Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Hockey Arena in Seattle, Washington

September 13, 1919

Mr. Chairman, my fellow countrymen, I esteem it a privilege to have the occasion to stand before this great audience and expound some part of the great question that is now holding the attention of America and the attention of the world. I was led to an unpleasant consciousness to-day of the way in which the debate that is going on in America has attracted the attention of the world. I read in to-day's papers the comment's of one of the men who were recently connected with the Imperial Government of Germany. He said that some aspects of this debate seemed to him like the red that precedes a great dawn. He saw in it the rise of a certain renewed sympathy with Germany. He saw in it an opportunity to separate America from the Governments and peoples with whom she had been associated in the war against German aggression. And all over this country, my fellow citizens, it is becoming more and more evident that those who were the partisans of Germany are the ones who are principally pleased by some of the aspects of the debate that is now going on. The world outside of America is asking itself the question, "Is America going to stand by us now, or is it at this moment of final crisis going to draw apart and desert us?" I can answer that question here and now. It is not going to draw apart and it is not going to desert the nations of the world. America responds to nothing so quickly or unanimously as a great moral challenge. It is much more ready to carry through what now lies before it than it was even to carry through what was before it when we took up arms in behalf of the freedom of the world. America is unaccustomed to military tasks, but America is accustomed to fulfilling its pledges and following its visions. The only thing that causes me uneasiness, my fellow countrymen, is not the ultimate outcome, but the impressions that may be created in the meantime by the perplexed delay. The rest of the world believed absolutely in America and was ready to follow it anywhere, and it is now a little chilled. It now asks, "Is America hesitating to lead? We are ready to give ourselves to her leadership. Why will she not accept the gift?

My fellow citizens, I think that it is my duty, as I go about the country, not to make speeches in the ordinary acceptance of that word, not to appeal either to the imagination or to the emotion of my fellow citizens, but to undertake everywhere what I want to undertake to-night, and I must ask you to be patient while I undertake it. I want to analyze for you what it is that it is proposed we should do. Generalities will not penetrate to the heart of this great question. It is not enough to speak of the general purposes of the peace. I want you to realize just what the covenant of the league of nations means. I find that everywhere I go it is desirable that I should dwell upon this great theme, because in so many parts of the country men are drawing attention to little details in a way that destroys the whole perspective of the great plan in a way that concentrates attention upon certain particulars which are incidental and not central. I am going to take the liberty of reading you a list of the things which the nations adhering to the covenant of the league of nations undertake. I want to say by way of preface that it seems to me, and I am sure it will seem to you, not only an extraordinarily impressive list, but a list which was never proposed for the counsels of the world before.

In the first place, every nation that joins the league, and that in prospect means every great fighting nation in the world, agrees to submit all controversies which are likely to lead to war either to arbitration or to thorough discussion by an authoritative body, the council of the league of nations. These great nations, all the most ambitious nations in the world except Germany, all the most powerful nations in the world, as well as the weak ones—all the nations that we have supposed had imperialistic designs—say that they will do either one or other of two things in case a controversy arises which can not be settled by ordinary diplomatic correspondence: They will either frankly submit it to arbitration and absolutely abide by the arbitral verdict or they will submit all the facts, all the documents, to the council of the league of nations, will give the council six months in which to discuss the whole matter and leave to publish the whole matter, and at the end of the six months will still refrain for three months more from going to war, whether they like the opinion of the council or not. In other words, they agree to do a thing which would have made the recent war with Germany absolutely impossible. If there had been a league of nations in 1914, whether Germany belonged to it or not, Germany never would have dared to attempt the aggression which she did attempt, because she would have been called to the bar of the opinion of mankind and would have known that if she did not satisfy that opinion mankind would unite against her. You had only to expose the German case to public discussion and make it certain that the German case would fall, Germany not dare attempt to act upon it. It was the universal opinion on the other side of the water when I was over there that if Germany had thought that England would be added to France and Russia she never would have gone in, and if she had dreamed that America would throw her mighty weight into the scale it would have been inconceivable. The only thing that reassured the deluded German people after we entered the war was the lying statement of her public men that we could not get our troops across the sea, because Germany knew if America got within striking distance the story was done. Here all the nations of the world, except Germany, for the time being at any rate, give notice that they will unite against any nation that has a bad case, and they agree that in their own case they will submit to prolonged discussion.

