Twenty-three years ago today, Woodrow Wilson addressed the Congress of the United States in order to inform the representatives of the American people of the terms of the Armistice which signalized the victorious conclusion of the first World War.
That day marked, as he then said, the attainment of a great objective: the opportunity for the setting up of "such a peace as will satisfy the longing of the whole world for disinterested justice, embodied in settlements which are based upon something much better and much more lasting than the selfish competitive interests of powerful states".
Less than five years later, shrouded in the cerements of apparent defeat,
his shattered body was placed in the grave beside which we now are gathered.
He was laid to rest amid the apathy of the many and amid the sneers of those of his opponents who had, through appeal to ignorance, to passion, and to prejudice, temporarily persuaded the people of our country to reject Wilson's plea that the influence, the resources; and the power of the United States be exercised for their own security and for their own advantage, through our participation in an association of the free and self-governed peoples of the world.
And yet, when we reflect upon the course of the years that have since intervened, how rarely in human history has the vision of a statesman been so tragically and so swiftly vindicated.
Only a score of years have since elapsed, and today the United States finds itself in far greater peril than it did in 1917. The waves of world-conquest are breaking high both in the East and in the West. They are threatening, more nearly each day `that passes, to engulf our own shores.
Beyond the Atlantic a sinister and pitiless conqueror has reduced more than half of Europe to abject serfdom. It is his boast that his system shall prevail even unto the ends of the earth.
In the Far East the same forces of conquest under a different guise are menacing the safety of all nations that border upon the Pacific.
Were these forces to prevail, what place in such a world would there be for the freedoms which we cherish and which we are passionately determined to maintain?
Because of these perils we are arming ourselves to an extent to which we have never armed ourselves before. We are pouring out billions upon billions of dollars in expenditures, not only in order that we may successfully defend ourselves and our sister nations of the Western Hemisphere but also, for the same ends, in order to make available the weapons of defense to Great Britain, to Russia, to China, and to all the other nations that have until now so bravely fought back the hordes of the invaders. And in so doing we are necessarily diverting the greater part of our tremendous productive capacity into channels of destruction, not those of construction, and we are piling up a debt?burden which will inevitably affect the manner of life and diminish the opportunity for progressive advancement of our children' and of our children's children.
But far graver than that-for the tides are running fast-our people realize that at any moment war may be forced upon us, and if it is, the lives of all of us will have to be dedicated to preserving the freedom of the United States and to safeguarding the independence of the American people, which are more dear to us than life itself.
The heart-searching question which every American citizen must ask himself on this day of commemoration is whether the world in which we have to live would have come to this desperate pass had the United States been willing in those years which followed 1919 to play its full part in striving to bring about a new world-order based on justice and on "a steadfast concert for peace".
Would the burdens and the dangers which the American people might have had to envisage through that "partnership of democratic nations" which Woodrow Wilson then urged upon them, have represented even an infinitesimal portion of the burdens and the dangers with which they are now confronted?
Solely from the standpoint of the interest of the American people themselves, who saw straight and who thought straight 20 years ago? Was it Woodrow Wilson when he pled with his fellow Americans to insure the safety and the welfare of their country by utilizing the influence and the strength of their great Nation in joining with the other peace-loving powers of the earth in preventing the outgrowth of those conditions which have made possible this new world upheaval? Or was it that group of self-styled, "practical, hardheaded Americans", who jeered at his idealism, who loudly proclaimed that our very system of government would be destroyed if we raised our voice in the determination of world-affairs, and who refused to admit that our security could be even remotely jeopardized if the whole of the rest of the earth was plunged into the chaos of world anarchy?
A cycle in human events is about to come to its end.
The American people after full debate, in accordance with their democratic institutions, have determined upon their policy. They are pledged to defend their freedom and their ancient rights against every form of aggression, and to spare no effort and no sacrifice in bringing to pass the final defeat of Hitlerism and all that which that evil term implies.
We have no doubt of the ultimate victory of the forces of liberty and of human decency. But we cannot know, we cannot yet foresee, how long and how hard the road may be which leads to that new day when another armistice will be signed.
And what will come to pass thereafter?
Three months ago the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom signed and made public a new charter on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world".
The principles and the objectives set forth in that joint declaration gave new hope and new courage to millions of people throughout the earth. They saw again more clearly the why and the wherefore of this ghastly struggle. They saw once more the gleam of hope on the horizon-hope for liberty; freedom, from fear and want; the satisfaction of their craving for security.
These aspirations of human beings everywhere cannot again be defrauded. Those high objectives set forth in the Charter of the Atlantic must be realized. They must be realized, quite apart from every other consideration, because of the fact that the individual interest of every man and woman in the United States will be advanced consonantly with the measure in which the world where they live is governed by right and by justice, and the measure in which peace prevails
The American people thus have entered the Valley of Decision.
Shall we as the most powerful Nation of the earth once more stand aloof from all effective and practical forms of international concert, wherein our participation could in all human probability insure the maintenance of a peaceful world in which we can safely live?
Can we afford again to refrain from lifting a finger until gigantic forces of destruction threaten all of modern civilization, and the raucous voice of a criminal paranoiac, speaking as the spokesman for these forces from the cellar of a Munich beer hall, proclaims as his set purpose the destruction of our own security, and the annihilation of religious liberty, of political liberty, and of economic liberty throughout the earth?
The decision rests solely with the people of the United States-the power is theirs to determine the kind of world of the future in which they would live. Is it conceivable that, in enlightened self-interest, they could once more spurn that opportunity?
When the time for?the making of that great decision is at hand, I believe that they will turn again for light and for inspiration to the ideals of that great seer; statesman, patriot, and lover of his fellow men-Woodrow Wilson-whose memory we here today revere.
Then, again, they will remember that great cause he once held up before their eyes-"A universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."
Source: U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 783-786
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