Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at a Luncheon at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California

September 17, 1919

Mrs. Mott and my fellow citizens, Mrs. Mott has very happily interpreted the feeling with which I face this great audience. I have come to get a consciousness of your support and of your sentiment, at a time in the history of the world. I take leave to say, more critical than has ever been known during the history of the United States. I have felt a certain burden of responsibility as I have mixed with my fellow countrymen across the continent, because I have feared at times that there were those amongst us who did not realize just what the heart of this question is. I have been afraid that their thoughts were lingering in a past day when the calculation was always of national advantage, and that it had not come to see the light of the new day in which men are thinking of the common advantage and safety of mankind. The issue is nothing else. Either we must stand apart, and in the phrase of some gentlemen, "take care of ourselves," which means antagonize others, or we must join hands with the other great nations of the world and with the weak nations of the world, in seeing that justice is everywhere maintained.

Quite apart from the merits of any particular question that may be raised about the treaty itself, I think we are under a certain moral compulsion to accept this treaty. In the first place, my fellow citizens, it was laid down according to American specifications. The initial suggestions upon which this treaty is based emanated from America. I would not have you understanding me as meaning that they were ideas confined to America, because the promptness with which they were accepted, the joy with which they were hailed in some parts of the world, the readiness of the leaders of nations that had been supposed to be seeking chiefly their own interest in adopting these principles as the principles of the peace, show that they were listening to the counsels of their own people, that they were listening to those who knew the critical character of the new age and the necessity we were under to take new measures for the peace of the world. Because the thing that had happened was intolerable.

The thing that Germany attempted, if it had succeeded, would have set the civilization of the world back a hundred years. We have prevented it, but prevention is not enough. We have shown Germany—and not Germany only, but the world—that upon occasion the great peoples of the world will combine to prevent an iniquity, but we have not shown how that is going to be done in the future with a certainty that will make every other nation know that a similar enterprise must not be attempted.

Again and again, as I have crossed the continent, generous women, women I did not know, have taken me by the hand and said, "God bless you, Mr. President." Some of them, like many of you, had lost sons and husbands and brothers in the war. Why should they bless me? I advised Congress to declare war. I advised Congress to send their sons to their death. As Commander in Chief of the Army, I sent them over the seas, and they were killed. Why should they bless me? Because in the generosity of their hearts they want the sons of other women saved henceforth, and they believe that the methods proposed at any rate create a very hopeful expectation that similar wars will be prevented, and that other armies will not have to go from the United States to die upon distant fields of battle. The moral compulsion upon us, upon us who at the critical stage of the world saved the world and who threw in our fortunes with all the forward-looking peoples of the world—the moral compulsion upon us to stand by and see it through is overwhelming. We can not now turn back. We made the choice in April, 1917. We can not with honor reverse it now.

Not only is there the compulsion of honor, but there is the compulsion of interest. I never like to speak of. that, because, notwithstanding the reputation that we had throughout the world before we made the great sacrifice of this war, this Nation does love its honor better than it loves its interest. It does yield to moral compulsion more readily than to material compulsion. That is the glory of America. That is the spirit in which she was conceived and born. That is the mission that she has in the world. She always has lived up to it, and, God helping her, she always will live up to it. But if you want, as some of our fellow countrymen insist, to dwell upon the material side of it and our interest in the matter, our commercial interest, draw the picture for yourselves. The other nations of the world are drawing together. We who suggested that they should draw together in this new partnership stand aside. We at once draw their suspicion upon us. We at once draw their intense hostility upon us. We at once renew the thing that had begun to be done before we went into the war. There was a conference in Paris not many months before we went into the war in which the nations then engaged against Germany attempted to draw together in an exclusive economic combination where they should serve one an- other's interest and exclude those who had not participated in the war from sharing in that interest, and just so certainly as we stay out, every market that can possibly be closed against us will be closed. If you merely look at it from the point of view of the material prosperity of the United States, we are under compulsion to stay in the partnership. I was asking some gentlemen the other day who were engaged in commerce of various sorts, "Can you sell more easily to a man who trusts you or to a man who distrusts you?" There can be but one answer to that question. Can you sell more easily to a man who takes your goods because he can not do without them or to a man who wants them and believes them the best? The thing demonstrates itself. You make all the lines of trade lines of resistance unless you prove true to the things that you have attempted and undertaken.

