Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Spokane Armory in Spokane, Washington

September 12, 1919

Mr. Mayor, my fellow countrymen, I esteem it a real privilege to stand face to face with a representative audience of this great city, because I have come away from Washington, my fellow countrymen, not to make speeches but to get into contact with just such bodies of men and women as this, and feel that I have exchanged ideas with them, and with the utmost frankness of which I was capable. I. have not come to paint pictures of the fancy. I have come to disclose to you what I understand to be facts, and I want so much as possible to get down to the very essence and marrow of the things that we are now talking about.

I do not think I need tell you, my fellow citizens, that America and the world have come to the point where they must make one of the most critical choices ever made by great bodies of men or by nations. They have now to determine whether they will accept the one chance that has ever been offered to insure the peace of the world. I call it frankly a chance to insure the peace of the world. Nobody can guarantee the world against the ugly passions that sometimes get abroad. Nobody can engage that the world will not again go mad with blood; but I want to put it frankly to you: Though the chance should be poor, is it not worth taking a chance? Let men discount the proposed arrangements as much as they will; let us regard it as an insurance policy. If you could get 10 per cent insurance of your fortunes in respect of peace, wouldn't you rather take it than no insurance at all? As a matter of fact, I believe, after having sat in conference with men all over the world and found the attitude of their minds, the character of their purposes, that this is a 99 per cent insurance, against war. If the nations of the world will indeed and in truth accept this great covenant of a league of nations and agree to put arbitration and discussion always first and war always last, I say that we have an immense insurance against war, and that is exactly what this great covenant does.

I have found it necessary upon this trip, my fellow citizens—I have actually found it necessary—to tell great audiences what the treaty of peace contains. You never could divine it from the discussion of the men who are opposed to it. Let me tell you some of the things that this treaty does, apart from the covenant of the league of nations which stands by common consent of those who framed it at the beginning of it. Quite apart from the league of nations, it is the first attempt ever made by an international congress to substitute justice for national advantage. It is the first attempt ever made to settle the affairs of the world according to the wishes of the people in the parts of the world that were being dealt with. It is a treaty that deals with peoples and nations, and not with dynasties and governments. Every representative of every great Government I met on the other side of the sea acknowledged, as I, of course, acknowledge, that he was master of nobody, that he was the servant of the people whom he represented, and that the people he represented wanted what the people of the United States wanted; they wanted a just and reasonable and permanent settlement, and that is what this treaty tried to give them. If substitutes for the aggression, which always was the beginning of war, a settled title on the part of the weak nations, along with the strong, to their own territories, a settled right to determine their own policies, a settled right to realize the national hopes so long suppressed, to free themselves from the oppression so long endured. Europe was full of people under the iron and relentless hand of military power, and that hand has been removed and crushed. This treaty is the means of doing it.

The guaranty of this treaty is the part of the covenant of nations which you have heard most criticized. I mean the now celebrated article 10. Article 10 is an engagement of the most extraordinary kind in history. It is an engagement by all the fighting nations of the world never to fight upon the plan upon which they always fought before. They, all of them, agree to respect and preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of the others, and they agree that if there should be any breach of that covenant, the council of the league shall advise what steps shall be taken to make the promises good. That is the covenant with which you have been frightened. Frightened, my fellow citizens? Why, it is the only possible or conceivable guaranty against the wars that have ravaged the world, because those war's have habitually begun by territorial aggression, by the seizure of territory that did not belong to the power that was effecting the seizure. How did this great war begin? It began by the invasion of Belgium, and it was admitted by all German statesmen that they never meant to get out of Belgium. By guaranteeing the territorial integrity of a country, you do not mean that you guarantee it against invasion. You guarantee it against the invader staying there and keeping the spoils. The integrity is the title, is the ownership. You agree never to take territory away from the people to whom it belongs, and you agree never to interfere with the political independence of the people living in these territories whose titles are now made clear by a universal international guaranty.

I want to discuss with you very frankly, indeed, just as frankly as I know how, the difficulties that have been suggested, because I say, not in the spirit of criticism, but in a spirit of entire intended fairness, that not one of the qualifications which have been suggested in this discussion is justified by the language of the instrument. Let me take them one by one. In the first article of the covenant of the league it is provided that any member State may withdraw from the league upon two years' notice, provided at the time of withdrawal it has fulfilled its international obligations and its obligations under the covenant. Gentlemen object that it is not said who shall determine whether it has fulfilled its international obligations and its obligations under the covenant or not. Having sat at the table where the instrument was drawn, I know that that was not by accident, because that is a matter upon which no nation can sit in judgment upon another. That is left to the conscience and the independent determination of the nation that is withdrawing, and there is only one jury that it need fear and that is the great embodied jury expressing the opinion of mankind. I want to differentiate myself, therefore, from the men who are afraid of that clause, because I want to record my feeling in the matter that, as an American, I am never afraid that the United States will fail to perform its international obligations; and, being certain that it will never fail in that respect, I have no fear that an occasion will arise when we need be sensitive to the opinion of mankind. That is the only jury set up in the case, and I am ready to go before that jury at any time. These gentlemen want to say what the instrument says, that we can withdraw when we please. The instrument does not say it in those words, but it says it in effect, and the only limitation upon that is that we should not please unless we have done our duty. We never will please, God helping us, to neglect our duty.

