Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Oakland Civic Auditorium in Oakland, California

September 18, 1919

Dr. Rinehart, my fellow citizens, you have indeed warmed my heart with your splendid welcome and I esteem it a great privilege to stand here, before you, to-night to look at some of the serious aspects of the great turning point in the history of this Nation and the history of the world which affairs have brought us to. Dr. Rinehart expressed my own feeling when she said that in my own consciousness those great ranks of little children seemed to me my real clients, seemed to be that part of my fellow citizens for whom I am pleading. It is not likely, my fellow citizens, that with the depleted resources of the great fighting nations of Europe, there will be another war soon, but unless we concert measures to prevent it, there will be another and a final war, at just about the time these children come to maturity; and it is our duty to look in the face the real circumstances of the world in order that we may not be unfaithful to the great duty which America undertook in the hour and day of her birth.

One thing has been impressed upon me more than another as I have crossed the continent, and that is that the people of the United States have been singularly and, I sometimes fear deliberately, misled as to the character and contents of the treaty of peace. Some one told me that after an address I delivered in San Francisco last night one of the men who had been present, a very thoughtful man I was told, said that after listening to what I had said he wondered what the debate was about, it all seemed so simple, so obvious, so natural. I was at once led to reflect that that was not the cause of any gift of exposition that I have, but because I had told that audience what the real character and purpose of the covenant of nations is. They had been led to look at certain incidental features of it, either on the assumption that they had not read the document or in the hope that they would not read it and would not realize what the real contents of it were. I have not come out from Washington, my fellow citizens, on a speech-making tour. I do not see how anybody could get his own consent to think of the way in which he was saying the things that it is necessary for me to say. I should think that every man's consciousness would be fixed, as my own is, upon the critical destiny of the world which hangs upon the decision of America. I am confident what that decision is going to be because I can see the tide of sentiment and the tide of conviction rising in this country in such a manner that any man who tries to withstand it will be overwhelmed. But we are an intelligent and thoughtful people; we want to know just what it is that we are about, and if you will be patient with me I am going to try to point out some of the things I did not dwell upon last night that are the salient and outstanding characteristics of this treaty.

I am not going to speak to-night particularly of the covenant of the league of nations. I am going to point out to you what the treaty as a whole is. In the first place, of course, that treaty imposes upon Germany the proper penalty for the crime she attempted to commit. It is a just treaty in spite of its severity. It is a treaty made by men who had no intention of crushing the German people, but who did mean to have it burnt into the consciousness of the German people, and through their consciousness into the apprehension of the world, that no people could afford to live under a Government which was not controlled by their purpose and will and which was at liberty to impose secret ambitions upon the civilization of the world. It was intended as notice to all mankind that any Government that attempted what Germany attempted would meet with the same concerted opposition of mankind and would have meted out to it the same just retribution. All that this treaty amounts to, so far as Germany is concerned, is that she shall be obliged to pay every dollar that she can afford to pay to repair the damage that she did; except for the territorial arrangements which it includes, that is practically the whole of the treaty so far as it concerns Germany. What has not been borne in upon the consciousness of some of our people is that, although most of the words of the treaty are devoted to the settlement with Germany, the greater part of the meaning of its provisions is devoted to the settlement of the world.

The treaty begins with the covenant of the league of nations, which is intended to operate as a partnership, a permanent partnership, of the great and free self-governing peoples of the world to stand sponsor for the right and for civilization. Notice is given in the very first articles of the treaty that hereafter it will not be a matter of conjecture whether the other great nations of the world will combine against a wrongdoer, but a matter of certainty that hereafter nations contemplating what the Government of Germany contemplated will not have to conjecture whether Great Britain and France and Italy and the great United States will join hands against them, but will know that mankind, in serried ranks, will defend to the last the rights of human beings wherever they are. This is the first treaty ever framed by such an international convention, whose object was not to serve and defend governments but to serve and defend peoples. This is the first people's treaty in the history of international dealings. Every member of that great convention of peace was poignantly aware that at last the people of the world were awake, that at last the people of the world were aware of what wrong had been wrought by irresponsible and autocratic governments, that at last all the peoples of the world had seen the vision of liberty, had seen the majesty of justice, had seen the doors thrown open to the aspirations of men and women and the fortunes of children everywhere, and they did not dare assume that they were the masters of the fortunes of any people, but knew that in every settlement they must act as the servants not only of their own people but of the people who were waiting to be liberated, the people who could not win their own liberty, the people who had suffered for centuries together the intolerable wrongs of misgovernment. This is a treaty not merely for the peoples who were represented at the peace table but for the people who were the subjects of the governments whose wrongs were forever ended by the victory on the fields of France.