Then, there is a deeper compulsion even than those, the compulsion of humanity. If there is one thing that America ought to have learned more promptly than any other country it is that, being made up out of all the ranks of humanity, in serving itself it must serve the human race. I suppose I could not command the words which would exaggerate the present expectations of the world with regard to the United States. Nothing more thrilling, nothing more touching, happened to me on the other side of the water than the daily evidences that, not the weak peoples merely, not the peoples of countries that had been allowed to shift for themselves and had always borne the chief burden of the world's sufferings, but the great peoples as well, the people of France as well as the people of Serbia, the people of all the nations that had looked this terror in the face, were turning to the United States and saying, "We depend upon you to take the lead, to direct us how to go out of this wilderness of doubt and fear and terror." We can not desert humanity. We are the trustees of humanity, and we must see that we redeem the pledges which are always implicit in so great a trusteeship.

So, feeling these compulsions, the compulsion of honor, the compulsion of interest, and the compulsion of humanity, I wonder what it is that is holding some minds back from acquiescence in this great enterprise of peace. I must admit to you, my fellow citizens, that I have been very much puzzled. I can not conceive a motive adequate to hold men off from this thing, and when I examine the objections which they make to the treaty I can but wonder if they are really thinking, or if, on the other hand, there is some emotion coming from fountains that I do not know of which are obliging them to take this course.

Let me take the point in which my initial sympathy is most with them, the matter of the cession to Japan of the interests of Germany in Shantung, in China. I said to my Japanese colleagues on the other side of the sea, and therefore I am at liberty to say in public, I am not satisfied with that settlement, I think it ought to have been different, but when gentlemen propose to cure it by striking that clause out of the treaty or by ourselves withholding our adherence to the treaty, they propose an irrational thing. Let me remind you of some of the history of this business. It was in 1898 that China ceded these rights and concessions to Germany. The pretext was that some German missionaries had been killed. My heart aches, I must say, when I think how we have made an excuse of religion sometimes to work a deep wrong. The central Government of China had done all that they could to protect those German missionaries; their death was due to local disturbances, to local passion, to local antipathy against the foreigner. There was nothing that the Chinese Government as a whole could justly be held responsible for; but suppose there had been. Two Christian missionaries are killed, and therefore one great nation robs another nation and does a thing which is fundamentally un-Christian and heathen! For there was. no adequate excuse for what Germany exacted of China. I read again only the other day the phrases in which poor China was made to make the concessions. She was made to make them in words dictated by Germany, in view of her gratitude to Germany for certain services rendered—the deepest hypocrisy conceivable! She was obliged to do so by force.

Then, what happened, my fellow citizens? Then Russia came in and obliged China to cede to her Port Arthur and Talien Wan, not for quite so long a period, but upon substantially the same terms. Then England must needs have Wei-Hai-Wei as an equivalent concession to that which had been made to Germany; and presently certain ports, with the territory back of them, were ceded upon similar principles to France. Everybody got in, except the United States, and said, "If Germany is going to get something, we will get something." Why? None of them had any business in there on such terms.

Then when the Japanese-Russian War came, Japan did what she has done in this war. She attacked Port Arthur and captured Port Arthur, and Port Arthur was ceded to her as a consequence of the war. Not one official voice was raised in the United States against that cession. No protest was made. No protest was made by the Government of the United States against the original cession of this Shantung territory to Germany. One of the highest minded men of our history was President at that time—I mean Mr. McKinley. One of the ablest men that we have had as Secretary of State, Mr. John Hay, occupied that great office. In the message of Mr. McKinley about this transaction, he says—I am quoting his language—that inasmuch as the powers that had taken these territories had agreed to keep the door open there for our commerce, there was no reason why we should object. Just so we could trade with these stolen territories we were willing to let them be stolen. Which of these gentlemen who are now objecting to the cession of the German rights in Shantung to Japan were prominent in protesting against the original cession or any one of those original cessions? It makes my heart burn when some men are so late in doing justice.

