Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the University of Minnesota Armory in Minneapolis

September 09, 1919

Your honor, your excellency, my fellow countrymen, I have come here to discuss a very solemn question, and I shall have to ask your patience while you bear with me in discussing somewhat in detail the very great matter which now lies not only before the consideration of the people of the United States but before the consideration of the people of the world. You have heard so many little things about the treaty that perhaps you would like to hear some big things about it. To hear some gentlemen you would think it was an arrangement for the inconvenience of the United States, whereas, as a matter of fact, my fellow citizens, it is a world settlement, the first ever attempted, attempted upon broad lines which were first laid down in America. For, my fellow citizens, what does not seem to me realized in this blessed country of ours is the fact that the world is in revolution. I do not mean in active revolution. I do not mean that it is in a state of mind which will bring about the dissolution of governments. I mean that it is in a state of mind which may bring about the dissolution of governments if we do not enter into a world settlement which will really in fact and in power establish justice and right.

The old order of things the rest of the world seemed to have got in some sense used to. The old order of things was not to depend upon the general moral judgment of mankind, not to base policies upon international right, but to base policies upon international power. So there were drawn together groups of nations which stood armed, facing one another, which stood drawing their power from the vitality of people who did not wish to be subordinated to them, drawing their vitality from the energy of great peoples who did not wish to devote their energy to force, but wished to devote their energy to peace. The world thought it was inevitable. This group of nations thought that it represented one set of principles; that group of nations thought that it represented another set of principles and that the best that could be accomplished in the world was this that they used to call the balance of power.

Notice the phrase. Not the balance that you try to maintain in a court of justice, not the scales of justice, but the scales of force; one great force balanced against another force. Every bit of the policy of the world, internationally speaking, was made in the interest of some national advantage on the part of the stronger nations of the world. It was either the advantage of Germany or the advantage of Great Britain or the advantage of Italy or the advantage of Japan.

I am glad to say that I am not justified in adding that the policy of the world was ever conceived by us upon the basis of the advantage of America. We wished always to be the mediators of justice and of right, but we thought that the cool spaces of the ocean to the east and the west of us would keep us from the infections that came, arising like miasmatic mists out of that arrangement of power and of suspicion and of dread.

I believe, my fellow countrymen, that the only people in Europe who instinctively realized what was going to happen and what did happen in 1914 was the French people. It has been my privilege to come into somewhat intimate contact with that interesting and delightful people, and I realize now that for nearly 50 years, ever since the settlement which took Alsace-Lorraine away from them in 1871, they have been living under the constant dread of the catastrophe which at last came; and their thought throughout this conference was that they must concert some measure, must draw together some kind of cooperative force, which would take this intolerable dread from their hearts, that they could not live another 50 years, expecting what would come at last. But the other nations took it lightly. There were wise men in Great Britain, there were wise men in the United States, who pointed out to us not only what they suspected, but what we all knew with regard to the preparations for the use of force in Europe. Nobody was ignorant of what Germany was doing. What we shut our eyes against deliberately was the probability that she would make the use of her preparation that she did finally make of it. Her military men published books and told us what they were going to do with it, but we dismissed them. We said, "The thing is a nightmare. The man is a crank. It can not be that he speaks for a great Government. The thing is inconceivable and can not happen." Very well, could not it happen? Did not it happen? Are we satisfied now what the balance of power means? It means that the stronger force will sometimes be exercised or an attempt be made to exercise it to crush the other powers.

The great nations of the world have been asleep, but God knows the other nations have not been asleep. I have seen representatives of peoples over there who for generations through, in the dumbness of unutterable suffering, have known what the weight of those armaments and the weight of that power meant. The great Slavic people, the. great Roumanian people, the people who were constantly under the pressure of that power, the great Polish people—they all knew, but they were inarticulate; there was no place in the world where they dared speak out. Now the catastrophe has come. Blood has been spilt in rivers, the flower of the European nations has been destroyed, and at last the voiceless multitudes of men are awake, and they have made up their minds that rather than have this happen again, if the governments can not get together, they will destroy the governments.

I am not speaking revolution, my friends. I believe that the most disastrous thing that can happen to the underman, to the man who is suffering, to the man who has not had his rights, is to destroy public order, for that makes it certain he never can get his rights. I am far from intimating that, but I am intimating this, that the people of the world are tired of every other kind of experiment except the one we are going to try. I have called it an experiment; I frankly admit that it is an experiment, but it is a very promising experiment, because there is not a statesman in the world who does not know that his people demand it. He is not going to change his mind. He is not going to change his direction. He is not speaking what he wants, it may be, but he is speaking what he knows he must speak, and that there is no turning back; that the world has turned a corner that it will never turn again. The old order is gone, and nobody can build it up again.

