Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon

September 15, 1919

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Irvine, my fellow countrymen, Mr. Irvine has very eloquently stated exactly the errand upon which I have come. I have come to confer, face to face, with you on one of the most solemn occasions that have ever confronted this Nation. As I have come along through the country and stopped at station after station, the first to crowd around the train have almost always been little children, bright-eyed little boys, excited little girls, children all seeming sometimes of the same generation, and I have thought as I looked upon them from the car platform that, after all, it was they to whom I had come to report; that I had come to report with regard to the safety and honor of subsequent generations of America, and I felt that if I could not fulfill the task to which I had set my hand, I would have to say to mothers with boy babies at their breast, "You have occasion to weep; you have occasion to fear. The past is only a prediction of the future, and all this terrible thing that your brothers and husbands and sweethearts have been through may have to be gone through with again." Because, as I was saying to some of your fellow citizens to-day, the task, that great and gallant task, which our soldiers performed is only half finished. They prevented a great wrong. They prevented it with a spirit and a courage and with an ability that will always be written on the brightest pages of our record of gallantry and of force. I do not know when I have been as proud, as an American, as when I have seen our boys deploy on the other side of the sea. On Christmas Day last, on an open stretch of country, I saw a great division march past me, with all the arms of the service, walking with that swing which is so familiar to our eyes, with that sense of power and confidence and audacity which is so characteristic of America, and I seemed to see the force that had saved the world. But they merely prevented something. They merely prevented a particular nation from doing a particular, unspeakable wrong to civilization, and their task is not complete unless we see to it that it has not to be done over again, unless we fulfill the promise which we made to them and to ourselves that this was not only a war to defeat Germany, but a war to prevent the recurrence of any such wrong as Germany had attempted; that it was a war to put an end to the wars of aggression forever.

There is only one means of doing that, my fellow citizens. I found quoted in one of your papers the other day a passage so apposite that I do not know that I can do better than read it as the particular thing that it is now necessary to do:

"Nations must unite as men unite in order to preserve peace and order. The great nations must be so united as to be able to say to any single country, ?You must not go to war,' and they can say that effectively when the country desiring war knows that the force which the united nations place behind peace is irresistible. In differences between individuals the decision of a court is final, because in the last resort the entire force of the community is behind the court decision. In differences between nations which go beyond the limited range of arbitral questions, peace can only be maintained by putting behind it the force of united nations determined to uphold it and prevent war."

That is a quotation from an address said to have been delivered at Union College in June, 1915, a year after the war began, by Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge, of Massachusetts. I entirely concur in Senator Lodge's conclusion, and I hope I shall have his cooperation in bringing about the desired result. In other words, the only way we can prevent the unspeakable thing from happening again is that the nations of the world should unite and put an irresistible force behind peace and order. There is only one conceivable way to do that, and that is by means of a league of nations. The very description is a definition of a league of nations, and the only thing that we can debate now is whether the nations of the world, having met in a universal congress and formulated a covenant as the basis for a league of nations, we are going to accept that or insist upon another. I do not find any man anywhere rash or bold enough to say that he does not desire a league of nations. I only find men here and there saying that they do not desire this league of nations, and I want to ask you to reflect upon what that means. And in order to do that I want to draw a picture for you, if- you will be patient with me, of what occurred in Paris.

In Paris were gathered the representatives of nearly 30 nations from all over the civilized globe, and even from some parts of the globe which in our ignorance of them we have not been in the habit of regarding as civilized, and out of that great body were chosen the representatives of 14 nations, representing all parts of the great stretches of the peoples of the world which the conference as a whole represented. The representatives of those 14 nations were constituted a commission on the league of nations. The first resolution passed by the conference of peace in Paris was a resolution in favor of a league of nations, setting up a commission to formulate a league of nations. It was the thought foremost in the mind of every statesman there. He knew that his errand was in vain in Paris if he went away without achieving the formation of a league of nations, and that he dared not go back and face his people unless he could report that the efforts in that direction had been successful. That commission sat day after day, evening after evening. I had the good fortune to be a member of the commission, and I want to testify to the extraordinary good temper in which the discussions were conducted. I want to testify that there was a universal endeavor to subordinate as much as possible international rivalries and conflicting international interests and come out upon a common ground of agreement in the interest of the world. I want to testify that there were many compromises, but no compromises that sacrificed the principle, and that although the instrument as a whole represented certain mutual concessions, it is a constructive instrument and not a negative instrument. I shall never lose so long as I live the impression of generous, high-minded, statesmanlike cooperation which was manifested in that interesting body. It included representatives of all the most powerful nations, as well as representatives of some of those that were less powerful.