The second difficulty—taking them in the order in which they have come in the covenant itself—is the article I was a moment ago discussing, article 10. Article 10, as I told you, says that if the promise to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of the member States is broken, then the council shall advise what is to be done. I do not know any but one meaning for the word "advise." I have been very curious and interested to learn how many other meanings have been put into it. I, in my surprise, have looked in the dictionary to be sure I was not mistaken, and so far as I can find out "advise" means "advise." And more interesting than that, the advice can not be given without the affirmative vote of the United States. There must be a unanimous vote of the council before there is advice, and the United States is a member of the council by the constitution of the league itself, a member now and always a member, so that neither the United States nor any other country can be advised to go to war for the redemption of that promise without the concurrent affirmative vote of the United States. Yet I hear gentlemen say that this is an invasion of our sovereignty. My fellow citizens, if it is anything, it is an exaggeration of our sovereignty, because it puts our sovereignty in a way to put a veto on that advice being given to anybody. Our present sovereignty merely extends to making choice whether we will go to war or not, but this extends our sovereignty to saying whether other nations shall go to war or not. If that does not constitute a very considerable insurance against war, I would like somebody to write a provision which would; because, at every point, my fellow citizens, the position of these gentlemen who criticize this instrument is either that they do not understand the covenant or that they can suggest something better, and I have not heard one of them suggest anything better. In fact, I have never heard of them suggest anything. If the world is going to be at peace, it must be this or something better, and I want to say again it is a case of "put up or shut up."

Let me make a slight digression here, if I may, to speak about a matter of some delicacy. I have had a great many men say to me, "I am a Republican, but I am in favor of the league of nations." Why the "but." I want to tell you, my fellow citizens, that there is one element in this whole discussion which ought not to be in it. There is, though I say it myself, an element of personal bitterness. One would suppose that this covenant of the league of nations was first thought of and first invented and first written by a man named Wilson. I wish it were. If I had done that, I would be willing to have it recorded that I had done that and nothing else. But I did not do it. I, along with thousands of my fellow countrymen, got the idea 20 years ago, chiefly from Republican public men. Take men like ex-Senator Burton, of Ohio. He has been preaching a league of nations for 20 years. I do not want to mention names, because I do not want to record gentlemen against themselves, but go through the list and you will find most of the leading, thinking minds on the Republican side in favor of this very kind of thing, and I want to remind every Republican of the criticism that he and his comrades have usually made of the Democratic Party, and the boast that they have generally made of their party. They said that the Democratic Party was a party of negations and not a party of constructive policies, and that the Republican Party was a party of constructive policy. Very well, then, why that "but." "I am a Republican, but I am in favor of the greatest constructive thing that has ever been suggested!" If I were a Republican, I would say, "I am a Republican and therefore I am in favor of a league of nations." My present point is to dissociate the league of nations from the present speaker. I did not originate it. It is not my handiwork. It has originated out of the consciences and thought of men who wanted justice and loved peace for generations, and my relationship to it is just what my relationship ought to be to every public question, the relationship which a man bears to his fellow citizens when he tries to interpret their thought and their conscience. That is what I conceive to be my part in the league of nations. I did have a part in some of the phraseology, and every time I did it was to carry out the ideas that these gentlemen are fighting for.

For example, there is one part of the covenant, the principal part of it, where it speaks of arbitration and discussion, where it provides that any member State, failing to keep these particular covenants, shall be regarded as thereby ipso facto to have committed an act of war against the other members. The way it originally read was, "Shall thereby ipso facto be deemed at war with the other members," and I said, "No; I can not agree to that. That provision would put the United States at war without the consent of the Congress of the United States, and I have no right in this part of the covenant or any other to assent to a provision which would deprive the Congress of the United States of its free choice whether it makes war or not." There, and at every other point in the covenant where it was necessary to do so, I insisted upon language which would leave the Congress of the United States free, and yet these gentlemen say that the Congress of the United States is deprived of its liberty. I fought that battle and won it. It is not necessary for them to fight it over again.