My fellow citizens, you know and you hear it said every day, you read it in the newspapers, you hear it in the conversation of your friends, that there is unrest all over the world. You hear that in every part of the world, not excluding our own beloved country, there are men who feel that society has been shaken to, its foundations, and that it ought to have been shaken to its foundations, in order that men might be awakened to the wrongs that had been done and were continuing to be done. When you look into the history, not of our own free and fortunate continent, happily, but of the rest of the world, you will find that the hand of pitiless power has been upon the shoulders of the great mass of mankind since time began, and that only with that glimmer of light which came at Calvary, that first dawn which came with the Christian era, did men begin to wake to the dignity and right of the human soul, and that in spite of professions of Christianity, in spite of purposes of reform, in spite of theories of right and of justice, the great body of our fellow beings have been kept under the will of men who exploited them and did not give them the full right to live and realize the purposes that God had meant them to realize. There is little for the great part of the history of the world except the bitter tears of pity and the hot tears of wrath, and when you look, as we were permitted to look in Paris, into some of the particular wrongs which the peoples of Central Europe, the peoples upon whom the first foundations of the new German power were to be built, had suffered for generations together, you wonder why they lay so long quiet, you wonder why men, statesmen, men who pretended to have an outlook upon the world, waited so long to deliver them. The characteristic of this treaty is that it gives liberty to peoples who never could have won it for themselves. By giving that liberty, it limits the ambitions and defeats the hopes of all the imperialistic governments in the world. Governments which had theretofore been considered to desire dominion, here in this document forswore dominion, renounced it, Said, "The fundamental principle upon which we are going to act is this, that every great territory of the world belongs to the people who live in it and that it is their right and not our right to determine the sovereignty they shall live under and the form of government they shall maintain." It is astonishing that this great document did not come as a shock upon the world. If the world had not already been rent by the great struggle which preceded this settlement, men would have stood at amaze at such a document as this; but there is a subtle consciousness throughout the world now that this is an end of governing people who do not desire the government that is over them.

And, going further than that, the makers of the treaty proceeded to arrange, upon a cooperative basis, those things which had always been arranged before upon a competitive basis. I want to mention a very practical thing, which most of you, I dare say, never thought about. Most of the rivers of Europe traverse the territory of several nations, and up to the time of this peace conference there had been certain historic rights and certain treaty rights over certain parts of the courses of those rivers which had embarrassed the people who lived higher up upon the streams; just as if the great Mississippi, for example, passed through half a dozen States and the people down at New Orleans lived under a government which could control the navigation- of the lower part of the Mississippi and so hamper the commerce of the States above them to the north which wished to pass to the sea by the courses of the Mississippi. There were abundant instances of that sort in Europe, and this treaty undertakes to internationalize all the great waterways of that continent, to see to it that their several portions are taken out of national control and put under international control, so that the stream that passes through one nation shall be just as free in all its length to the sea as if that nation owned the whole of it, and nobody shall have the right to put a restriction upon their passage to the sea. I mention this in order to illustrate the heart of this treaty, which is to cut out national privilege and give to every people the full right attaching to the territory in which they live.

Then the treaty did something more than that. You have heard of the covenant of the league of nations until, I dare say, you suppose that is the only thing in the treaty. On the contrary, there is a document almost as extensive in the latter part of the treaty which is nothing less than a great charter of liberty for the working men and women of the world. One of the most striking and useful provisions of the treaty is that every member of the league of nations undertakes to advance the humane conditions of labor for men, women, and children, to consider the interests of labor under its own jurisdiction, and to try to extend to every nation with which it has any dealings the standards of labor upon which it itself insists; so that America, which has by no means yet reached the standards in those matters which we must and shall reach, but which, nevertheless, is the most advanced in the world in respect of the conditions of labor, undertakes to bring all the influence it can legitimately bear upon every nation with which it has any dealings to see that labor there is put upon as good a footing as labor in America. Perhaps some of you have not kept in mind the seamen's act which was passed in a recent session of Congress. Under the law before that act, seamen could be bound to the service of their ship in such fashion that when they came to the ports of the United States, if they tried to leave their ship, the Government of the United States was bound to arrest them and send them back to their ship. The seamen's act abrogates that law and practically makes it necessary for every ship that would take away from the United States the crew that it brings to it shall pay American wages to get it. Before this treaty was entered into the United States had entered upon the business of trying to extend to laboring men elsewhere the advantages which laboring men in the United States enjoy, and supplementing that promise in the covenant of the league there is an elaborate arrangement for a periodic international conference in the interest of labor. It provides that that conference shall be called next month in the city of Washington by the President of the United States, and the President of the United States has already called it. We are awaiting to learn from the Senate of the United States whether we can attend it or not. We can at least sit and listen and wonder how long we are going to be kept out of membership of this great humane endeavor to see that working men and women and children everywhere in the world are regarded as human beings and taken care of as they ought to be taken care of.

