Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Coliseum at the State Fair Grounds in Indianapolis, Indiana

September 04, 1919

Gov. Goodrich, my fellow citizens, so great a company as this tempts me to make a speech, and yet I want to say to you in all seriousness and soberness that I have not come here to make a speech in the ordinary sense of that term. I have come upon a very sober errand indeed. I have come to report to you upon the work which the representatives of the United States attempted to do at the conference of peace on the other side of the sea, because, my fellow citizens, I realize that my colleagues and I in the task we attempted over there were your servants. We went there upon a distinct errand, which it was our duty to perform in the spirit which you had displayed in the prosecution of the war and in conserving the purposes and objects of that war.

I was in the city of Columbus this forenoon. I was endeavoring to explain to a body of our fellow citizens there just what it was that the treaty of peace contained, for I must frankly admit that in most of the speeches that I have heard in debate upon the treaty of peace it would be impossible to form a definite conception of what that instrument means. I want to recall to you for the purposes of this evening the circumstances of the war and the purposes for which our men spent their lives on the other side of the sea. You will remember that a prince of the House of Austria was slain in one of the cities of Serbia. Serbia was one of the little kingdoms of Europe. She had no strength which any of the great powers needed to fear, and as we see the war now, Germany and those who conspired with her made a pretext of that assassination in order to make unconscionable demands of the weak and helpless Kingdom of Serbia. Not with a view to bringing about an acquiescence in those demands, but with a view to bringing about a conflict in which other purposes quite separate from the purposes connected with those demands could be achieved. Just so soon as those demands were made on Serbia, the other Governments of Europe sent telegraphic messages to Berlin and Vienna asking that the matter be brought into conference, and the significant circumstance of the beginning of this war is that the Austrian and German Governments did not dare to discuss the demands of Serbia or the purposes which they had in view. It is universally admitted on the other side of the water that if they had ever gone into international conference on the Austrian demands, the war never would have been begun. There was an insistent demand from London, for example, by the British foreign minister that the cabinets of Europe, should be allowed time to confer with the Governments at Vienna and Berlin, and the Governments at Vienna and Berlin did not dare to admit time for discussion.

I am recalling these circumstances, my fellow citizens, because I want to point out to you what apparently has escaped the attention of some of the critics of the league of nations, that the heart of the league of nations covenant does not lie in any of the portions which have been discussed in public debate. The great bulk of the provisions of that covenant contain these engagements and promises on the part of the states which undertake to become members of it: That in no circumstances will they go to war without first having done one or other of two things, without first either having submitted the question to arbitration, in which case they agree to abide by the results, or having submitted the question to discussion by the council of the league of nations, in which case they will allow six months for the discussion and engage not to go to war until three months after the council has announced its opinion upon the subject under dispute. The heart of the covenant of the league is that the nations solemnly covenant not to go to war for nine months after a controversy becomes acute.

If there had been nine days of discussion, Germany would not have gone to war. If there had been nine days upon which to bring to bear the opinion of the world, the judgment of mankind, upon the purposes of those Governments, they never would have dared to execute those purposes. So that what it is important for us to remember is that when we sent those boys in khaki across the sea we promised them, we promised the world, that we would not conclude this conflict with a mere treaty of peace. We entered into solemn engagements with all the nations with whom we associated ourselves that we would bring about such a kind of settlement and such a concert of the purpose of nations that wars like this could not occur again. If this war has to be fought over again, then all our high ideals and purposes have been disappointed, for we did not go into this war merely to beat Germany. We went into this war to beat all purposes such as Germany entertained.

You will remember how the conscience of mankind was shocked by what Germany did; not merely by the circumstance to which I have already adverted, that unconscionable demands were made upon a little nation which could not resist, but that immediately upon the beginning of the war the solemn engagements of treaty were cast on- one side, and the chief representative of the Imperial Government of Germany said that when national purposes were under consideration treaties were mere scraps of paper, and immediately upon that declaration the German armies invaded the territories of Belgium which they had engaged should be inviolate, invaded those territories with the half-avowed purpose that Belgium was to be permanently retained by Germany in order that she should have the proper frontage on the sea and the proper advantage in her contest with the other nations of the world. The act which was characteristic of the beginning of this war was the violation of the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Belgium.

