Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Fairgrounds Auditorium in Billings, Montana

September 11, 1919

Mr. Mayor, Judge Pierson, my fellow countrymen, it is with genuine pleasure that I face this company and realize that I am in the great State of Montana. I have long wanted to visit this great State and come into contact with its free and vigorous population, and I want to thank Judge Pierson for the happy word that he used in speaking of my errand. He said that I had come to consult with you. That is exactly what I have come to do. I have come to consult with you in the light of certain circumstances which I want to explain to you, circumstances which affect not only this great Nation which we love, and of which we try to constitute an honorable part, but also affect the whole world. I wonder when we speak of the whole world whether we have a true conception of the fact that the human heart beats everywhere the same. Nothing impressed me so much on the other side of the water as the sort of longing for sympathy which those people exhibited. The people of France, for example, feeling keenly as they do the terrors that they have suffered at the hands of the enemy, are never so happy as when they realize that we across the sea at a great distance feel with them the keen arrows of sorrow that have penetrated their hearts and are glad that our boys went over there to help rescue them from the terror that lay upon them day and night.

What I have come to say to you to-day, my friends, is this: We are debating the treaty of peace with Germany and we are making the mistake, I take the liberty of saying, of debating it as if it were an ordinary treaty with some particular country, a treaty which we could ourselves modify without complicating the affairs of the world; whereas, as a matter of fact, this is not merely a treaty with Germany. Matters were drawn into this treaty which affected the peace and happiness of the whole Continent of Europe, and not of the Continent of Europe merely, but of forlorn populations in Africa, of peoples that we hardly know about in Asia, in the Far East and everywhere the influence of German policy had extended and everywhere that influence had to be corrected, had to be checked, had to be altered. What I want to impress upon you to-day is that it is this treaty or none. It is this treaty because we can have no other.

Consider the circumstances. For the first time in the world some 20 nations sent their most thoughtful and responsible men to consult together at the capital of France to effect a settlement of the affairs of the world, and I want to render my testimony that these gentlemen entered upon their deliberations with great openness of mind. Their discussions were characterized by the utmost candor, and they realize, my fellow citizens, what as a student of history I venture to say no similar body ever acknowledged before, that they were nobody's masters, that they did not have the right to follow the line of any national advantage in determining what the settlements of the peace should be, but that they were the servants of their people and the servants of the people of the world. This settlement, my fellow citizens, is the first international settlement that was intended for the happiness of the average men and women throughout the world. This is indeed and in truth a people's treaty, and it is the first people's treaty, and I venture to express the opinion that it is not wise for Parliaments or Congresses to attempt to alter it. It is a people's treaty, notwithstanding the fact that we call it a treaty with Germany; and while it is a treaty with Germany, and in some senses a very severe treaty, indeed, it is not an unjust treaty, as some have characterized it. My fellow citizens, Germany tried to commit a crime against civilization, and this treaty is justified in making Germany pay for that criminal error up to the ability of her payment. Some of the very gentlemen who are now characterizing this treaty as too harsh are the same men who less than a twelvemonth ago were criticizing the administration at Washington in the fear that they would compound with Germany and let her off from the payment of the utmost that she could pay in retribution for what she had done. They were pitiless then; they are pitiful now.

It is very important, my fellow citizens, that we should not forget what this war meant. I am amazed at the indications that we are forgetting what we went through. There are some indications that on the other side of the water they are apt to forget what they went through. I venture to think that there are thousands of mothers and fathers and wives and sisters and sweethearts in this country who are never going to forget. Thousands of our gallant youth lie buried in France, and buried for what? For the redemption of America? America was not directly attacked. For the salvation of America? America was not immediately in danger. No; for the salvation of mankind. It is the noblest errand that troops ever went on. I was saying the other day in the presence of a little handful of men whom I revered, veterans of our Civil War, that it seemed to me that they fought for the greatest thing that there was to fight for in their day, and you know with what reverence we have regarded all the men who fought in the ranks in the Civil War for the Union. I am saying this out of a full heart, though I was born on the other side of the Mason and Dixon line. We revere the men who saved the Union. What are going to be our sentiments with regard to these boys in khaki and the boys who have just been in khaki in this war? Do you not think that when they are old men a halo will seem to be about them, because they were crusaders for the liberty of the world? One of the hardest things for me to do during this war, as for many another man in this country, was merely to try to direct things and not take a gun and go myself. When I feel the pride that I often have felt in having been the Commander in Chief of these gallant armies and those splendid boys at sea, I think, "Ah, that is fine, but, oh, to have been one of them and to have accomplished this great thing which has been accomplished!"