In the meantime what are men doing? I want you to reflect upon this, my fellow countrymen, because this is not a speech-making occasion; this is a conference. I want you men to reflect upon what I am about to call your attention to. The object of the war was to destroy autocratic power; that is to say, to make it impossible that there should be anywhere, as there was on Wilhelmstrasse, in Berlin, a little group of military men who could brush aside the bankers, brush aside the merchants, brush aside the manufacturers, brush aside the Emperor himself, and say, "We have perfected a machine with which we can conquer the world; now stand out of the way, we are going to conquer the world." There must not be that possibility any more. There must not be men anywhere in any private place who can plot the mastery of civilization. But in the meantime look at the pitiful things that are happening. There is not a day goes by, my fellow citizens, that my heart is not heavy to think of our fellow beings in that great, pitiful kingdom of Russia, without form, without order, without government. Look what they have done. They have permitted a little handful of men—I am told there are only 34 of them constituting the real Bolshevist government—to set up a minority government just as autocratic and just as cruelly unmerciful as the government of the Czar ever was. The danger to the world, my fellow citizens, against which we must absolutely lock the door in this country, is that some governments of minorities may be set up here as elsewhere. We will brook the control of no minority in the United States. For my own part, I would as leave live under one autocracy as another; I would as leave obey one group as another; I would as leave be the servant of one minority as another, but I do not intend to be the servant of any minority. As I have told you, the mass of men are awake. They are not going to let the world sink back into that old slough of misused authority again.

Very well, then, what are we discussing? What are we debating in the United States? Whether we will take part in guiding and steadying the world or not. And some men hesitate. It is the only country in the world whose leadership and guidance will be accepted. If we do not give it, we may look forward, my fellow citizens, to something like a generation of doubt and of disorder which it will be impossible to pass through without the wreckage of a very considerable part of our slowly constructed civilization. America and her determinations now constitute the balance of moral force in the world, and if we do not use that moral force we will be of all peoples the most derelict. We are in the presence of this great choice, in the presence of this fundamental choice, whether we will stand by the mass of our own people and the mass of mankind. Pick up the great volume of the treaty. It is a great volume. It is as thick as that [illustrating]. You would think it just had three or four articles in it to hear some men talk about it. It is a thick volume, containing the charter of the new order of the world. I took the pains to write down here some of the things that it provides for, and if you will be patient I will read them, because I can make it more brief that way.

It provides for the destruction of autocratic power as an instrument of international control, admitting only self-governing nations to the league of nations. Had you ever been told that before? No nation is admitted to the league of nations whose people do not control its government. That is the reason that we are making Germany wait. She says that henceforth her people are going to control her Government, but we have got to wait and see. If they do control it, she is as welcome to the league as anybody else, because we are not holding nations off. We are holding selfish groups of men off. We are not saying to peoples, "We do not want to be your comrades and serve you along with the rest of our fellow beings," but we are saying, "It depends upon your attitude; if you take charge of your own affairs, then come into the game and welcome." The league of nations sends autocratic governments to Coventry. That is the first point.

It provides for the substitution of publicity, discussion and arbitration for war. That is the supreme thing that it does. I will not go into details now, but every member of the league promises not to go to war until there has been a discussion and a cooling off of nine - months, and, as I have frequently said on this tour, if Germany had submitted to discussion for nine days she never would have dared go to war. Though every foreign office in Europe begged her to do so, she would not grant 24 hours for a meeting of the representatives of the Governments of the world to ask what it was all about, because she did not dare tell what it was all about. Nine months' cooling off is a very valuable institution in the affairs of mankind. And you have got to have a very good case if you are willing that all your fellow men should know the whole case, for that is provided for, and talk about it for nine months. Nothing is more valuable, if you think your friend is a fool, than to induce him to hire a hall. If you think he is a fool the only way to prove it is to let him address a mass of his fellow citizens and see how they like his ideas. If they like them and you do not, it may be that you are the fools! The proof is presented at any rate.

Instead of using force after this period of discussion, something very much more effective than force is proposed, namely, an absolute boycott of the nation that does not keep its covenant, and when I say an absolute boycott I mean an absolute boycott. There can not be any kind of intercourse with that nation. It can not sell or buy goods. It can not receive or send messages or letters. It can not have any transactions with the citizens of any member of the league, and when you consider that the league is going to consist of every considerable nation in the world, except Germany, you can see what that boycott will mean. There is not a nation in the world, except this one, that can live without importing goods for nine months, and it does not make any difference to us whether we can or not, because we always fulfill our obligations, and there will never be a boycott for us.

