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Address to the Business Men's League of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri

February 03, 1916

Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen:

I can not stand here without remembering the last time that I had the pleasure of standing in this spot. Your Civic League had paid me the compliment of supposing that I knew something about the government of cities, and I undertook at their invitation to be very instructive and to lead you in the way in which you should go with regard to a new charter for the city of St. Louis. I hope that you have forgotten that speech. I say I hope that you have forgotten it because I had forgotten it myself until somebody unexpectedly produced a copy of it and cited opinions in it from some of which I had departed. It is just as well to shed your speeches as you go.

As I think of the trip that I am now making my own chief regret about it is the number of speeches with which I am expected to be loaded so that I can go off at any time; and yet I am expected to speak exclusively of the preparation of the Nation for national defense, and, of course, I do that with a great deal of ardor and zest, because that is the most pressing and immediate question ahead of us. One must first emphasize the things which admit of no delay, and yet there are many things that I would like to talk to a company like this about. Not only is it necessary that we should prepare, gentlemen, to mobilize the forces of the Nation if necessary for the defense of the country,—if it should, unhappily, become necessary to use them for that purpose,—but it is also necessary to mobilize the economic forces of this country better than they have ever been mobilized before for the service of the world after this great war is over. I am not looking forward to war; I am looking forward with the greatest ardor and interest to peace and to the services which this country may render the rest of the world in the times of peace and healing and restoration which will undoubtedly follow this great struggle. On the surface, gentlemen, there are many signs of bitterness and passion, but only on the surface. Men who are in contest with one another can sometimes hate one another, but no great people ever hated another great people. I believe that underlying all the contests of the world there is a true instinct of friendship among the peoples of the world, provided that the contests are righteous contests based upon merit and efficiency and not based upon the seeking of unfair advantage. America will be infinitely efficient in the world of business if she is punctiliously righteous in the field of business, and it is with the greatest interest and hope that I have seen the many movements abroad in this country, movements which may be illustrated by one, though that not the chief one.

You know how the advertising men of this country have banded themselves together to see that advertisements speak the truth. Now, that is an index of what is happening in America. We have upon some occasions drawn it a little strong with regard to our individual business; now we are beginning to realize that the real efficacy is in the facts as they are, because they are going to be uncovered sooner or later anyhow in the process of business. You can not sell a thing that is not what you represent it to be without your customers ultimately finding out that it is not what you represent it to be. So that even upon an instinct of preservation, if you put it upon no higher plane, you had better anticipate the facts when you see them coming and not get caught by them. The truth is stronger and mightier than any other influence in the world in the long run.

America is now going to be called out into an international position such as she has never occupied before. For some reason that I have never understood, America has been shy about going out into the great field of international competition. She has sought by one process or another, incomprehensible to me as a policy, to shut her doors against matching the wits of America with the wits of the world. I am willing to match the business capacity and the moral strength of American business men with, and to back them, against all the world.

We have left it until very recently to foreign corporations to conduct the greater part of the banking business in foreign bills of exchange. We have seemed to hold off from handling the very machinery by which we are to serve the rest of the world by our commerce and our industry. And now, with the rest of the world impaired in its economic efficiency, it is necessary that we should put ourselves at the service of trade and finance in all parts of the world. That is one of the reasons, gentlemen, why we are trying—trying so diligently; trying so patiently—to avoid being drawn into this great struggle now going on on the other side of the sea. We must keep our resources and our thoughts and our strength untouched by that flame in order that they may be in a condition to serve the restoration of the world, the healing processes, the processes which will put the world upon a footing of peace, which, in the providence of God, we all pray may last for many a generation after. The world will not endure, I believe, another struggle like that which is going on now. It can not endure it. The heart of man can not stand it. And I believe that after this war is over we shall have been set further forward toward permanent peace than perhaps any other process would have set us. Man is slow to learn; he has to have it burned in; but when it is burned in the lesson is finally comprehended.