You will say, "It is all very well what you say about the vote of the United States being necessary to the advice provided the United States is not one of the parties to the dispute. In that case it can not vote." That is very true; but in that case it has got the fight on its hands anyhow, because if it is one of the parties to the dispute the war belongs to it. It does not have to go into it, and therefore it can not be forced by the vote of the United States in the council to go into the war. The only thing the vote can do is to force it out of the war. I want to ask you to think what it means when it is suggested that the United States may be a party. A party to what? A party to seizing somebody else's territory? A party to infringing some other country's political independence? Is any man willing to stand on this platform and say that the United States is likely to do either of those things? I challenge any man to stand up before an American audience and say that that is the danger. "Ah, but somebody else may seek to seize our territory or impair our political independence." Well, who? Who has an arm long enough, who has an audacity great enough to try to take a single inch of American territory or to seek to interfere for one moment with the political independence of the United States? These gentlemen are dreaming of things that can not happen, and I can not bring myself to feel uneasy in the presence of things that I know are not so. The great difficulty in this discussion, as in so many others, is in the number of things that men know that are not so.

"But the Monroe doctrine." I must admit to you, my fellow citizens, I do not know how the Monroe doctrine could be any more explicitly accepted than it is in the covenant of the league of nations. It says that nothing in the covenant shall be interpreted as impairing the validity of the Monroe doctrine. What more could you say? I did try while I was in Paris to define the Monroe doctrine and get it written into the document, but I will confide to you in confidence that when I tried to define it I found that it escaped analysis, that all that you could say was that it was a principle with regard to the interference of foreign powers in the politics of the Western Hemisphere which the United States felt at liberty to apply in any circumstances where it thought it pertinent. That is not a definition. That means that the United States means to play big brother to the Western Hemisphere in any circumstances where it thinks it wise to play big brother. Therefore, inasmuch as you could not or would not define the Monroe doctrine—at least I would not, because I do not know how much we may want to extend it—what more could you say than that nothing in that instrument shall impair the validity of the Monroe doctrine? I tell you, my fellow citizens, that is the most extraordinary sentence in that treaty, for this reason: Up to that time there was not a nation in the world that was willing to admit the validity of the Monroe doctrine. I have made a great many speeches in my life, perhaps to many, but I do not think that I ever put so much of what I hope was the best in me as I put in the speech in the conference on the league of nations in favor of the Monroe doctrine, and it was upon that occasion that it was embodied. And we have this extraordinary spectacle, of the world recognizing the validity of the Monroe doctrine. Yet these gentlemen seem to want something more. What more could you get? Shall we get them to express their belief in the deity of the Monroe doctrine? They accept it for the first time in the history of the world, and they say that they will do nothing that will interfere with it. I must submit that it is absolutely irrational to ask for anything more.

But there is the question of somebody interfering with the domestic policies of the United States—immigration, naturalization, tariffs; matters of that sort. There, again, I can not understand or feel the weight of the difficulty, because the covenant says that if any international difficulty is brought under discussion and one of the parties claims and the council finds that it is a matter of domestic jurisdiction, the council shall cease to discuss it and shall make no report about it. The only way you could make the document more clear would be by enumerating the domestic questions you had in mind. Very well. I ask any lawyer here if that would be safe? Might you not be in danger of leaving out something? Might you not be in danger of not mentioning something that would afterwards become important? The danger of making a list is that the mention of the things you do mention constitutes the exclusion of the things you do not mention. Inasmuch as there is no dispute of any authoritative students of international law that these matters that we are most concerned about—immigration, naturalization, tariff, and the rest—are domestic questions, it is inconceivable that the council should ever seek to interfere with or to discuss such questions, unless we had ourselves deliberately made them matters of international agreement, and even the opponents of the league admit they would be suitable and proper subjects for discussion.

Those are the matters upon which they are talking about reservations. The only reservations I can imagine are reservations which say over again what the covenant itself says in plain language, and make it necessary that we should go back to Paris and discuss new language for things that we all have to admit, if we are frank, are already in the document.

But there is another matter. Somebody has said that this covenant was an arrangement for the dominance of Great Britain, and he based that upon the fact that in the assembly of the council there are six representatives of the various parts of the British Empire. There are really more than that, because each member of the assembly has three representatives, but six units of the British Empire are represented, whereas the United States is represented as only one unit. Let me be didactic for a moment and tell you how the league is constituted. There is an assembly made up of three members of each of the constituent States, and there is a council. The council is the only part of the organization that can take effective action. No powers of action rest with the assembly at all, and it is only in the assembly that the British Empire is represented as consisting of six units—for brevity's sake I will say as having six votes. There is only one case when the assembly can vote at all, and that is when the council refers a matter in dispute to the assembly, in which case the assembly can decide a matter by a majority, provided all the representatives of the nations represented in the council vote on the side of the majority. So that, alike in the assembly and in the council, the one vote of the United States is an absolute veto. I have said that there was only one case upon which the assembly could vote, and that is literally true. The council of the league is made up of one representative from each of the five principal allied and associated powers; that is to say, the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, and four other nations selected by the assembly of the league. The present members are Spain, Brazil, Belgium, and Greece. In the council is vested all the active powers of the league. Everything that is done by the league is formulated and passed by the council, and a unanimous vote is required. Indeed, my fellow citizens, that is the only thing that seems to me weak about the league; I am afraid that a unanimous vote will sometimes be very difficult to get. The danger is not action, but inaction. The danger is not that they will do something that we do not like, but that upon some critical occasion they will not do anything. If there is any weakness in it, it is the safeguard that has been thrown around the sovereign power of the members of the council. If a matter in controversy arises and one of the parties demands that it shall be taken out of the council and put into the assembly, the council is obliged so to refer it, but in the final vote in the assembly the affirmative action is not valid unless all the States represented in the council shall also in the assembly vote in the affirmative. As we can always veto, always offset with one vote the British six votes, I must say that I look with perfect philosophy upon the difference in number.