I could not help thinking as I sat there that the representatives of Italy spoke as it were in the tones of the long tradition of Rome; that we heard the great Latin people who had fought, fought, fought through generation after generation of strife down to this critical moment, speaking now in the counsels of peace. And there sat the prime minister of Greece—the ancient Greek people—lending his singular intelligence, his singularly high-minded and comprehensive counsel, to the general result. There were the representatives also of France, our ancient comrade in the strife for liberty. And there were the representatives of Great Britain, supposed to be the most ambitious, the most desirous of ruling the world of any of the nations of the world, cooperating with a peculiar interest in the result, with a constant and manifestly sincere profession that they wanted to subordinate the interests of the British Empire, which extended all over the world, to the common interests of mankind and of peace. The representatives of Great Britain I may stop to speak of for a moment. There were two of them. One of them was Lord Robert Cecil, who belongs to an ancient family in Great Britain, some of the members of which—particularly Lord Salisbury of a past generation—had always been reputed as most particularly keen to seek and maintain the advantage of the British Empire; and yet I never heard a man speak whose heart was evidently more in the task of the humane redemption of the world than Lord Robert Cecil. And alongside of him sat Gen. Smuts, the South African Boer, the man who had fought Great Britain so successfully that, after the war was over and the Boers nominally defeated, Great Britain saw that the wisest thing she could do was to hand the government of the country over to the Boers themselves. Gen. Botha and Gen. Smuts were both members of the peace conference; both had been successful generals in fighting the British arms. Nobody in the conference was more outspoken in criticizing some aspects of British policy than Gen. Botha and Gen. Smuts, and Gen. Smuts was of the same mind with Sir Robert Cecil. They were both serving the common interests of free people everywhere. You seem to see a sort of epitome of the history of the world in that conference. There were nations that had long been subordinated and suffering. There were nations that had been indomitably free but, nevertheless, not so free that they could really accomplish the objects that they had always held dear. I want you to realize that this conference was made up of many minds and of many nations and of many traditions, keen to the same conclusion, with a unanimity, an enthusiasm, a spirit which speaks volumes for the future hopes of mankind.

When this covenant was drawn up in its first form I had the occasion—for me the very happy occasion—to return for a week or so to this country in March last. I brought the covenant in its first draft. I submitted it to the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House. We discussed all parts of the document. Many suggestions were made. I took all of those suggestions with me back to Paris, and the conference on the league of nations adopted every one of the suggestions made. No counsels were listened to more carefully or yielded to more willingly in that conference than the counsels of the United States. Some things were put into the covenant which, personally, I did not think necessary, which seemed to me to go without saying, but which they had no objection to putting in there explicitly.

For example, take the Monroe doctrine. As a matter of fact, the covenant sets up for the world a Monroe doctrine. What is the Monroe doctrine? The Monroe doctrine is that no nation shall come to the Western Hemisphere and try to establish its power or interfere with the self-government of the peoples in this hemisphere; that no power shall extend its governing and controlling influence in any form to either of the Americas. Very well; that is the doctrine of the covenant. No nation shall anywhere extend its power or seek to interfere with the political independence of the peoples of the world and inasmuch as the Monroe doctrine had been made the universal; doctrine, I did not think that it was necessary to mention it particularly, but when I suggested that it was the desire of the United States that it should be explicitly recognized, it was explicitly recognized, for it is written in there that nothing in the covenant shall be interpreted as affecting the validity of the Monroe doctrine. The Monroe doctrine is left intact, and the United States is left free to enforce it.