I believe that the message which all men such as sit in this room to-day ought to carry at their hearts is the message of preparation for peace. Unhappily, you have to tread another way to approach that preparation. Unhappily, the conditions of peace are not established by us but established by the rest of the world. We do not have to defend ourselves against ourselves; we may have to defend ourselves against the invasion of those processes of passion which are now shaking the whole round globe with their disturbance. We must be ready to see that America shall remain untouched, because America is too valuable to the world now to allow herself to be touched by this disturbance.

When we have settled this great question, as we shall presently settle it, of reasonable and rational and American preparation for national defense, then we shall talk about these other matters. Then we shall set our house in order. Then we shall see the facts and act upon the facts. That is the reason that some of us have had to change our minds about certain things, gentlemen. I have changed my mind, for example, about the advisability of having a tariff board, and I have done it for this reason: Before this war began and the universal sweep of economic change set in, I believed, and I think I was justified in believing, that a tariff board was meant merely to keep alive the question of protection. Now the sweep of this change has been so universal that an unprejudiced, nonpartisan board is absolutely necessary in order to find how far and in what way the facts have been changed. Because we can not pretend that any man now living can predict or foresee or guide the policy of the United States with regard to her legislation in economic matters. We need the facts, and we need them from the most unprejudiced and undisturbed quarters that we can get them from.

Personally I look forward to the establishment of a tariff board with some misgivings, because I will have to choose the men that make it; and I tell you that men without prepossessions are hard to find, and when you find them they are generally empty of everything else. Gentlemen who have not done a lot of thinking and formed some very definite convictions are not very serviceable in public affairs; and, knowing that I have my due quota of prejudices and prepossessions myself and that I hold even my untested convictions in fighting spirit, I am not sure that I would be a suitable member of a tariff board. Yet I shall have to choose suitable members for a tariff board, for I feel great confidence that we shall have one, and I want the best counsel I can get; I want the best guidance I can get in the choosing of the men who shall make it up. If I make mistakes, they will not be mistakes of intention but mistakes of lack of information. It is very interesting how important men feel after they get put on a Federal board. They are thereafter hardly approachable. They are jealous of nothing so much as being spoken to too familiarly by the President, who seems to be regarded as some sort of suspicious political influence. You do not know how interesting it is, gentlemen, to be regarded as the positive pole of a political battery, throwing out all sorts of electrifying influences which are supposed to be meant to increase the vitality of Democratic politics. I do not think that Democratic politics needs any increase of vitality.

You will see that I am merely uttering to you the casual thoughts of an unprepared address, but it always stimulates me to say some of the things that are in my mind in face of a company like this. I have been in St. Louis so often and have always enjoyed my visits here so much, that I have had the pleasure of making a great many friends here. When I arrived in Kansas City the other day, the reception committee said, " Mr. President, this is your fifth visit here." "Yes," I said, "my fifth visit since you began counting." And I made a good many visits to St. Louis before you began counting; sometimes merely as a Princeton man interested in the Princeton crowd, and sometimes upon purely private errands* but always with the renewed pleasure of meeting the substantial and thoughtful men who here vitalize the life of the business world of America.

There is one thing, gentlemen, I want you to relieve yourselves of, and that is the suspicion that there is a Middle West as distinguished from the rest of America. As I say, I have sampled your quality a great many times and I have never found your quality to be anything but thoroughly American, suitable for any part of the continent. The distance between you and the Pacific coast or the Atlantic coast is not a distance that segregates you or makes you different in sympathy and in impulse; on the contrary, standing somewhat nearer the middle of the continent than some other people, your horizon is the more symmetrical.

I have come out to appeal to America, not because I doubted what America felt, but because I thought America wanted the satisfaction of uttering what she felt and of letting the whole world know that she was a unit in respect of every question of national dignity and national safety.

Woodrow Wilson, Address to the Business Men's League of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317496

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