This treaty does not stop there. It attempts to coordinate all the great humane endeavors of the world. It tries to bring under international cooperation every effort to check international crime. I mean like that unspeakable traffic in women, like that almost equally unspeakable traffic in children. It undertakes to control the dealing in deadly drugs like opium. It organizes a new method of cooperation among all the great Red Cross societies of the world. I tell you, my fellow citizens, that simple red cross has come to mean to the world more than it ever meant before. Everywhere—in the remotest recesses of the world—there are people who wear that symbol, and every time I look at it I feel like taking off my hat, as if I had seen a symbol of the world's heart. This treaty is nothing less than an organization of liberty and mercy for the world. I wish yon would get a copy of it and read it. A good deal of it is technical and you could skip that part, but read all of it that you do not need an expert to advise you with regard to the meaning of. The economic and financial clauses which particularly affect the settlements with Germany are, I dare say, almost unintelligible to most people, but you do not have to understand them; they are going to. be worked out by experts. The rest of it is going to be worked out by the experience of free self-governed peoples.

One of the interesting provisions of the covenant of the league of nations is that no nation can be a member of that league which is not a self-governing nation. No autocratic government can come into its membership; no government which is not controlled by the will and vote of its people. It is a league of free, independent peoples, all over the world, and when that great arrangement is consummated there is not going to be a ruler in the world that does not take his advice from his people. Germany is for the present excluded, but she is excluded only in order that she may undergo a period of probation, during which she shall prove two things—first, that she has really changed her constitution permanently, and, second, that she intends to administer that constitution in the spirit of its terms. You read in the newspapers that there are intrigues going on in Germany for the restoration of something like the old government, perhaps for the restoration of the throne and placing upon it some member of the family of Hohenzollern. Very well, if that should be accomplished Germany is forever excluded from the league of nations. It is not our business to say to the German people what sort of government they shall have; it is our fundamental principle that that is their business and not ours, but it is our business to say whom we will keep company with, and if Germany wishes to live in respectable society she will never have another Hohenzollern. The other day, you will notice, Hungary for a little while put one of the Austrian princes upon her throne, and the peace conference, still sitting in Paris, sent word that they could not deal with a government which had one of the Hapsburgs at its head. The Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns are permanently out of business. I dare say that they personally, from what I can learn, feel antiquated and out of date. They are out of date because, my fellow citizens, this Great War, with its triumphant issue, marks a new day in the history of the world. There can no more be any such attempts as Germany made if the great leading free people of the world lends its countenance and leadership to the enterprise. I say if, but it is a mere rhetorical if. There is not the least danger that America, after a treaty has been drawn up exactly along the specifications stipulated by America, will desert its associates. We are a people that redeems its honor. We are not, and never will be, quitters.

You notice that one of the grounds of anxiety of a small group of our fellow citizens is whether they can get out of the league if they ever get in, and so they want to have the key put in their pockets; they want to be assigned a seat right by the door; they want to sit on the edge of their chairs and say, "If anything happens in this meeting to which I am in the least sensitive, I leave." ?That, my fellow citizens, is not the spirit of America. What is going to happen is this: We are not going to sit by the door; we are going to sit in the high seats, and if the present attitude of the peoples of the world toward America is any index of what it will continue to be, the counsels of the United States will be the prevailing counsels of the league. If we were humbly at the outset to sit by the door, we would be invited to go up and take the chair. I, for one, do not want to be put in the attitude of children who, when the game goes against them, will not play, because I have such an unbounded confidence in the rectitude of the purpose of the United States that I am not afraid she will ever be caught proposing something which the other nations will defeat. She did not propose anything in Paris which the other nations defeated. The only obstacles, the only insuperable obstacles, met there were obstacles which were contained in treaties of which she had no notice, in secret treaties which certain great nations were bound in honor to respect, and the covenant of the league of nations abolishes secret treaties. From this time forth all the world is going to know what all the agreements between nations are. It is going to know, not their general character merely, but their exact language and contents, because the provision of the league is that no treaty shall be valid which is not registered with the general secretary of the league, and the general secretary of the league is instructed to publish it in all its details at the earliest possible moment. Just as you can go to the courthouse and see all the mortgages on all the real estate in your county, you can go to the general secretariat of the league of nations and find all the mortgages on all the nations. This treaty, in short, is a great clearance house. It is very little short of a canceling of the past and an insurance of the future.

