Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California

September 17, 1919

Chairman, Mr. Rolph, my fellow countrymen, you have given me a very royal welcome, and I am profoundly appreciative of the greeting that you have extended me. It is a matter of gratification to me to be permitted to speak to this great audience representing as it does one of the most forward-looking States of the Union, representing as it does a great body of people who are accustomed to look and plan to the future. As I picture to myself the history of this great country which we love, I remember the surging tides of humanity moving always westward, over the eastern mountains and the plains, deploying upon the great further slopes of the Rockies, then overflowing into these fertile and beautiful valleys by the Pacific; and that is a picture to me of the constant forward, confident, hopeful movement of the American people. I feel that it is not without significance that this was the portion of the country which responded with the most extraordinary spirit to the call to arms, responded with the utmost spontaneity and generosity to the call for the money of the people to be loaned to the Government for the conduct of the Great War, responded to all those impulses of purpose and of freedom which underlay the great struggle we have just passed through.

As I have passed through your streets to-day, and through others in the many generous communities north of you and east of you, you have made me feel how the spirit of the American people is coming to a single vision, how the thought of the American people is back of a single purpose. I have come before you, my fellow citizens, to discuss a very serious theme. I want to analyze for you the very important issue with which this Nation is now face to face. It is by far the most important question that has ever come before this people for decision, and the reason I have come out upon this long journey is that I am conscious that it is the people, their purpose, their wish, that is to decide this thing, and not the thought of those who are planning any private purpose of their own.

What I first want to call your attention to, my fellow citizens, is this: You know that the debate in which we are engaged centers first of all upon the league of nations, and there seems to have arisen an idea in some quarters that the league of nations is an idea recently conceived, conceived by a small number of persons, somehow originated by the American representatives at the council table in Paris. Nothing could be further from the truth than that. I would not feel the confidence that I feel in the league of nations if I felt that it was so recent and novel a growth and birth as that. On the contrary, it is the fruit of many generations of thoughtful, forward-looking men, not only in this country but in the other countries of the world, who have been able to look forward to the combined fortunes of mankind. The men who have conceived this great purpose are not men who through these generations, when they were concerting counsel in this great matter, thought of the fortunes of parties, thought of the fortunes of individuals. I would be ashamed of myself, as I am frankly ashamed of any fellow countryman of mine who does it, if I discussed this great question with any portion of my thought devoted to the contest of parties and the elections of next year.

Some of the greatest spirits, some of the most instructed minds of both parties have been devoted to this great idea for more than a generation. It has some before the Paris conference out of the stage of ideal conception. It had long before that begun to assume the shape of a definite program and plan for the concert and cooperation of the nations in the interest of the peace of the world, and when I went to Paris I was conscious that I was carrying there no plan which was novel either to America or to Europe, but a plan which all statesmen who realized the real interests of their people had long ago hoped might be carried out in some day when the world would realize what the peace of the world meant and what were its necessary foundations. When I got to Paris I was not conscious of presenting anything that they had not long considered, and I felt that I was merely the spokesman of thoughtful minds and hopeful spirits in America. I was not putting forward any purpose of my own. So that I beg you will dismiss any personal appearance or personal relationship which this great plan may bear. I would indeed be a very proud man if I had personally conceived this great idea, but I can claim no such honor. I can only claim the privilege of having been the obedient servant of the great ideals and purposes of beloved America.

I want you to realize, my fellow countrymen, that those Americans who are opposing this plan of the league of nations offer no substitute. They offer nothing that they pretend will accomplish the same object. On the contrary, they are apparently willing to go back to that old and evil order which prevailed before this war began and which furnished a ready and fertile soil for those seeds of envy which sprung up like dragon's teeth out of the bloody soil of Europe. They are ready to go back to that old and ugly plan of armed nations, of alliances, of watchful jealousies, of rabid antagonisms, of purposes concealed, running by the subtle channels of intrigue through the veins of people who do not dream what poison is being injected into their systems. They are willing to have the United States stand alone, withdraw from the concert of nations; and what does that mean, my fellow citizens? It means that we shall arm as Germany was armed, that we shall submit our young men to the kind of constant military service that the young men of Germany were subjected to. It means that we shall pay not lighter but heavier taxes. It means that we shall trade in a world in which we are suspected and watched and disliked, instead of in a world which is now ready to trust us, ready to follow our leadership, ready to receive our traders, along with our political representatives as friends, as men who are welcome, as men who bring goods and ideas for which the world is ready and for which the world has been waiting. That is the alternative which they offer.