We are presently, my fellow countrymen, to have the very great pleasure of welcoming on this side of the sea the King and the Queen of the Belgians, and I, for one, am perfectly sure that we are going to make it clear to them that we have not forgotten the violation of Belgium, that we have not forgotten the intolerable wrongs which were put upon that suffering people. I have seen their devastated country. Where it was not actually laid in ruins, every factory was gutted of its contents. All the machinery by which it would be possible for men to go to work again was taken away, and those parts of the machinery that could not be taken away were destroyed by experts who knew how to destroy them. Belgium was a very successful competitor of Germany in some lines of manufacture, and the German armies went there to see to it that that competition was removed. Their purpose was to crush the independent action of that little kingdom, not merely to use it as a gateway through which to attack France. And when they got into France, they not only fought the armies of France, but they put the coal mines of France out of commission, so that it will be a decade or more before France can supply herself with coal from her accustomed sources. You have heard a great deal about Article X of the covenant of the league of nations. Article X speaks the conscience of the world. Article X is the article which goes to the heart of this whole bad business, for that article says that the members of this league (that is intended to be all the great nations of the world) engage to respect and to preserve against all external aggression the territorial integrity and political independence of the nations concerned. That promise is necessary in order to prevent this sort of war from recurring, and we are absolutely discredited if we fought this war and then neglect the essential safeguard against it. You have heard it said, my fellow citizens, that we are robbed of some degree of our sovereign, independent choice by articles of that sort. Every man who makes a choice to respect the rights of his neighbors deprives himself of absolute sovereignty, but he does it by promising never to do wrong, and I can not for one see anything that robs me of any inherent right that I ought to retain when I promise that I will do right, when I promise that I will respect the thing which, being disregarded and violated, brought on a war in which millions of men lost their lives, in which the civilization of mankind was in the balance, in which there was the most outrageous exhibition ever witnessed in the history of mankind of the rapacity and disregard for right of a great armed people.

We engage in the first sentence of Article X to respect and preserve from external aggression the territorial integrity and the existing political independence not only of the other member States, but of all States, and if any member of the league of nations disregards that promise, then what happens? The council of the league advises what should be done to enforce the respect for that covenant on the part of the nation attempting to violate it, and there is no compulsion upon us to take that advice except the compulsion of our good conscience and judgment. It is perfectly evident that if, in the judgment of the people of the United States the council adjudged wrong and that this was not a case for the use of force, there would be no necessity on the part of the Congress of the United States to vote the use of force. But there could be no advice of the council on any such subject without a unanimous vote, and the unanimous vote includes our own, and if we, accepted the advice we would be accepting our own advice. For I need not tell you that the representatives of the Government of the United States' would not vote without instructions from their Government at home, and that what we united in advising we could be certain that the American people would desire to do. There is in that covenant not only not a surrender of the independent judgment of the Government of the United States, but an expression of it, because that independent judgment would have to join with the judgment of the rest.

But when is that judgment going to be expressed, my fellow citizens? Only after it is evident that every other- resource has failed, and I want to call your attention to the central machinery of the league of nations. If any member of that league, or any nation not a member, refuses to submit the question at issue either to arbitration or to discussion by the council, there ensues automatically by the engagements of this covenant an absolute economic boycott. There will be no trade with that nation by any member of the league. There will be no interchange of communication by post or telegraph. There will be no travel to or from that nation. Its borders will be closed. No citizen of any other State will be allowed to enter it, and no one of its citizens will be allowed to leave it. It will be hermetically sealed by the united action of the most powerful nations in the world. And if this economic boycott bears with unequal weight, the members of the league agree to support one another and to relieve one another in any exceptional disadvantages that may arise out of it.

