Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City

March 04, 1919

My Fellow Citizens:

I accept the intimation of the air just played ("Over There"). I will not come back "'till it's over, over there." And yet I pray God in the interests of peace of the world that that may be soon.'

The first thing that I am going to tell the people on the other side of the water is that an overwhelming majority of the American people is in favor of the league of nations. I know that that is true. I have had unmistakable intimations of it from all parts of the country, and the voice rings true in every case. I account myself fortunate to speak here under the unusual circumstances of this evening. I am happy to associate myself with Mr. Taft in this great cause. He has displayed an elevation of view and devotion to public duty which is beyond praise.


And I am the more happy because this means that this is not a party issue. No party has a right to appropriate this issue and no party will in the long run dare oppose it.

We have listened to so clear and admirable an exposition (Mr. Taft's address preceding the President) of many of the main features of the proposed covenant of the league of nations that it is perhaps not necessary for me to discuss in any particular way the contents of the document. I will seek rather to give you its setting. I do not know when I have been more impressed than by the conferences of the commission set up by the conference of peace to draw up the covenant for a league of nations. The representatives of 14 nations sat around that board—not young men, not men inexperienced in the affairs of their own countries, not men inexperienced in the politics of the world—and the inspiring influence of every meeting was the concurrence of purpose on the part of all those men to come to an agreement and an effective working agreement with regard to this league of the civilized world.


There was a conviction in the whole impulse; there was conviction of more than one sort; there was the conviction that this thing ought to be done; and there was also the conviction that not a man there • would venture to go home and say that he had not tried to do it.

Mr. Taft has set a picture for you of what failure of this great purpose would mean. We have been hearing for all these weary months that this agony of war has lasted of the sinister purpose of the central empires and we have made maps of the course that they meant their conquests to take. Where did the lines of that map lie, of that central line that we used to call from Bremen to Bagdad? They lay through these very regions to which Mr. Taft has called your attention, but they lay then through a united empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose integrity Germany was bound to respect as her ally, lay in the path of that line of conquest; the Turkish Empire, whose interests she professed to make her own, lay in the direct path that she intended to tread. And now what has happened? The Austro-Hungarian Empire has gone to pieces and the Turkish Empire has disappeared, and the nations that effected that great result—for it was the result of liberation—are now responsible as the trustees of the assets of those great nations. You not only would have weak nations lying in this path but you would have nations in which that old poisonous seed of intrigue could be planted with the certainty that the crop would be abundant, and one of the things that the league of nations is intended to watch is the course of intrigue. Intrigue can not- stand publicity, and if the league of nations were nothing but a great debating society it would kill intrigue.


It is one of the agreements of this covenant that it is the friendly right of every nation a member of the league to call attention to anything that it thinks will disturb the peace of the world, no matter where that thing is occurring. There is no subject that may touch the peace of the world which is exempt from inquiry and discussion, and I think everybody here present will agree with me that Germany would never have gone to war if she had permitted the world to discuss the aggression upon Serbia for a single week. The British foreign office pleaded that there might be a day or two delay so that representatives of the nations of Europe could get together and discuss the possibilities of a settlement. Germany did not dare permit a day's discussion. You know what happened. So soon as the world realized that an outlaw was at large the nations began, one by one, to draw together against her. We know for certainty that if Germany had thought for a moment that Great Britain would go in with France and Russia she never would have undertaken the enterprise, and the league of nations is meant as notice to all outlaw nations that not only Great Britain but the United States and the rest of the world will go in to check enterprises of that sort. And so the league of nations is nothing more nor less than the covenant that the world will always maintain the standards which it has now vindicated by some of the most precious blood ever spilt.


