Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at Convention Hall in Kansas City, Missouri

September 06, 1919

Mr. Chairman, my fellow countrymen, it is very inspiring to me to stand in the presence of so great a company of my fellow citizens and have the privilege of performing the duty that I have come to perform. That duty is to report to my fellow citizens concerning the work of the peace conference, and every day it seems to me to become more necessary to report, because so many people who are talking about it do not understand what it was.

I came back from Paris bringing one of the greatest documents of human history, and one of the things that made it great was that it was penetrated throughout with the principles to which America has devoted her life. Let me hasten to say that one of the most delightful circumstances of the work on the other side of the water was that I discovered that what we called American principles had penetrated to the heart and to the understanding, not only of the great peoples of Europe, but of the great men who were leading the peoples of Europe, and when these principles were written into this treaty, they were written there by common consent and common conviction. But it remains true, nevertheless, my fellow citizens, that principles are written into that treaty which were never written into any great international understanding before, and that they had their natural birth and origin in this dear country to which we have devoted our life and service.

I have no hesitation in saying that in spirit and essence it is an American document, and if you will bear with me—for this great subject is not a subject for oratory, it is a subject for examination and discussion—I will remind you of some of the things that we have long desired and which are at last accomplished in this treaty. I think that I can say that one of the things that America has had most at heart throughout her existence has been that there should be substituted for the brutal processes of war the friendly processes of consultation and arbitration, and that is done in the covenant of the league of nations. I am very anxious that my fellow citizens should realize that that is the chief topic of the covenant of the league of nations. The whole intent and purpose of the document is expressed in provisions by which all the member States agree that they will never go to war without first having done one or other of two things: Either submitted the matter in controversy to arbitration, in which case they agree to abide by the verdict, or submitted it to discussion in the council of the league of nations, in which case they consent to allow six months for the discussion and, whether they like the opinion expressed or not, that they will not go to war for three months after that opinion is expressed. So that you have, whether you get arbitration or not, nine months' discussion, and I want to remind you that that is the central principle of some 30 treaties entered into between the United States of America and some 30 other sovereign nations, all of which were confirmed by the Senate of the United States. We have such an agreement with France. We have such an agreement with Great Britain. We have such an agreement with practically every great nation except Germany, which refused to enter into any such arrangement, because, my fellow citizens, Germany knew that she intended something that did not bear discussion, and that if she had submitted the purpose which led to this war to so much as one month's discussion, she never would have dared go into the enterprise against mankind which she finally did go into. Therefore, I say that this principle of discussion is the principle already adopted by America.

And what is the compulsion to do this? The compulsion is this, that if any member state violates that promise to submit either to arbitration or to discussion, it is thereby ipso facto deemed to have committed an act of war against all the rest. Then, you will ask, "Do we at once take up arms and fight them?" No, we do something very much more terrible than that. We absolutely boycott them. It is provided in that instrument that there shall be no communication even between them and the rest of the world. They shall receive no goods; they shall ship no goods. They shall receive no telegraphic messages; they shall send none. They shall receive no mail; no mail will be received from them. The nationals, the citizens, of the member states will never enter their territory until the matter is adjusted, and their citizens can not leave their territory. It ? is the most complete boycott ever conceived in a public document, and I want to say to you with confident prediction that there will be no more fighting after that. Gentlemen talk to you as if the most probable outcome of this great combination of all the fighting peoples of the world was going to be fight; whereas, as a matter of fact, the essence of the document is to the effect that the processes shall be peaceful, and peaceful processes are more deadly than the processes of war. Let any merchant put it to himself, that if he enters into a covenant and then breaks it and the people all around him absolutely desert his establishment and will have nothing to do with him—ask him after that if it will be necessary to send: the police. The most terrible thing that can happen to an individual, and the most conclusive tiling that can happen to a nation, is to be read out of decent society.

There was another thing that we wished to accomplish which is accomplished in this document. We wanted disarmament, and this document provides in the only possible way for disarmament, by common agreement. Observe, my fellow citizens, that, as I said just now, every great fighting nation in the world is to be a member of this partnership except Germany, and inasmuch as Germany has accepted a limitation of her army to 100,000 men, I do not think for the time being she may be regarded as a great fighting nation. Here in the center of Europe a great nation of more than 60, 000, 000 that has agreed not to maintain an army of more than 100, 000 men, and all around her the rest of the world in concerted partnership to see that no other nation attempts what she attempted, and agreeing among themselves that they will not impose this limitation of armament upon Germany merely, but that they will impose it upon themselves.