I want you to realize that this war was won not only by the armies of the world. It was won by economic means as well. Without the economic means the war would have been much longer continued. What happened was that Germany was shut off from the economic resources of the rest of the globe and she could not stand it. A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but it brings a pressure upon that nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist.

I dare say that some of these ideas are new to you, because while it is true, as I said this forenoon in Columbus, that apparently nobody has taken the pains to see what is in this treaty, very few have taken the pains to see what is in the covenant of the league of nations. They have discussed, chiefly, three out of twenty-six articles, and the other articles contain this heart of the matter, that instead of war there shall be arbitration, instead of war there shall be discussion, instead of war there shall be the closure of intercourse, instead of war there shall be the irresistible pressure of the opinion of mankind. If I had done wrong, I would a great deal rather have a man shoot at me than stand me up for the judgment of my fellow men. I would a great deal rather see the muzzle of a gun than the look in their eyes. I would a great deal rather be put out of the world than live in the world boycotted and deserted. The most terrible thing is outlawry. The most formidable thing is to be absolutely isolated. And that is the kernel of this engagement. War is on the outskirts. War is a remote and secondary threat. War is a last resort. Nobody in his senses claims for the covenant of the league of nations that it is certain to stop war, but I confidently assert that it makes war violently improbable, and even if we can not guarantee that it will stop war, we are bound in conscience to do our utmost in order to avoid it and prevent it.

I was pointing out, my fellow citizens, this forenoon, that this covenant is part of a great document. I wish I had brought a copy with me to show you its bulk. It is an enormous volume, and most of the things you hear talked about in that treaty are not the essential things. This is the first treaty in the history of civilization in which great powers have associated themselves together in order to protect the weak. I need not tell you that I speak with knowledge in this matter, knowledge of the purpose of the men with whom the American delegates were associated at the peace table. They came there, every one that I consulted with, with the same idea, that wars had arisen in the past because the strong took advantage of the weak, and that the only way to stop wars was to bind ourselves together to protect the weak; that the example of this war was the example which gave us the finger to point the way of escape: That as Austria and Germany had tried to put upon Serbia, so we must see to it that Serbia and the Slavic peoples associated with her, and the peoples of Roumania, and the people of Bohemia, and the peoples of Hungary and Austria for that matter, should feel assured in the future that the strength of the great powers was behind their liberty and their independence and was not intended to be used, and never should be used, for aggression against them.

So when you read the covenant, read the treaty with it. I have no doubt that in this audience there are many men which come from that ancient stock of Poland, for example, men in whose blood there is the warmth of old affections connected with that betrayed and ruined country, men whose memories run back to intolerable wrongs suffered by those they love in that country, and I call them to witness that Poland never could have won unity and independence for herself, and those gentlemen sitting at Paris presented Poland with a unity which she could not have won and an independence which she can not defend unless the world guarantees it to her. There is one of the most noble chapters in the history of the world, that this war was concluded in order to remedy the wrongs which had bitten so deep into the experience of the weaker peoples of that great continent. The object of the war was to see to it that there was no more of that sort of wrong done. Now, when you have that picture in your mind, that this treaty was meant to protect those who could not protect themselves, turn the picture and look at it this way:

Those very weak nations are situated through the very tract of country—between Germany and Persia—which Germany had meant to conquer and dominate, and if the nations of the world do not maintain their concert to sustain the independence and freedom of those peoples, Germany will yet have her will upon them, and we shall witness the very interesting spectacle of having spent millions upon millions of American treasure and, what is much more precious, hundreds of thousands of American lives, to do a futile thing, to do a thing which we will then leave to be undone at the leisure of those who are masters of intrigue, at the leisure of those who are masters in combining wrong influences to overcome right influences, of those who are the masters of the very things that we hate and mean always to fight. For, my fellow citizens, if Germany should ever attempt that again, whether we are in the league of nations or not, we will join to prevent it. We do not stand off and see murder done. We do not profess to be the champions of liberty and then consent to see liberty destroyed. We are not the friends and advocates of free government and then willing to stand by and see free government die before our eyes. If a power such as Germany was, but thank God no longer is, were to do this thing upon the fields of Europe, then America would have to look to it that she did not do it also upon the fields of the Western Hemisphere, and we should at last be face to face with a power which at the outset we could have crushed, and which now it is within our choice to keep within the harness of civilization.