It is my purpose, fellow citizens, to analyze the objections which are made to this great league, and I shall be very brief. In the first place, you know that one of the difficulties which have been experienced by those who are objecting to this league is that they do not think that there is a wide enough door open for us to get out. For my own part, I am not one of those who, when they go into a generous enterprise, think first of all how they are going to turn away from those with whom they are associated. I am not one of those who, when they go into a concert for the peace of the world, want to sit close to the door with their hand on the knob and constantly trying the door to be sure that it is not locked. If we want to go into this thing—and we do want to go into it—we will go in it with our whole hearts and settled purpose to stand by the great enterprise to the end. Nevertheless, you will remember—some of you, I dare say—that when I came home in March for an all too brief visit to this country, which seems to me the fairest and dearest in the world, I brought back with me the first draft of the covenant of the league of nations. I called into consultation the Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Foreign Relations of the House and Senate of the United States, and I laid the draft of the covenant before them. One of the things that they proposed was that it should be explicitly stated that any member of the league should have the right to withdraw. I carried that suggestion back to Paris, and without the slightest hesitation it was accepted and acted upon; and every suggestion which was made in that conference at the White House was accepted by the conference of peace in Paris. There is not a feature of the covenant, except one, now under debate upon which suggestions were not made at that time, and there is not one of those suggestions that was not adopted by the conference of peace.

The gentlemen say, "You have laid a limitation upon the right to withdraw. You have said that we can withdraw upon, two years' notice, if at that time we shall have fulfilled all our international obligations and all our obligations under the covenant." "Yes," I reply; "is it characteristic of the United States not to fulfill her international obligations? Is there any fear that we shall wish to withdraw dishonorably? Are gentlemen willing to stand up and say that they want to get out whether they have the moral right to get out or not?" I for one am too proud as an American to debate that subject on that basis. The United States has always fulfilled its international obligations, and, God helping her, she always will. There is nothing in the covenant to prevent her acting upon her own judgment with regard to that matter. The only thing she has to fear, the only thing she has to regard, is the public opinion of mankind, and inasmuch as we have always scrupulously satisfied the public opinion of mankind with regard to justice and right, I for my part am not afraid at any time to go before that jury. It is a jury that might condemn us if we did wrong, but it is not a jury that could oblige us to stay in the league, so that there is absolutely no limitation upon our right to withdraw.

One of the other suggestions I carried to Paris was that the committees of the two Houses did not find the Monroe doctrine safeguarded in the covenant of the league of nations. I suggested that to the conference in Paris, and they at once inserted the provision which is now there that nothing in that covenant shall be construed as affecting the validity of the Monroe doctrine. What is the validity of the Monroe doctrine? The Monroe doctrine means that if any outside power, any power outside this hemisphere, tries to impose its will upon any portion of the Western Hemisphere the United States is at liberty to act independently and alone in repelling the aggression; that it does not have to wait for the action of the league of nations; that it does not have to wait for anything but the action of its own administration and its own Congress. This is the first time in the history of international diplomacy that any great government has acknowledged the validity of the Monroe doctrine. Now for the first time all the great fighting powers of the world except Germany, which for the time being has ceased to be a great fighting power, acknowledge the validity of the Monroe doctrine and acknowledge it as part of the international practice of the world.

