Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the National Guard Armory in Tacoma, Washington

September 13, 1919

Mr. Mayor, Mr. Chairman, your excellency, my fellow countrymen, it is with very great pleasure that I find myself in your presence. I have long wanted to get away from Washington and come into ?contact with the great body of my fellow citizens, because I feel, as I am sure you feel, that we have reached one of the most critical periods in the history of the United States. The shadow of the war is not yet lifted from us, my fellow countrymen, and we have just come out of the depths of the valley of death. I thought that it might be useful if this morning I reminded you of a few things, lest we forget. It is so easy, with the strong tides of our life, to be swept away from one situation into another and to forget the real depths of meaning which lie underneath the things that we are merely touching the surface of. Therefore I thought it would not be impertinent on my part if I asked permission to read you the concluding passage of the address in which I requested the Government of the United States to accept Germany's challenge of war:

"We shall fight," I said, "for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as will bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and the happiness and the peace which we have treasured. God helping her, she can do no other."

That is the program we started out on. That is the program which all America adopted without respect of party, and shall we now hesitate to carry it out? Shall we now falter at the very critical moment when we are finally to write our name to the standing pledge which we then took? I want to remind you, my fellow citizens, that many other nations were put under a deeper temptation than we. It would have been possible for little Belgium at any time to make terms with the enemy. Belgium was not prepared to resist. Belgium knew that resistance was useless. Belgium knew that she could get any term of advantage from Germany she pleased, if she would only submit, and at the cost of everything that she had Belgium did nothing less than underwrite civilization. I do not know anywhere in history a more inspiring fact than that. I have seen the fields of Belgium. I have seen great spaces swept of cities and towns as clean as if there had never been anything there except piles of stone; and, farther in, in that beautiful country, the factories are standing, the houses there, but everything that could be useful taken out of the factories; the machinery taken out and shipped to Germany, because Germany feared the competition of the skillful Belgians, and where it was too bulky to take away it was destroyed under the direction of experts—not broken to pieces, but the very part that made it impossible to use it without absolutely destroyed. I have been over great plants there that seemed to the eye to have much of the substantial machinery left, but experts showed me that it could never work again. Belgium lies prostrated because she fulfilled her pledge to civilization. Italy could have had her terms with Austria at almost any period of the war, particularly just before she made her final stand at the Piave River, but she would not compound with the enemy. She, too, had underwritten civilization. And, my friends, this passage that I have read you, which the whole country accepted as its pledge, is an underwriting of civilization.

In order to let you remember what the thing cost, just let me read you a few figures. If I did not have them on official authority I would deem them incredible. Here is what the war cost. These figures do not include what the different powers loaned each other; they are direct war costs:

It cost Great Britain and her dominions $38,000,000,000; France, $26,000,000,000; the United States, $22,000,000,000; Russia, $18,000,000,000; Italy, $13,000,000,000; a total, including Japan, Belgium, and other countries, of $123,000,000,000. It cost the Central Powers: Germany, $39,000,000,000; Austria-Hungary, $21,000,000,000; Turkey and Bulgaria, $3,000,000,000; a total of $63,000,000,000. A grand total of direct war costs of $186,000,000,000—an incredible sum—to save civilization. Now, the question is, Are we going to keep it saved? The expenditures of the United States were at the rate of $1, 000, 000 an hour, including the nighttime, for two years.

The battle deaths—and this is the cost that touches our hearts— were: Russia, 1,700,000; Germany, 1,600,000; France, 1,380,000; Great Britain, 900,000; Austria, 800,000; Italy, 364,000; the United States, 50,300 dead. A total for all belligerents of 7,450,200 men dead on the field of battle! Seven and a half million! The totals for the wounded are not obtainable at present, but the number of torn and wounded for the United States Army was 230,000, excluding, of course, those who were killed. The total of all battle deaths in all the wars of the world from the year 1793 to 1914 was something under 6,000,000; in all the wars of the world for more than 100 years fewer men died than have been killed upon the field of battle in the last five years. These are terrible facts, my fellow citizens, and we ought never to forget them. We went into this war. to do a thing that was fundamental for the world, and what I have come out upon this journey for is to ascertain whether the country has forgotten it or not. I have found out already. The country has not forgotten, and it never will permit any man who stands in the way of the fulfillment of these great pledges ever to forget the sorrowful day when he made the attempt.