Men have asked me, "Do you think that the league of nations is an absolute guaranty against war?" Of course it is not; no human arrangement can give you an absolute guaranty against human passion, but I answer that question with another, "If you thought you had 50 per cent insurance against war, would not you jump at it? If you thought you had 30 per cent insurance against war, would not you take it? If you thought you had 10 per cent insurance against war, would not you think it better than nothing?" Whereas, in my judgment, this is 99 per cent insurance, because the one thing that a wrong cause can not stand is exposure. If you think that you have a friend who is a fool, encourage him to hire a hall. The particular thing that this treaty provides in the covenant of the league of nations is that every cause shall be deliberately exposed to the judgment of mankind. It substitutes what the whole world has long been for, namely, arbitration and discussion for war. In other words, all the great fighting nations of the world—for Germany for the time being, at any rate, is not a great fighting nation—promise to lay their case, whatever it may be, before the whole jury of humanity. If there had been any arrangement comparable with this in 1914, the calamitous war which we have just passed through would have been inconceivable.

Look what happened. The Austrian crown prince was assassinated inside the Austrian dominions, in Bosnia, which was under the Empire of Austria-Hungary, though it did not belong to it, and Austria had no business to have it; and because it was suspected that the assassination was connected with certain groups of agitators and certain revolutionary societies in Serbia war was made on Serbia, because the Austrian crown prince was assassinated in Austria! Just as if some great personage were to be assassinated, let us say in Great Britain, and because the assassin was found to have society connections—I mean certain connections with a society that had an active membership—in the United States, Great Britain should declare war on the United States. That is a violently improbable supposition, but I am merely using it as an illustration. Every foreign office in Europe, when it got sudden news of what was afoot, sent messages to its representative in Berlin asking the German Government to hold an international conference to see if the matter could not be adjusted, and the German Government would not wait 24 hours. Under the treaty of the league of nations every fighting nation is bound to wait at least nine months, and to lay all the facts pertinent to the case before the whole world. There is nothing so overpowering and irresistible, my fellow citizens, as the opinion of mankind. One of the most interesting and, I think, in one way, one of the most moving sentences in the great Declaration of Independence, is one of the opening sentences—"that out of respect to the opinion of mankind the causes which have led the people of the American Colonies to declare their independence are here set forth." America was the first country in the world which laid before all mankind the reason why it went to war, and this treaty is the exaltation and permanent establishment of the American principle of warfare and of right. Why, therefore, do we hesitate to redeem the destiny of America? Why do we hesitate to support the most American thing that has ever been attempted? Why do we debate details when the heart of the thing is sound? And the beauty of it, my fellow citizens, is. that the heart of America is sound.

We sent our boys across the sea to beat Germany, but that was only the beginning. We sent them across the sea to assure the world that nothing such as Germany attempted should ever happen again. That is the halo that is going to be about the brows of these fine boys that have come back from overseas. That is the light that is going to rest upon the graves oversea of the boys we could not bring back. That is the glory that is going to attach to the memories of that great American Army, that it made conquest of the armies of Germany not only, but made conquest of peace for the world. Greater armies than sought the Holy Grail, greater armies than sought to redeem the Holy Sepulchre, greater armies than fought under that visionary and wonderful girl, Joan of Arc, greater than the armies of the American Revolution that sought to redeem us from the unjust rule of Britain, greater even than the armies of our Civil War which saved the Union, will be this noble army of Americans who saved the world!

APP Note: The President was introduced by Dr. Aurelia H. Reinhardt, president of Mills College.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Oakland Civic Auditorium in Oakland, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318090

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