Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Denver Municipal Auditorium in Denver, Colorado

September 25, 1919

Mr. Chairman, my fellow countrymen, I always feel a thrill of pride in standing before a great company of my fellow citizens to speak for this great document which we shall always know as the - treaty of Versailles. I am proud to speak for it, because for the first time in the history of international consultation men have turned away from the ambitions of governments and have sought to advance the fortunes of peoples. They have turned away from all those older plans of domination and sought to lay anew the foundations for the liberty of mankind. I say without hesitation that this is a great document of liberation. It is a new charter for the liberty of men.

As we have advanced from week to week and from month to month in the debate of this great document, I think a great many things that we talked about at first have cleared away. A great many difficulties which were at first discovered, or which some fancied that they had discovered, have been removed. The center and heart of this document is that great instrument which is placed at the beginning of it, the covenant of the league of nations. I think everybody now understands that you can not work this treaty without that covenant. Everybody certainly understands that you have no insurance for the continuance of this settlement without the covenant of the league of nations, and you will notice that, with the single exception of the provision with regard to the transfer of the German rights in Shantung in China to Japan, practically nothing in the body of the treaty has seemed to constitute any great obstacle to its adoption. All the controversy, all the talk, has centered on the league of nations, and I am glad to see the issue center; I am glad to see the issue clearly drawn, for now we have to decide, Shall we stand by the settlements of liberty, or shall we not?

I want, just by way of introduction and clarification, to point out what is not often enough explained to audiences in this country, the actual constitution of the league of nations. It is very simply constituted. It consists of two bodies, a council and an assembly. The assembly is the numerous body. In it every self-governing State that is a member of the league is represented, and not only the self-governing independent States, but the self-governing colonies and dominions, such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, and South Africa, are all represented in the assembly. It is in the assembly that the combined representation of the several parts of the British Empire are assigned six votes, and you are constantly being told that Great Britain has six votes and we have one. I want you to appreciate the full significance of that. They have six votes in the assembly, and the assembly does not vote. That bubble is exploded. There are several matters in which the vote of the assembly must cooperate with the vote of the council, but in every such case an unanimous vote of the council is necessary, and, inasmuch as the United States is a permanent member of the council, her vote is necessary to every active policy of the league. Therefore the single vote of the United States always counts six, so far as the votes of the British Empire are concerned, and if it is a mere question of pride, I would rather be one and count six than six and count six.

That affords emphasis to the point I wish you to keep distinctly in mind with regard to reservations and all the qualifications of ratification which are being discussed. No active policy can be undertaken by the league without the assenting vote of the United States. I can not understand the anxiety of some gentlemen for fear something is going to be put over on them. I can not understand why, having read the covenant of the league and examined its constitution, they are not satisfied with the fact that every active policy of the league must be concurred in by a unanimous vote of the council, which means that the affirmative vote of the United States is in every instance necessary. That being the case, it becomes sheer nonsense, my fellow citizens, to talk about a supergovernment being set up over the United States; it becomes sheer nonsense to say that any authority is constituted which can order our armies to other parts of the world, which can interfere with our domestic questions, which can direct our international policy even in any matter in which we do not consent to be directed. We would be under our own direction just as much under the covenant of the league of nations as we are now. Of course, I do not mean to say that we do not, so to say, pool our moral issues. We do that. In acquiescing in the covenant of the league we do adopt, and we should adopt, certain fundamental moral principles of right and justice, which, I dare say, we do not need to promise to live up to, but which we are certainly proud to promise to live up to. We are not turning any corner. We always have lived up to them, and we do not intend to change our course of action or our standards of action. And it is American standards of action that are set up in the covenant of the league of nations.