The liberated peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the Turkish Empire call out to us for this thing. It has not arisen in the councils of statesmen. Europe is a bit sick at heart at this very moment because it sees that the statesmen have had no vision and that the only vision has been the vision of the people. Those who suffer see. Those against whom wrong is wrought know how desirable is the right of the righteous. Nations that have long been under the heel of Austria, that have long cowered before the German, that have long suffered the indescribable agonies of being governed by the Turk, have called out to the world generation after generation for justice, liberation, and succor, and no cabinet in the world has heard them. Private organizations, pitying hearts, philanthropic men and women, have poured out their treasure in order to relieve these sufferings, but no nation has said to the nations responsible, "You must stop; this thing is intolerable and we will not permit it." And the vision has been with the people. My friends, I wish you would reflect upon this proposition; the vision as to what is necessary for great reforms has seldom come from the top in the nations of the world. It has come from the need and aspiration and self-assertion of great bodies of men who meant to be free. And I can explain some of the criticisms which have been leveled against this great enterprise only by the supposition that men who utter the criticisms have never felt the great pulse of the heart of the world.


And I am amazed—not alarmed but amazed—that there should be in some quarters such a comprehensive ignorance of the state of the world. These gentlemen do not know what the mind of men is just now. Everybody else does. I do not know where they have been closeted, I do not know by what influences they have been blinded, but I do know they have been separated from the general currents of the thought of mankind.

And I want to utter this solemn warning, not in the way of a threat; the forces of the world do not threaten, they operate. The great tides of the world do not give notice that they are going to rise and run; they rise in their majesty and overwhelming might, and those who stand in the way are overwhelmed. Now the heart of the world is awake and the heart of the world must be satisfied. Do not let yourselves suppose for a moment that uneasiness in the populations of Europe is due entirely to economic causes or economic motives; something very much deeper underlies it all than that. They see that their governments have never been able to defend them against intrigue or aggression, and that there is no force of foresight or of prudence in any modern cabinet to stop war. And therefore they say "There must be some fundamental cause for this," and the fundamental cause they are beginning to perceive' to be that nations have stood singly or in little jealous groups against each other, fostering prejudice, increasing the danger of war rather than concerting measures to prevent it; and that if there is right in the world, if there is justice in the world, there is no reason why nations should be divided in support of justice.


They are, therefore, saying if you really believe that there is a right, if you really believe that wars ought to be stopped, stop thinking about the rival interests of nations and think about men and women and children throughout the world. Nations are not made to afford distinction to their rulers by way of success in the maneuvers of politics; nations are meant, if they are meant for anything, to make the men, women, and children in them secure and happy and prosperous, and no nation has the right to set up its special interests against the interests and benefits of mankind, least of all this great Nation which we love. It was set up for the benefit of mankind; it was set up to illustrate the highest ideals and to achieve the highest aspirations of men who wanted to be free; and the world—the world of to-day—believes that and counts on us, and would be thrown back into the blackness of despair if we deserted it.

I have tried once and again, my fellow citizens, to say to little circles of friends or to larger bodies what seems to be the real hope of the peoples of Europe, and I tell you frankly I have not been able to do so, because when the thought tries to crowd itself into speech the profound emotion of the thing is too much; speech will not carry. I have felt the tragedy of the hope of those suffering peoples.

It is a tragedy because it is a hope which can not be realized in its perfection; and yet I have felt besides its tragedy its compulsion, its compulsion upon every living man to exercise every influence that he has to the utmost to see that as little as possible of that hope is disappointed, because if men can not now, after this agony of bloody' sweat, come to their self -possession and see how to regulate the affairs of the world we will sink back into a period of struggle in which there will be no hope and therefore no mercy. There can be no mercy where there is no hope, for why should you spare another if you yourself expect to perish? Why should you be pitiful if you can get no pity? Why should you be just if, upon every hand, you are put upon?

There is another thing which I think the critics of this covenant have not observed. They not only have not observed the temper of the world but they have not even observed the temper of those splendid boys in khaki that they sent across the seas. I have had the proud consciousness of the reflected glory of those boys because the Constitution made me their commander in chief, and they have taught me some lessons. When we went into the war we went into it on the oasis of declarations which it was my privilege to utter because I believed them to be an interpretation of the purpose and thought of the people of the United States.