They are nervous about domestic questions. They say, "It is intolerable to think that the league of nations should interfere with domestic questions," and whenever they begin to specify they speak of the question of immigration, of the question of naturalization, of the question of the tariff. My fellow citizens, no competent or authoritative student of international law would dream of maintaining that these were anything but exclusively domestic questions, and the covenant of the league expressly provides that the league can take no action whatever about matters which are in the practice of international law regarded as domestic questions. We did not undertake to enumerate samples of domestic questions for the very good reason, which will occur to any lawyer, that if you made a list it would be inferred that what you left out was not included. Nobody with a thoughtful knowledge of international practice has the least doubt as to what are domestic questions, and there is no obscurity whatever in this covenant with regard to the safeguarding of the United States, along with other sovereign countries, in the control of domestic questions. I beg that you will not fancy, my fellow citizens, that the United States is the only country that is jealous of its sovereignty. Throughout these conferences it was necessary at every turn to safeguard the sovereign independence of the several governments who were taking part in the conference, and they were just as keen to protect themselves against outside intervention in domestic matters as we were. Therefore the whole heartiness of their concurrent opinion runs with this safeguarding of domestic questions.

It is objected that the British Empire has six votes and we have one. The answer to that is that it is most carefully arranged that our one vote equals the six votes of the British Empire. Anybody who will take the pains to read the covenant of the league of nations will find out that the assembly—and it is only in the assembly that the British Empire has six votes—is hot a voting body. There is a very limited number of subjects upon which it can act at all, and I have taken the pains to write them down here, after again and again going through the covenant for the purpose of making sure that I had not omitted anything, in order that I might give you an explicit account of the thing. There are two things which a majority of the assembly may do without the concurrent vote of the United States. A majority of the assembly can admit a new member to the league of nations. A majority of the assembly can recommend to any nation a member of the league a reconsideration of such treaties as are apparently in conflict with the provisions of the covenant itself; it can advise any member of the league to seek a reconsideration of any international obligation which seems to conflict with the covenant itself, but it has ho means whatever of obliging it to reconsider even so important a matter as that, which is obviously a moral duty on the part of any member of the league. All the action, all the energy, all the initiative, of the league of nations is resident in the council, and in the council a unanimous vote is necessary for action, and no action is possible without the concurrent vote of the United States. I would rather, personally, as one man count for six than be six men and count only six. The United States can offset six votes. Here are the cases: When a matter in dispute is referred by the council to the assembly its action must be taken by a majority vote of the assembly, concurred in by the representatives of all the governments represented in the council, so that the concurrence of the vote of the United States is absolutely necessary to an affirmative vote of the assembly itself. In the case of an amendment to the covenant it is necessary that there should be a unanimous vote of the representatives of the nations which are represented in the council in addition to a majority vote of the assembly itself. And there is all the voting that the assembly does

Not a single affirmative act or negative decision upon a matter of action taken by the league of nations can be validated without the vote of the United States of America. We can dismiss from our dreams the six votes of the British Empire, for the real underlying conception of the assembly of the league of nations is that it is the forum of opinion, not of action. It is the debating body; it is the body where the thought of the little nation along with the thought of the big nation is brought to bear upon those matters which affect the peace of the world, is brought to bear upon those matters which affect the good understanding between nations upon which the peace of the world depends; where this stifled voice of humanity is at last to be heard, where nations that have borne the unspeakable sufferings of the ages that must have seemed to them like aeons will find voice and expression, where the moral judgment of mankind can sway the opinion of the world. That is the function of the assembly. The assembly is the voice of mankind. The council, where unanimous action is necessary, is the only means through which that voice can accomplish action.

You say, "We have heard a great deal about article 10." I just now said that the only substitute for the league of nations which is offered by the opponents is a return to the old system. What was the old system? That the strong had all the rights and need pay no attention to the rights of the weak; that if a great powerful nation saw what it wanted, it had the right to go and take it; that the weak nations could cry out and cry out as they pleased and there would be no hearkening ear anywhere to their rights. I want to bring in another subject connected with this treaty, but not with the league of nations, to illustrate what I am talking about. You have heard a great deal about the cession to Japan of the rights which Germany had acquired in Shantung Province in China. What happened under the old order of things, my fellow citizens? The story begins in 1898. Two German missionaries were killed in China by parties over whom the Central Government of China was unable to exercise control. It was one of those outbreaks, like the pitiful Boxer rebellion, where a sudden hatred of foreigners wells up in the heart of a nation uninformed, aware of danger, aware of wrong, but not knowing just how to remedy it, not knowing just what was the instrumentality of right. And, my fellow citizens, why should not the Chinaman hate the foreigner? The foreigner has always taken from him everything that he could get. When by irresponsible persons these German missionaries were murdered, the German Government insisted that a great part of the fair Province of Shantung should be turned over to them for exploitation. They insisted that the accessible part of Kaiochow Bay, the part where trade entered and left, should be delivered over to them for sovereign control for 99 years, and that they should be given a concession for a railway into the interior and for the right to exploit mines in that rich mineral country for 30 miles on either side of the railway.

