Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Coliseum in St. Louis, Missouri

September 05, 1919

Mr. Chairman, Gov. Gardner, my fellow countrymen, this is much too solemn an occasion to care how we look; we ought to care how we think. [The photographer had just asked the audience to sit still for a picture. ] I have come here to-night to ask permission to discuss with you some of the very curious aberrations of thinking that have taken place in this country of late. I have sought—I think I have sought without prejudice—to understand the point of view of the men who have been opposing the treaty and the covenant of the league of nations. Many of them are men whose judgment and whose patriotic feeling I have been accustomed to admire and respect, and yet I must admit to you, my fellow countrymen, that it is very hard for me to believe that they have followed their line of thinking to its logical and necessary conclusion, because when you reflect upon their position, it is either that we ought to reject this treaty altogether or that we ought to change it in such a way as will make it necessary to reopen negotiations with Germany and reconsider the settlements of the peace in many essential particulars. We can not do the latter alone, and other nations will not join us in doing it. The only alternative is to reject the peace and to do what some of our fellow countrymen have been advising us to do, stand alone in the world.

I am going to take the liberty to-night of pointing out to you what this alternative means. I know the course of reasoning which is either uttered or implicit in this advice when it is given us by some of the men who propose this course. They believe that the United States is so strong, so financially strong, so industrially strong, if necessary so physically strong, that it can impose its will upon the world if it is necessary for it to stand out against the world, and they believe that the processes of peace can be processes of domination and antagonism, instead of processes of cooperation and good feeling, I therefore want to point out to you that only those who are ignorant of the world can believe that any nation, even so great a nation as the United States, can stand alone and play a single part in the history of mankind. Begin with a single circumstance; for I have not come here to-night to indulge in any kind of oratory. I have come here to-night to present to you certain hard facts which I want you to take home with you and think about. I suppose that most of you realize that it is going to be very difficult for the other nations that were engaged in this war to get financially on their feet again. I dare say you read the other day the statement of Mr. Herbert Hoover's opinion, an opinion which I always greatly respect, that it will be necessary for the United States immediately to advance four or five billion dollars for the rehabilitation of credit and industry on the other side of the water, and I must say to you that I learned nothing in Paris which would lead me to doubt that conclusion. I think the statement of the sum is a reasonable and conservative statement. If the world is going bankrupt, if credit is going to be destroyed, if the industry of the rest of the world is going to be interrupted, our market is confined to the United States. Trade will be impossible, except within our own borders. If we are to save our own markets and rehabilitate our own industries, we must save the financial situation of the world and rehabilitate the markets of the world. Very well, what do these gentlemen propose? That we should do that, for we can not escape doing it.

Face to face with a situation of this kind, we are not, let us assume,

partners in the execution of this treaty. What is one of the central features of the execution of this treaty? It is the application of the reparation clauses. Germany can not pay for this war unless her industries are revived, and the treaty of peace sets up a great commission known as the Reparation Commission, in which it was intended that there should be a member from the United States as well as from other countries. The business of this commission will be in part to see that the industries of Germany are revived in order that Germany may pay this great debt which she owes to civilization. That Reparation Commission can determine the currents of trade, the conditions of international credit; it can determine how much Germany is going to buy, where it is going to buy, how it is going to pay for it, and if we must, to save ourselves, contribute to the financial rehabilitation of the world, then without being members of this partnership we must put our money in the hands of those who want to get the markets that belong to us. That is what these gentlemen call playing a lone hand. It is indeed playing a lone hand. It is playing a hand that is frozen out! We must contribute the money which other nations are to use in order to rehabilitate their industry and credit, and we must make them our antagonists and rivals and not our partners! I put that proposition to any business man, young or old, in the United States and ask him how he likes it, and whether he considers that a useful way for the United States to stand alone. We have got to carry this burden of reconstitution whether we will or not or be ruined, and the question is, Shall we carry it and be ruined anyhow? For that is what these gentlemen propose, that at every point we shall be embarrassed by the whole financial affairs of the world being in the hands of other nations.