It provides for placing the peace of the world under constant international oversight, in recognition of the principle that the peace of- the world is the legitimate and immediate interest of every nation. Why, as it stands at present, my fellow citizens, if there is likely to be trouble between two nations other than the United States it is considered an unfriendly and hostile act for the United States to intervene. This covenant makes it the right of the United States, and not the right of the United States merely, but the right of the weakest nation in the world to bring anything, that the most powerful nation in the world is doing that is likely to disturb the peace of the world under the scrutiny of mankind. [Voice in audience, "And that is right!"] My friend in the audience says that is right, and it undoubtedly is, because the peace of the world is everybody's business. Yet this is the first document that ever recognized that principle. We now have the attitude of the Irishman, you know, who went into one of those antique institutions known as a saloon. It was rather a large place, and he saw two men fighting over in the corner. He went up to the bartender and he said, "Is this a private fight, or can everybody get in?" Now, in the true Irish spirit, we are abolishing private fights, and we are making it the law of mankind that it is everybody's business and everybody can get in. The consequence is that there will be no attempt at private fights.

It provides for disarmament on the part of the great fighting nations of the world.

It provides in detail for the rehabilitation of oppressed peoples, and that will remove most of the causes of war.

It provides that there shall be no more annexations of territory anywhere, but that those territories whose people are not ready to govern themselves shall be intrusted to the trusteeship of the nations that can take care of them, the trustee nation to be responsible in annual reports to the league of nations; that is to say, to mankind in general, subject to removal and restricted in respect to anything that might be done to that population which would be to the detriment of the population itself. So that you can not go into darkest Africa and makes slaves of those poor people, as some governments at times have done.

It abolishes enforced labor. It takes the same care of the women and children of those unschooled races that we try to take of the women and children of ours. Why, my fellow citizens, this is the great humane document of all time.

It provides that every secret treaty shall be invalid. It sweeps the table of all private understandings and enforces the principle that there shall be no private understandings of any kind that anybody is bound to respect. One of the difficulties in framing this treaty was that after we got over there private—secret—treaties were springing up on all sides like a noxious growth. You had to guard your breathing apparatus against the miasma that arose from some of them. But they were treaties, and the war had been fought on the principle of the sacredness of treaties. We could not propose that solemn obligations, however unwisely undertaken, should be disregarded, but we could do the best that was possible in the presence of those understandings and then say, "No more of this; no more secret understandings." And the representatives of every great nation in the world assented without demur—without the slightest difficulty.

I do not think you realize what a change of mind has come over the world. As we used to say in the old days, some men that never got it before have got religion.

It provides for the protection of dependent peoples.

It provides that high standards of labor, such as are observed in the United States, shall be extended to the workingman everywhere in the world.

It provides that all the great humane instrumentalities, like the Red Cross, like the conventions against the opium trade, like the regulation of the liquor traffic with debased and ignorant people, like the prohibition of the selling of arms and ammunition to people who can use them only to their own detriment, shall be under the common direction and control of the league of nations. Now, did you ever hear of all these things before? That is the treaty, my fellow citizens; and I can only conjecture that some of the men who are fighting the treaty either never read it themselves or are taking it for granted that you will not read it. I say without hesitation that no international agreement has ever before been drawn up along those lines— of the universal consideration of right and the interest of humanity.

Now, it is said that that is all very well, but we need not go in. Well, of course we need not. There is perfect freedom of the will. I am perfectly free to go to the top of this building and jump off, but if I do I will not take very much interest in human affairs. The Nation is at liberty in one sense to do anything it pleases to discredit itself; but this is absolutely as certain as I stand here, that it never will do anything to discredit itself. Our choice in this great enterprise of mankind that I have tried to outline to you is only this: Shall we go in and assist as trusted partners or shall we stay out and act as suspected rivals? We have got to do one or the other. We have got to be either provincials or statesmen. We have got to be either ostriches or eagles. The ostrich act I see being done all around me. I see gentlemen burying their heads in something and thinking that nobody sees that they have submerged their thinking apparatus. That is what I mean by being ostriches. What I mean by being eagles I need not describe to you. I mean leaving the mists that lie close along the ground, getting upon strong wing into those upper spaces of the air where you can see with clear eyes the affairs of mankind, see how the affairs of America are linked with the affairs of men everywhere, see how the whole world turns with outstretched hands to this blessed country of ours and says, "If you will lead, we will follow." God helping us, my fellow countrymen, we will lead when they follow. The march is still long and toilsome to those heights upon which there rests nothing but the pure light of the justice of God, but the whole incline of affairs is toward those distant heights; and this great Nation, in serried ranks, millions strong—presently hundreds of millions strong—will march at the fore of the great procession, breasting those heights with its eyes always lifted to the eternal goal!

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the University of Minnesota Armory in Minneapolis Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317892

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