Woodrow Wilson photo

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

September 18, 1919

Mr. Toastmaster, my fellow countrymen, I stood here yesterday, but before a very different audience, an audience that it was very delightful to address, and it is no less delightful to find myself face to face with this thoughtful group of citizens of one of the most progressive States in the Union. Because, after all, my fellow citizens, our thought must be of the present and the future. The men who do not look forward now are of no further service to the Nation. The immediate need of this country and of the world is peace not only, but settled peace, peace upon a definite and well-understood foundation, supported by such covenants as men can depend upon, supported by such purposes as will permit of a concert of action throughout all. the free peoples of the world. The very interesting remarks of your toastmaster have afforded me the opportunity to pay the tribute which they earn to the gentlemen with whom I was associated on the other side of the water. I do not believe that we often enough stop to consider how remarkable the peace conference in Paris has been. It is the first great international conference which did not meet to consider the interests and advantages of the strong nations. It is the first international conference that did not convene in order to make the arrangements which would establish the control of the strong. I want to testify that the whole spirit of the conference was the spirit of men who do not regard themselves as the masters of anybody, but as the servants of the people whom they represent. I found them quick with sympathy for the peoples who had been through all these dolorous ages imposed upon, upon whom the whole yoke of civilization seemed to have been fastened so that it never could be taken off again.

The heart of this treaty, my fellow citizens, is that it gives liberty and independence to people who never could have got it for themselves, because the men who constituted that conference realized that the basis of war was the imposition of the will of strong nations upon those who could not resist them. You have only to take the formula of the recent war in order to see what was the matter. The formula of Pan-Germanism was Bremen to Bagdad.

What is the line from Bremen to Bagdad? It leads through partitioned Poland, through prostrated Roumania, through subjugated Slavia, down through disordered Turkey, and on into distressed Persia, and every foot of the line is a line of political weakness. Germany was looking for the line of least resistance to establish her power, and unless the world makes that a line of absolute resistance this war will have to be fought over again. You must settle the difficulties which gave occasion to the war or you must expect war again. You know what had happened all through that territory. Almost everywhere there were German princes planted on thrones where they did not belong, where they were alien, where they were of a different tradition and a different people, mere agents of a political plan, the seething center of which was that unhappy city of Constantinople, where, I dare say, there was more intrigue to the square inch than there has ever been anywhere else in the world, and where not the most honest minds always but generally the most adroit minds were sent to play upon the cupidity of the Turkish authorities and upon the helplessness of the Balkan States, in order to make a field for European aggression. I am not now saying that Germany was the only intriguer. I am not now saying that hers was the only plans of advantage, but I am saying that there was the field where lay the danger of the world in regard to peace. Every statesman in Europe knew it, and at last it dawned upon them that the remedy was not balances of power but liberty and right.

An illumination of profound understanding of human affairs shines upon the deliberations of that conference that never shone upon the deliberations of any other international conference in history, and therefore it is a happy circumstance to me to be afforded the opportunity to say how delightful it was to find that these gentlemen had not accepted the American specifications for the peace—for you remember they were the American specifications— because America had come in and assisted them and because America was powerful and they desired her influence and assistance, but because they already believed in them. When we uttered our principles, the principles for which we were fighting, they had only to examine the thoughts of their own people to find that those were also the principles for which their people were fighting as well as the people of the United States; and the delightful enthusiasm which showed itself in accomplishing some of the most disinterested tasks of the peace was a notable circumstance of the whole conference. I was glad after I inaugurated it that I drew together the little body which was called the big four. We did not call it the big four; we called it something very much bigger than that. We called it the supreme council of the principal allied and associated powers. We had to have some name, and the more dramatic it was the better; but it was a very simple council of friends. The intimacies of that little room were the center of the whole peace conference, and they were the intimacies of men who believed in the same things and sought the same objects. The hearts of men like Clemenceau and Lloyd-George and Orlando beat with the people of the world as well as with the people of their own countries. They have the same fundamental sympathies that we have, and they know that there is only one way to work out peace and that is to work out right.

The peace of the world is absolutely indispensable to us, and immediately indispensable to us. There is not a single domestic problem that can be worked out in the right temper or opportunely and in time unless we have conditions that we can count on. I do not need to tell business men that they can not conduct their business if they do not know what is going to happen to-morrow. You can not make plans unless you have certain elements in the future upon which you can depend. You can not seek markets unless you know whether you are going to seek them among people who suspect you or people who believe in you. If the United States is going to stand off and play truant in this great enterprise of justice and right then you must expect to be looked upon with suspicion and hostile rivalry everywhere in the world. They will say, "These men are not intending to assist; they are intending to exploit us." You know what happened just a few months before we went into the war. There was a conference at Paris consisting of representatives of the principal allied powers for the purpose of concerting a sort of economic league in which they would manage their purchasing as well as their selling in a way which would redound to their advantage and make use of the rest of the world. That was because they then thought what they will be obliged to think again if we do not continue our partnership with them—that we were standing on to get what we could out of it, and they were making a defensive economic arrangement. Very well; they will do that again. Almost of instinct they will do it again, not out of a deliberate hostility to the United States but by the general instinctive impulse of their own business interest and their own business men. Therefore we can not arrange a single element of our business until we have settled peace and know whether we are going to deal with a friendly world or an unfriendly world.