There is nothing so chilling as discussion to a hot temper. If you are fighting mad and yet I can induce you to talk it over for half an hour, you will not be fighting mad at the end of the half hour. I knew a very wise schoolmaster in North Carolina who said that if any boy in that school fought another, except according to the rules, he would be expelled. There would not be any great investigation; the fact that he had fought would be enough; he would go home; but if he was so mad that he had to fight, all he had to do was to come to the head master and tell him that he wanted to fight. The head master would arrange the ring, would see that the fight was conducted according to the Marquis of Queensberry rules, that an umpire and a referee were appointed, and that the thing was fought to a finish. The consequence was that there were no fights in that school. The whole arrangement was too cold-blooded. By the time all the arrangements had been made all the fighting audacity had gone out of the contestants. That little thing illustrates a great thing. Discussion is destructive when wrong is intended; and all the nations of the world agree to put their case before the judgment of mankind. Why, my fellow citizens, that has been the dream of thoughtful reformers for generation after generation. Somebody seems to have conceived the notion that I originated the idea of a league of nations. I wish I had. I would be a very proud man if I had; but I did not. I was expressing the avowed aspirations of the American people, avowed by nobody so loudly, so intelligently, or so constantly as the greater leaders of the Republican Party. When Republicans take that road, I take off my hat and follow; I do not care whether I lead or not. I want the great result which I know is at the heart of the people that I am trying to serve.

In the second place, all these great nations agree to boycott any nation that does not submit a perilous question either to arbitration or to discussion, and to support each other in the boycott. There is no "if" or "but" about that in the covenant. It is agreed that just so soon as that member State, or any outside State, for that matter, refuses to submit its case to the public opinion of the world its doors will be closed and locked; that nobody shall trade with it, no telegraphic message shall leave it or enter it, no letter shall cross its borders either way; there shall be no transactions of any kind between the citizens of the members of the league and the covenant-breaking State. That is the remedy that thoughtful men have advocated for several generations. They have thought, and thought truly, that war was barbarous and that a nation that resorted to war when its cause was unjust was unworthy of being consorted with by free people anywhere. The boycott is an infinitely more terrible instrument of war. Excepting our own singularly fortunate country, I can not think of any other country that can live upon its own resources. The minute you lock the door, then the pinch of the thing becomes intolerable; not only the physical pinch, not only the fact that you can not get raw materials and must stop your factories, not only the fact that you can not get food and your people must begin to starve, not only the fact that your credit is stopped, that your assets are useless, but the still greater pinch that comes when a nation knows that it is sent to Coventry and despised. To be put in jail is hot the most terrible punishment that happens to a condemned man; if he knows that he was justly condemned, what penetrates his heart is the look in other men's eyes. It is the soul that is wounded much more poignantly than the body, and one of the things that the German nation has not been able to comprehend is that it has lost for the time being the respect of mankind; and as Germans, when the doors of truth were opened to them after the war, have begun to realize that they have begun to look aghast at the probable fortunes of Germany, for if the world does not trust them, if the world does not respect them, if the world does not want Germans to come as immigrants any more, what is Germany to do? Germany's worst punishment, my fellow citizens, is not in the treaty; it is in her relations with the rest of mankind for the next generation. The boycott is what is substituted for war.