What is the covenant for? To hear most of the debate, you would think that it was an ingenious contrivance for a subtle interference with the affairs of the United States. On the contrary, it is one of the most solemn covenants ever entered into by all the great lighting powers of the world that they never will resort to war again without first having either submitted the question at issue to arbitration and undertaken to abide by the verdict of the arbitrators or submitted it to discussion by the council of the league of nations, laying all the documents, all the facts, before that council, consenting that that council should lay all those documents and all those facts before the world; they agree to allow six months for that discussion, and, even if they are not satisfied with the opinion, for it is only an opinion in that case, rendered by the council, they agree not to go to war for three months after the opinion has been rendered. There you have nine months' submission to the moral judgment of the world. In my judgment, that is an almost complete assurance against war. If any such covenant as that had existed in 1914, Germany never would have gone to war. The one thing that Germany could not afford to do, and knew that she could not afford to do, was to submit her case to the public opinion of the world. We have now abundant proof of what would have happened, because it was the moral judgment of the world that combined the world against Germany. We were a long time, my fellow citizens, seeing that we belonged in the war, but just so soon as the real issues of it became apparent we knew that we belonged here. And we did an unprecedented thing. We threw the whole power of a great nation into a quarrel with the origination of which it had nothing to do. I think there is nothing that appeals to the imagination more in the history of men than those convoyed fleets crossing the ocean with millions of American soldiers aboard—those crusaders, those men who loved liberty enough to leave their homes and fight for it upon distant fields of battle, those men who swung out into the open as if in fulfillment of the long prophecy of American history. There is nothing finer in the records of public action than the united spirit of the American people behind this great enterprise.

I ask your close observation to current events, my fellow countrymen. Out of doors, that is to say, that out of legislative halls, there is no organized opposition to this treaty except among the people who tried to defeat the purpose of this Government in the war. Hyphens are the knives that are being stuck into this document. The issue is clearly drawn. Inasmuch as we are masters of our own participation in the action of the league of nations, why do we need reservations? If we can not be obliged to do anything that we do not ourselves vote to do, why qualify our acceptance of a perfectly safe agreement? There can be only one object, my fellow citizens, and that is to give the United States a standing of exceptional advantage in the league, to exempt it from obligations which the other members assume, or to put a special interpretation upon the duties of the United States under the covenant which interpretation is not applied to the duties of other members of the league under the covenant. I, for my part, say that it is unworthy of the United States to ask any special privilege of that kind. I am for going into a body of equals or staying out. That is the very principle we have been fighting for and have been proud to fight for, that the rights of a weak nation were just as sacred as the rights of a great nation. That is what this treaty was drawn to establish. You must not think of this treaty alone. The lines of it are being run out into the Austrian treaty and the Hungarian treaty and the Bulgarian treaty and the Turkish treaty, and in every one of them the principle is this, to deliver peoples who have been living under sovereignties that were alien and unwelcome from the bondage under which they have lived, to turn over to them their own territory, to adopt the American principle that all just government is derived from the consent of the governed. All down through the center of Europe and into the heart of Asia has gone this process of liberation, taking alien yokes off the necks of such peoples and vindicating the American principle that you can not impose upon anybody a sovereignty that is not of its own choice. And if the results of this great liberation are not guaranteed, then they will fall down like a house of cards. What was the program of Pan Germanism? You know the formula—from Bremen to Bagdad. Very well; that is the very stretch of country over which these people have been liberated. New States, one after another, have been set up by the action of the conference at Paris all along the route that was intended to be the route of German dominion, and if we now merely set them up and leave them in their weakness to take care of themselves, then Germans can at their leisure, by intriguing, by every subtle process of which they are master, accomplish what they could not accomplish by arms, and we will have abandoned the people whom we redeemed. The thing is inconceivable. The thing is impossible.?

