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Memorial Day Address at Suresnes Cemetery, France

May 30, 1919

Mr. Ambassador, ladies and gentlemen, fellow countrymen, no one with a heart in his breast, no American, no lover of humanity, can stand in the presence of these graves without the most profound emotion. These men who lie here are men of unique breed. Their like has not been seen since the far days of crusades. Never before have men crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause of humanity which they did not pretend was particularly their own but knew was the cause of humanity and of mankind. And when they came they found comrades for their courage and their devotion. They found armies of liberty already in the field—men who, though they had gone through three years of fiery trial, seemed only to be just discovering, not for a moment losing, the high temper of the great affair, men seasoned in the bloody service of liberty. Joining hands with these, the men of America gave that Neatest of all gifts, the gift of life and the gift of spirit.

It will always be a treasured memory on the part of those who knew and loved these men that the testimony of everybody who saw them in the field of action was their unflinching courage, their ardor to the point of audacity, their full consciousness of the high cause they had come to serve, and their constant vision of the issue. It is delightful to learn from those who saw these men fight and saw them waiting in the trenches for the summons to the fight that they had a thought of the spirit as well as a physical might, and those of us who know and love America know that they were discovering to the whole world the true spirit and devotion to their motherland. It was America who came in the person of these men and who will forever be grateful that she was so represented.

And it is the more delightful to entertain these thoughts because we know that these men, though buried in a foreign land, are not buried in an alien soil. They are at home, sleeping with the spirits of those who thought the same thoughts and entertained the same aspirations. The noble women of Suresnes have given evidence of the loving sense with which they received these dead as their own, for they have cared for their graves, they have made it their interest, their loving interest, to see that there was no hour of neglect, and that constantly through all the months that have gone by the mothers at home should know that there were mothers here who remembered and honored their dead.

You have just heard in the beautiful letter from M. Clemenceau what I believe to be the real message of France to us on a day like this, a message of genuine comradeship, a message of genuine sympathy, and I have no doubt that if our British comrades were here they would speak in the same spirit and in the same language. For the beauty of this war is that it has brought a new partnership and a new comradeship and a new understanding into the field of the effort of the Nation.

But it would be no profit to us to eulogize these illustrious dead if we did not take to heart the lesson which they have taught us. They are dead; they have done their utmost to show their devotion to a great cause, and they have left us to see to it that that cause shall not be betrayed, whether in war or peace. It is our privilege and our high duty to consecrate ourselves afresh on a day like this to the objects for which they fought. It is not necessary that I should rehearse to you what these objects were. These men did not come across the sea merely to defeat Germany and her associated powers in the war. They came to defeat forever the things for which the Central Powers stood, the sort of power they meant to assert in the world, the arrogant, selfish domination which they meant to establish, and they came, moreover, to see to it that there should never be a war like this again. It is for us, particularly for us who are civilized, to use our proper weapons of counsel and agreement to see to it that there never is such a war again. The nation that should now fling out of this common concord of counsel would betray the human race.

So it is our duty to take and maintain the safeguards which will see to it that the mothers of America and the mothers of France and England and Italy and Belgium and all other suffering nations should never be called upon for this sacrifice again. This can be done. It must be done, and it will be done. The things that these men left us, though they did not in their councils conceive it, is the great instrument which we have just erected in the League of Nations. The League of Nations is the covenant of governments that these men shall not have died in vain. I like to think that the dust of those sons of America who were privileged to be buried in their mother country will mingle with the dust of the men who fought for the preservation of the Union, and that, as those men gave their lives in order that America might be united, these men have given their lives in order that the world might be united. Those men gave their lives in order to secure the freedom of mankind, and I look forward to an age when it will be just as impossible to regret the results of their labor as it is now impossible to regret the result of the labor of those men who fought for the union of the States. I look for the time when every man who now puts his counsel against the united service of mankind under the League of Nations will be just as ashamed of it as if he now regretted the union of the States.