You know, my fellow citizens, what armaments mean: Great standing armies and great stores of war material. They do not mean burdensome taxation merely, they do not mean merely compulsory military service which saps the economic strength of the nation, but they mean also the building up of a military class. Again and again, my fellow citizens, in the conference at Paris we were face to face with this circumstance, that in dealing with a particular civil government we found that they would not dare to promise what their general staff was not willing that they should promise; that they were dominated by the military machine which they had created, nominally for their own defense, but really, whether they willed it or not, for the provocation of war. So soon as you have a military class, it does not make any difference what your form of government is, if you are determined to be armed to the teeth, you must obey the orders and directions of the only men who can control the great machinery of war. Elections are of minor importance, because they determine the political policy, and back of that political policy is the constant pressure of the men trained to arms, enormous bodies of disciplined men, wondering if they are never going to be allowed to use their education and their skill and ravage some great people with the force of arms. That is the meaning of armaments. It is not merely the cost of it, though that is overwhelming, but it is the spirit of it, and America has never and I hope, in the providence of God, never will have, that spirit. There is no other way to dispense with great armaments except by the common agreement of the fighting nations of the world. And here is the agreement. They promise disarmament, and promise to agree upon a plan.

There was something else we wanted that is accomplished by this treaty. We wanted to destroy autocratic authority everywhere in the world. We wanted to see to it that there was no place in the world where a small group of men could use their fellow citizens as pawns in a game; that there was no place in the world where a small group of men, without consulting their fellow citizens, could send their fellow citizens to the battle fields and to death in order to accomplish some dynastic ambition, some political plan that had been conceived in private, some object that had been prepared for by universal, world-wide, intrigue. That is what we wanted to accomplish. The most startling thing that developed itself at the opening of our participation in this war was, not the military preparation of Germany—we were familiar with that, though we had been dreaming that she would not use it—but her political preparation—to find every community in the civilized world was penetrated by her intrigue. The German people did not know that, but it was known on Wilhelmstrasse, where the central offices of the German Government were, and Wilhelmstrasse was the master of the German people. And this war, my fellow citizens, has emancipated the German people as well as the rest of the world. We do not want to see anything like that happen again, because we know that democracies will sooner or later have to destroy that form of Government, and if we do not destroy it now the job is still to be done. And by a combination of all the great fighting peoples of the world, to see to it that the aggressive purposes of such governments can not be realized, you make it no longer worth while for little groups of men to contrive the downfall of civilization in private conference.

I want to say something about that that has a different aspect, and perhaps you will regard it as a slight digression from the discussion which I am asking you to be patient enough to follow. My fellow citizens, it does not make any difference what kind of a minority governs you if it is a minority, and the thing we must see to is that no minority anywhere masters the majority. That is at the heart, my fellow citizens, of the tragical things that are happening in that great country which we long to help and can find no way that is effective to help. I mean the great realm of Russia. The men who are now measurably in control of the affairs of Russia represent nobody but themselves. They have again and again been challenged to call a constitutional convention. They have again and again been challenged to prove that they had some kind of a mandate, even from a single class of their fellow citizens, and they dare not attempt it. They have no mandate from anybody. There are only 34 of them, I am told, and there were more than 34 men who used to control the destinies of Europe from Wilhelmstrasse. There is a closer monopoly of power in Petrograd and Moscow than there ever was in Berlin, arid the thing that is intolerable is, not that the Russian people are having their way, but that another group of men more cruel than the Czar himself is controlling the destinies of that great people.

I want to say here and now that I am against the control of any minority anywhere. Search your own economic history and what have you been uneasy about? Now and again you have said there were small groups of capitalists who were controlling the industry and therefore the development of the United States. Very well, my fellow citizens; if that is so, and sometimes I have feared that it was, we must break up that monopoly. I am not now saying that there is any group of our fellow citizens who are consciously doing anything of the kind. I am saying that these allegations must be proved, but if it is proved that any class, any group, anywhere, is, without the suffrage of their fellow citizens, in control of our affairs, then I am with you to destroy the power of that group. We have got to be frank with ourselves, however: If we do not want minority government, in Russia, we must see that we do not have it in the United States. If you do not want little groups of selfish men to plot the future of Europe, we must not allow little groups of selfish men to plot the future of America. Any man that speaks for a class must prove that he also speaks for all his fellow citizens and for mankind, and then we will listen to him. The most difficult thing in a democracy, my fellow citizens, is to get classes, where they unfortunately exist, to understand one another and unite, and you have not got a great democracy until they do understand one another and unite. If we are in for seeing that there are no more Czars and no more Kaisers, then let us do a thorough job and see that nothing of that sort occurs anywhere.