In the third place, all the members of this great association pledge themselves to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of the other member States. That is the famous article 10 that you hear so much about; and article 10, my fellow citizens, whether you want to assume the responsibility of it or not, is the heart of the pledge that we have made to the other nations of the world. Only by that article can we be said to have underwritten civilization. The wars that threaten mankind begin by that kind of aggression. For every other nation than Germany, in 1914, treaties stood as solemn and respected covenants. For Germany they were scraps of paper, and when her first soldier's foot fell upon the soil of Belgium her honor was forfeited. That act of aggression, that failure to respect the territorial integrity of a nation whose territory she was specially bound to respect, pointed the hand along that road that is strewn with graves since the beginning of history, that road made red and ugly with the strife of men, the strife behind which lies savage cupidity, the strife behind which lies a disregard for the rights of others and a thought concentrated upon what you want and mean to get. That is the heart of war, and unless you accept article 10 you do not cut the heart of war out of civilization.

Belgium did not hesitate to underwrite civilization. Belgium could have had safety on her own terms if only she had not resisted the German arms—little Belgium, helpless Belgium, ravaged Belgium. Ah, my fellow citizens, I have seen some of the fields of Belgium. I rode with her fine, democratic king over some of those fields. He would say to me, "This is the village of so and so," and there was no village there, just scattered stones all over the plain, and the plain dug deep every few feet with the holes made by exploding shells. You could not tell whether it was the earth thrown up or the house thrown down that made the debris which covered the desert made by the war. Then we rode farther in, farther to the east, where there had been no fighting, no active campaigning, and there we saw beautiful green slopes and fields that had once been cultivated, and towns with their factories standing, but standing empty; not empty of workers merely, empty of machinery. Every piece of machinery in Belgium that they could put on freight cars the Germans had taken away, and what they could not carry with them they had destroyed, under the devilishly intelligent direction of experts—great bodies of heavy machinery that never could be used again, because somebody had known where the heart of the machine lay and where to put the dynamite. The Belgians are there, their buildings are there, but nothing to work with, nothing to start life with again; and in the face of all that Belgium did not flinch for a moment to underwrite the interests of mankind by saying to Germany, "We will not be bought."

Italy could have had more by compounding with Austria in the later stages of the war than she is going to get out of the peace settlement now, but she would not compound. She also was a trustee for civilization, and she would not sell the birthright of mankind for any sort of material advantage. She underwrote civilization. And Serbia, the first of the helpless nations to be struck down, her armies driven from her own soil, maintained her armies on other soil, and the armies of Serbia were never dispersed. Whether they could be on their own soil or not, they were fighting for their rights and through their rights for the rights of civilized man.

I believe that America is going to be more willing than any other nation in the world, when it gets its voice heard, to do the same thing that these little nations did. Why, my fellow citizens, we have been talking constantly about the rights of little nations. There is only one way to maintain the rights of little nations, and that is by the strength of great nations. Having begun this great task, we are no quitters; we are going to see the thing through. The red that this German counsellor of state saw upon the horizon was not the red of any dawn that will reassure the people who attempted the wrong that Germany did. It was the first red glare of the fire that is going to consume the wrong in the world. As that moral fire comes creeping on, it is going to purify every field of blood upon which free men sacrificed their lives; it is going to redeem France, redeem Belgium, redeem devastated Serbia, redeem the fair lands in the north of Italy, and set men on their feet again, to look fate in the face and have again that hope which is the only thing that leads men forward.

In the next place, every nation agrees to join in advising what shall be done in case any one of the members fails to keep that promise. There is where you have been misled, my fellow citizens. You have been led to believe that the council of the league of nations could say to the Congress of the United States, "Here is a war, and here is where you come in." Nothing of the sort is true. The council of the league of nations is to advise what is to be done, and I have not been able to find in the dictionary any meaning of the word "advise," except "to advise." But let us suppose that it means something else; let us suppose that there is some legal compulsion behind the advice. The advice can not be given except by a unanimous vote of the council and an affirmative vote of the United States. We will be a permanent member of the council of the league of nations, and no such advice is ever going to be given unless the United States votes "aye," with one exception. If we are parties to the dispute, we can not vote; but, my fellow citizens, let me remind you that if we are parties to the dispute, we are in the war anyhow, so that we are not forced into war by the vote of the council, we are forced into war by our quarrel with the other party, as we would be in any case. There is no sacrifice in the slightest degree of the independent choice of the Congress of the United States whether it will declare war or not. There is a peculiar impression on the part of some persons in this country that the United States is more jealous of its sovereignty than other countries. That provision was not put in there because it was necessary to safeguard the sovereignty of the United States. All the other nations wanted it, and they were just as keen for their veto as we were keen for our veto. There is not the slightest danger that they will misunderstand that article of the covenant. There is only a danger that some of us who are too credulous will be led to misunderstand it.