The fundamental principle of this treaty is a principle never- acknowledged before, a principle which had its birth and has had. its growth in this country, that the countries of the world belong to the people who live in them, and that they have a right to determine their own destiny and their own form of government and their own policy, and that no body of statesmen, sitting anywhere, no matter whether they represent the overwhelming physical force of the world or not, has the right to assign any great people to a sovereignty under which it does not care to live. This is the great treaty which is being debated. This is the treaty which is being examined with a microscope. This is the treaty which is being pulled about and about which suggestions are made as to changes of phraseology. Why, my friends, are you going to be so nearsighted as to look that way at a great charter of human liberty? The thing is impossible. You can not have any other treaty, because you can never get together again the elements that agreed to this treaty. You can not do it by dealing with separate governments. You can not assemble the forces again that were back of it. You can not bring the agreement upon which it rests into force again. It was the laborious work of many, many months of the most intimate conference. It has very, very few compromises in it and is, most of it, laid down in straight lines according to American specifications. The choice is either to accept this treaty or play a lone hand. What does that mean? To play a lone hand means that we must always be ready to play by ourselves. That means that we must always be armed, that we must always be ready to mobilize the man strength and the manufacturing resources of the country; it means that we must continue to live under not diminishing but increasing taxes; it means that we shall devote our thought and the organization of our Government to being strong enough to beat any nation in the world. An absolute reversal of all the ideals of American history. If you are going to play a lone hand, the hand that you play must be upon the handle of the sword. You can not play a lone hand and do your civil business except with the other hand—one hand incidental for the business of peace, the other hand constantly for the assertion of force. It is either this treaty or a lone hand, and the lone hand must have a weapon in it. The weapon must be all the young men of the country trained to arms, and the business of the country must pay the piper, must pay for the whole armament, the arms and the men. That is the choice. Do you suppose, my fellow citizens, that any nation is going to stand for that? We are not the only people who are sick of war. We are not the only people who have made up our minds that our Government must devote its attention to peace and to justice and to right. The people all over the world have made up their minds as to that. We need peace more than we ever needed it before. We need ordered peace, calm peace, settled peace, assured peace—for what have we to do? We have to reregulate the fortunes of men. We have to reconstruct the machinery of civilization.. I use the words deliberately—we have to reconstruct the machinery of civilization.

The central fact of the modern world is universal unrest, and the unrest is not due merely to the excitement of a recent war. The unrest is not due merely to the fact of recent extraordinary circumstances. It is due to a universal conviction that the conditions under which men live and labor are not satisfactory. It is a conviction all over the world that there is no use talking about political democracy unless you have also industrial democracy. You know what this war interrupted in the United States. We were searching our own hearts; we were looking closely at our own methods of doing business. A great many were convinced that the control of the business of this country was in too few hands. Some were convinced that the credit of the country was controlled by small groups of men, and the great Federal reserve act and the great land-bank act were passed in order to release the resources of the country on a broader and more generous scale. We had not finished dealing with monopolies. We have not finished dealing with monopolies. With monopolies there can be no industrial democracy. With the control of the few, of whatever kind or class, there can be no democracy of any sort. The world is finding that out in some portions of it in blood and terror.

