference and controversy, and it directed the President of the United States, not later than the close of this war, to call together an international conference for that purpose. It even went so far as to make an appropriation to pay the expenses for the conduct of such a conference in the city of Washington. And that is a continuing provision of the naval appropriations bill. When I came back with this covenant of the league of nations, I had fulfilled the mandate of the Congress of the United States; and now they do not like it.

There is only one conceivable reason for not liking it, my fellow citizens, and to me as an American it is not a conceivable reason; that is that we should wish to do some nation some great wrong. If there is any nation in the world that can afford to submit its purposes to discussion, it is the American Nation. If I belonged to some other nations, there are some things that I know that I would not like to see submitted to the discussion of mankind, but I do not know anything in the present purposes of the United States that I would not be perfectly willing to lay upon any table of counsel in the world. In carrying out the mandate of the Congress, I was serving the age-long purpose of this great people, which purpose centers in justice and in peace.

You will say, "Well, why not go in with reservations?" I wonder if you know what that means. If the Senate of the United States passes a resolution of ratification and says that it ratifies on condition that so and so is understood, that will have to be resubmitted to every signatory of the treaty; and what gravels me is that it will have to be submitted to the German Assembly at Weimar. That goes against my digestion. We can not honorably put anything in that treaty, which Germany has signed and ratified, with Germany's consent; whereas it is perfectly feasible, my fellow countrymen, if we put interpretations upon that treaty which its language clearly warrants, to notify the other Governments of the world that we do understand the treaty in that sense. It is perfectly feasible to do that, and perfectly honorable to do that, because, mark you, nothing can be done under this treaty through the instrumentality of the council of the league of nations except by a unanimous vote. The vote of the United States will always be necessary, and it is perfectly legitimate for the United States to notify the other Governments beforehand that its vote in the council of the league of nations will be based upon such and such an understanding of the provisions of the treaty.

The treaty is not susceptible of misunderstanding. I do not object to painting the rose or refining fine gold; there is not any phrase in the covenant of the league of nations that can legitimately be said to be of doubtful meaning, but if the Congress of the United States wants to state the meaning over again in other words and say to the other nations of the world, "We understand the treaty to mean what it says," I think that is a work of supererogation, but I do not see any moral objection to it. But anything that qualifies the treaty, anything that is a condition to our ratification of it, must be submitted to all the others, and we must go over this process again; this process which took six months of intensive labor, which took six months of very difficult adjustment and arrangement, which quieted jealousies, which allayed suspicions, which set aside controversies, which brought about the most extraordinary union of minds that, was ever brought about in so miscellaneous an assembly, divided by so many interests. All that must be gone over again, and in the meantime the world must wait and its unrest grow deeper, and all the pulses of life go slower, waiting to see what is going to happen, all because the United States asks the other governments of the world to accept what they have already accepted in different language. That is all that it amounts to; I means, all that the reasonable reservations amount to. Some of them amount to staying out altogether, some of them amount to a radical change of the spirit of the instrument, but I am speaking now of those which some men of high conscience and of high public purpose are seriously pressing in order that there may be no misunderstanding. You can avoid a misunderstanding without changing the document. You can avoid a misunderstanding without qualifying the terms of the document, because, as I have said and shall say again and again, America is at liberty as one of the voting members of the partnership to state how she understands the articles of copartnership.

I beg that these things may sink in your thoughts, my fellow countrymen, because we are at a turning point in the fortunes of the world. Out upon these quiet hills and in these great valleys it is difficult sometimes for me to remember the turmoil of the world in which I have been mixing on the other side of the sea; it is difficult for me to remember the surging passions which moved upon the face of the other continents of the world; it is difficult for me to remember the infinite suffering that happened even in this beloved country; it is difficult for me to remember the delegations from weak peoples that came to me in Paris, figuratively speaking, with outstretched hands, pleading that America should lead the way out of the darkness into the light; it is difficult out here in this great peace for anybody, even, I dare say, for these fine fellows in khaki who were over there and saw something of it, to remember the whole strain and terror of the thing, but we must remember it, my fellow citizens, and we must see to it that that strain and terror never come upon the world again. It is with this solemn thought, that we are at a turning point in the destinies of mankind and that America is the makeweight of mankind, that I, with perfect confidence, leave this great question to your unbiased judgment.

APP Note: The president spoke in a tent.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at Coeur D'Alene, Idaho Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317977

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