This was not unprecedented, my fellow countrymen. Other civilized nations had done the same thing to China, and at that time what did the Government of the United States do? I want to speak with the utmost respect for the administration of that time, and the respect is unaffected. That very lovable and honest gentleman, William McKinley, was President of the United States. His Secretary of State was one of the most honorable and able of the long series of our Secretaries of State, the Hon. John Hay. I believe Mr. Hay, if he had seen any way to accomplish more than he did accomplish, would have attempted to accomplish it, but this is all that the administration of Mr. McKinley attempted: They did not even protest against this compulsory granting to Germany of the best part of a rich Province of a helpless country, but only stipulated that the Germans should keep it open to the trade of the United States. They did not make the least effort to save the rights of China; they only tried to save the commercial advantages of the United States. There immediately followed upon that cession to Germany a cession to Russia of Port Arthur and the region called Talien-Wan for 25 years, with the privilege of renewing it for a similar period. When, soon afterwards, Japan and Russia came to blows, you remember what happened. Russia was obliged to turn over to Japan Port Arthur and Talien-Wan, just exactly as Japan is now allowed to take over the German rights in Shantung. This Government, though the conference which determined these things was held on our own soil, did not, so far as I have been able to learn, make the slightest intimation of objecting. At the time Germany got Kiaochow Bay, England came in and said that since Germany was getting a piece of Shantung and Russia was getting Port Arthur and Talien-Wan, she would insist upon having her slice of China, too, and the region of Wei-Hai-Wai was ceded to her. Immediately upon that France got into the un- handsome game, and there was ceded to France for 99 years one of the ports of China with the region lying behind it. In all of those transactions there was not a single attempt made by the Government of the United States to do anything except to keep those regions open to our traders.

You now have the historic setting of the settlement about Shantung. What I want to call your attention to is that the treaty of peace does not take Shantung from China; it takes it from Germany. There are 78 years of the 99 of that lease still to run, and not only do we not take it from China, but Japan promises in an agreement which is formally recorded, which is acknowledged by the Japanese Government, to return all the sovereign rights which Germany enjoyed in Shantung without qualification to China, and to retain nothing except what foreign corporations have throughout China, the right to run that railroad and exploit those mines. There is not a great commercial and industrial nation in Europe that does not enjoy privileges of that sort in China, and some of them enjoy them at the expense of the sovereignty of China. Japan has promised to release everything that savors of sovereignty and return it to China itself. She will have no right to put armed men anywhere into that portion of China. She will have no right to interfere with the civil administration of that portion of China. She will have no rights but economic and commercial rights. Now, if we choose to say that we will not assent to the Shantung provision, what do we do for China? Absolutely nothing. Japan has what Germany had in China in her military possession now. She has the promise of Great Britain and France that so far a they are concerned she can have it without qualification, and the only way we can take it away from Japan is by going to war with Japan and Great Britain and France.

The league of nations for the first time provides a tribunal in which not only the sovereign rights of Germany and of Japan in China, but the sovereign rights of other nations can be curtailed, because every member of the league solemnly covenants to respect and preserve the territorial integrity and existing political independence of the other members, and China is to be a member. Never before, my fellow citizens, has there been a tribunal to which people like China could carry the intolerable grievances to which they have been subjected. Now a great tribunal has been set up in which the pressure of the whole judgment of the world will be exercised in her behalf.