All the nations agree to join in devising a plan for general disarmament. You have heard that this covenant was a plan for bringing on war. Well, it is going to bring on war by means of disarmament and also by establishing a permanent court of international justice. When I voted for that, I was obeying the mandate of the Congress of the United States. In a very unexpected place, namely, in a naval appropriation bill passed in 1915, it was declared to be the policy of the United States to bring about a general disarmament by common agreement, and the President of the United States was requested to call a conference not later than the close of the then present war for the purpose of consulting and agreeing upon a plan for a permanent court of international justice; and he was authorized, in case such an agreement could be reached, to stop the building program provided for by that naval appropriation bill. The Congress of the United States deliberately not only accepted but directed the President to promote an agreement of this sort for disarmament and a permanent court of international justice. You know what a permanent court of international justice implies. You can not set up a court without respecting its decrees. You can not make a toy of it. You can not make a mockery of it. If you, indeed, want a court, then you must abide by the judgments of the court. And we have declared already that we are willing to abide by the judgments of a court of international justice.

All the nations agree to register every treaty, and they agree that no treaty that is not registered and published shall be valid. All private agreements and secret treaties are swept from the table, and thereby one of the most dangerous instruments of international intrigue and disturbance is abolished.

They agree to join in the supervision of the government of helpless and dependent people. They agree that no nation shall hereafter have the right to annex any territory merely because the people that live on it can not prevent it, and that instead of annexation there shall be trusteeship, under which these territories shall be administered under the supervision of the associated nations of the world. They lay down rules for the protection of dependent peoples of that sort, so that they shall not have enforced labor put upon them, so that their women and children shall be protected from unwholesome and destructive forms of labor, so that they will be kept away from the opium traffic and the traffic in arms. They agree that they will never levy armies there. They agree, in other words, to do what no nation ever agreed to do before, to treat subject nations like human beings.

They agree also to accord and maintain fair and humane conditions of labor for men, women, and children born in their own countries and in all other countries to which their commercial and industrial relations extend, and for that purpose they agree to join in establishing and maintaining the necessary international organization. This great treaty, which we are hesitating to ratify, contains the organization by which the united counsels of mankind shall attempt to lift the levels of labor and see that men who are working with their hands are everywhere treated as they ought to be treated, upon principles of justice and equality. How many laboring men dreamed, when this war began, that four years later it would be possible for all the great nations of the world to enter into a covenant like that? They agree to intrust the league with the general supervision of all international agreements with regard to traffic in women and children and traffic in opium and other dangerous drugs. They agree to intrust the league with the general supervision of the trade in arms and ammunition with the countries in which the control of this traffic is necessary in the common interest. They agree to join in making provision to secure and maintain freedom of communication and of transit and equitable treatment for commerce in respect of all the members of the league. They agree to cooperate in the endeavor to take steps for the prevention and control of disease. They agree to encourage and promote the establishment and cooperation of duly authorized voluntary national Red Cross organizations for the improvement of health, the prevention of disease, and the mitigation of suffering throughout the world.

