Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at The Topeka Auditorium in Topeka, Kansas

February 02, 1916

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellency, Fellow Citizens: It is a genuine satisfaction on my part to find myself in Kansas again. I feel that every word that your governor has said about Kansas is true. It likes to know what the facts are and it likes to give them an open and frank consideration. Moreover, I believe that you realize that I would not have come away from Washington except upon a very unusual occasion. Obviously it is my duty, so far as possible, to be always in Washington during these critical times of change, when nobody knows what an hour will bring forth or what delicate question will assume some new aspect. You will realize, therefore, that it was only because I felt it my imperative and supreme duty to come out and discuss matters with you that I have left Washington at all, and that only for a few days.

I have come, not to plead a cause—the cause I would speak for does not need to be plead for—but because I would assist, if I could, to clarify judgment and to sweep away those things irrelevant and untrue which are likely to cloud the issue of national defence if they be not very candidly spoken about. You will ask me, "Is there some new crisis that has arisen?" I answer. "No; there is no special, new, critical situation which I have to discuss with you; but I want you to understand that the situation every day of the year is critical while this great contest continues in Europe." I need not tell you what my own attitude toward that contest is. I have tried to live up to the counsel which I have given my fellow citizens, not only to be neutral in action but also to be neutral in the genuine attitude of my thought and mind. It is easy to refrain from unneutral acts, but it is not easy, when the world is swept by storm, to refrain from unneutral thought. Moreover, America is a composite Nation. You do not realize it quite so much in Kansas as it is realized in some other parts of the Union. So overwhelming a proportion of your population is native born that you naturally feel your first consciousness to be of America and things American; but imagine those communities—and they are many—which contain very large bodies of men whose birthplace, whose memories, whose family connections are on the other side of the sea, in places now swept by the flame of war; men for whom every mail brings news of some disaster that, it may be, has touched those whom they love or has swept the face of some countryside which they remember in association with the days of their youth. Their intimate sympathies are with some of the places now most affected by this titanic struggle. You can not wonder—I do not wonder—that their affections are stirred, old memories awakened and old passions rekindled. The majority of them are steadfast Americans, nevertheless. Look what happened to them, my fellow citizens. You and I were born in America; they chose to be Americans. They deliberately came to America, beckoned hither by some of the fairest premises and prospects ever offered to mankind. They were told that this was a land of liberty and of opportunity, as it is. They were told that this was a land in which they could throw off some of the restraints and trammels under which they had chafed in the older countries. They were told that this was the place for the feet of young men who had ambition and who wished untrammeled hope to be their only leader; and of their own free and deliberate choice they crossed the waters and joined their destinies with ours, and the vast majority of them have the passion of American liberty in their hearts just as much as you and I have. I do not want any American to misunderstand the real situation, and I believe that to be the real situation. Some men of foreign birth have tried to stir up trouble in America, but, gentlemen, some men of American birth have tried to stir up trouble in America, too. If you were to listen to the counsels that are dinned into my ears in the Executive Office in Washington, you would find that some of the most intemperate of them came from the lips of men whose people have for generations together been identified with America but who for the time being are so carried away by the sweep of their sympathies that they have ceased to think in the terms of American tradition and American policy.

So that the situation for us is this: There is no country in the world, I suppose, whose heart is more open to generous emotions than this dear country which we love. You have seen what the result was in the extraordinary amount of assistance which we have tried to render to those who are suffering most grievously from the consequences of the war on the other side of the sea. I express no judgment concerning any matter with regard to the conduct of the war, but the heart of America has bled because of the condition of the people in Belgium, and you know how we have poured out of our sympathy and of our wealth to assist in the relief of suffering in that sorrow-swept land. America looks to all quarters of the world and sympathizes with mankind in its sufferings wherever those sufferings may be displayed or undergone.

What you have to realize is that everywhere throughout America there is combustible material—combustible in our breasts. It is easy to take fire where everything is hot. It is easy to start a flame when the air is full of the floating sparks of a great conflagration. We have got to be on our guard, and it has been our hourly and daily anxiety in Washington to see that the exposed tinder was covered up and the sparks prevented from falling where there were magazines.