I am discussing this thing with you, my fellow citizens, as if I had a doubt of what the verdict of the American people would be. I have not the slightest doubt. I just wanted to have the pleasure of pointing out to you how absolutely ignorant of the treaty and of the covenant some of the men are who have been opposing them. If they do read the English language, they do not understand the English language as I understand it. If they have really read this treaty and this covenant they only amaze me by their inability to understand what is plainly expressed. My errand upon this journey is not to argue these matters, but to recall you to the real issues which are involved. And one of the things that I have most at heart in this report to my fellow citizens is that they should forget what party I belong to and what party they belong to. I am making this journey as a democrat, but I am spelling it with a little "d," and I do not want anybody to remember, so far as this errand is concerned, that it is ever spelt with a big D. I am making this journey as an American and as a champion of rights which America believes in; and I need not tell you that as compared with the importance of America the importance of the Democratic Party and the importance of the Republican Party and the importance of every other party is absolutely negligible. Parties, my fellow citizens, are intended to embody in action different policies of government. They are not, when properly used, intended to traverse the principles which underlie government, and the principles which underlie the Government of the United States have been familiar to us ever since we were children. You have been bred, I have no doubt, as I have been bred, in the revolutionary school of American thought. I mean that school of American thought which takes its inspiration from the days of the American Revolution. There were only three million of us then, but we were ready to stand out against the world for liberty. There are more than a hundred million of us now, and we are ready to insist that everywhere men shall be champions of liberty.

I want you to notice another interesting point that is never dilated upon in connection with the league of nations. I am treading now upon delicate ground and I must express myself with caution. There were a good many delegations that visited Paris who wanted to be heard by the peace conference who had real causes to present which ought to be presented to the view of the world, but we had to point out to them that they did not happen, unfortunately, to come within the area of settlement, that their questions were not questions which were necessarily drawn into the things that we were deciding. We were sitting there with the pieces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in our hands. It had fallen apart. It never was naturally cohesive. We were sitting there with various dispersed assets of the German Empire in our hands, and with regard to every one of them we had to determine what we were going to do with them, but we did not have our own dispersed assets in our hands. We did not have the assets of the nations which constituted the body of nations associated against Germany to dispose of, and therefore we had often, with whatever regret, to turn away from questions that ought some day to be discussed and settled and upon which the opinion of the world ought to be brought to bear.

Therefore, I want to call your attention, if you will turn to it when you go home, to Article XI, following Article X, of the covenant of the league of nations. That article, let me say, is the favorite article in the treaty, so far as I am concerned. It says that every matter which is likely to affect the peace of the world is everybody's business; that it shall be the friendly right of any nation to call attention in the league to anything that is likely to affect the peace of the world or the good understanding between nations, upon which the peace of the world depends, whether that matter immediately concerns" the nation drawing attention to it or not. In other words, at present we have to mind our own business. Under the covenant of the league of nations we can mind other peoples' business, and anything that affects the peace of the world, whether we are parties to it or not, can by our delegates be brought to the attention of mankind. We can force a nation on the other side of the globe to bring to that bar of mankind any wrong that is afoot in that part of the world which is likely to affect good understanding between nations, and we can oblige them to show cause why it should not be remedied. There is not an oppressed people in the world which can not henceforth get a hearing at that forum, and you know, my fellow citizens, what a hearing will mean if the cause of those people is just. The one thing that those who are doing injustice have most reason to dread is publicity and discussion, because if you are challenged to give a reason why you are doing a wrong thing it has to be an exceedingly good reason, and if you give a bad reason you confess judgment and the opinion of mankind goes against you.