I ask you, my fellow citizens, is that not a great peace document and a great human document? And is it conceivable that America, the most progressive and humane nation in the world, should refuse to take the same responsibility upon herself that all the other great nations take in supporting this great covenant? You say, "It is not likely that the treaty will be rejected. It is only likely that there will be certain reservations." Very well, I want very frankly to tell you what I think about that. If the reservations do not change the treaty, then it is not necessary to make them part of the resolution of ratification. If all that you desire is to say what you understand the treaty to mean, no harm can be done by saying it; but if you want to change the treaty, if you want to alter the phraseology so that the meaning is altered, if you want to put in reservations which give the United States a position of special privilege or a special exemption from responsibility among the members of the league, then it will be necessary to take the treaty back to the conference table, and, my fellow citizens, the world is not in a temper to discuss this treaty over again. The world is just now more profoundly disturbed about social and economic conditions than it ever was before, and the world demands that we shall come to some sort of settlement which will let us get down to business and purify and rectify our own affairs. This is not only the best treaty that can be obtained, but I want to say, because I played only a small part in framing it, that it is a sound and good treaty, and America, above all nations, should not be the nation that puts obstacles in the way of the peace of nations and the peace of mind of the world.

The world has not anywhere at this moment, my fellow citizens, peace of mind. Nothing has struck me so much in recent months as the unaccustomed anxiety on the face of people. I am aware that men do not know what is going to happen, and that they know that it is just as important to them what happens in the rest of the world, almost, as what happens in America. America has connections with all the rest of the world not only, but she has necessary dealings with all the rest of the world, and no man is fatuous enough to suppose that if the rest of the world is disturbed and disordered, the disturbance and disorder are not going to extend to the United States. The center of our anxiety my fellow citizens, is in that pitiful country to which our hearts go out, that great mass of mankind whom we call the Russians. I have never had the good fortune to be in Russia, but I know many persons who know that lovable people intimately, and they all tell me that there is not a people in the world more generous, more simple, more kindly, more naturally addicted to friendship, more patiently attached to peace than the Russian people. Yet, after throwing off the grip of terror that an autocratic power of the Czar had upon them, they have come under a terror even greater than that; they have come under the terror of the power of men whom nobody knows how to find. One or two names everybody knows, but the rest is intrigue, terror, informing, spying, and military power, the seizure of all the food obtainable in order that the fighting men may be fed and the rest go starved. These men have been appealed to again and again by the civilized Governments of the world to call a constituent assembly, let the Russian people say what sort of government they want to have; and they will not, they dare not, do it. That picture is before the eyes of every nation. Shall we get into the clutch of another sort of minority? My fellow citizens, I am going to devote every influence I have and all the authority I have from this time on to see to it that no minority commands the United States. [Great and continued applause. ] It heartens me, but it does not surprise me, to know that that is the verdict of every man and woman here; but, my fellow citizens, there is no use passing that verdict unless we are going to take part, and a great part, a leading part, in steadying the counsels of the world. Not that we are afraid of anything except the spread of moral defection, and moral defection can not come except where men have lost faith, lost hope, have lost confidence; and, having seen the attitude of the other peoples of the world toward America, I know that the whole world will lose heart unless America consents to show the way.

It was pitiful, on the other side of the sea, to have delegation after delegation from peoples all over the world come to the house I was living in in Paris and seek conference with me to beg that America would show the way. It was touching. It made me very proud, but it made me very sad; proud that I was the representative of a nation so regarded, but very sad to feel how little of all the things that they had dreamed we could accomplish for them. But we can accomplish this, my fellow citizens: We can, having taken a pledge to be faithful to them, redeem the pledge. We shall redeem the pledge. I look forward to the day when all this debate will seem in our recollection like a strange mist that came over the minds of men here and there in the Nation, like a groping in the fog, having lost the way, the plain way, the beaten way, that America had made for itself for generations together; and we shall then know that of a sudden, upon the assertion of the real spirit of the American people, they came to the edge of the mist, and outside lay the sunny country where every question of duty lay plain and clear and where the great tramp, tramp of the American people sounded in the ears of the whole world, which knew that the armies of God were on their way.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Hockey Arena in Seattle, Washington Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318011

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