We can not determine our own internal economic reforms until then, and there must be some very fundamental economic reforms in this country. There must be a reconsideration of the structure of our economic society. Whether we will or no, the majority of mankind demand it, in America as well as elsewhere, and we have got to sit down in the best temper possible, in times of quiet, in times permitting conciliation and not hostility, and determine what we are going to do. We can not do it until we have peace. We can not release the great industrial and economic power of America and let it run free until there are channels that are free in which it can run. And the channels of business are mental channels as well as physical channels. In an open market men's minds must be open. It has been said so often that it is a very trite saying, but it remains nevertheless true, that a financial panic is a mere state of mind. There are no fewer resources in a country at the time of a panic than there were the day before it broke. There is no less money, there is no less energy, there is no less individual capacity and initiative, but something has frightened everybody and credits are drawn in and everybody builds a fence around himself and is careful to keep behind the fence and wait and see what is going to happen. That is a panic. It is a waiting, a fearful expecting of something to happen. Generally it does not happen. Generally men slowly get their breath again and say, "Well, the world looks just the same as it did; we had better get to work again." Even when business is absolutely prostrate they are at least in the condition that a friend of mine described. He was asked at the time of one of our greatest panics, some 25 years ago, if business was not looking up. He said, "Yes; it is so flat on its back that it can not look any other way." Even if it is flat on its back, it can see the world; it is not lying on its fact, and it will presently sit up and begin to take a little nourishment and take notice, and the panic is over. But while the whole world is in doubt what to expect, the whole world is under the partial paralysis that is characteristic of a panic. You do not know what it is safe to do with your money now. You do not know what plans it is safe to make for your business now. You have got to know what the world of to-morrow is going to be, and you will not know until we have settled the great matter of peace.

I want to remind you how the permanency of peace is at the heart of this treaty. This is not merely a treaty of peace with Germany. It is a world settlement; not affecting those parts of the world, of course, which were not involved in; the war, because the conference had no jurisdiction over them, but the war did extend to most parts of the world, and the scattered, dismembered assets of the Central Empires and of Turkey gave us plenty to do and covered the greater part of the distressed populations of the world. It is nothing less than a world settlement, and at the center of that stands this covenant for the future which we call the covenant of the league of nations. Without it the treaty can not be worked, and without it it is a mere temporary arrangement with Germany. The covenant of the league of nations is the instrumentality for the maintenance of peace. How does it propose to maintain it? By the means that all forward-looking and thoughtful men have desired for generations together, by substituting arbitration and discussion for war. To hear some gentlemen talk you would think that the council of the league of nations is to spend its time considering when to advise other people to fight. That is what comes of a constant concentration of attention upon article 10. Article 10 ought to have been somewhere further down in the covenant, because it is in the background; it is not in the foreground. I am going to take the liberty of expounding this to you, though I assume that you have all read the covenant. At the heart of that covenant are these tremendous arrangements: Every member of the league solemnly agrees—and let me pause to say that that means every fighting nation in the world, because for the present, limited to an army of 100,000, Germany is not a fighting nation—that it will never go to war without first having done one or another of two things, without either submitting the matter in dispute to arbitration, in which case it promises absolutely to abide by the verdict, or, if it does not care to submit it to arbitration, without submitting it to discussion by the council of the league of nations, in which case it promises to lay all the documents and all the pertinent facts before that council; it consents that that council shall publish all the documents and all the pertinent facts, so that all the world shall know them; that it shall be allowed six months in which to consider the matter; and that even at the end of the six months, if the decision of the council is not acceptable, it will still not go to war for three months following the rendering of the decision. So that, even allowing no time for the preliminaries, there are nine months of cooling off, nine months of discussion, nine months not of private discussion, not of discussion between those who are heated, but of discussion between those who are disinterested except in the maintenance of the peace of the world, when the purifying and rectifying influence of the public opinion of mankind is brought to bear upon the contest. If anything approaching that had been the arrangement of the world in 1914, the war would have been impossible; and I confidently predict that there is not an aggressive people in the world who would dare bring a wrongful purpose to that jury. It is the most formidable jury in the world. Personally, I have never, so far as I know, been in danger of going to jail, but I would a great deal rather go to jail than do wrong and be punished merely by the look in the eyes of the men amongst whom I circulated. I would rather go to jail than be sent to Coventry. I would rather go to jail than be conscious every day that I was despised and distrusted. After all, the only overwhelming force in the world is the force of opinion. If any member of the league ignores these promises with regard to arbitration and discussion, what happens? War? No; not war, but something more tremendous, I take leave to say, than war. An absolute isolation, a boycott. It is provided in the covenant that any nation that disregards these solemn promises with regard to arbitration and discussion shall be thereby deemed ipso facto to have committed an act of war against the other members of the league, and that there shall thereupon follow an absolute exclusion of that nation from communication of any kind with the members of the league. No goods can be shipped in or out; no telegraphic messages can be exchanged, except through the elusive wireless perhaps; there shall be no communication of any kind between the people of the other nations and the people of that nation. There is not a nation in Europe that can stand that for six months. Germany could have faced the armies of the world more readily than she faced the boycott of the world. Germany felt the pinch of the blockade more than she felt the stress of the blow; and there is not, so far as I know, a single European country—I say European because I think our own country is an exception--which is not dependent upon some other par. t of the world for some of the necessaries of its life. Some of them are absolutely dependent, some of them are without raw materials practically of any kind, some of them are absolutely without fuel of any kind, either coal or oil; almost all of them are without that variety of supply of ores which are necessary to modern industry and necessary to the manufacture of munitions of war. When you apply that boycott, you have got your hand upon the throat of the offending nation, and it is a proper punishment. It is an exclusion from civilized society.

