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Address Following Arrival from the Paris Peace Conference in Boston, Massachusetts

February 24, 1919

Governor Coolidge, Mr. Mayor, Fellow-Citizens:

I wonder if you are half as glad to see me as I am to see you. It warms my heart to see a great body of my fellow-citizens again, because, in some respects, during the recent months I have been very lonely indeed without your comradeship and counsel; and I tried at every step of the work which fell to me to recall what I was sure would be your counsel with regard to the great matters which were under consideration.

I do not want you to think that I have not been appreciative of the extraordinarily generous reception which was given to me on the other / side in saying that it makes me very happy to get home again. I do not mean to say that I was not very deeply touched by the cries that came from the great crowds on the other side. But I want to say to you in all honesty that I felt them to be a call of greeting to you rather than to me.

I did not feel that the greeting was personal. I had in my heart the over-crowning pride of being your representative and of receiving the plaudits of men everywhere who felt that your hearts beat with theirs in the cause of liberty. There was no mistaking the tone in the voices of those great crowds. It was not a tone of mere greeting, it was not a tone of mere generous welcome; it was the calling of comrade to comrade, the cries that come from men who say, "We have waited for this day, when the friends of liberty should come across the sea and shake hands with us, to see that a new world was constructed upon a new basis and foundation of justice and right."

I can't tell you the inspiration that came from the sentiments that came out of those simple voices of the crowd. And the proudest thing I have to report to you is that this great country of ours is trusted throughout the world.

I have not come to report the proceedings or the results of the proceedings of the Peace Conference; that would be premature. I can say that I have received very happy impressions from this conference; the impression that, while there are many differences of judgment, while there are some divergences of object, there is, nevertheless, a common spirit and a common realization of the necessity of setting up new standards of right in the world.

Because the men who are in conference in Paris realize as keenly as any American can realize that they are not the masters of their people; that they are the servants of their people, and that the spirit of their people has awakened to a new purpose and a new conception of their power to realize that purpose, and that no man dare go home from that conference and report anything less noble than was expected of it.

The conference seems to you to go slowly; from day to day in Paris it seems to go slowly; but I wonder if you realize the complexity of the task which it has undertaken. It seems as if the settlements of this war affect, and affect directly, every great, and I sometimes think every small, nation in the world, and no one decision can prudently be made which is not properly linked in with the great series of other decisions which must accompany it, and it must be reckoned in with the final result if the real quality and character of that result is to be properly judged.

What we are doing is to hear the whole case; hear it from the mouths of the men most interested; hear it from those who are officially commissioned to state it; hear the rival claims; hear the claims that affect new nationalities, that affect new areas of the world, that affect new commercial and economic connections that have been established by the great world war through which we have gone. And I have been struck by the moderateness of those who have represented national claims. I can testify that I have nowhere seen the gleam of passion. I have seen earnestness, I have seen tears come to the eyes of men who plead for downtrodden people whom they were privileged to speak for; but they were not the tears of anguish, they were the tears of ardent hope.

And I don't see how any man can fail to have been subdued by these pleas, subdued to this feeling, that he was not there to assert an individual judgment of his own but to try to assist the cause of humanity.

And, in the midst of it all, every interest seeks out, first of all, when it reaches Paris, the representatives of the United States. Why? Because—and I think I am stating the most wonderful fact in history —because there is no nation in Europe that suspects the motives of the United States.

Was there ever so wonderful a thing seen before? Was there ever so moving a thing? Was there ever any fact that so bound the nation that had won that esteem forever to deserve it?

I would not have you understand that the great men who represent the other nations there in conference are disesteemed by those who know them. Quite the contrary. But you understand that the nations of Europe have again and again clashed with one another in competitive interest. It is impossible for men to forget those sharp issues that were drawn between them in times past. It is impossible for men to believe that all ambitions have all of a sudden been foregone. They remember territory that was coveted; they remember rights that it was attempted to extort; they remember political ambitions which it was attempted to realize, and, while they believe that men have come into a different temper, they cannot forget these things, and so they do not resort to one another for a dispassionate view of the matters in controversy. They resort to that nation which has won the enviable distinction of being regarded as the friend of mankind.

Whenever it is desired to send a small force of soldiers to occupy a piece of territory where it is thought nobody else will be welcome, they ask for American soldiers. And where other soldiers would be looked upon with suspicion and perhaps met with resistance, the American soldier is welcomed with acclaim.

I have had so many grounds for pride on the other side of the water that I am very thankful that they are not grounds for personal pride, but for national pride. If they were grounds for personal pride, I'd be the most stuck-up man in the world.