I read you these figures in order to emphasize and set in a higher light, if I may, the substitute which is offered to us, the substitute for war, the substitute for turmoil, the substitute for sorrow and despair. That substitute is offered in the covenant of the league of nations. America alone can not underwrite civilization. All the great free peoples of the world must underwrite it, and only the free peoples of the world can join the league of nations. The membership is open only to self-governing nations. Germany is for the present excluded, because she must prove that she is self-governing; she must prove that she has changed the processes of her constitution and the purposes of her policy; but when she has proved these things she can become one of the partners in guaranteeing that civilization shall not suffer again the intolerable thing she attempted. It is not only a union of free peoples to guarantee civilization; it is something more than that. It is a league of nations to advance civilization by substituting something that will make the improvement of civilization possible.

I call you to witness, my fellow citizens, that our present civilization is not satisfactory. It is an industrial civilization, and at the heart of it is an antagonism between those who labor with their hands and those who direct labor. You can not compose those differences in the midst of war, and you can not advance civilization unless you have a peace of which you make the peaceful and healing use of bringing these elements of civilization together into a common partnership, in which every man will have the same interest in the work of his community that those have who direct the work of the community. We have got to have leisure and freedom of mind to settle these things. This was a war against autocracy; and if you have disorder, if you have disquieted populations, if you have insurgent elements in your population, you are going to have autocracy, because the strongest is going to seize the power, as it has seized it in Russia. I want to declare that I am an enemy of the rulership of any minority, however constituted. Minorities have often been right and majorities wrong, but minorities cease to be right when they use the wrong means to make their opinions prevail. We must have peaceful means; we must have discussion—we must have frank discussion, we must have friendly discussion—and those are the very things that are offered to us among the nations of the world by the covenant of the league of nations.

I can not too often remind my fellow citizens of what the real heart and center of that covenant is. It lies in the provisions by which every member of the league—and, mind you, that means every great nation in the world, except, for the time being, Germany—solemnly engages never to go to war without first having either submitted the subject to arbitration—in which case it agrees to abide absolutely by the verdict—or submitted it for discussion to the council of the league of nations, laying all the documents, all the facts, before that council; consenting that the council shall publish all the facts, so as to take the world into its confidence for the formation of a correct judgment concerning it; it agrees that it will allow six months for the deliberation of the council upon the facts, and that, after those deliberations are concluded, if the advice of the council is not acceptable, it will still not go to war for three months after the rendering of that opinion. In other words, we have the pledge of all the nations of the world that they will sit down and talk everything over that is apt to make trouble amongst them, and that they will talk it over in public, so that the whole illuminating process of public knowledge and public discussion may penetrate every part of the conference. I believe, for my part, that that is a 99 per cent insurance against war. I take it you want some insurance against war rather than none, and if it is not 99 per cent, I dare say you would like 10 per cent. You would like some insurance rather than none at all, and the experience of the world demonstrates that this is an almost complete insurance.

My fellow citizens, imagine what would have happened if there had been a league of nations in 1914. What did happen was this: Some time after the Crown Prince of Austria had been assassinated in Serbia, after the world had begun to forget even so tragical an incident, the Austrian Government was prompted by the Government at Berlin to make that the occasion for war. Their thought was, "We are ready. The others are not. Before they can mobilize, before they can bring this matter even under discussion, we will be at their gates. Belgium can not resist. We have promised, solemnly promised, not to cross her territories, but promises are scraps of paper. We will get across her territories into France before France can mobilize. We will make that assassination a pretext." They therefore made unconscionable demands of Serbia, and, notwithstanding the fact that Serbia, with her sense of helplessness, practically yielded to all those demands, they would not even tell the world that she had yielded; they went on with the war. In the meantime every foreign office was telegraphing to its representative at Berlin, begging that there might be an international conference to see if a settlement could not be effected, and Germany did not dare sit down in conference. It is the common judgment of every statesman I met on the other side of the water that if this thing had been delayed and discussed, not six months, but six days, it never could have happened.