Inasmuch as I have sometimes been said to have been very disregardful of the constitutional rights of Congress, may I not stop to speak just for a moment of a small matter that I was punctilious to attend to in regard to that article? You will notice the language that any member of the league that makes breach of its covenants shall be regarded thereby "ipso facto to have committed an act of war." In the original draft it read, "Shall thereby be ipso facto regarded as at war with the other nations of the world." I said, "No; I can not subscribe to that, because I am bound to safeguard the right of Congress to determine whether it is at war or not. I consent to its being an act of war by the party committing it, but whether Congress takes up the gage thus thrown down or not is another matter which I can not participate in determining in a document of this sort." Germany committed several acts of war against us before we accepted the inevitable and took up her challenge, and it was only because of a sort of accumulation of evidence that Germany's design was not merely to sink American ships and injure American citizens, that was incidental to her design, but that her design was to destroy free political society. I remember saying to Congress before we went into the war that if Germany committed some act of war against us that was intolerable. I might have to give them different advice, and I remember a newspaper correspondent asked me what I thought would constitute such an act. I said, "I don't know, but I am perfectly certain I will know it when I see it. I can not hypothetically define it, but it will be perfectly obvious when it occurs." And if Congress regards this act by some other member of the league as such an act of war against it as necessitates the maintenance of the honor of the United States, then it may in those circumstances declare war, but it is not bound to declare war under the engagement of the covenant. What I am emphasizing, my fellow citizens, is this: That the heart of this covenant is arbitration and discussion, and that is the only possible basis for peace in the future.

It is a basis for something better than peace. Civilization proceeds on the principle of understanding one another. You know peace between those who employ labor and those who labor depends upon conference and mutual understanding. If you do not get together with the other side, it will be hostility to the end; and after you have heard the case of the other fellow it sometimes becomes a little awkward for you to insist upon the whole of your case, because the human mind does have this fine quality—that it finds it embarrassing to face the truth and deny it. Moreover, the basis of friendship is intercourse. I know—I am very fond of—a very large number of men whom I know to be crooks. They are very engaging fellows, and when I form a judgment against them I have to be in another room. I can not, because of my personal attitude toward them, form a harsh judgment; indeed, I suppose the very thing that gives some men the chance to be crooks is their fascinating personality. They put it over on you. You remember that very charming remark of Charles Lamb. One night, in company with some friends who were speaking of some person not present, Lamb, in his stuttering fashion, said, "I—I—I h—hate that fellow." Some one said, "Why, Charles, I didn't know you knew him." "Oh, I—-I d—d— don't," he said, "I—I c—cant h—h—hate a m—man I—I know." That is one of the most genial utterances of the human spirit I have ever read, and one of the truest. It is mighty hard to hate a fellow you know, and it is mighty hard to hate a nation you know. If you had mixed, as I have had the good fortune to mix, with scores of people of other nations in recent months, you would have the same feeling that I do if, after you got over superficial matters like differences of language and some differences of manner, they were the same kind of folks. ??As I have said to a number of audiences on this trip, the most thrilling thing that happened to me over there was the constant intercourse I was having with delegations of people representing nations from all over the globe, some of which, I had shamefacedly to admit, I had never heard of before. Do you know where Adjur-Badjan is? Well, one day there came in a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen from Adjur-Badjan. I did not have time until they were gone to find out where they came from, but I did find this out immediately, that I was talking to men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice, and I did find this out, that they were, with all the other delegations that came to see me, metaphorically speaking, holding their hands out to America and saying, "You are the disciples and leaders of the free peoples of the world; can't you come and help us?" Until we went into this war, my fellow citizens, it was the almost universal impression of the world that our idealism was a mere matter of words; that what we were interested in was getting on in the world and making as much as we could out of it. That was the sum and substance of the usual opinion of us outside of America; and in the short space that we were in this war that opinion was absolutely reversed.