That is the significance of article 10. Article 10 is the heart of the whole promise of peace, because it cuts out of the transactions of nations all attempts to impair the territorial integrity or invade the political independence of the weak as well as of the strong. Why did not Mr. Hay protest the acquisition of those rights in Shantung by Germany? Why did he not protest what England got, and what France got, and what Russia got? Because under international law; as it then stood, that would have been a hostile act toward those governments. The law of the world was actually such that if you mentioned anybody else's wrong but your own, you spoke as an enemy. After you have read article 10, read article 11. Article 11 says that it shall be the friendly right of any member of the league, strong or weak, to call the attention of the league to any matter, anywhere, that affects the peace of the world or the good understanding between nations upon which the peace of the world depends; so that for the first time it affords fine spirits like Mr. McKinley and Mr. John Hay the right to stand up before mankind and protest, and to say, "The rights of China shall be as sacred as the rights of those nations that are able to take care of themselves by arms." It is the most hopeful change in the law of the world that has ever been suggested or adopted.

But there is another subject upon which some of our fellow citizens are particularly sensitive. They say, "What does the league of nations do for the right of self-determination?" I think I can answer that question; if not satisfactorily, at any rate very specifically. It was not within the privilege of the conference of peace to act upon the right of self-determination of any peoples except those which had been included in the territories of the defeated empires—that is to say, it was not then within their power—but the moment the covenant of the league of nations is adopted it becomes their right. If the desire for self-determination of any people in the world is likely to affect the peace of the world or the good understanding between nations, it becomes the business of the league; it becomes the right of any member of the league to call attention to it; it becomes the function of the league to bring the whole process of the opinion of the world to bear upon that very matter. Where before, and when before, may I ask some of my fellow countrymen who want a forum upon which to conduct a hopeful agitation, were they ever offered the opportunity to bring their case to the judgment of mankind? If they are not satisfied with that, their case is not good. The only case that you ought to bring with diffidence before the great jury of men throughout the world is the case that you can not establish. The only thing I shall ever be afraid to see the league of nations discuss, if the United States is concerned, is a case which I can hardly imagine, where the United States is wrong, because I have the hopeful and confident expectation that whenever a case in which the United States is affected is brought to the consideration of that great body we need have no nervousness as to the elements of the argument so far as we are concerned. The glory of the United States is that it never claimed anything to which it was not justly entitled. I look forward with a quickened pulse to the days that lie ahead of us as a member of the league of nations, for we shall be a member of the league of nations—I look forward with confidence and with exalted hope to the time when we can indeed legitimately and constantly be the champions and friends of those who are struggling for right anywhere in the world, and no nation is likely to forget, my fellow citizens, that behind the moral judgment of the United States resides the overwhelming force of the United States. We were respected in those old Revolutionary days when there were three millions of us. We are, it happens, very much more respected, now that there are more than a hundred millions of us. Now that we command some of the most important resources of the world, back of the majesty of the United States lies the strength of the United States. If Germany had ever dreamed, when she conceived her ungodly enterprise, that the United States would have come into the war, she never would have dared to attempt it.

But now, my fellow citizens, the hope of Germany has revived. The hope of Germany has revived, because in the debates now taking place in the United States she sees a hope of at last doing what her arms could not do—dividing the United States from the great nations with which it-was associated in the war. Here is a quotation from a recent utterance of one of her counsellors of state:

"All humanity, Germany particularly, is tensely awaiting the decision of the American Senate on the peace treaty," ex-Minister of State von Scheller-Steinwartz said to-day. "Apparently"—out of respect for him I will not mention the name that that ex-Minister Steinwartz mentions—"apparently Senator Blank is the soul of the opposition. The Senator is no German hater. He hates all non- Americans equally, and he is absolutely a just man of almost Quaker-like moral strength." How delightful to receive such praise from such a source! "When he and other important Senators fight the peace treaty, their course means that the treaty displeases them because in the excessive enslavement of Germany, for which America would be forever responsible, they see grave danger of future complications. That course is thus to be hailed like the morning red of a new dawn." A new dawn for the world? Oh, no; a new dawn for Germany. "There is promise of a still better realization of conditions in the prospect that America, in all seriousness, may express the wish for a separate peace with the Central Powers. "

A separate peace with the Central Empires could accomplish nothing but our eternal disgrace, and I would like, if my voice could reach him, to let this German counsellor know that the red he sees upon the horizon is not the red of a new dawn, but the red of a consuming fire which will consume everything like the recent purposes of the Central Empires. It is not without significance, my fellow citizens, that coincidentally with this debate with regard to the ratification of this treaty the whole pro-German propaganda has shown its head all over the United States. I would not have you understand me to mean that the men who are opposing the ratification of the treaty are consciously encouraging the pro-German propaganda. I have no right to say that or to think it, but I do say that what they are doing is encouraging the pro-German propaganda, and that it is bringing about a hope in the minds of those whom we have just spent our precious blood to defeat that they may separate us from the rest of the world and produce this interesting spectacle, only two nations standing aside from the great concert and guaranty of peace—beaten Germany and triumphant America.