That is only a sample. The members of the Foreign Relations Committee and of the Committee on Foreign Affairs did not see it anywhere explicitly stated in the covenant that a member of the league could withdraw. I told them that the matter had been discussed in the commission on the league and that it had been the universal opinion that, since it was a combination of sovereigns, any sovereign had the right to withdraw from it; but when I suggested that that should be explicitly put in, no objection was made whatever, and at the suggestion of the United States it was explicitly provided that any member of the league could withdraw. Provision was made that two years notice should be given, which I think everybody will recognize as perfectly fair, so that no nation is at liberty suddenly to break down this thing upon which the hope of mankind rests; but with that limitation and with the provision that when they withdraw they shall have fulfilled all their international obligations they are perfectly free to withdraw. When gentlemen dwell upon that provision, that we must have fulfilled all our international obligations, I answer all their anxieties by asking them another question. "When did America ever fail to fulfill her international obligations? " There is no judge in the matter set up in the covenant, except the conscience of the withdrawing nation and the opinion of mankind, and I for one am proud enough American to dismiss from my mind all fear of at any time going before the judgment of mankind on the conduct of the United States, knowing that we will go with clean hands and righteous purpose.

I am merely illustrating now the provisions that were put in at the suggestion of the United States. Without exception, the suggestions of the United States were adopted, and I want to say, because it may interest you, that most of these suggestions came from Republican sources. I say that, my fellow citizens, not because it seems to me to make the least difference among Americans in a great matter like this which party such things came from, but because I want to emphasize in every discussion of this matter the absolutely nonpartisan character of the covenant and of the treaty. I am not in favor of the ratification of this treaty, including the covenant of the league of nations, because I am a Democrat. I am in favor of it because I am an American and a lover of humanity. If it will relieve anybody's mind, let me add that it is not my work, that practically every portion of the covenant of the league of nations emanates from counsels running back 10, 20, 30 years, among the most thoughtful men in America, and that it is the fulfillment of a dream which five years ago, when the war began, would have been deemed unattainable. What we are discussing ought not to be disfigured, ought not to be tainted, with the least thought of domestic politics. If anybody in this audience allows himself when thinking of this matter to think of the elections of 1920 I want to declare that I separate myself from him.

I draw all this picture of the care with which the covenant was drawn up, every phrase scrutinized, every interest considered, the other nations at the board just as jealous of their sovereignty as we could possibly be of ours, and yet willing to harness all of these sovereignties in a single great enterprise of peace, and how the whole thing was not the original idea of any man in the conference, but had grown out of the counsels of hopeful and thoughtful and righteous men all over the world; because just as there was in America a league to enforce peace, which even formulated a constitution for the league of peace before the conference met, before the conference was thought of, before the war began, so there were in Great Britain and in France and in Italy and, I believe, even in Germany similar associations of equally influential men, whose ideal was that some time there might come an occasion when men would be sane enough and right enough to get together to do a thing of this great sort. I draw that picture in order to show you the other side of what is going on, and I want to preface this part by saying that I hope you will not construe anything that I say as indicating the least lack of respect for the men who are criticizing any portion of this treaty. For most of them, I have reason to have respect, for I have come into close contact and consultation with them. They are just as good Americans as I claim to be; they are just as thoughtful of the interests of America as I try to be; they are just as intelligent as anybody who could address . his mind to this thing; and my contest with them is a contest of interpretation, not a contest of intention. All I have to urge with those men is that they are looking at this thing with too critical an eye as to the mere phraseology, without remembering the purpose that everybody knows to have been in the minds of those who framed it, and that if they go very far in attempting to interpret it by resolutions of the Senate they may, in appearance at any rate, sufficiently alter the meaning of the document to make it necessary to take it back to the council board. Taking it back to the council board means, among other things, taking it back to Germany; and I frankly tell you, my fellow citizens, it would sit very ill upon my stomach to take it back to Germany. Germany, at our request—I may say almost at our dictation—signed the treaty and has ratified it. It is a contract, so far as her part in it is concerned. I can testify that we tried to be just to Germany, and that when we had heard her arguments and examined every portion of the counterproposals that she made, we wrote the treaty in its final form and then said, "Sign here." What else did our boys die for? Did they die in order that we might ask Germany's leave to complete our victory? They died in order that we might say to Germany what the terms of victory were in the interest of justice and of peace, and we were entitled to take the course that we did take. I can only beg these gentlemen in their criticism of the treaty and in their action in the Senate not to go so far as to make it necessary to ask the consent of the other nations to the interpretations which they are putting upon the treaty. I have said in all frankness that I do not see a single phrase in the covenant of the league of nations which is of doubtful meaning, but if they want to say what that undoubted meaning is, in other words that do not change the undoubted meaning, I have no objection. If they change the meaning of it, then all the other signatories have to consent; and what has been evident in the last week or two is that on the part of some men, I believe a very few, the desire is to change the treaty, and particularly the covenant, in a way to give America an exceptional footing.