The justification for the representation of more than one part of the British Empire was that the British Empire is made up of semi-independent pieces, as no other Empire in the world is. You know how Canada, for example, passes her own tariff law, does what she pleases to inconvenience the trade of the mother country. Canada's voice in the assembly is merely a debating force. The assembly is a great discussing body. It is a body in which some of the most valuable things that the league is going to do can be done, for I want to ask you, after you have read Article 10 again, to read article 11. Article 11 makes it the right of any member of the league, however weak and small, to call attention to anything, anywhere, that is likely to disturb the peace of the world and to draw it into debate, draw it into the open, draw it where everybody can get the facts and talk about it. It is the only time, my fellow countrymen, in the history of the world when weak and oppressed and restive peoples have been given a hearing before the judgment of mankind. Nothing is going to keep this world fit to live in like exposing in public debate every crooked thing that is going on. If you suspect your friend of being a fool, the best way you can prove it or disprove it is by advising him to hire a hall. Then your judgment will be confirmed or reversed by the popular verdict. If you think a policy is good, you will venture to talk about it. If you think it is bad, you will not consent to talk about it. The league of nations takes everything into the public. It makes every secret agreement of every kind invalid; it provides that no treaty hereafter shall be valid unless registered with the secretary of the league and published. And after bringing everything into the open, it authorizes the assembly to discuss anything that is likely to affect the peace and happiness of the world. In every direction you look the safeguards of this treaty are thrown around those who are oppressed.

Unless America takes part in this treaty, my fellow citizens, the world is going to lose heart. I can not too often repeat to you how deep the impression made upon me upon the other side of the water is that this was the Nation upon which the whole world depended to hold the scales of justice even. If we fail them, God help the world! Then despair will ensue. Despair is just at the door on that side of the water now. Men do not hope in Europe as they hope in America. They hope tremblingly. They hope fearfully. They do not hope with confidence and self-reliance as we do on this side of the water. Everywhere in Europe there is that poison of disorder and distrust, and shall we take away from this unsteady world the only thing that reassures it? If we do, then where is the boasted independence of America? Are we indeed independent in our life of the rest of the world? Then why did we go into the war? Germany had not directed her efforts immediately against us. We went in because we were partners with mankind to see that an iniquity was not practiced upon it. You know how we regard the men who fought the Civil War. They did the greatest thing that was to be done in their day. Now, these boys here, and the others like them, have done the greatest thing that it was possible, to do in our day. As their fathers saved the Union, they saved the world, and we sit and debate whether we will keep true and finish the job or not! My friends, that debate can not last one minute longer than the moment when this country realizes what it means. It means that, having sent these men to risk their lives and having sent some, whose mothers' hearts can count, to die in France, in order to redeem the world, we, in cool debate, in distant assemblies, say we will not consent that the world should reap the fruit of their victory! Nothing less than that hangs in the balance. I am ready to fight from now until all the fight has been taken out of me by death to redeem the faith and promises of the United States.

I leave the verdict with you, and I beg, my Republican fellow citizens, that you will not allow yourselves for one moment, as I do not allow myself for one moment, as God knows my conscience, to think of 1920 when thinking about the redemption of the world. I beg that you will cut that "but" out of your sentences, and that you will stand up, as you are entitled to stand up by the history of your party, and say, "I am a Republican and therefore I am for the league of nations." I do not admit the indictment which has been brought against the Democratic Party, but I do admit the distinguished history of the Republican Party; I do admit that it has been the creator of great constructive policies, and I should be very sorry to see it lose the prestige which it has earned by such policies. I should be very sorry to have any man feel that there was any embarrassment in supporting a great world policy because he belonged to a great constructive party, and that party a party of America—the constructive force in the world, the people who have done the most advanced thinking in the world, and the people who, God helping them, will lead and save the world.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Spokane Armory in Spokane, Washington Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317983

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