Consider what they saw: The flower of our youth sent three and four thousand miles away from their home, a home which could not be directly touched by the flames of that war, sent to foreign fields to mix with foreign and alien armies to fight for a cause which they recognized as the common cause of mankind, and not the peculiar cause of America. It caused a revulsion of feeling, a revulsion of attitude which, I dare say, has never been paralleled in the world; and at this moment, unless the cynical counsels of some of our acquaintances should prevail—which God forbid—they are expecting and inviting us to lead the civilized world, because they trust us— they really and truly trust us. They would not believe, no matter where we sent an army to be of assistance to them, that we would ever use that army for any purpose but to assist them. They know that when we say, as we said when we sent men to Siberia, that we are sending them to assist in the distribution of food and clothing and shoes so that brigands will not seize them, and that for the rest we are ready to render any assistance which they want us to render, and will interfere in absolutely nothing that concerns their own affairs, we mean it, and they believe us. There is not a place in this world now, unless we wait a little while longer, where America's political ambitions are looked upon with suspicion. That was frankly admitted in this little conference that I have spoken of. Not one of those gentlemen thought that America had any ulterior designs whatever. They were, therefore, in all our conferences, in consulting our economical experts, in consulting our geographical experts, constantly turning to America to act as umpire; and in nine cases out of ten, just because America was disinterested and could look at the thing without any other purpose than reaching a practicable solution, it was the American solution that was accepted.

In order that we may not forget, I brought with me the figures as to what this war meant to the world. This is a body of business men, and you will understand these figures. They are too big for the imagination of men who do not handle big thing's. Here is the cost of the war in money, exclusive of - what we loaned one another: Great Britain and her dominions, $38,000,000,000; France, $26,000,000,000; the United States, $22,000,000,000 (this is the direct cost of our operations); Russia, $18,000,000,000; Italy, $13,000,000,000; and the total, including Belgium, Japan, and other countries, $123,000,000,000. This is what it cost the Central Powers: Germany, $39,000,000,000, the biggest single item; Austro-Hungary, $21,000,000,000; Turkey and Bulgaria, $3,000,000,000; a total of $63,000,000,000, and a grand total of direct war costs of $186,000,000,000— almost the capital of the world. The expenditures of the United States were at the rate of $1,000,000 an hour for two years, including nighttime with daytime. The battle deaths during the war were as follows: Russia lost in dead 1,700,000 men, poor Russia that got nothing but terror and despair out of it all; Germany, 1,600,000; France, 1,385,000; Great Britain, 900,000; Austria, 800,000; Italy, 364,000; the United States, 50,300 dead. The total for all the belligerents, 7,450,200 men—just about seven and a half million killed because we could not have arbitration and discussion, because the world had never had the courage to propose the conciliatory methods which some of us are now doubting whether we ought to accept or not. The totals for wounded are not obtainable except our own. Our own wounded were 230,000, excluding those who were killed. The total of all battle deaths in all the wars of the world from the year 1793 to 1914 was something under 6,000,000 men, so that about a million and a half more men were killed in this war than in all the wars of something more than 100 preceding years. We really can not realize that. Those of us who lost sons or brothers can realize it. We know what it meant. The women who have little children crowding about their knees know what it means; they know that the world has hitherto been devoted to brutal methods of settlement, and that every time a war occurs it is the flower of the manhood that is destroyed; that it is not so much the present generation as the next generation that goes maimed off the stage or is laid away in obscure graves upon some battle field; and that great nations are impaired in their vitality for two generations together and all their life embittered by a method of settlement for which we could find, and have now found, a substitute.

My fellow citizens, I believe in Divine Providence. If I did not, I would go crazy. If I thought the direction of the disordered affairs of this world depended upon our finite intelligence, I should not know how to reason my way to sanity, and I do not believe that there is any body of men, however they concert their power or their influence, that can defeat this great enterprise, which is the enterprise of divine mercy and peace and good will.

APP Note: This luncheon was sponsored by The Associated Business Men's Clubs.

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/318078

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