Here we have all the Governments of the world agreeing to discuss anything that is likely to bring about war, because, after that famous article 10 there is an article 11—there are 26 articles altogether, although you are not told about any of them except article 10—and article 11 says that it shall be the friendly right of any member of the league, big or little, to bring to the attention of the league—and, therefore, to the attention of the world—anything, anywhere, which is likely to disturb the peace of the world or to disturb the good understanding between nations upon which the peace of the world depends. Wherever there are oppressed nations, wherever there are suffering populations, wherever there is a smoldering flame, the trouble can be uncovered and brought to the bar of mankind, and the whole influence of public opinion the world over will be brought to bear upon it. It is the greatest process of international conference and of international discussion ever conceived, and that is what we are trying to substitute for war. That is what we must substitute for war.

Then, not in immediate connection with the league of nations covenant but in a later part of the treaty, there is what I have ventured to call the Magna Charta of labor. There is the provision for the constant regular international discussion of labor problems, no matter where they arise in the world, for the purpose of lifting the whole level of labor conditions; for the purpose of safeguarding the health of women and of children, for the sake of bringing about those international comities with regard to labor upon which the happiness of mankind so much depends. There is a heart in the midst of the treaty. It is not only made by prudent men but it is made by men with hearts under their jackets. I have seen the light of this thing in the eyes of some men whom the world deemed cynical. I have seen men over there, whose emotions are not often touched, with, suffused eyes when they spoke of the purposes of this conference, because they realized that, for the first time in the history of mankind, statesmen had got together, not in order to lay plans for the aggrandizement of governments but in order to lay plans for the liberation of peoples; and what I want everybody in every American audience to understand is this: The first effective impulse toward this sort of thing came from America, and I want to call your attention to the fact that it came from some of the very men who are now opposing its consummation. They dreamed the dream that has now been realized. They saw the vision 20, 25, 30 years ago which all mankind are now permitted to see. It is of particular importance to remember, my fellow citizens, at this moment when some men have dared to introduce party passion into this question, that some of the leading spirits, perhaps I may say the leading spirits, in the conception of this great idea were the leading figures of the great Republican Party. I do not like to mention parties in this discussion. I hope that there is not a real thoughtful, conscientious person in the United States who will determine his or her opinion about this matter with any thought that there is an election in the year 1920. And, just because I want you to realize how absolutely nonpartisan this thing is, I want you to forget, if you please, that I had anything to do with it. I had the great privilege of being the spokesman of this splendid Nation at this critical period in her history, but I was her spokesman, not my own, and when I advocated the things that are in this league of nations I had the full and proud consciousness that I was only expressing the best thought and the best conscience of my beloved fellow countrymen. The only things that I have any special personal connection with in the league of nations covenant are things that I was careful to have put in there because of the very considerations which are now being urged. I brought the first draft of the covenant of the league of nations over to this country in March last. I then held a conference of the frankest sort with the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. They made a number of suggestions as to alterations and additions. I then took all of those suggestions back to Paris, and every one of them, without exception, was embodied in the covenant. I had one or two hard fights to get them in..

You are told, my fellow citizens—it is amazing that anybody should say it—that the covenant does not satisfactorily recognize the Monroe doctrine. It says in so many words that nothing in that covenant shall be construed as impairing the validity of the Monroe doctrine. The point is that up to that conference there was not a nation in the world that could be induced to give official recognition to the Monroe doctrine, and here in this great turn of the tides of the world all the great nations of the world are united in recognizing the Monroe doctrine. It not only is not impaired, but it has the backing of the world. And at every point where suggestions were made they were accepted; and the suggestions came for the most part from the Republican side of the committee. I say that because I am particularly interested, my fellow citizens, to have you realize that there is no politics in this business, except that profoundly important politics, the politics of civilization. I have the honor to-day of speaking under a chairman who, I understand, is a member of the Republican Party, and every meeting that I have spoken at on this trip, so far as I remember, has been presided over by a Republican. I am saying these things merely because I want to read the riot act to anybody who tries to introduce politics.

Some very interesting things happened while we were on the other side of the water. One of the most distinguished lawyers in the United States, Mr. Wickersham, of New York, who was the Attorney General in Mr. Taft's Cabinet, came over to Europe, I am told—I did not see him while he was over there—to oppose the things that he understood the American peace commission was trying to accomplish, and what happened to Mr. Wickersham? He was absolutely converted, above all things else, to the necessity for a league of nations not only, but for this league of nations. He came back to the United States and has ever since, in season and out of season, been preaching in public advocacy of the adoption of this covenant. I need not tell you of the conspicuously fine work which his chief, Mr. Taft, has been doing in the same cause. I am very proud, my fellow citizens, to be associated with these gentlemen. I am very proud to forget party lines, because there is one thing that is so much greater than being a Republican or a Democrat that those names ought never to be mentioned in connection with, and that is being an American. There is only one way to be an American, and that is to fulfill the pledges that we gave the world at our birth, that we have given the world at every turn in our history, and that we have just now sealed with the blood of some of our best young men.