Look what has happened in Russia, my fellow citizens. I find wherever I go in America that my fellow citizens feel as I do, an infinite pity for that great people, an infinite longing to be of some service to them. Everybody who has mixed with the Russian people tells me that they are among the most lovable people in the world, a very gentle people, a very friendly people, a very simple people, and in their local life a very democratic people, people who easily trust you, and who expect you to be trustworthy as they are. Yet this people is delivered into the hands of an intolerable tyranny. It came out of one tyranny to get into a worse. A little group of some 30 or 40 men are the masters of that people at present. Nobody elected them. They chose themselves. They maintain their power by the sword, and they maintain the sword by seizing all the food of the country and letting only those who will fight for them eat, the rest of them to go starved; and because they can command no loyalty we are told by the newspapers that they are about to brand the men under arms for them, so that they will be forever marked as their servants and slaves. That is what pitiful Russia has got in for, and there will be many a bloody year, I am afraid, before she finds herself again.

I speak of Russia. Have you seen no symptoms of the spread of that sort of chaotic spirit into other countries? If you had been across the sea with me you would know that the dread in the mind of every thoughtful man in Europe is that that distemper will spread to their countries, that before there will be settled order there will be tragical disorder. Have you heard nothing of the propaganda of that sort of belief in the United States? That poison is running through the veins of the world, and we have made the methods of communication throughout the world such that all the veins of the world are open and the poison can circulate. The wireless throws it out upon the air. The cable whispers it underneath the sea. Men talk about it in little groups, men talk about it openly in great groups not only in Europe but here also in the United States. There are apostles of Lenin in our own midst. I can not imagine what it means to be an apostle of Lenin. It means to be an apostle of the night, of chaos, of disorder; there can be no creed of disorganization. Our immediate duty, therefore, my fellow countrymen, is to see that no minority, no class, no special interest, no matter how respectable, how rich, how poor, shall get control of the affairs of the United States.

The singular thing about the sort of disorder that prevails in Russia is that while every man is, so to say, invited to take what he can get, he can not keep it when he gets it, because, even if you had leave to steal, which is the leave very generously given in Russia at present, you have got to get somebody to help you to keep what you steal. Without organization you can not get any help, so the only thing you can do is to dig a hole and find a cave somewhere. Disordered society is dissolved society. There is no society when there is not settled and calculable order. When you do not know what is going to happen to you to-morrow, you do not much care what is going to happen to you to-day. These are the things that confront us. The world must be satisfied of justice. The conditions of civilized life must be purified and perfected, and if we do not have peace, that is impossible. We must clear the decks of this matter we are now discussing. This is the best treaty that can possibly be got, and, in my judgment, it is a mighty good treaty, for it has justice, the attempt at justice at any rate, at the heart of it.

Suppose that you were feeling that there was a danger of a general conflagration in your part of the country; I mean a literal fire. Which would you rather have, no insurance at all or 10 per cent insurance? Don't you think some insurance is better than none at all? Put the security obtained by this treaty at its minimum, and it is a great deal better than no security at all, and without it there is no security at all, and no man can be sure what his business will be from month to month, or what his life will be from year to year. The leisureliness of some debates creates the impression on my mind that some men think there is leisure. There is no leisure in the world, my fellow citizens, with regard to the reform of the conditions under which men live. There is no time for any talk, but get down to the business of what we are going to do.

I dare say that many of you know that I have called a conference to sit in Washington the first of next month, a conference of men in the habit of managing business and of men engaged in manual labor, what we generally call employers and employees. I have called them together for the sake of getting their minds together, getting their purposes together, getting them to look at the picture of our life at the same time and in the same light and from the same angles, so that they can see the things that ought to be done. I am trying to apply there what is applied in the great covenant of the league of nations, that if there is any trouble, the thing to do is not to fight, but to sit around the table and talk it over. The league of nations substitutes discussion for fight, and without discussion there will be fight. One of the greatest difficulties that we have been through in the past is in getting men to understand that fundamental thing. There is a very interesting story and a very charming story told of a great English writer of a past generation. He was a man who stuttered a little bit, and he stuttered out some very acid comment on some man who was not present. One of his friends said, "Why, Charles, I didn't know you knew him." "Oh, n-n-no," he said, "I-I d-d-don't k-know him; I-I c-c-can't hate a m-man I-I know." How much truth there is in that, my fellow countrymen! You can not hate a fellow you know. I know some crooks that I can not help liking. I can judge them in cool blood and correctly only when they are not there. They are extremely fetching and attractive fellows; indeed, I suspect that a disagreeable fellow can not be a successful crook.