Then there was another thing we wanted to do, my fellow citizens, that is done in this document. We wanted to see that helpless peoples were nowhere in the world put at the mercy of unscrupulous enemies and masters. There is one pitiful example which is in the hearts of all of us. I mean the example of Armenia. There a Christian people is helpless, at the mercy of a Turkish government which thought it the service of God to destroy them; and at this moment, my fellow citizens, it is an open question whether the Armenian people will not, while we sit here and debate, be absolutely destroyed. When I think of words piled on words, of debate following debate, while these unspeakable things that can not be handled until the debate is over are happening in this pitiful part of the world, I wonder that men do not wake up to the moral responsibility of what they are doing. Great populations are driven out upon a desert where there is no food and can be none and there compelled to die, and the men and women and children thrown into a common grave, so imperfectly covered up that here and there is a pitiful arm stretched out to heaven and there is no pity in the world. When shall we wake to the moral responsibility of this great occasion?

There are other aspects to that matter. Not all the populations that are having something that is not a square deal live in Armenia. There are others, and one of the glories of the great document which I brought back with me is this, that everywhere within the area of settlement covered by the political questions involved in that treaty people of that sort have been given their freedom and guaranteed their freedom. But the thing does not end there, because the treaty includes the covenant of the league of nations, and what does that say? That says that is the privilege of any member state to call attention to anything, anywhere, that is likely to disturb the peace of the world or the good understanding between nations upon which the peace of the world depends, and every people in the world that has not got what it thinks it ought to have is thereby given a world forum in which to bring the thing to the bar of mankind. An incomparable thing, a thing that never was dreamed of before! A thing that was never conceived as possible before, that it should not be regarded as an unfriendly act on the part of the representatives of one nation to call attention to something being done within the confines of another empire which was disturbing the peace of the world and the good understanding between nations. There never before has been provided a world forum in which the legitimate grievances of peoples entitled to consideration can be brought to the common judgment of mankind, and if I were the advocate of any suppressed or oppressed people, I surely could not ask any better forum than to stand up before the world and challenge the other party to make good its excuses for not acting in that case. That compulsion is the most tremendous moral compulsion that could be devised By organized mankind.

I think I can take it for granted, my fellow citizens, that you never realized before what a scope this great treaty has. You have been asked to look at so many little spots in it with a magnifying glass that you did not know how big it is, what a great enterprise of the human spirit it is, and what a thoroughly American document it is from cover to cover. It is the first great international agreement in the history of mankind where the principle adopted has been, not the power of the strong but the right of the weak. To reject that treaty, to alter that treaty, is to impair one of the first charters of mankind. Yet there are men who approach the question with passion, with private passion, with party passion, who think only of some immediate advantage to themselves or to a group of their fellow countrymen, and who look at the thing with the jaundice eyes of those who have some private purpose of their own. When at last in the annals of mankind they are gibbeted, they will regret that the gibbet is so high.

I would not have you think that I am trying to characterize those who conscientiously object to anything in this great document. I take off my hat to any man's genuine conscience, and there are men who are conscientiously opposed, though they will pardon me if I say ignorantly opposed. I have no quarrel with them. It has been a pleasure to confer with some of them and to tell them as frankly as I would have told my most intimate friend the whole inside of my mind and of every other mind that I knew anything about that had been concerned with the conduct of affairs at Paris, in order that they might understand this thing and go with the rest of us in the confirmation of what is necessary for the peace of the world. I have no intolerant spirit in the matter, I assure you, but I also assure you that from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head I have got a fighting spirit about it. If anybody dares to defeat this great experiment, then they must gather together the counsellors of the world and do something better. If there is a better scheme, I for one will subscribe to it, but I want to say now, as I said, the other night, it is a case of "put up or shut up." Negation will not serve the world. Opposition constructs nothing. Opposition is the specialty of those who are Bolshevistically inclined—and again I assure you I am not comparing any of my respected colleagues to Bolshevists; I am merely pointing out that the Bolshevist spirit lacks every element of constructiveness. They have destroyed everything and they propose nothing, and while there is a common abhorrence for political Bolshevism, I hope there will not be such a thing growing up in our country as international Bolshevism, the Bolshevism which destroys the constructive work of men who have conscientiously tried to cement the good feeling of the great peoples of the world.