And it has been an infinite pleasure to me to see those gallant soldiers of ours, of whom the Constitution of the United States made me the proud commander. You may be proud of the 26th Division, but I commanded the 26th Division, and see what they did under my direction! And everybody praises the American soldier, with the feeling that in praising him he is subtracting from the credit of no one else.

I have been searching for the fundamental fact that converted Europe to believe in us. Before this war, Europe did not believe in us as she does now. She did not believe in us throughout the first three years of the war. She seems really to have believed that we were holding off because we thought we could make more by staying out than by going in. And, all of a sudden, in a short eighteen months, the whole verdict is reversed. There can be but one explanation for it. They saw what we did—that, without making a single claim, we put all our men and all our means at the disposal of those who were fighting for their homes, in the first instance, but also for a cause, the cause of human rights and justice, and that we went in, not to support their national claims, but to support the great cause which they held in common. And when they saw that America not only held ideals, but acted ideals, they were converted to America and became firm partisans of those ideals.

I met a group of scholars when I was in Paris—some gentlemen from one of the Greek universities who had come to see me, and in whose presence, or rather in the presence of whose traditions of learning, I felt very young indeed. I told them that I had one of the delightful revenges that sometimes come to a man. All my life I had heard men speak with a sort of condescension of ideals and of idealists, and particularly those separated, encloistered persons whom they choose to term academic, who were in the habit of uttering ideals in the free atmosphere, when they clash with nobody in particular.

And I said I have had this sweet revenge: speaking with perfect frankness, in the name of the people of the United States, I have uttered as the objects of this great war ideals, and nothing but ideals, and the war has been won by that inspiration. Men were fighting with tense muscles and lowered heads until they came to realize those things, feeling they were fighting for their lives and their country, and when these accents of what it was all about reached them from America, they lifted their heads, they raised their eyes to heaven, when they saw men in khaki coming across the sea in the spirit of crusaders, and they found that these were strange men, reckless of danger not only, but reckless because they seemed to see something that made that danger worth while. Men have \ testified to me in Europe that our men were possessed by something that they could only call a religious fervor. They were not like any of the other soldiers. They had a vision, they had a dream, and they were fighting in the dream, and, fighting in the dream, they turned the whole tide of battle, and it never came back.

One of our American humorists, meeting the criticism that American soldiers were not trained long enough, said: "It takes only half as long to train an American soldier as any other, because you only have to train him to go one way." And he did only go one way, and he never came back until he could do it when he pleased.

And now do you realize that this confidence we have established throughout the world imposes a burden upon us, if you choose to call it a burden? It is one of those burdens which any nation ought to be proud to carry. Any man who resists the present tides that run in the world will find himself thrown upon a shore so high and barren that it will seem as if he had been separated from his human kind forever

The Europe that I left the other day was full of something that it had never felt fill its heart so full before. It was full of hope. The Europe of the second year of the war, the Europe of the third year of the war, was sinking to a sort of stubborn desperation. They did not see any great thing to be achieved, even when the war should be won. They hoped there would be sortie salvage; they hoped that they could clear their territories of invading armies; they hoped they could set up their homes and start their industries afresh. But they thought it would simply be the resumption of the old life that Europe had led—led in fear, led in anxiety, led in constant suspicious watchfulness. They never dreamed that it would be a Europe of settled peace and of justified hope.

And now these ideals have wrought this new magic, that all the peoples of Europe are buoyed up and confident in the spirit of hope, because they believe that we are at the eve of a new age in the world, when nations will understand one another, when nations will support One another in every just cause, when nations will unite every moral and every physical strength to see that the right shall prevail.

If America were at this juncture to fail the world, what would come of it? I do not mean any disrespect to any other great people when I say that America is the hope of the world; and if she does not justify that hope, the results are unthinkable. Men will be thrown back upon the bitterness of disappointment not only, but the bitterness of despair. All nations will be set up as hostile camps again; the men at the Peace Conference will go home with their heads upon their breasts, knowing that they have failed—for they were bidden not to come home from there until they did something more than sign a treaty of peace.

Suppose we sign the treaty of peace and that it is the most satisfactory treaty of peace that the confusing elements of the modem world will afford, and go home and think about our labors, we will know that we have left written upon the historic table at Versailles, upon which Vergennes and Benjamin Franklin wrote their names, nothing but a modern scrap of paper; no nations united to defend it, no great forces combined to make it good, no assurance given to the downtrodden and fearful people of the world that they shall be safe.