But, to speak seriously, conference is the healing influence of civilization, and the real difficulty between classes, when a country is unfortunate enough to have classes, is that they do not understand one another. I sometimes think that the real barriers in life are the barriers of taste, that some people like one way of doing things and that other people do not like that way of doing things; that one sort of people are not comfortable unless the people they are with are dressed the way they are. I think that goes so much deeper than people realize. It is the absence of the ability to get at the point of view and look through the eyes of the persons with whom you are not accustomed to deal. In order, therefore, to straighten out the affairs of America, in order to calm and correct the ways of the world, the first and immediate requisite is peace, and it is an immediate requisite. We can not wait. It is not wise to wait, because we ought to devote our best thoughts, the best impulses of our hearts, the clearest thinking of our brain, to correcting the things that are wrong everywhere.

I have been told, my fellow citizens, that this western part of the country is particularly pervaded with what is called radicalism. There is only one way to meet radicalism and that is to deprive it of food, and wherever there is anything wrong there is abundant food for radicalism. The only way to keep men from agitating against grievances is to remove the grievances, and as long as things are wrong I do not intend to ask men to stop agitating. I intend to beg that they will agitate in an orderly fashion; I intend to beg that they will use the orderly methods of counsel, and, it may be, the slow processes of correction which can be accomplished in a self-governing people through political means. Otherwise we will have chaos; but as long as there is something to correct, I say Godspeed to the men who are trying to correct it. That is the only way to meet radicalism. Radicalism means cutting up by the roots. Well, remove the noxious growth and there will be no cutting up by the roots. Then there will be the wholesome fruitage of an honest life from one end of this country to the other.

In looking over some papers the other day I was reminded of a very interesting thing. The difficulty which is being found with the league of nations is that apparently the gentlemen who are discussing it unfavorably are afraid that we will be bound to do something we do not want to do. The only way in which you can have impartial determinations to this world is by consenting to something you do not want to do. Every time you have a case in court one or the other of the parties has to consent to do something he does not want to do. There is not a case in court, and there are hundreds of thousands of them every year, in which one of the parties is not disappointed. Yet we regard that as the foundation of civilization, that we will not fight about these things, and that when we lose in court we will take our medicine. Very well; I say that the two Houses of Congress suggested that there be an international court, and suggested that they were willing to take their medicine. They put it in a place where you would not expect it. They put it in the naval appropriation bill, and, not satisfied with putting it there once, they put it there several times; I mean in successive years. This is the sum of it:

"It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to adjust and settle its international disputes through mediation or arbitration (that is, the league of nations), to the end that war may be honorably avoided. It looks with apprehension and disfavor upon a general increase of armament throughout the world, but it realizes that no single nation can disarm and that without a common agreement upon the subject every considerable power must maintain a relative standing in military strength. In view of the premises, the President is authorized and requested to invite at an appropriate time, not later than the close of the war in Europe (this immediately preceded our entry into the war), all the great Governments of the world to send representatives to a conference which shall be charged with the duty of formulating a plan for a court of arbitration or other tribunal to which disputed questions between nations shall be referred for adjustment and peaceful settlement, and to consider the question of disarmament and submit their recommendations to their respective Governments for approval. The President is hereby authorized to appoint," etc. A provision for an appropriation to pay the expenses is also embodied.