The majestic thing about the league of nations is that it is to include the great peoples of the world, all except Germany. Germany is one of the great peoples of the world. I would be ashamed not to say that. Those 60,000,000 industrious and inventive and accomplished people are one of the great peoples of the world. They have been put upon. They have been misled. Their minds have been debased by a false philosophy. They have been taught things that the human spirit ought to. reject, but they will come out of that nightmare, they will come out of that phantasm, and they will again be a great people. And when they are out of it, when they have got over that dream of conquest and of oppression, when they have shown that their Government really is based upon new principles and upon democratic principles, then we, all of us at Paris agreed that they should be admitted to the league of nations. In the meantime, her one-time partner, Austria, is to be admitted. Hungary, I dare say, will be admitted. The only nations of any consequence outside the league—unless we choose to stay out and go in later with Germany— are Germany and Turkey, and we are just now looking for the pieces of Turkey. She has so thoroughly disintegrated that the process of assembling the parts is becoming increasingly difficult, and the chief controversy now is who shall attempt that very difficult and perilous job?

Is it not a great vision, my fellow citizens, this of the thoughtful world combined for peace, this of all the great peoples of the world associated to see that justice is. done, that the strong who intend wrong are restrained and that the weak who can not defend themselves are made secure? We have a problem ahead of us that ought to interest us in this connection. We have promised the people of the Philippine Islands that we will set them free, and it has been one of our perplexities how we should make them safe after we set them free. Under this arrangement it will be safe from the outset. They will become members of the league of nations, every great nation in the world will be pledged to respect and preserve against external aggression from any quarter the territorial integrity and political independence of the Philippines. It simplifies one of the most perplexing problems that has faced the American public, but it does not simplify our problems merely, gentlemen. It illustrates the triumph of the American spirit. I do not want to attempt any flight of fancy, but I can fancy those men of the first generation that so thoughtfully Set this great Government up, the generation of Washington and Hamilton and Jefferson and the Adamses—I can fancy their looking on with a sort of enraptured amazement that the American spirit should have made conquest of the world.

I wish you could have seen the faces of some of the people that talked to us over there about the arrival of the American troops. At first they diet not know that we were going to be able to send so many, but they got something from the first groups that changed the whole aspect of the war. One of the most influential ladies in Paris, the wife of a member of the cabinet, told us that on the Fourth of July of last year she and others had attended the ceremonies with very sad hearts and merely out of courtesy to the United States, because they did not believe that the aid of the United States was going to be effective, but she said, "After we had been there and seen the faces of those men in khaki, seen the spirit of their swing and attitude and seen the vision that was in their eyes, we came away knowing that victory was in sight." What Europe saw in our boys was not merely men under arms, indomitable men under arms, but men with an ideal in their eyes, men who had come a long way from home to defend other peoples, men who had forgotten the convenience of every thing that personally affected them and had turned away from the longing love of the people who were dear to them and gone across the broad sea to rescue the nations of the world from an intolerable oppression.

I tell you, my fellow citizens, the war was won by the American spirit. German orders were picked up on the battle field directing the commanders not to let the Americans get hold of a particular post, because you never could get them out again. You know what one of our American wits said, that it took only half as long to train an American army as any other, because you had only to train them to go one way. It is true that they never thought of going any other way, and when they were restrained, because they were told it was premature or dangerous, they were impatient, they said, "We didn't come over here to wait, we came over here to fight," and their very audacity, their very indifference to danger, changed the morale of the battle field. They were not fighting prudently; they were going to get there. And America in this treaty has realized, my fellow countrymen, what those gallant boys we are so proud of fought for. The men who make this impossible or difficult will have a life-long reckoning with the fighting forces of the United States. I have consorted with those boys. I have been proud to call myself their Commander in Chief. I did not run the business. They did not need anybody to run it. All I had to do was to turn them loose!

And now for a final word, my fellow citizens. If anything that I have said has left the impression on your mind that I have the least doubt of the result, please dismiss the impression. And if you think that I have come out on this errand to fight anybody—any body— please dismiss that from your mind. I have not come to fight or antagonize anybody, or any body of individuals. I have, let me say without the slightest affectation, the greatest respect for the Senate of the United States, but, my fellow citizens, I have come out to fight a cause. That cause is greater than the Senate. It is greater than the Government. It is as great as the cause of mankind, and I intend, in office or out, to fight that battle as long as I live. My ancestors were troublesome Scotchmen, and among them were some of that famous group that were known as the Covenanters. Very well, then, here is the covenant of the league of nations. I am a Covenanter!

Woodrow Wilson, Address at Convention Hall in Kansas City, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317830

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