In the meantime, before we got into this war, but after the war had begun, because they deemed the assistance of Japan in the Pacific absolutely indispensable, Great Britain and France both agreed that if Japan would enter and cooperate in the war she could do the same thing with regard to Shantung that she had done with regard to Port Arthur; that is she would take what Germany had in China she could keep it. She took it. She has it now. Her troops are there. She has it as spoils of war. Observe, my fellow citizens, we are not taking this thing away from China; we are taking it from Germany. China had ceded it for 99 years, and there are 78 of those 99 to run yet. They were Germany's rights in- Shantung, not China's, that were ceded by the treaty to Japan, but with a difference—a difference which never occurred in any of these other cases— a difference which was not insisted upon at the cession of Port Arthur—upon a condition that no other nation in doing similar things in China has ever yielded to. Japan is under solemn promise to forego all sovereign rights in the Province of Shantung and to retain only what private corporations have elsewhere in China, the right of concessionaires with regard to the operation of the railway and the exploitation of the mines. Scores of foreign corporations have that right in other parts of China.

But it does not stop there. Coupled with this arrangement is the league of nations, under which Japan solemnly undertakes, with the rest of us, to protect the territorial integrity of China, along with the territorial integrity of other countries, and back of her promise lies the similar promise of every other nation, that nowhere will they countenance a disregard for the territorial integrity or the political independence of that great helpless people, lying there hitherto as an object of prey in the great Orient. It is the first time in the history of the world that anything has been done for China, and sitting around our council board in Paris I put this question: "May I expect that this will be the beginning of the retrocession to China of the exceptional rights which other Governments have enjoyed there?" The responsible representatives of the other great Governments said, "Yes; you may expect it." Expect it?

Your attention is constantly drawn to article 10, and that is the article—the heart of the covenant—which guarantees the territorial integrity and political independence not only of China, but of other countries more helpless even than China; but besides article 10, there is article 11, which makes it the right of every member of the league, big or little, influential or not influential, to draw 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. Whenever formerly anything was done in detriment of the interests of China, we had to approach the Government that did it with apologies. We had, as it were, to say, "This is none of our business, but we would like to suggest that this is not in the interest of China." I am repeating, not the words but the purport of notes that I have signed myself to Japan, in which I was obliged to use all the genuflections of apology and say, "The United States believes that this is wrong in principle and suggests to the Japanese Government that the matter be reconsidered." Now, when you have the league of nations the representative of the United States has the right to stand up and say, "This is against the covenants of peace; it can not be done," and if occasion arises we can add, "It shall not be done." The weak and oppressed and wronged peoples of the world have never before had a forum made for them in which they can summon their enemies into the presence of the judgment of mankind, and if there is one tribunal that the wrongdoer ought to dread more than another it is that tribunal of the opinion of mankind. Some nations keep their international promises only because they wish to obtain the respect of mankind. You remember those immortal words in the opening part of the Declaration of Independence. I wish I could quote them literally, but they run this way, that out of respect for the opinion of mankind the leaders of the American Revolution now state the causes which have led them to separate themselves from Great Britain. America was the first to set that example, the first to admit that right and justice and even the basis of revolution was a matter upon which mankind was entitled to form a judgment.

If we do not take part in this thing, what happens? France and England are absolutely bound to this thing without any qualifications. The alternative is to defend China in the future with important concessions to begin with, or else let the world go back to its old methods of rapacity; or else take up arms against France and England and Japan, and begin the shedding of blood over again, almost fratricidal blood. Does that sound like a practical program? Does that sound like doing China a service? Does that sound like anything that is rational?

Go to other matters with which I have less patience, other objections to the league. I have spoken of article 10. Those who object to article 10 object to entering the league with any responsibilities whatever. They want to make it a matter of opinion merely and not a matter of action. They know just as well as I know that there is nothing in article 10 that can oblige the Congress of the United States to declare war if it does not deem it wise to declare war. We engage with the other nations of the world to preserve as against external aggression—not as against internal revolution—the territorial integrity and existing political independence of the other members of the league; and then, in the next sentence, it is said that the council of the league of nations shall advise with regard to the measures which may be necessary to carry out this promise on the part of the members. As I have said several times in my speeches, I have in vain searched the dictionary to find any other meaning for the word "advise" than "advise." These gentlemen would have you believe that our armies can be ordered abroad by some other power or by a combination of powers. They are thinking in an air-tight compartment. America is not the only proud nation in the world. I can testify from my share in the. counsels on the other side of the sea that the other nations are just as jealous of their sovereignty as we are of ours. They would no more have dreamed of giving us the right of ordering out their armies than we would have dreamed of giving them the right to order out our armies. The advice can come from the United States only after the United States representative votes in the affirmative.