I was told before I came here, and I read in one of your papers this morning, that Kansas was not in sympathy with any policy of preparation for national defense. I do not believe a word of it. I long ago learned to distinguish between editorial opinion and popular opinion. Moreover, having been addicted to books, I happened to have read the history of Kansas, and if there is any place in the world fuller of fight than Kansas I would like to hear of it; any other place fuller of fight on the right lines. Kansas is not looking for trouble, but Kansas has made trouble for everybody that interfered with her liberties or her rights, and if I were to pick out one place which was likely to wince first and get hot first about invasion of the essential principles of American liberty I certainly would look to Kansas among the first places in the country. If Kansas is opposed or has been opposed to the policy of preparation for national defense, it has been only because somebody has misrepresented that policy, and Kansas does not know what it is.

What is the issue? Why, of course, there are some men going about proposing great military establishments for America, but you have not heard anybody connected with the administration who did. You have not heard anybody in any responsible position who could carry his plan out who did. The singular thing about this situation is that the loudest voices have been the irresponsible voices. It is easy to talk and to say what ought to be done when you know that you do not have to do it. Nobody in authority, nobody in a position to lead the policy of the country, has proposed great military armaments, and nobody who really understands the history or shares the spirit of America could or would propose great military establishments for America. But I have heard of men in Kansas who owned their own firearms and knew how to use them, and if there is any place in the Union more than another where you ought to understand what it is to be ready to take care of yourselves, this is the place. All that anybody in authority has proposed is that America should be put in such a position that her free citizens should know how to take care of themselves and their country when the occasion arose.

We have been proposing only a very moderate increase in the standing army of the country because it is already too small for the routine uses of peace. I have not had soldiers enough to patrol the border between here and Mexico. I have not had soldiers enough for the ordinary services of the Army, and there are many things that it has been impossible for me to do which it was my duty to do, because there were not men to do them with. You are not, I am sure, going to be jealous of an increase of the Army merely sufficient to enable the Executive to carry out his constitutional responsibilities. Over and above that we have proposed this, that a sufficient number of men out of the ranks of the civil pursuits of the country should be trained in the use and keeping of arms, in the sanitation of camps, in the maneuvers of the field, and in military organization; to be ready and pledged to be ready, if the call should come upon act of Congress, to unite their force with the little force of the Army itself and make a great multitude of armed men who were ready to vindicate the rights of America.

Is there anything inconsistent with the traditions of Kansas or with the true traditions of America in a proposal like that? The very essence of American tradition is contained in the proposal. Every constitution of every State in the Union forbids the State legislature to abridge the right of its citizens to carry arms. At the very outset the makers of our very institutions realized that the force of the Nation must dwell in the homes of the Nation. I do not mean the moral force merely; I mean the physical force also. They realized that every man must be allowed not only to have a vote, but, if he wanted to, to have a gun too, so that when the voices of peace did not suffice, the voices of force would prevail; knowing that great bodies of men do not use force to usurp their own liberties, but to declare and vindicate their liberties, and that there will be no collusion among free men to upset free institutions; that, whereas cliques and coteries and professional groups may conceive it to be of their interest to interfere with the peaceful life of the country, the general body of citizens would never so conceive it.

What we are asking is this, that the Nation supply arms for those of the Nation who are ready, if occasion should arise, to come to the national defense, and that it should do this without withdrawing them from their pursuits of industry and of peace, in order that America should know that in the fountains from which she always draws her strength there welled up the inexhaustible resources of American manhood. This is not a military policy; this is a policy of adequate preparation for national defense, and any man who represents it in any other light must either be ignorant or is consciously misrepresenting the facts.

You will say, "We have a National Guard." Yes; we have a National Guard, and the units of it, so far as I have observed them, command my admiration and respect, but there are only 129, 000 enlisted men in the National Guard, taking the Nation as a whole, and they are divided up into as many units as there are States. The Constitution of the United States puts them under the direct command and control of the governors of the States, not of the President of the United States, and the national authority has no right to call upon them for any service outside their States unless the territory of the Nation is actually invaded. I want to see Congress do everything that it can to enhance the dignity and the force and to assist in the development of the National Guard, but the National Guard is a body of State troops and not a body of national reserves, because the Constitution makes them so, no matter whether we now think those are the best arrangements or not.