We therefore have come to the straight-cut line—adoption or rejection. Qualified adoption is not adoption. It is perfectly legitimate, I admit, to say in what sense we understand certain articles. They are all perfectly obvious in meaning, so far as I can see, but if you want to make the obvious more obvious I do not see any objection to that; if by the multiplication of words you can make simple words speak their meaning more distinctly, I think that that is an interesting rhetorical exercise, but nothing more. Qualification means asking special exemptions and privileges for the United States. We can not ask that. We must either go in or stay out. Now, if we go in what do we get? I am not now confining my view to our selves. America has shown the world that she does not stop to calculate the lower sort of advantage and disadvantage; that she goes in upon a high plane of principle, and is willing to serve mankind while she is serving herself. What we gain in this treaty is, first of all, the substitution of arbitration and discussion for war. If you got nothing else, it is worth the whole game to get that. My fellow citizens, we fought this war in order that there should not be another like it. I am under bonds, I am under bonds to my fellow citizens of every sort, and I am particularly under bonds to the mothers of this country and to the wives of this country and to the sweethearts that I will do everything in my power to see to it that their sons and husbands and sweethearts never have to make that supreme sacrifice again. And when I passed your beautiful Capitol Square just now and saw thousands of children there to greet me, I felt a lump in my throat. These are the little people that I am arguing for. These are my clients, these lads coming on and these girls that, staying at home, would suffer more than the lads who died on the battle field, for it is the tears at home that are more bitter than the agony upon the field. I dare not turn away from the straight path I have set myself to redeem this promise that I have made.

If you say, "What is there? An absolute insurance against war?" I say, "Certainly not." Nobody can give you an insurance against human passion, but if you can get a little insurance against an infinite catastrophe, is it not better than getting none at all? Let us assume that it is only 25 per cent insurance against war. Can any humane man reject that insurance? Let us suppose that it is 50 per cent insurance against war. Why, my friends, my calm judgment is that it is 99 per cent insurance against war. That is what I went over to Europe to get, and that is what I got, and that is what I have brought back.

Stop for a moment to think about the next war, if there should be one. I do not hesitate to say that the war we have just been through, though it was shot through with terror of every kind, is not to be compared with the war we would have to face next time. There were destructive gases, there were methods of explosive destruction unheard of even during this war, which were just ready for use when the war ended—great projectiles that guided themselves and shot into the heavens went for a hundred miles and more and then burst tons of explosives upon helpless cities, something to which the guns with which the Germans bombarded Paris from a distance were not comparable. What the Germans used were toys as compared with what would be used in the next war. Ask any soldier if he wants to go through a hell like that again. The soldiers know what the next war would be. They know what the inventions were that were just about to be used for the absolute destruction of mankind. I am for any kind of insurance against a barbaric reversal of civilization.

And by consequence, the adoption of the treaty means disarmament. Think of the economic burden and the restraint of liberty in the development of professional and mechanic life that resulted from the maintenance of great armies, not only in Germany but in France and in Italy and, to some extent, in Great Britain. If the United States should stand off from this thing we would have to have the biggest army in the world. There would be nobody else that cared for our fortunes. We would have to look out for ourselves, and when I hear gentlemen say, "Yes; that is what we want to do, we want to be independent and look out for ourselves," I say, "Well, then, consult your fellow citizens. There will have to be universal conscription. There will have to be taxes such as even yet we have not seen. There will have to be a concentration of authority in the Government capable of using this terrible instrument. You can not conduct a war or command an army by a debating society. You can not determine in community centers what the command of the Commander in Chief is going to be; you will have to have a staff like the German staff, and you will have to Center in the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy the right to take instant action for the protection of the Nation." America will never consent to any such thing.

Then, if we have this great treaty, we have what the world never had before—a court of public opinion of the world. I do not think that you can exaggerate the significance of that, my fellow countrymen. International law up to this time has been the most singular code of manners. You could not mention to any other Government anything that concerned it unless you could prove that your own interests were immediately involved. Unless you could prove that it was your own material interest that was involved, it was impolite to speak of it. There might be something brooding that threatened the peace of the world, and you could not speak of it unless the interests of the United States were involved. I am going to allude for a moment to a matter so interesting that I wish I could develop it. This cession in Shantung Province in China, which China gave to Germany in 1898, was an iniquitous thing at the outset; but our great President, William McKinley, and our great Secretary of State, John Hay, did not protest against it. It was an outrageous invasion of the rights of China. They not only did not protest, but all they asked was that Germany, after she got what did not belong to her, would please not close the doors against the trade of the United States. I am not saying this by way of criticism. That is all that under international manners they had a right to ask. International law has been the principle of minding your own business, particularly when something outrageous was up; and article 11 of the league of nations makes matters of that sort everybody's business. Under article 11 any member of the league can at any time call attention to anything, anywhere, which is likely to affect the peace of the world or the good understanding between nations upon which the peace of the world depends. The littlest nation, along with the biggest—Panama, to take one of our own near neighbors— can stand up and challenge the right of any nation in the world to do a thing which threatens the peace of the world. It does not have to be a big nation to do it.