Ah, my fellow citizens, do not forget the aching hearts that are behind discussions like this. Do not forget the forlorn homes from which those boys went and to which they never came back. I have it in my heart that if we do not do this great thing now, every woman ought to weep because of the child in her arms. If she has a boy at her breast, she may be sure that when he comes to manhood this terrible task will have to be done once more. Everywhere we go, the train when it stops is surrounded with little children, and I look at them almost with tears in my eyes, because I feel my mission is to save them. These glad youngsters with flags in their hands—I pray God that they may never have to carry that flag upon the battle field!

There have been, if I may make a slight digression, some very amusing incidents on this journey. At Billings a number of boys were chasing the train as it pulled slowly out with flags and yelling all sort of pleasant things to their friend "Woody." On this occasion one youngster in his enthusiasm insisted that I should take his flag and he handed it up to me. The boy next to him did not have a flag and he looked a good deal disconcerted for a moment, but then he put his hand in his pocket and said, "Here, I will give you a dime." I would like to believe that that dime has some relation to the widow's mite—others gave something; he gave all that he had. After all, though that is merely a passing incident, it is illustrative of the spirit of this country, my fellow citizens. There is something in this country that is not anywhere else in the world. There is a confident looking forward to better times. There is a confidence that we can work out the most difficult problems. There is none of that heavy leaden discouragement that rests upon some other countries. Have you never crossed the sea in times of peace and noticed the immigrants who were going back to visit their folks, and then, on the return voyage, the immigrants who were coming in for the first time—the extraordinary contrast in the appearance of the two groups? The group going out, having felt the atmosphere of America, their faces bright, a sort of a sense of initiative about it, having been freed to be men and individuals; and those coming back, bearing all sorts of queer bundles, looking a bit anxious, just a little doubtful of the hope with which they are looking forward to the new country. It is the alchemy, the miracle of America, and it is the only country in the world, so far as my observation goes, where that miracle is wrought, and the rest of the world knows that. The rest of the world implores America's aid—not her material aid; they are not looking for our dollars; they are not looking for our guns. They are saying, "Show us the road that led you out of the wilderness and made you great, for we are seeking that road." Now that the great treaty of peace has established the oppressed peoples of the world who were affected by this treaty on their own territory, given them their own freedom, given them command of their own affairs, they are looking to America to show them how to use that new liberty and that new power.

When I was at that wonderful stadium of yours a few minutes ago, a little child, a little girl in white, came and presented me with some kind of a paper—I have not had time to read it yet—from the Poles. I dare say that it is of the sort that I have received a great many of—just an expression of a sort of childlike and pitiful thanks that America assisted to free Poland. Poland never could have freed herself. We not only tore Germany's hands away from where she meant to make ravage of the rights of the others, but we took those old peoples who had been under her power before and said, "You could not free yourselves, but we believe in liberty. Here is your own land to do with as you please." I wish that some of the men who are opposing this treaty could get the vision in their hearts of all it has done. It has liberated great populations. It.

has set up the standards of right and of liberty for the first time, where they were never unfurled before, and then has placed back of them this splendid power of the nations combined. For without the league of nations the whole thing is a house of cards. Just a breath of power will blow it down. Whereas with the league of nations it is as strong as Gibraltar. Let them catch this vision; let them take in this conception; let them take counsel of weeping mothers; let them take counsel of bereaved fathers who used to have their sons at their sides and are now alone; let them take counsel of the lonely farms where there used to be a boy to help the old man and now he can not even get a hired man to help him, and yet he is trying to feed the world; let them realize that the world is hungry, that the world is naked, that the world is suffering, and that none of these things can be remedied until the minds of men are reassured. That is the fundamental fact, my fellow citizens.