As I was saying at the luncheon that I had the pleasure of eating with the chamber of commerce to-day, the whole aspect of the matter is an aspect of ignorance. The men who propose these things do not understand the selfish interests of the United States, because here is the rest of the picture: Hot rivalries, burning suspicions, jealousies, arrangements made everywhere if possible to shut us out, because if we will not come in as equals we ought to be shut out. If we are going to keep out of this thing in order to prey upon the rest of the world, then I think we ought to be frozen out of it. That is not the temper of the United States, and it is not like the United States to be ignorant enough to think any such thoughts, because we know that partners profit and enemies lose the game. But that is not all of the picture, my fellow citizens. If every nation is going to be our rival, if every nation is going to dislike and. distrust us, and that will be the case, because having trusted us beyond measure the reaction will occur beyond measure (as it stands now they trust us, they look to us, they long that we shall undertake anything for their assistance rather than that any other nation should undertake it)—if we say, "No, we are in this world to live by ourselves, and get what we can out of it by any selfish processes," then the reaction will change the whole heart and attitude of the world toward this great, free, justice-loving people, and after you have changed the attitude of the world, what have you produced? Peace? Why, my fellow citizens, is there any man here or any woman, let me say is there any child here, who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry? The real reason that the war that we have just finished took place was that Germany was afraid her commercial rivals were going to get the better of her, and the reason why some nations went into the war against Germany was that they thought Germany would get the commercial advantage of them. The seed of the jealousy, the seed of the deep-seated hatred was hot, successful commercial and industrial rivalry.

Why, what did the Germans do when they got into Belgium? I have just seen that suffering country. Most of the Belgian factories are standing. You do not witness in Belgium what you witness in France, except upon certain battlefields—factories destroyed; whole towns wiped out. No; the factories are there, the streets are clear, the people are there, but go in the factories. Every piece of machinery that could be taken away has been taken away. If it was too big to take away, experts directed the way in which it should be injured so it could never be used again, and that was because there were textile industries and iron industries in Belgium which the Germans hated Belgium for having, because they were better than the German and outdid them in the markets of the world. This war, in its inception was a commercial and industrial war. It was not a political war.

Very well, then, if we must stand apart and be the hostile rivals of the rest of the world, then we must do something else. We must be physically ready for anything that comes. We must have a great standing army. We must see to it that every man in America is trained to arms. We must see to it that there are munitions and guns enough for an army that means a mobilized nation; that they are not only laid up in store, but that they are kept up to date; that they are ready to use to-morrow; that we are a nation in arms; because you can not be unfriendly to everybody without being ready that everybody shall be unfriendly to you. And what does that mean? Reduction of taxes? No. Not only the continuation of the present taxes but the increase of the present taxes; and it means ? something very much more serious than that. We can stand that, so far as the expense is concerned, if we care to keep up the high cost of living and enjoy the other luxuries that we have recently enjoyed, but, what is much more serious than that, we have got to have the sort of organization which is the only kind of organization that can handle arms of that sort. We may say what we please of the German Government that has been destroyed, my fellow citizens, but it was the only sort of government that could handle an armed nation. You can not handle an armed nation by vote. You can not handle an armed nation if it is democratic, because democracies do not go to war that way. You have got to have a concentrated, militaristic organization of government to run a nation of that sort. You have got to think of the President of the United States, not as the chief counselor of the Nation, elected for a little while, but as the man meant constantly and every day to be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, ready to order them to any part of the world where the threat of war is a menace to his own people. And you can not do that under free debate. You can not do that under public counsel. Plans must be kept secret. Knowledge must be accumulated by a system which we have condemned, because we have called it a spying system. The more polite call it a system of intelligence. You can not watch other nations with your unassisted eye. You have got to watch them by secret agencies planted everywhere. Let me testify to this, my fellow citizens: I not only did not know it until we got into this war, but I did not believe it when I was told that it was true, that Germany was not the only country that maintained a secret service. Every country in Europe maintained it, because they had to be ready for Germany's spring upon them, and the only difference between the German secret service and the other secret services was that the German secret service found out more than the others did, and therefore Germany sprang upon the other nations unawares, and they were not ready for it.