My fellow citizens, the principle that America went into this war for was the principle of the equality of sovereign nations. I am just as much opposed to class legislation in international matters as in domestic matters. I do not, I tell you plainly, believe that any one nation should be allowed to dominate, even this beloved Nation of our own, and it does not desire to dominate. I said in a speech the other night in another connection that so far as my influence and power as President of the United States went, I was going to fight every attempt to set up a minority government. I was asked afterwards whom I was hitting at, what minority I was thinking of. I said, "Never mind what minority I may have been thinking of at the moment; it does not make any difference with me which minority it is; whether it is capital or labor. No sort of privilege will ever be permitted in this country." It is a partnership or it is a mockery. It is a democracy, where the majority are the masters, or all the hopes and purposes of the men who founded this Government have been defeated and forgotten. And I am of the same principle in international affairs. One of the things that gave the world a new and bounding hope was that the great United States had said, that it was fighting for the little nation as well as the great nation; that it regarded the rights of the little nation as equal to its own rights; that it would make no distinction between free men anywhere; that it was not fighting for a special advantage for the United. States but for an equal advantage for all free men everywhere. Let gentlemen beware, therefore, how they disappoint the world. Let gentlemen beware how they betray the immemorial principles of the United States. Let men not make the mistake of claiming a. position of privilege for the United States which gives it all the advantages of the league of nations and none of the risks and responsibilities. The principle of equity everywhere is that along with a right goes a duty; that if you claim a right for yourself you must be ready to support that right for somebody else; that if you claim to be a member in a society of any sort you must not claim the right to dodge the responsibilities and avoid the burden, but you must carry the weight of the enterprise along with the hope of the enterprise. That is the spirit of free men everywhere, and that I know to be the spirit of the United States.

Our decision, therefore, my fellow citizens, rests upon this: If we want a league of nations, we must take this league of nations, because there is no conceivable way in which any other league of nations is obtainable. We must leave it or take it. I should be very sorry to have the United States indirectly defeat this great enterprise by asking for something, some position of privilege, which other nations in their pride can not grant. I would a great deal rather say flatly, "She will not go into the enterprise at all." And that, my fellow citizens, is exactly what Germany is hoping and beginning to dare to expect. I am not uttering a conjecture; I am speaking of knowledge, knowledge of the things that are said in the German newspapers and by German public men. They are taking heart because the United States, they hope, is not going to stand with the other free nations of the world to guarantee the peace that has been forced upon them. They see the hope that there will be two nations standing outside the league—Germany and the United States. Germany because she must; the United States because she will. She knows that that will turn the hostility and enmity of all the other nations of the world against the United States, as their hostility is already directed against her. They do not expect that now the United States will in any way align themselves with Germany. They do not expect the sympathy of the United States to go out to them now, but they do expect the isolation of the United States to bring about an alienation between the United States and the other free nations of the world, which will make it impossible for the world ever to combine again against such enterprises as she was defeated in attempting. All over this country pro-German propaganda is beginning to be active again, beginning to try to add to the force of the arguments against the league in particular and against the treaty and the several items of the treaty. And the poison of failure is being injected into the whole fine body politic of the united world, a sort of paralysis, a sort of fear. Germany desires that we should say, "What have we created? A great power which will bring peace, but will that power be amiable to us? Can we control that power?" We can not control it for any but its proper purpose—the purpose of righteousness and peace—but for that purpose we are invited to control it by the opinion of mankind, for all over the world peoples are looking to us with confidence, our rivals along with the weaker nations. They believe in the honesty of purpose and the indomitable rectitude of purpose of the United States, and they are willing to have us lead.