Any man who thinks that America will take part in giving the world any such rebuff and disappointment as that does not know America. I invite him to test the sentiments of the nation. We set this nation up to make men free, and we did not confine our conception and purpose to America, and now we will make men free. If we did not do that, the fame of America would be gone, and all her powers would be dissipated. She then would have to keep her power for those narrow, selfish, provincial purposes which seem so dear to some minds that have no sweep beyond the nearest horizon.

I should welcome no sweeter challenge than that. I have fighting blood in me, and it is sometimes a delight to let it have scope, but if it is a challenge on this occasion it will be an indulgence. Think of the picture, think of the utter blackness that would fall on the world. America has failed! America made a little essay at generosity, and then withdrew. America said, "We are your friends," but it was only for today, not for tomorrow. America said, "Here is our power to vindicate right," and then the next day said, "Let right take care of itself, and we will take care of ourselves." America said, "We set up a light to lead men along the paths of liberty, but we have lowered it; it is intended only to light our own path." We set up a great ideal of liberty, and then we said: "Liberty is a thing that you must win for yourself. Do not call upon us."

And think of the world that we would leave. Do you realize how many new nations are going to be set up in the presence of old and powerful nations in Europe, and left there, if left by us, without a disinterested friend?

Do you believe in the Polish cause, as I do? Are you going to set up Poland, immature, inexperienced, as yet unorganized, and leave her with a circle of armies around her? Do you believe in the aspiration of the Czecho-Slovaks and the Jugo-Slavs, as I do? Do you know how many powers would be quick to pounce upon them if there were not the guarantees of the world behind their liberty?

Have you thought of the sufferings of Armenia ? You poured out your money to help succor the Armenians after they suffered; now set your strength so that they shall never suffer again.

The arrangements of the present peace cannot stand a generation unless they are guaranteed by the united forces of the civilized world. And, if we do not guarantee them, can you not see the picture? Your hearts have instructed you where the burden of this war fell. It did not fall upon the national treasuries, it did not fall upon the instruments of administration, it did not fall upon the resources of the nation. It fell upon the victims' homes everywhere—where women were toiling in the hope that their men would come back.

When I think of the homes upon which dull despair would settle were this great hope disappointed, I should wish for my part never to have had America play any part whatever in this attempt to emancipate the world. But I talk as if there were any question. I have no more doubt of the verdict of America in this matter than I have doubt of the blood that is in me.

And so, my fellow-citizens, I have come back to report progress, and I do not believe that the progress is going to stop short of the goal. The nations of the world have set their heads now to do a great thing and they are not going to slacken their purpose. And when I speak of the nations of the world I do not speak of the Governments of the world. I speak of the peoples who constitute the nations of the world. They are in the saddle and they are going to see to it that, if their present Governments do not do their will, some other Governments shall. And the secret is out and the present Governments know it

There is a great deal of harmony to be got out of common knowledge. There is a great deal of sympathy to be got out of living in the same atmosphere, and except for the differences of language, which puzzled my American ear very sadly, I could have believed I was at home, in France, or in Italy, or in England, when I was on the streets, when I was in the presence of the crowds, when I was in great halls where men were gathered together irrespective of class. I did not feel quite as much at home there as I do here, but I felt that, now, at any rate, after this storm of war had cleared the air, men were seeing eye to eye everywhere and that these were the kind of folks who would understand what the kind of folks at home would understand and that they were thinking the same things.

I feel about you as I am reminded of a story of that excellent witness and good artist, Oliver Herford, who one day, sitting at luncheon at his club, was slapped vigorously on the back by a man whom he did not know very well. He said: "Oliver, old boy, how are you?" He looked at him rather coldly. He said: "I don't know your name, I don't know your face, but your manners are very familiar." And I must say that your manners are very familiar, and, let me add, very delightful.

It is a great comfort, for one thing, to realize that you all under. stand the language I am speaking. A friend of mine said that to talk through an interpreter was like witnessing the compound fracture of an idea. But the beauty of it is that, whatever the impediments of the channel of communication, the idea is the same, it gets registered, and it gets registered in responsive hearts and receptive purposes.

I have come back for a strenuous attempt to transact business for a little while in America, but I have really come back to say to you, in all soberness and honesty, that I have been trying my best to speak your thoughts.

When I sample myself, I think I find that I am a typical American, and, if I sample deep enough and get down to what is probably the true stuff of a man, then I have hope that it Is part of the stuff that is like the other fellow's at home. And, therefore, probing deep in my heart and trying to see the things that are right, without regard to the things that may be debated as expedient, I feel that I am interpreting the purpose and the thought of America; and in loving America I find I have joined the great majority of my fellow-men throughout the world.

Woodrow Wilson, Address Following Arrival from the Paris Peace Conference in Boston, Massachusetts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354015

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