The voice of the world is at last released. The conscience of the world is at last given a forum, and the rights of men not liberated under this treaty are given a place where they can be heard. If there are nations which wish to exercise the power of self-determination but are not liberated by this treaty, they can come into that great forum, they can point out how their demands affect the peace and quiet of the world, they can point out how their demands affect the good understanding between nations. There is a forum here for the rights of mankind which was never before dreamed of, and in that forum any representative has the right to speak his full mind. If that is not a wholesome moral clearing house, I wish somebody would suggest a better. It is just a moral clearing house that the world needs. There have been a great many things unspoken that ought to have been spoken. There have been voiceless multitudes all over the world who had nobody to speak for them in any court of conscience anywhere, and now they are given spokesmen. All forward-looking men may now see their way to the method in which they may help forward the real processes of civilization.

There is another matter which I am sure will interest a great many in sound of my voice. If we do not have this treaty of peace, labor will continue to be regarded, not as it ought to he regarded, a human function, but as a purchasable commodity throughout the world. There is inserted in this great treaty a Magna Charta of labor. There is set up here a means of periodic examination of the conditions of labor all over the world, particularly the labor of women and children and those who have not the physical force to handle some of the burdens that are put upon them, and it is made the duty of the nations of the world constantly to study the methods of raising the levels of human labor. You know what that means. We have not done our full duty with regard to the amelioration and betterment of the conditions of labor in America, but the conditions here are better than they are anywhere else. We now have an opportunity to exercise our full influence to raise the levels everywhere to the levels which we have tried to maintain in this country, and then to take them higher into the fields of that sort of association between those who employ labor and those who execute it as will make it a real human relationship and not a mere commercial relationship. The heart of the world has never got into this business yet. The conscience of the world has never been released along lines of action in regard to the improvement of the conditions of labor. And more than that, until we find such methods as I have been alluding to, we are never releasing the real energies of this people. Men are not going to work and produce what they would produce if they feel that they are not justly treated. If you want to realize the real wealth of this country, then bring about the human relationship between employers and employees which will make them collaborators and partners and follow workers. All of that is open to us through the instrumentality of the league of nations under this great treaty, and still we debate whether we should ratify it or not.

There is a great deal of pleasure in talking, I admit; and some men, even some men I do not agree with, I admit, talk very well, indeed. It is a pleasure to hear them when they are honest; it is a pleasure to be instructed by them when they know what they are talking about. But we have reached the stage now when all the things that needed to be debated have been debated and all the doubts are cleared up. They are cleared up just as thoroughly as the English language can clear them. The people of the United States are no longer susceptible to being misled as to what is in this covenant, and they now have an exceedingly interesting choice to make. I have said it a great many times, my fellow countrymen, but I must say it again, because it is a pleasant thing to testify about, the fundamental thing that I discovered on the other side of the water was that all the great peoples of the world are looking to America for leadership. There can be no mistaking that. The evidences were too overwhelming, the evidences were too profoundly significant, because what underlay them was this: We are the only Nation which so far has not laid itself open to suspicion of ulterior motives. We are the only Nation which has not made it evident that when we go to anybody's assistance we mean to stay there longer than we are welcome. Day after day I received delegations in Paris asking—what? Credits from the United States? No. Merchandise from the United States? Yes, if possible; but that was not the chief point. They were asking that I send American troops to take the place of other troops, because they said, "Our people will welcome them with open arms as friends who have come for their sakes and not for anything that America can possibly in the future have in mind." What an extraordinary tribute to the principles of the United States! What an extraordinary tribute to the sincerity of the people of the United States! I never was so proud in my life as when these evidences began to accumulate. I had been proud always of being an American, but I never before realized fully what it meant. It meant to stand at the front of the moral forces of the world.