See what can be accomplished by that. By that the attitude of the rest of the world toward America will be exactly what its recent attitude was toward Germany, and we will be in the position absolutely alien to every American conception of playing a lone hand in the world for our selfish advantage and aggrandizement. The thing is inconceivable. The thing is intolerable. The thing can and will never happen.

I speak of these things in order that you may realize, my fellow citizens, the solemnity and the significance of this debate in which we are engaged; its solemnity because it involves the honor of the United States and the peace of humanity, its significance because whether gentlemen plan it or not, not only refusal on our part, but long hesitation on our part to cast our fortunes permanently in with the fortunes of those who love right and liberty will be to bring mankind again into the shadow of that valley of death from which we have just emerged. I was saying to some of your fellow citizens to-day how touching it had been to me as I came across the continent to have women whom I subsequently learned had lost their sons or their husbands come and take my hand and say, "God bless you, Mr. President." Why should they say "God bless" me? I advised the Congress of the United States to take the action which sent their sons to their death. As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I ordered their sons to their death. Why should they take my hand and with tears upon their cheeks say, "God bless you"? Because they understood, as I understood, as their sons who are dead upon the fields of France understood, that they had gone there to fight for a great cause, and, above all else, they had gone there to see that in subsequent generations women should not have to mourn their dead. And as little children have gathered at every station in playful lightheartedness about the train upon which I was traveling, I have felt as if I were trustee for them. I have felt that this errand that I am going about upon was to save them the infinite sorrows through which the world has just passed, and that if by any evil counsel or unhappy mischance this great enterprise for which we fought should fail, then women with boys at their breasts ought now to weep, because when those lads come to maturity the great battle will have to be fought over again.

And, my fellow citizens, there is another battle of which we are now upon the eve. That is the battle for the right organization of industrial society. I do not need to tell an audience in this great progressive State what I mean by that. We can not work out justice in our communities if the world is to continue under arms and ready for war. We must have peace, we must have leisure of mind and detachment of purpose, if we are going to work out the great reforms for which mankind is everywhere waiting. I pray God that normal times may not much longer be withheld from us. The world is profoundly stirred. The masses of men are stirred by thoughts which never moved them before. We must not again go into the camp. We must sit down at the council table and, like men and brethren, lovers of liberty and justice, see that the right is done, see that the right is done to those who bear the heat and burden of the day, as well as to those who direct the labor of mankind. I am not a partisan of any party to any of these contests, and I am not an enemy of anybody except the minority that tries to control. I do not care where the minority is drawn from, I do not care how influential or how insignificant, I do not care which side of the labor question it has been on, if the power of the United States under my direction can prevent the domination of a minority, it will be prevented. I am a champion of that sort of peace, that sort of order, that sort of calm counsel out of which, and out of which alone, can come the satisfactory solutions of the problems of society. You can not solve the problems of society amidst chaos, disorder, and strife. You can only solve them when men have agreed to be calm, agreed to be just, agreed to be conciliatory, agreed that the right of the weak is as majestic as the right of the strong; and when we have come to that mind in the counsels of nations we can then more readily come to that mind in our domestic counsels, upon which the happiness and prosperity of our own beloved people so intimately and directly depend.

I beg, my fellow citizens, that you will carry this question home with you, not in little pieces, not with this, that, and the other detail at the front in your mind, but as a great picture including the whole of the Nation and the whole of humanity, and know that now is the golden hour when America can at last prove that all she has promised in the day of her birth was no dream but a thing which she saw in its concrete reality, the rights of men, the prosperity of nations, the majesty of justice, and the sacredness of peace.

APP Note: The Civic Auditorium was built in 1915 as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. In 1992 the venue was renamed the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/318068

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