And you know what the effect of a military government is upon social questions. You know how impossible it is to effect social reform if everybody must be under orders from the Government. You know how impossible it is, in short, to have a free nation, if it is a military nation and under military order. You may say, "You have been on the other side of the water and got bad dreams." I have got no dreams at all. I am telling you the things, the evidence of which I have seen with awakened eyes and not with sleeping eyes, and I know that this country, if it wishes to stand alone, must stand alone as part of a world in arms. Because, ladies and gentlemen— I do not say it because I am an American and my heart is full of the same pride that fills yours with regard to the power and spirit of this great nation, but merely because it is a fact which I think everybody would admit, outside of America, as well as inside of America—the organization contemplated by the league of nations without the United States would merely be an alliance and not a league of nations. It would be an alliance in which the partnership would be between the more powerful European nations and Japan, and the other party to the world arrangement, the antagonist, the disassociated party, the party standing off to be watched by the alliance, would be the United States of America. There can be no league of nations in the true sense without the partnership of this great people.

Now, let us mix the selfish with the unselfish. If you do not want me to be too altruistic, let me be very practical. If we are partners, let me predict we will be the senior partner. The financial leadership will be ours. The industrial primacy will be ours. The commercial advantage will be ours. The other countries of the world are looking to us for leadership and direction. Very well, then, if I am to compete with the critics of this league and of this treaty as a selfish American, I say I want to get in and get in as quick as I can. I want to be inside and know how the thing is run and help to run it. You have the alternative, armed isolation or peaceful partnership. Can any sane man hesitate as to the choice, and can any sane man ask the question, Which is the way of peace? I have heard some men say with an amazing ignorance that the covenant of the league of nations was an arrangement for war. Very well, then, what would the other arrangement be? An arrangement for peace? For kindliness? For cooperation? Would everybody beckon us to their markets? Would everybody say, "Come and tell us how to use your money? " Would everybody come and say, "Tell us how much of your goods you want us to take; tell us how much of what Germany is producing you would like when we want it?" I can not bring my credulity up to that point. I have reached years of discretion, and I have met some very young men who knew a great deal more than some very old men.

I want you therefore, after seeing this very ugly picture that I have painted—for it is an ugly picture; it is a picture from which one turns away with distaste and disgust and says, "That is not America; it is not like anything that we have ever conceived"—I want you to look at the other side. I wonder if some of the gentlemen who are commenting upon this treaty ever read it! If anybody will tell me which of them has not, I will send him a copy. It is written in two languages. On this side is the English and on that side is the French, and since it is evident that some men do not understand English, I hope that they understand French. There are excellent French dictionaries by which they can dig out the meaning, if they can not understand English. It is the plainest English that you could desire, particularly the covenant of the league of nations. There is not a phrase of doubtful meaning in the whole document.

And what is the meaning? It is that the covenant of the league of nations is a covenant of arbitration and discussion. Had anybody ever told you that before? I dare say that everybody you have heard talk about this discusses Article X. Well, there are 25 other articles in it, and all of them are about something else. They discuss how soon and how quick we can get out of it. Well, I am not a quitter for one. We can get out just so soon as we want to, but we do not want to get out as soon as we get in. And they talk about the Monroe doctrine, when it expressly says that nothing in that document shall be construed as affecting in any way the validity of the Monroe doctrine. It says so in so many words. And there are all the other things they talk about to draw your attention away from the essential matter. The essential matter, my fellow citizens, is this: This league will include all the fighting nations of the world, except Germany. The only nations that will not be admitted into it promptly are Germany and Turkey. All the fighting nations of the world are in it, and what do they promise? This is the center of the document. They promise that they never will go to war without first either submitting the question at issue to arbitration and absolutely abiding by the decision of the arbitrators, or, if they are not willing to submit it to arbitration, submitting it to discussion by the council of the league; that they will give the council of the league six months in which to consider it, and that if they do hot like the opinion of the council, they will wait three months after the opinion is rendered before going to war. And I tell you, my fellow citizens, that any nation that is in the wrong and waits nine months before it goes to war never will go to war.