My fellow citizens, I think we must come to sober and immediate conclusions. There is no turning aside from the straight line. We must now either accept this arrangement or reject it. If we accept it, there is no danger either to our safety or to our honor. If we reject it, we will meet with suspicion, with distrust, with dislike, with disillusionment everywhere in the world. This treaty has to be carried out. In order to carry this treaty out, it is necessary to reconstruct Europe economically and industrially. If we do not take part in that reconstruction, we will be shut out from it, and by consequence the markets of Europe will be shut to us. The combinations of European Governments can be formed to exclude us wherever it is possible to exclude us; and if you want to come to the hard and ugly basis of material interest, the United States will everywhere trade at an overwhelming disadvantage just so soon as we have forfeited, and deserve to forfeit, the confidence of the world. I ask merchants, "Who are good customers, friends or enemies? Who are good customers, those who open their doors to you, or those who have made some private arrangement elsewhere which makes it impossible for them to trade with you?" I have heard Europe spoken of as bankrupt. There may be great difficulties in paying the public debts, but there are going to be no insuperable difficulties to rebeginning the economic and industrial life of Europe. The men are there, the materials are there, the energy is there, and the hope is there. The nations are not crushed. They are ready for the great enterprises of the future, and it is for us to choose whether we will enter those great enterprises upon a footing of advantage and of honor or upon a footing of disadvantage and distrust.

Therefore, from every point of view, I challenge the opponents of this treaty to show cause why it should not be ratified. I challenge them to show cause why there should be any hesitation in ratifying it. I do not understand delays. I do not understand covert processes of opposition. It is time that we knew where we shall stand, for observe, my fellow citizens, the negotiation of treaties rests with the Executive of the United States. When the Senate has acted, it will be for me to determine whether its action constitutes an adoption or a rejection, and I beg the gentlemen who are responsible for the action of the United States Senate to make it perfectly clear whether it is an adoption or a rejection. I do not wish to draw doubtful conclusions. I do not wish to do injustice to the process of any honest mind. But when that treaty is acted upon I must know whether it means that we have ratified it or rejected it, and I feel confident that I am speaking for the people of the United States.

When it is around election time, my fellow citizens, a man ought to be doubtful of what the meaning of his intercourse with his fellow citizens is, because it is easy for applause to go to the head; it is easy for applause to seem to men more than it does; it is easy for the assurances of individual support to be given a wider implication than can properly be given to them. I thank God that on this occasion the whole issue has nothing to do with me. I did not carry any purpose of my own to Paris. I did not carry any purpose that I did not know from the action of public opinion in the United States was the purpose of the United States. It was not the purpose of a party. It was not the purpose of any section of our fellow citizens. It was a purpose subscribed to by American public opinion and formally adopted by the Governments with which we had to deal on the other side, and I came back with a document embodying the principles insisted upon at the outset and carried by the American delegation to Paris. Therefore I think that I have the right to say that I have the support of the people of the United States. The issue is so big that it transcends all party and personal things. I was a spokesman; I was an instrument. I did not speak any privately conceived idea of my own. I had merely tried to absorb the influences of public opinion in the United States, and that, my fellow citizens, is the function of all of us. We ought not in a great crisis like this to follow any private opinion; we ought not to follow any private purpose; we ought, above all things, to forget that we are ever divided into parties when we vote. We are all democrats—I will not insist upon the large "D"—we are all democrats because we believe in a people's government, and what I am pleading for is nothing less than a people's peace.

APP Notes: S. Harrison White, Chairman of Colorado Branch of the League to Enforce Peace Presided.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Denver Municipal Auditorium in Denver, Colorado Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318176

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