The other matter I want to speak to you about is not the plan itself, for that is a question of detail. I have given you the idea of it, and time does not suffice to discuss the detail in meetings of this sort. The detail is printed, for that matter, for anybody to see who wants it. The other matter is this: Suppose you had a great body of, let us say, half a million men sufficiently trained to arms to make the nucleus of a great army if it were necessary to create a great army. What would be your idea that you would do with it? That is the matter that we need to clear up most of all. There are all sorts of people in the United States, and there are people who think that we ought to use the force of the United States to get anything we can get with it; but you do not think that, and I do not think that, and not one American in a hundred thousand thinks that. We would never use this force to carry out any policy that even smacked of aggression of any kind; because this Nation loves peace more than it loves anything else except honour.

I like that exclamation of Henry V in that stirring play of Shakespeare's, "If it be an offence to covet honour, then am I the most offending soul alive, " and I believe that could be said of America. If it be an offence against the peace of the nations to covet honour, then is America the most offending nation in the world. But she knows the basis of honour—that the basis of honour is right, is peaceful intention, is just action, is the treatment of others as we would wish to be treated ourselves, is the insistence upon the rule of a free field and no favor. The spirit of America would hold any Executive back, would hold any Congress back, from any action that had the least taint of aggression upon it. We are not going to invade any nation's territory. We are not going to covet any nation's possessions. We are not going to invade any nation's rights. But suppose, my fellow countrymen, some nation should invade our rights. What then? What would Kansas think? What would Kansas do then? What would America, speaking by the voice of Kansas or any other State in the Union, think and do then? I have come here to tell you that the difficulties of our foreign policy, the delicate questions of our foreign relationships, do not diminish either in number or in delicacy and difficulty, but, on the contrary, daily increase in number and in intricacy and in danger, and I would be derelict to my duty to you if I did not deal with you in these matters with the utmost candor and tell you what it may be necessary to use the force of the United States to do.

For one thing, it may be necessary to use the force of the United States to vindicate the right of American citizens everywhere to enjoy the protection of international law. There is nothing you would be quicker to blame me for than neglecting to safeguard the rights of Americans, no matter where they might be in the world. There are perfectly clearly marked rights guaranteed by international law which every American is entitled to enjoy, and America is not going to abide the habitual or continued neglect of those rights. Perhaps not being as near the ports as some other Americans, you do not travel as much and you do not realize the infinite number of legitimate errands upon which Americans travel—errands of commerce, errands of relief, errands of business for the Government, errands of every sort which make America useful to the world. Americans do not travel to disturb the world; they travel to quicken the processes of the interchange of life and of goods in the world, and their travel ought not to be impeded by a reckless disregard of international obligation.

There is another thing that we ought to safeguard, and that is our right to sell what we produce in the open neutral markets of the world. Where there is a blockade, we recognize the right to blockade; where there are the ordinary restraints created by a state of war, we ought to recognize those restraints; but the world needs the wheat off of the Kansas fields and off the other great flowering acres of the United States, and we have a right to supply the rest of the world with the products of those fields. We have a right to send food to peaceful populations wherever the conditions of war make it possible to do so under the ordinary rules of international law. We have a right to supply them with our cotton to clothe them. We have a right to supply them with our manufactured products.

We have made some mistakes, my fellow citizens. For several generations past we have so neglected our merchant marine that one of the difficulties we are struggling against has nothing to do with international questions. We have not got the American ships to send the goods in, and we have got to get them. I am going to ask you to follow the fortunes of the so-called shipping bill in the present Congress and make suggestions to your Congressmen as to the absolute necessity of getting your wheat and your other products out of the ports and upon the high seas where they can go, and shall go, under the protection of the laws of the United States.

But that is a mere parenthesis. Aside from that, so far as there are vehicles to carry our trade, we have the right to extend our trade for the assistance of the world. For we have not been selfish in this neutral attitude of ours. I resent the suggestion that we have been selfish, desiring merely to make money. What would happen if there were no great nation disengaged from this terrible struggle? What would happen if every nation were consuming its substance in war? What would happen if no nation stood ready to assist the world with its finances and to supply it with its food? We are more indispensable now to the nations at war by the maintenance of our peace than we could possibly be to either side if we engaged in the war, and therefore there is a moral obligation laid upon us to keep out of this war if possible. But by the same token there is a moral obligation laid upon us to keep free the courses of our commerce and of our finance, and I believe that America stands ready to vindicate those rights.