Now that they have got it, they do not like it. They also provided in this legislation that if there could be such an assemblage, if there could be such an agreement, the President was authorized to cancel the naval building program authorized by the bill, or so much of it as he thought was wise in the circumstances. They looked forward to it with such a practical eye that they contemplated the possibility of its coming soon enough to stop the building program of that bill. It came much sooner than they expected, and apparently has taken them so much by surprise as to confuse their minds. I suppose that this would be a very dull world if everybody were consistent, but consistency, my fellow citizens, in the sober, fundamental, underlying principles of civilization is a very serious thing indeed.

If we are, indeed, headed toward peace with the real purpose of our hearts engaged, then we must take the necessary steps to secure it, and we must make the necessary sacrifices to secure it. I repudiate the suggestion which underlies some of the suggestions I have heard that the other nations of the world are acting in bad faith and that only the United States is acting in good faith. It is not true. I can testify that I was cooperating with honorable men on the other side of the water, and I challenge anybody to show where in recent years, while the opinion of mankind has been effective, there has been the repudiation of an international obligation by France or Italy or Great Britain or by Japan. Japan has kept her engagements, and Japan here engages to unite with the rest of the world in maintaining justice and a peace based upon justice. There can be cited no instances where these Governments have been dishonorable, and I need not add that there is, of course, no instance where the United States has not kept faith.

When gentlemen discuss the right to withdraw from the league of nations and look suspiciously upon the clause which says that we can withdraw upon two years' notice, if at that time we have fulfilled our international obligations, I am inclined to ask, "What are you worried about? Are you afraid that we will not have fulfilled our international obligations?" I am too proud an American to believe anything of the kind. We never have failed to fulfill our international obligations, and we never will, and our international obligations will always look toward the fulfillment of the highest purposes of civilization. When we came into existence as a Nation we promised ourselves and promised the world that we would serve liberty everywhere. We were only 3,000,000 strong then, and shall we, when more than a hundred million strong, fail to fulfill the promise that we made when we were weak? We have served mankind and we shall continue to serve mankind, for I believe, my fellow men, that we are the flower of mankind so far as civilization is concerned.

Please do not let me leave the impression on your mind that I am arguing with you. I am not arguing this case; I am merely expounding it. I am just as sure what the verdict of this Nation is going to be as if it had been already rendered, and what has touched me and convinced me of this, my fellow citizens, is not what big men have told me, not what men of large affairs have said to me—I value their counsel and seek to be guided by it—but by what plain people have said to me, particularly by what women have said to me. When I see a woman plainly dressed, with the marks of labor upon her, and she takes my hand and says, "God bless you, Mr. President; God bless the league of nations," I know that the league of nations has gone to the heart of this people. A woman came up to me the other day and grasped my hand and said, "God bless you!" and then turned away in tears. I asked a neighbor, "What is the matter?" and he said, "She intended to say something to you, sir, but she lost a son in France." That woman did not take my hand with a feeling that her son ought not to have been sent to France. I sent her son to France, and she took my hand and blessed me, but she could not say anything more, because the whole well of spirit in her came up into her throat and the thing was unutterable. Down deep in it was the love of her boy, the feeling of what he had done, the justice and the dignity and the majesty of it, and then the hope that through such poor instrumentality as men like myself could offer no other woman's son would ever be called upon to lay his life down for the same thing. I tell you, my fellow citizens, the whole world is now in the state where you can fancy that there are hot tears upon every cheek, and those hot tears are tears of sorrow. They are also tears of hope. It is amazing how, through all the sorrows of mankind and all the unspeakable terrors and injustices that have been inflicted upon men, hope springs eternal in the human heart. God knows that men, and governments in particular, have done everything they knew how to kill hope in the human heart, but it has not died. It is the one conquering force in the history of mankind. What I am pleading for, therefore—not with you, for I anticipate your verdict—but what I am pleading for with the Senate of the United States is to be done with debate and release and satisfy the hope of the world.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Fairgrounds Auditorium in Billings, Montana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317964

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