And those boys went over there with the feeling that they were sacredly bound to the realization of those ideals; that they were not only going over there to beat Germany; they were not going over there merely with resentment in their hearts against a particular outlaw nation; but that they were crossing those 3,000 miles of sea in order to show to Europe that the United States, when it became necessary, would go anywhere where the rights of mankind were threatened. They would not sit still in the trenches. They would not be restrained by the prudence of experienced continental commanders. They thought they had come over there to do a particular thing, and they were going to do it and do it at once. And just as soon as that rush of spirit as well as the rush of body came in contact with the lines of the enemy they began to break, and they continued to break until the end. They continued to break, my fellow citizens, not merely because of the physical force of those lusty youngsters but because of the irresistible spiritual force of the armies of the United States. It was that that they felt. It was that that awed them. It was that that made them feel if these youngsters ever got a foothold they could never be dislodged, and that therefore every foot of ground that they won was permanently won for the liberty of mankind.

And do you suppose that, having felt that crusading spirit of these youngsters who went over there not to glorify America but to serve their fellow men, I am going to permit myself for one moment to slacken in my effort to be worthy of them and of their cause? What I said at the opening I said with a deeper meaning than perhaps you have caught; I do not mean to come back until its over over there, and it must not be over until the nations of the world are assured of . the permanency of peace.

Gentlemen on this side of the water would be very much profited by getting into communication with some gentlemen on the other side of the water. We sometimes think, my fellow citizens, that the experienced statesmen of European nations are an unusually hardheaded set of men, by which we generally mean, although we do not admit it, they are a bit cynical; they say 1 'This is a practical world," by which you always mean that it is not an, ideal world; that they do not believe things can be settled upon an ideal basis. Well, I never came into intimate contact with them before, but if they used to be that way they are not that way now. They have been subdued, if that was once their temper, by the awful significance of recent events and the awful importance of what is to ensue, and there is not one of them with whom I have come in contact who does not feel he can not in conscience return to his people from Paris unless he has done his utmost to do something more than attach his name to a treaty of peace. Every man in that conference knows the treaty of peace in itself will be inoperative, as Mr. Taft has said, without this constant support and energy of a great organization such as is supplied by the league of nations.

And men who, when I first went over there, were skeptical of the . possibility of forming a league of nations, admitted that if we could but form it, it would be an invaluable instrumentality through which to secure the operation of the various parts of the treaty; and when that treaty comes back gentlemen on this side will find the covenant not only in it, but so many threads of the treaty tied to the covenant that you can not dissect the covenant from the treaty without destroying the whole vital structure. The structure of peace will not be vital without the league of nations, and no man is going to bring back a cadaver with him.


I must say that I have been puzzled by some of the criticisms— not by the criticisms themselves—I can understand them perfectly even when there was no foundation for them—but by the fact of the criticism. I can not imagine how these gentlemen can live and not five in the atmosphere of the world. I can not imagine how they can live and not be in contact with the events of their times, and I particularly can not imagine how they can be Americans and set up a doctrine of careful selfishness thought out to the last detail. I have heard no counsel of generosity in their criticism. I have heard no constructive suggestion. I have heard nothing except "Will it not be dangerous to us to help the world It would be fatal to us not to help it.

From being what I will venture to call the most famous and the most powerful nation in the worlds we would of a sudden have become the most contemptible. So I did not need to be told, as I have been told, that the people of the United States would support this covenant. I am an American and I knew they would. What a sweet revenge it is upon the world. They laughed at us once; they thought we did not mean our professions of principle. They thought so until April of 1917. It was hardly credible to them that we would do more than send a few men over and go through the forms of helping, and when they saw multitudes hastening across the sea, and saw what those multitudes were eager to do when they got to the other side, they stood at amaze and said "The thing is real; this nation is the friend of mankind as it said it was." The enthusiasm, the hope, the trust, the confidence in the future bred by that change of view is indescribable. Take an individual American and you may often find him selfish and confined to his special interests; but take the American in the mass and he is willing to die for an ideal. The sweet revenge therefore is this, that we believed in righteousness and now we are ready to make the supreme sacrifice for it, the supreme sacrifice of throwing in our fortunes with the fortunes of men everywhere.