At present what is the state of international law and understanding? No nation has the right to call attention to anything that does not directly affect its own affairs. If it does, it can not only be told to mind its own business, but it risks the cordial relationship between itself and the nation whose affairs it draws under discussion; whereas, under Article XI the very sensible provision is made that the peace of the world transcends all the susceptibilities of nations and governments, and that they are obliged to consent to discuss and explain anything which does affect the understanding between nations.

Not only that, but there is another thing in this covenant which cures one of the principal difficulties we encountered at Paris. I need not tell you that at every turn in those discussions we came across some secret treaty, some understanding that had never been made public before, some understanding which embarrassed the whole settlement. I think it will not be improper for me to refer to one of them. When we came to the settlement of the Shantung matter with regard to China, we found that Great Britain and France were under explicit treaty obligation to Japan that she should get exactly what she got in the treaty with Germany, and the most that the United states could do was to urge upon Japan the promise, which she gave, that she would not take advantage of those portions of the treaty but would return to the Republic of China, without qualification, the sovereignty which Germany had enjoyed in Shantung Province. We have had repeated assurances since then that Japan means to fulfill those promises in absolute good faith. But my present point is that there stood at the very gate of that settlement a secret treaty between Japan and two of the great powers engaged in this war on our side. We could not ask them to disregard those promises. This war had been fought in part because of the refusal to observe the fidelity which is involved in a promise, because of the failure to regard the sacredness of treaties, and this covenant of the league of nations provides that no secret treaty shall have any validity. It provides in explicit terms that every treaty, every international understanding, shall be registered with the secretary of the league, that it shall be published as soon as possible after it is there registered, and that no treaty that is not there registered will be regarded by any of the nations engaged in the covenant. So that we not only have the right to discuss anything, but we make everything open for discussion. If this covenant accomplished little more than the abolition of private arrangements between great powers, it would have gone far toward stabilizing the peace of the world and securing justice, which it has been so difficult to secure so long as nations could come to secret understandings with one another.

When you look at the covenant of the league of nations thus, in the large, you wonder why it is a bogey to anybody. You wonder what influences have made gentlemen afraid of it. You wonder why it is not obvious to everybody as it is to those who study it with disinterested thought, that this is the central and essential covenant of the whole peace. As I was saying this forenoon, I can come through a double row of men in khaki and acknowledge their salute with a free heart, because I kept my promise to them. I told them when they went to this war that it was a war not only to beat Germany but to prevent any subsequent wars of this kind. I can look all the mothers of this country in the face and all the sisters and the wives and the sweethearts and say, "The boys will not have to do this again. "?

You would think to hear some of the men who discuss this covenant that it is an arrangement for sending our men abroad again just as soon as possible. It is the only conceivable arrangement which will prevent our sending our men abroad again very soon, and if I may use a very common expression, I would say if it is not to be this arrangement, what arrangement do you suggest to secure the peace of the world? It is a case of "put up or shut up." Opposition is not going to save the world. Negations are not going to construct the policies of mankind. A great plan is the only thing that can defeat a great plan. The only triumphant ideas in this world are the ideas that are organized for battle. The only thing that wins against a program is a better program. If this is not the way to secure peace, I beg that the way will be pointed out. If we must reject this way, then I beg that before I am sent to ask Germany to make a new kind of peace with us I should be given specific instructions what kind of peace it is to be. If the gentlemen who do not like what was done at Paris think they can do something better, I beg that they will hold their convention soon and do it now. They can not in conscience or good faith deprive us of this great work of peace without substituting some other that is better.

So, my fellow citizens, I look forward with profound gratification to the time which I believe will now not much longer be delayed, when the American people can say to their fellows in all parts of the world, "We are the friends of liberty; we have joined with the rest of mankind in securing the guarantees of liberty; we stand here with you the eternal champions of what is right, and may God keep us in the covenant that we have formed."

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Coliseum at the State Fair Grounds in Indianapolis, Indiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317810

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