"Ah," but somebody says, "suppose they do not abide by that?" Because all the arguments you hear are based upon the assumption that we are all going to break the covenant, that bad faith is the accepted rule. There has not been any such bad faith among nations in recent times except the flagrant bad faith of the nation we have just been fighting, and that bad faith is not likely to be repeated in the immediate future. Suppose somebody does not abide by those engagements, then what happens? War? No, not war. Something more terrible than war—absolute boycott of the nation violating the covenant. The doors are closed upon her, so that she can not ship anything out or receive anything in. She can not send a letter out or receive one in. No telegraphic message can cross her borders. No person can cross her borders. She is absolutely closed, and all the fighting nations of the world agree to join in the boycott. My own judgment is that war will not be necessary after that. If it is necessary, then it is perfectly evident that the case is one of a nation that wants to run amuck, and if any nation wants to run amuck in modern civilization, we must all see that the outlaw is captured.

I was saying in one of the first speeches I made upon this little expedition of mine that I was very happy in the circumstance that there were no politics in this business. I meant no party politics, and I invited that audience, as I invite you, to forget all about parties. Forget that I am a Democrat. Forget that some of you are Republicans. Forget all about that. That has nothing to do with it. This afternoon a book I had forgotten all about, one of the campaign books of the last political campaign, was put in my hands, and I found in that book the platforms of the two parties. In both of those platforms they advocate just such an arrangement as the league of nations. When I was on the other side of the water I did not know that I was obeying orders from both parties, but I was, and I am very happy in that circumstance, because I can testify to you that I did not think anything about parties when I was on the other side of the water. I am just as much, my fellow citizens, in my present office the servant of my Republican fellow citizens as I am the servant of my Democratic fellow citizens. I am trying to be what some gentlemen do not know how to be, just a simple, plain-thinking, plainspeaking, out-and-out American.

I want you to understand, my fellow citizens, that I did not leave Washington and come out on this trip because I doubted what was going to happen. I did not. For one thing, I wanted to have the pleasure of leaving Washington; and for another thing I wanted to have the very much greater pleasure of feeling the inspiration that I would get from you. Things get very lonely in Washington sometimes. The real voices of the great people of America sometimes sound faint and distant in that strange city! You hear politics until you wish that both parties were smothered in their own gas. I wanted to come out and hear some plain American, hear the kind of talk that I am accustomed to talk, the only kind of talk that I can understand, get the only kind of atmosphere with which I can fill my lungs wholesomely, and, then, incidentally, convey a hint in some quarters that the American people had not forgotten how to think.

There are certain places where talk does not count for anything. I am inclined to think that one of those places is the fashionable dinner table. I have never heard so many things that were not so anywhere else. In the little circles of fashion and wealth information circulates the more freely the less true it is. For some reason there is a preference for the things that are incredible. I admit there is a certain intellectual excitement in believing the things that are incredible. It is very much duller to believe only the things that you know are so, but the spicy thing, the unusual thing, the thing that runs athwart the normal and wholesale currents of society is the thing that one can talk about with an unusual vocabulary and have a lot of fun in expounding. But such are not the things that make up the daily substance of thinking on the part of a wholesome nation like this.

This Nation went into this war to see it through to the end, and the end has not come yet. This is the beginning, not of the war but of the processes which are going to render a war like this impossible. There are no other processes than those that are proposed in this great treaty. It is a great treaty, it is a treaty of justice, of rigorous and severe justice, but do not forget that there are many other parties to this treaty than Germany and her opponents. There is rehabilitated Poland. There is rescued Bohemia. There is redeemed Jugoslavia. There is the rehabilitated Roumania. All the nations that Germany meant to crush and reduce to the status of tools in her own hands have been redeemed by this war and given the guarantee of the strongest nations of the world that nobody shall invade their liberty again. If you do not want to give them that guarantee, then you make it certain that without your guarantee the attempt will be made again, and if another war starts like this one, are you going to keep out of it? If you keep out of this arrangement, that sort of war will come soon. If you go into it, it never will come. We are in the presence, therefore, of the most solemn choice that this people was ever called upon to make. That choice is nothing less than this: Shall America redeem her pledges to the world? America is made up of the peoples of the world. All the best bloods of the world flow in her veins, all the old affections, all the old and sacred traditions of peoples of every sort throughout the wide world circulate in her veins, and she has said to mankind at her birth: "We have come to redeem the world by giving it liberty and justice." Now we are called upon before the. tribunal of mankind to redeem that immortal pledge.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Coliseum in St. Louis, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317824

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