We have got an absolute veto on the thing, unless we are parties to the dispute, and I want again to call attention to what that means. That means unless we want to seize somebody's territory or invade somebody's political independence, or unless somebody else wants to seize our territory and invade our political independence. I regard either of those contingencies as so remote that they are not troubling me in the least. I know the people of this country well enough to know that we will not be the aggressors in trying to execute a wrong, and in looking about me I do not see anybody else that would think it wise to try it on us. But suppose we are parties. Then is it the council of the league that is forcing war upon us? The war is ours anyhow. We are in circumstances where it is necessary for Congress, if it wants to steal somebody's territory or prevent somebody from stealing our territory, to go to war. It is not the council of the league that brings us into war at that time, in such circumstances; it is the unfortunate circumstances which have arisen in some matter of aggression. I want to say again that article 10 is the very heart of the covenant of the league, because all the great wrongs of the world have had their root in the seizure of territory or the control of the political independence of other peoples. I believe that I speak the feeling of the people of the United States when I say that, having seen one great wrong like that attempted and having prevented it, we are ready to prevent it again.

Those are the two principal criticisms, that we did not do the impossible with regard to Shantung and that we may be advised to go to war. That is all there is in either of those. But they say, "We want the Monroe doctrine more distinctly acknowledged." Well, if I could have found language that was more distinct than that used, I should have been very happy to suggest it, but it says in so many words that nothing in that document shall be construed as affecting the validity of the Monroe doctrine. I do not see what more it could say, but, as I say, if the clear can be clarified, I have no objection to its being clarified. The meaning is too obvious to admit of discussion, and I want you to realize how extraordinary that provision is. Every nation in the world had been jealous of the Monroe doctrine, had studiously avoided doing or saying anything that would admit its validity, and here all the great nations of the world sign a document which admits its validity. That constitutes nothing less than a moral revolution in the attitude of the rest of the world toward America.

What does the Monroe doctrine mean in that covenant? It means that with regard to aggressions upon the Western Hemisphere we are at liberty to act without waiting for other nations to act. That is the Monroe doctrine. The Monroe doctrine says that if anybody tries to interfere with affairs in the Western Hemisphere it will be regarded as an unfriendly act to the United States—not to the rest of the world—and that means that the United States will look after it, and will not ask anybody's permission to look after it. The document says that nothing in this document must be construed as interfering with that. I dismiss the objections to the Monroe doctrine all the more because this is what happened: I brought the first draft of the covenant to this country in March last. I then invited the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House and the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate to the White House to dinner, and after dinner we had the frankest possible conference with regard to this draft. When I went back to Paris I carried every suggestion that was made in that conference to the commission on the league of nations, which consisted of representatives of 14 nations, and every one of the suggestions of those committees was embodied in the document. I suppose it is a pride of style. I suppose that, although the substance was embodied, they would rather write it differently, but, after all, that is a literary matter. After all, that is a question of pride in the command of the English language, and I must say that there were a great many men on that commission on the league of nations who seemed perfectly to understand the English language and who wished to express, not only in the English text but in its French equivalent, exactly what we wanted to say.

One of the suggestions I carried over was that we should have the right to withdraw. I must say that I did not want to say, "We are going into this if you promise we can scuttle whenever we want to." That did not seem to me a very handsome thing to propose, and I told the men in the conference at the White House, when they raised the question, that it had been raised in the commission on the league of nations and that it was the unanimous opinion of the international lawyers of that body that, inasmuch as this was an association of sovereigns, they had the right to withdraw. But I conceded that if that right was admitted there could be no harm in stating it, and so in the present draft of the covenant it is stated that any member may withdraw upon two years' notice, which, I think, is not an unreasonable length of time, provided that at the end of the two years all the international obligations of that power under the covenant shall have been fulfilled. Would you wish any other condition? Would you wish the United States allowed to withdraw without fulfilling its obligations? Is that the kind of people we are? Moreover, have we ever failed to fulfill our international obligations? It is a point of pride with me, my fellow citizens, not to debate this question. I will not debate with anybody whether the United States is likely to withdraw without fulfilling its obligations or not, and if other gentlemen entertain that possibility and expectation, I separate myself from them.