But there are rights higher than either of those, higher than the rights of individual Americans outside of America, higher and greater than the rights of trade and of commerce. I mean the rights of mankind. We have made ourselves the guarantors of the rights of national sovereignty and of popular sovereignty on this side of the water in both the continents of the Western Hemisphere. You would be ashamed, as I would be ashamed, to withdraw one inch from that handsome guarantee; for it is a handsome guarantee. We have nothing to make by it, unless it be that we are to make friendships by it, and friendships are the best usury of any sort of business. So far as dollars and cents and material advantage are concerned we have nothing to make by the Monroe doctrine. We have nothing to make by allying ourselves with the other nations of the Western Hemisphere in order to see to it that no man from outside, no government from outside, no nation from outside attempts to assert any kind of sovereignty or undue political influence over the peoples of this continent.

America knows that the only thing that sustains the Monroe doctrine and all the inferences that flow from it is her own moral and physical force. The Monroe doctrine is not part of international law. The Monroe doctrine has never been formally accepted by any international agreement. The Monroe doctrine merely rests upon the statement of the United States that if certain things happen she will do certain things. So, nothing sustains the honour of the United States in respect of these long-cherished and long-admired promises except her own moral and physical force.

Do you know what has interfered more than anything else with the peaceful relations of the United States with the rest of the world? The incredulity of the rest of the world when we have made statement of our sincere unselfishness in these matters! The greatest surprise the world ever had, politically speaking, was when the United States withdrew from Cuba. We said, "We are fighting this war for the sake of the Cubans, and when it is over we are going to turn Cuba over to her own people and statesmen in every capital in Europe smiled behind their hand. They said, "What! that great rich island lying directly south of the foot of your own Florida! plant your flag there and then haul it down?" Some Americans even said, "We will never raise the flag of the United States anywhere and then haul it down." And then, when the American people saw that the time had come when her promises were to be fulfilled, down came that fluttering emblem of our sovereignty, and we were more honored in its lowering than we had been in its hoisting. The American people feel the same way about the Philippines, though the rest of the world does not yet believe it. We are trustees for the Filipino people, and just so soon as we feel that they can take care of their own affairs without our direct interference and protection, the flag of the United States will again be honored by the fulfillment of a promise. That flag stands for honor, not for advantage. That flag stands for the rights of mankind, no matter where they be, no matter what their antecedents, no matter what the race involved; it stands for the absolute right to political liberty and free self government, and wherever it stands for the contrary American traditions have begun to be forgotten.

But, my friends, the world does not understand that yet. It has got to have a few more demonstrations like the demonstration in Cuba; it has got to have a few more vindications of the American name. When those vindications have come, I believe that nothing but peace will ever reign between the United States and the nations of the rest of the world. For every man who minds his own business is sure of peace. Every man who respects his own character and observes the rights of others is sure of peace. And every nation that makes right its guide and honor its principle is sure of peace. But until these things are believed of us we must be ready with the hand of force to hold others off from the invasion of any right which we hold sacred.

I have come to you with the utmost confidence that the moment you understood the issue, all differences of party, all differences of individual judgment, all differences of point of view would fall away, and like true Americans we should all stand shoulder to shoulder in a common cause, —America first and her vindication the sacred law of our life. For, ladies and gentlemen, it is only upon the most solemn occasions that I would appeal to you as I have been appealing to-day. The final test of the validity, the strength, the irresistible force of the American ideal, has come. The rest of the world must be made to realize from this time out just what America stands for, and when that happy time comes when peace shall reign again and America shall take part in the undisturbed and unclouded counsels of the world, it will be realized that the promises of the fathers, the ambitions of the men who fought for the bloody soil of Kansas, the ideals of the men who thought nothing of their lives in comparison with their ideals, will have been vindicated and the world will say, "America promised to hold this light of liberty and right up for the guidance of our feet, and behold she has redeemed her promise. Her men, her leaders, her rank and file are pure of heart; they have purged their hearts of selfish ambition and they have said to all mankind, ?Men and brethren, let us live together in righteousness and in the peace which springeth only from the soil of righteousness itself."

Woodrow Wilson, Address at The Topeka Auditorium in Topeka, Kansas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317532

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