Mr. Taft was speaking of Washington's utterance about entangling alliances, and if he will permit me to say so, he put the exactly right interpretation upon what Washington said, the interpretation that is inevitable if you read what he said, as most of these gentlemen do not. And the thing that he longed for was just what we are now about to supply; an arrangement which will disentangle all the alliances in the world.

Nothing entangles, nothing enmeshes a man except a selfish combination with somebody else. Nothing entangles a nation, hampers it, binds it, except to enter into a combination with some other nation against the other nations of the world. And this great disentanglement of all alliances is now to be accomplished by this covenant, because one of the covenants is that no nation shall enter into any relationship with another nation inconsistent with the covenants of the league nations. Nations promise not to have alliances. Nations promise not to make combinations against each other. Nations agree there shall be but one combination, and that is the combination of all against the wrongdoer.

And so I am going back to my task on the other side with renewed vigor. I had not forgotten what the spirit of the American people is. But I have been immensely refreshed by coming in contact with it again. I did not know how good home felt until I got here.

The only place a man can feel at home is where nothing has to be explained to him. Nothing has to be explained to me in America, least of all the sentiment of the American people. I mean, about great fundamental things like this. There are many differences of judgment as to policy—and perfectly legitimate. Sometimes profound differences of judgment, but those are not differences of sentiment, those are not differences of purpose, those are not differences of ideals. And the advantage of not having to have anything explained to you is that you recognize a wrong explanation when you hear it. .

In a certain rather abandoned part of the frontier at one time it was said they found a man who told the truth; he was not found telling it, but he could tell it when he heard it. And I think I am in that situation with regard to some of the criticisms I have heard. They do not make any impression on me because I know there is no medium that will transmit them, that the sentiment of the country is proof against such narrowness and such selfishness as that. I commend these gentlemen to communion with their fellow citizens.


What are we to say, then, as to the future? I think, my fellow citizens, that we can look forward to it with great confidence. I have heard cheering news since I came to this side of the water about the progress that is being made in Paris toward the discussion and clarification of a great many difficult matters; and I believe settlements will begin to be made rather rapidly from this time on at those conferences. But what I believe—what I know as well as believe— is this: that the men engaged in those conferences are gathering heart as they go, not losing it; that they are finding community of purpose, community of ideal to an extent that perhaps they did not expect; and that amidst all the interplay of influence—because it is infinitely complicated—amidst all the interplay of influence, there is a forward movement which is running toward the right. Men have at last perceived that the only permanent thing in the world is the right, and that a wrong settlement is bound to be a temporary settlement for the very best reason of all, that it ought to be a temporary settlement, and the spirits of men will rebel against it, and the spirits of men are now in the saddle.


When I was in Italy, a little limping group of wounded Italian soldiers sought an interview with me. I could not conjecture what it was they were going to say to me, and with the greatest simplicity, with touching simplicity, they presented me with a petition in favor of the league of nations.

Their wounded limbs, their impaired vitality, were the only argument they brought with them. It was a simple request that I lend all the influence that I might happen to have to relieve future generations of the sacrifices that they had been obliged to make. That appeal has remained in my mind as I have ridden along the streets in European capitals and heard cries of the crowd, cries for the league of nations from lips of people who, I venture to say, had no particular notion of how it was to be done, who were not ready to propose a plan for a league of nations, but whose hearts said that something by way of a combination of all men everywhere must come out of this. As we drove along country roads weak old women would come out and hold flowers to us. Why should they hold flowers up to strangers from across the Atlantic $ Only because they believed that we were the messengers of friendship and of hope, and these flowers were their humble offerings of gratitude that friends from so great a distance should have brought them so great a hope.

It is inconceivable that we should disappoint them, and we shall not. The day will come when men in America will look back with swelling hearts and rising pride that they should have been privileged to make the sacrifice which it was necessary to make in order to combine their might and their moral power with the cause of justice for men of every kind everywhere.

God give us the strength and vision to do it wisely. God give us the privilege of knowing that we did it without counting the cost, and because we were true Americans, lovers of liberty and of right.

Source: "Addresses of President Wilson".

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354016

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