But there is another matter. They say that the British Empire has six votes and we have only one. It happens that our one is as big as the six, and that satisfies me entirely. Let me explain what I mean. It is only in the assembly that the British Empire has six votes—not in the council—and there is only one thing that the assembly votes on in which it can decide a matter without the concurrence of all the States represented on the council, and that is the admission of new members to the league of nations. With regard to every other matter, for example, amendments to the covenant, with regard to cases referred out of the council to the assembly, it is provided that if a majority of the assembly and the representatives of all the States represented on the council concur, the vote shall be valid and conclusive, which means that the affirmative vote of the United States is in every instance just as powerful as the six votes of the British Empire. I took the pains yesterday, I believe it was, on the train, to go through the covenant almost sentence by sentence again, to find if there was any. case other than the one I have mentioned in which that was not true, and there is no other case in which that is not true. Of course, you will understand that wherever the United States is a party to a quarrel and that quarrel is carried to the assembly, we can not vote; but, similarly, if the British Empire is a party her six representatives can not vote. It is an even break any way you take it, and I would rather count six as one person than six as six persons. So far as I can see, it makes me a bigger man. The point to remember is that the energy of the league of nations resides in the council, not in the assembly, and that in the council there is a perfect equality of votes. That settles that matter, and even some of my fellow countrymen who insist upon keeping a hyphen in the middle of their names ought to be satisfied with that. Though I must admit that I do not care to argue anything with a hyphen. A man that puts anything else before the word "American" is no comrade of mine, and yet I am willing even to. discomfit him with a statement of fact.

Those are the objections to yielding to these compulsions of honor, interest, and humanity, and it is because of the nature of these objections, their flimsiness, the impossibility of supporting them with conclusive argument that I am profoundly puzzled to know what is back of the opposition to the league of nations. I know one of the results, and that is to raise the hope in the minds of the German people that, after all, they can separate us from those who were our associates in the war. I know that the pro-German propaganda which had theretofore not dared to raise its head again has now boldly raised its head and is active all over the United States. These are disturbing and illuminating circumstances. Pray understand me; I am not accusing some of the honorable men whose objections I am trying to answer with trying to draw near to Germany. That is not my point; but I am saying that what they are attempting to do is exactly what Germany desires, and that it would touch the honor of the United States very near if at the end of this great struggle we should seek to take the position which our enemies desire and our friends deplore.

I am arguing the matter only because I am a very patient man. I have not the slightest doubt as to what the result is going to be. I have felt the temper and high purpose of this great people as I have crossed this wonderful land of ours, and one of the things that make it most delightful to stand here is to remember that the people of the Pacific coast were the first to see the new duty in its entirety. It is a remarkable circumstance that you people, who were farthest from the field of conflict, most remote from that contact of interests which stirred so many peoples, yet outdid the rest of the country in volunteering for service and volunteering your money. As I came through that wonderful country to the north of us it occurred to me one day that the aspiring lines of those wonderful mountains must lead people's eyes to be drawn upward and to look into the blue serene and see things apart from the confusions of affairs, to see the real, pure vision of the interests of humanity; and that, after all, the spirit of America was best expressed where people withdrew their thoughts from the entangling interests of everyday life, purified their motives from all that was selfish and groveling and based upon the desire to seize and get and turned their thoughts to those things that are worth living for.

The only thing that makes the world inhabitable is that it is sometimes ruled by its purest spirits. I want to leave this illustration, which I have often used, in your minds of what I mean. Some years ago some one said to me that the modern world was a world in which the mind was monarch, and my reply was that if that was true it must be one of those modern monarchs that reigned and did not govern; that, as a matter of fact, the world was governed by a great popular assembly made up of the passions and that the constant struggle of civilization was to see that the handsome passions had a working majority. That is the problem of civilization, that the things that engage the best impulses of the human spirit should be the prevailing things, the conquering things, the things that one can die comfortably after achieving. How do men ever go to sleep that have conceived wrong? How do men ever get their own consent to laugh who have not looked the right in the face and extended their hand to it? If America can in the future look the rest of the world in the face, it will be because she has been the champion of justice and of right.

APP Note: This event was under the auspices of the Women's League for the Peace Treaty; the New York Times reported there were about 1600 women present. The President refers to Maude Robinson Mott (Mrs. Ernest J. Mott) who at the time was President of the American Association of University Women.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at a Luncheon at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318037

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