You are aware, as I am aware, that the airs of an older day are beginning to stir again, that the standards of an old order are trying to assert themselves again. There is here and there an attempt to insert into the counsel of statesmen the old reckoning of selfishness and bargaining and national advantage which were the roots of this war, and any man who counsels these things advocates a renewal of the sacrifice which these men have made; for if this is not the final battle for right there will be another that will be final. Let these gentlemen who suppose that it is possible for them to accomplish this return to an order of which we are ashamed and that we are ready to forget realize they can not accomplish it. The peoples of the world are awake, and the peoples of the world are in the saddle. Private counsels of statesmen can not now and can not hereafter determine the destinies of nations. If we are not the servants of the opinion of mankind, we are of all men the littlest, the most contemptible, the least gifted with vision. If we do not know courage, we can not accomplish our purpose, and this age is an age which looks forward, not backward; which rejects the standard of national selfishness that once governed the counsels of nations and demands that they shall give way to a new order of things in which only the questions will be, “Is it right?” “Is it just?” “Is it in the interest of mankind?”

This is a challenge that no previous generation ever dared to give ear to. So many things have happened so fast in the last four years that I do not think many of us realize what it is that has happened. Think how impossible it would have been to get a body of responsible statesmen seriously to entertain the idea of the organization of a league of nations four years ago! And think of the change that has taken place! I was told before I came to France that there would be confusion of counsels about this thing, and I found unity of counsel. I was told that there would be opposition, and I found union of action. I found the statesmen with whom I was about to deal united in the idea that we must have a league of nations; that we could not merely make a peace settlement and then leave it to make itself effectual, but that we must conceive some common organization by which we should give our common faith that this peace would be maintained and the conclusions at which we had arrived should be made as secure as the united counsels of all the great nations that fought against Germany could make them. We have listened to the challenge, and that is the proof that there shall never be a war like this again.

Ladies and gentlemen, we all believe, I hope, that the spirits of these men are not buried with their bones. Their spirits live. I hope—I believe—that their spirits are present with us at this hour. I hope that I feel the compulsion of their presence. I hope that I realize the significance of their presence. Think, soldiers, of those comrades of yours who are gone. If they were here, what would they say? They would not remember what you are talking about today. They would remember America, which they left with their high hope and purpose. They would remember the terrible field of battle. They would remember what they constantly recalled in times of danger, what they had come for, and how worth while it was to give their lives for it. And they would say, “Forget all the little circumstances of the day. Be ashamed of the jealousies that divide you. We command you in the name of those who, like ourselves, have died to bring the counsels of men together, and we remind you what America said she was born for. She was born, she said, to show mankind the way to liberty. She was born to make this great gift a common gift. She was born to show men the way of experience by which they might realize this gift and maintain it, and we abjure you in the name of all the great traditions of America to make yourselves soldiers now once for all in this common cause, where we need wear no uniform except the uniform of the heart, clothing ourselves with the principles of right, and saying to me everywhere, ‘You are our brothers, and we invite you into the comradeship of liberty and of peace.’” Let us go away hearing these unspoken mandates of our dead comrades.

If I may speak a personal word, I beg you to realize the compulsion that I myself feel that I am under. By the Constitution of our great country, I was the Commander in Chief of these men. I advised the Congress to declare that a state of war existed. I sent these lads over here to die. Shall I—can I—ever speak a word of counsel which is inconsistent with the assurances I gave them when they came over? It is inconceivable. There is something better, if possible, that a man can give than his life, and that is his living spirit to a service that is not easy, to resist counsels that are hard to resist, to stand against purposes that are difficult to stand against, and to say, “Here I stand, consecrated in spirit of the men who were once my comrades, and who are now gone, and who left me under eternal bonds of fidelity.”

Source:  Congressional Record Appendix and Index to Parts 1 to 9 of the Proceedings and Debates, Second Session of the Sixty-Sixth Congress of the United States of America. (USGPO: Washington DC, 1920) pp 9200-9201.

Woodrow Wilson, Memorial Day Address at Suresnes Cemetery, France Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/372144

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