I pray God that the gentlemen who are delaying this thing may presently see it in a different light. I fain would appeal to their hearts. I wonder if they have forgotten what this war meant. I wonder if they have had mothers who lost their sons take them by the hand, as they have taken my own, and looked things that their hearts were too full to speak, praying me to do all in my power to save the sons of other mothers from this terrible thing again. I had one fine woman come to me and say as steadily as if she were saying a commonplace, "I had the honor to lose a son in the war." How fine that is—"I had the honor to sacrifice a son for the redemption of mankind!" And yet there is a sob back of the statement, there is a tear brushed hastily away from the cheek. A woman came up to the train the other day and seized my hand and was about to say something when she turned away in a flood of tears. I asked a standerby what was the matter, and he said, "Why, sir, she lost a son in France." Mind you, she did not turn away from me. I ordered her son overseas. I advised the Congress of the United States to sacrifice that son. She came to me as a friend. She had nothing in her heart except the hope that I could save other sons, though she had given hers gladly, and, God helping me, I will save other sons. Through evil report and good report, through resistance and misrepresentation and every other vile thing, I shall fight my way to that goal. I call upon the men to whom I have referred—the honest, patriotic, intelligent men, who have been too particularly concerned in criticizing the details of that treaty—to forget the details, to remember the great enterprise, to stand with me, and fulfill the hopes and traditions of the United States.

My fellow citizens, there is only one conquering force in the world. There is only one thing you can not kill, and that is the spirit of free men. I was telling some friends to-day of a legendary story of the Middle Ages, of a chieftain of one of the half-civilized peoples that overran Europe commanding some of his men to do a certain thing which they believed to be against the traditions of their tribe. They refused, and he blazed out upon them, "Don't you know that I can put you to death?" "Yes," they said, "and don't you know that we can die cursing you?" He could not kill their spirits; and they knew perfectly well that if he unjustly slew them the whole spirit of their tribe would curse him; they knew that, if he did an unjust thing, out of the blood that they spilt would spring up, as it were, armed men, like dragons' teeth, to overwhelm him. The thing that is vindicated in the long run is the right, and the only thing that is unconquerable is the truth. America is believed in throughout the world, because she has put spirit before material ambition. She has said that she is willing to sacrifice everything that she is and everything that she has not only that her people may be free but that freedom may reign throughout the world.

I hear men say—how often I heard it said on the other side of the water! —how amazing it was that America went into this war. I tell you, my fellow citizens—I tell it with sorrow—it was universally believed on the other side of the water that we would not go into the war because we were making money out of it, and loved the money better than we loved justice. They all believed that. When we went over there they greeted us with amazement. They said, "These men did not have to come. Their territories are not invaded. Their independence is not directly threatened. Their interests were not immediately attacked, only indirectly. They were getting a great prosperity out of this calamity of ours, and we were told that they worshipped the almighty dollar; but here come, tramping, tramping, tramping, these gallant fellows with something in their faces we never saw before—eyes lifted to the horizon, a dash that knows no discouragement, a knowledge only of how to go forward, no thought of how to go backward—3,000 miles from home. What are they fighting for? Look at their faces and you will see the answer. They see a vision. They see a cause. They see mankind redeemed. They see a great force which would recall civilization. They love something they have never touched. They love the things that emanate from the throne of justice, and they have come here to fight with us and for us, and they are our comrades."

We were told by certain people in France that they went to the Fourth of July celebration last calendar year in Paris with sinking hearts. Our men had just begun to come over in numbers. They did not expect they would come soon enough or fast enough to save them. They went out of courtesy; and before the day was over, having been in the presence of those boys, they knew that Europe was saved, because they had seen what that blind man saw in the song. You have heard that spirited song of the blind Frenchman, his boy at the window, music in the streets, the marching of troops, and he says to the lad, "See what that is. What do you see, lad? What are the colors? What are the men? Is there a banner with red and white stripes upon it? Is there a bit of heaven in the corner? Are there stars in that piece of the firmament? Ah, thank God, the Americans have come!" It was the revelation to Europe of the heart of a great Nation, and they believe in that heart now. You never hear the old sneers. You never hear the old intimation that we will seek our interest and not our honor. You never hear the old fear that we shall not stand by free men elsewhere who make common cause with us for justice to mankind. You hear, on the contrary, confident prediction, confident expectation, a confident hope that the whole world will be steadied by the magnificent purpose and force of the United States. If I was proud as an American before I went over there—and I hope my pride had just foundation—I was infinitely more proud when I came back to feel that I could bring you this message.

My fellow citizens, let us—every one of us—bind ourselves in a solemn league and covenant of our own that we will redeem this expectation of the world, that we will not allow any man to stand in the way of it, that the world shall hereafter bless and not curse us, that the world hereafter shall follow us and not turn aside from us, and that in leading we will not lead along the paths of private advantage, we will not lead along the paths of national ambition, but we will be proud and happy to lead along the paths of right, so that men shall always say that American soldiers saved Europe and American citizens saved the world.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318026

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