If I wanted to have a joint debate with some man who wanted to put our part in this business down on the lowest possible level of how much money we were going to make out of it, I could silence there will be nothing to pay for anything with, that unless its industries will not begin again, that unless its industries begin again, there will be nothing to pay for any thing with, that unless its industries begin again there will be no market for the goods of America, and that we will have to rest content with our domestic markets at the very time when we had enlarged our enterprises in order to make peaceful conquest of the world. The very processes of war have driven our industries to a point of expansion where they will be chilled and ruined if they do not presently get a foreign outlet. Therefore, on the lowest basis, you have got to guarantee and underwrite civilization or you have ruined the United States. But I do not like to talk about that side of it. I believe in my heart that there is hardly a man in America, if you get really back of his superficial thoughts, who is not man enough to be willing to make the sacrifice to underwrite civilization. It is only sacrifice that tells. Don't you remember what we used to cry during the Liberty loans," "Lend until it hurts. Give until it hurts." When I heard, in some Western States, that people drew their savings out of banks that were giving them 4 per cent on the savings and invested them in the first Liberty loan that was to yield them per cent, I said to myself, "That is America." They were helping the Government at a sacrifice. They were not thinking of dollars. They were thinking of the dignity and might and majesty and destiny of the United States, and it is only that vision, my fellow citizens, that will ever lift us out of the slough in which men now are wading.

It is a pitiful spectacle that the great bodies of our fellow citizens should be arrayed against each other. One of the most start ling things that I ever realized was, months and months ago, when I was trying to moderate and assist in settling some of the difficulties between the railroads and their employees. I asked the representatives of the railway brotherhoods to come to the White House, and I asked the presidents of the great railway systems to come to the White House, and I found that each side had a profound suspicion of the other, that the railway presidents were not willing to trust what their men said and the men were not willing to trust what the railway presidents said. When I took over the railroads in the name of the Government, I said to a group of fine-spirited men, a group of railway presidents, who were trying to unify the administration of the railroads for the purposes of the war—I said, smilingly, but with a little sadness, "Well, at any rate, gentlemen, these men will trust me, and they do not trust you." I did not say it with pride; I said it with sorrow. I did not know whether I could justify their trust or not, but I did know that I was willing to talk things over with them whenever anything was the matter, and that if we were equally intelligent and equally conscientious we could get together whenever anything went wrong. I could not help suspecting that this distrust, this mutual distrust, was the wedge that was being driven into society, and society can not live with a great wedge at the heart of it. Society can not get on industrially or socially with any such wedge driven into its heart. We must see that the processes of peace, the processes of discussion, the processes of fairness, the processes of equity, the processes of sympathy penetrate all our affairs. I have never known anybody who had a good cause who was unwilling to discuss it. Whenever I find a man standing out stiffly against consulting with the other side, I know his case is bad. The only unconquerable thing in the world is the truth, and a man who has the truth on his side need not be afraid of anybody. You know what witty and eloquent old Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said. He said, "You needn't fear to handle the truth roughly; she is no invalid." The truth is the most robust and indestructible and formidable thing in the world. There is a very amusing story of a distinguished lawyer at Charleston, S.C., of a very much older generation than ours, who was followed out of the court one day after losing a civil suit by his client, who abused him. He called him a thief and a liar and everything that was disagreeable, and Mr. Peddigrew paid not the slightest attention to him, until he called him a Federalist, and then he knocked him down. A friend said to him, "Why, Mr. Peddigrew; why did you knock him down for that? That was the least offensive thing he said." "Yes, damn him," Peddigrew said, "but it was the only true thing he said. "

Now, the nations of the world have declared that they are not afraid of the truth; that they are willing to have all their affairs that are likely to lead to international complications brought into the open. One of the things that this treaty incidentally does is absolutely to invalidate all secret treaties. Everything is to be open. Everything is to be upon the table around which sit the representatives of all the world, to be looked at from the point of view of everybody—the Asiatic, the African, the American, the European. That is the promise of the future; that is the security of the future. I hope that no attempts will be made to qualify or embarrass the great process which is inevitable, and I confidently predict that some day we shall look back with surprise upon the fact that men in America, above all places, should ever have hesitated to do this great thing.

It has been a privilege, my fellow citizens, to make this simple presentation of a great theme to you, and I am happy in carrying away with me recollections of the generous response you have made to a plea which I can only characterize as a plea which has come from the heart of a true American.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the National Guard Armory in Tacoma, Washington Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317996

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