Woodrow Wilson:

Appeal for Support of the League of Nations

I never feel more comfortable in facing my fellow citizens than when I can realize that I am not representing a peculiar cause, that I am not speaking for a single group of my fellow citizens, that I am not the representative of a party but the representative of the people of the United States. I went across the water with that happy consciousness, and in all the work that was done on the other side of the sea, where I was associated with distinguished Americans of both political parties, we all of us constantly kept at our heart the feeling that we were expressing the thoughts of America, that we were working for the things that America believed in. I have come here to testify that this treaty contains the things that America believes in.

I brought a copy of the treaty along with me, for I fancy that, in view of the criticisms you have heard of it, you thought it consisted of only four or five clauses.

Only four or five clauses out of this volume are picked out for criticism. Only four or five phrases in it are called to your attention by some of the distinguished orators who oppose its adoption. Why, my fellow citizens, this is one of the great charters of human liberty, and the man who picks flaws in it - or, rather, picks out the flaws that are in it, for there are flaws in it - forgets the magnitude of the thing, forgets the majesty of the thing, forgets that the counsels of more than twenty nations combined and were rendered unanimous in the adoption of this great instrument.

Let me remind you of what everybody admits who has read the document. Everybody admits that it is a complete settlement of the matters which led to this war, and that it contains the complete machinery which provides that they shall stay settled.

You know that one of the greatest difficulties in our own domestic affairs is unsettled land titles. Suppose that somebody were mischievously to tamper with the land records of the state of Nebraska, and that there should be a doubt as to the line of every farm. You know what would happen in six months. All the farmers would be sitting on their fences with shotguns. Litigation would penetrate every community, hot feeling would be generated, contests not only of lawyers but contests of force would ensue. Very well, one of the interesting things that this treaty does is to settle the land titles of Europe, and to settle them in this way, on the principle that every land belongs to the people that live on it.

This is actually the first time in human history that that principle was ever recognized in a similar document, and yet that is the fundamental American principle. The fundamental American principle is the right of the people that live in the country to say what shall be done with that country. We have gone so far in our assertions of popular right that we not only say that the people have a right to have a government that suits them but that they have a right to change it in any respect at any time. Very well, that principle lies at the heart of this treaty.

There are peoples in Europe who never before could say that the land they lived in was their own, and the choice that they were to make of their lives was their own choice. I know there are men in Nebraska who come from that country of tragical history, the now restored Republic of Poland, and I want to call your attention to the fact that Poland is here given her complete restitution; and not only is she given the land that formerly belonged to the Poles, but she is given the lands which are now occupied by Poles but had been permitted to remain under other sovereignties. She is given those lands on a principle that all our hearts approve of.

Take what in Europe they call High Silesia, the mountainous, the upper, portions of the district of Silesia. The very great majority of the people in High Silesia are Poles, but the Germans contested the statement that most of them were Poles. We said: "Very well, then, it is none of our business; we will let them decide. We will put sufficient armed forces into High Silesia to see that nobody tampers with the processes of the election, and then we will hold a referendum there, and those people can belong either to Germany or to Poland, as they prefer, and not as we prefer."

And, wherever there was a doubtful district, we applied the same principle, that the people should decide and not the men sitting around the peace table at Paris. When these referenda are completed the land titles of Europe will be settled, and every country will belong to the people that I've on it to do with what they please. You seldom hear of this aspect of this treaty, my fellow citizens.

You have heard of the council that the newspaper men call the "Big Four." We had a very much bigger name for ourselves than that. We called ourselves the "Supreme Council of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers," but we had no official title, and sometimes there were five of us instead of four. Those five represented, with the exception of Germany, of course, the great fighting nations of the world. They could have done anything with this treaty that they chose to do, because they had the power to do it, and they chose to do what had never been chosen before, to renounce every right of sovereignty in that settlement to which the people concerned did not assent. That is the great settlement which is represented in this volume.

And it contains, among other things, a great charter of liberty for the workingmen of the world. For the first time in history the counsels of mankind are to be drawn together and concerted for the purpose of defending the rights and improving the conditions of working people - men, women, and children - all over the world. Such a thing as that was never dreamed of before, and what you are asked to discuss in discussing the League of Nations is the matter of seeing that this thing is not interfered with. There is no other way to do it than by a universal league of nations, and what is proposed is a universal league of nations.

Only two nations are for the time being left out. One of them is Germany, because we did not think that Germany was ready to come in, because we felt that she ought to go through a period of probation. She says that she made a mistake. We now want her to prove it by not trying it again. She says that she has abolished all the old forms of government by which little secret councils of men, sitting nobody knew exactly where, determined the fortunes of that great nation and, incidentally, tried to determine the fortunes of mankind; but we want her to prove that her constitution is changed and that it is going, to stay changed; and then who can, after those proofs are produced, say "No" to a great people, 60 million strong, if they want to come in on equal terms with the rest of us and do justice in international affairs?

I want to say that I did not find any of my colleagues in Paris disinclined to do justice to Germany. But I hear that this treaty is very hard on Germany. When an individual has committed a criminal act, the punishment is hard, but the punishment is not unjust. This nation permitted itself, through unscrupulous governors to commit a criminal act against mankind, and it is to undergo the punishment, not more than it can endure but up to the point where it can pay it must pay for the wrong that it has done.

But the things prescribed in this treaty will not be fully carried out if any one of the great influences that brought that result about is withheld from its consummation. Every great fighting nation in the world is on the list of those who are to constitute the League of Nations. I say every great nation, because America is going to be included among them, and the only choice my fellow citizens is whether we will go in now or come in later with Germany; whether we will go in as founders of this covenant of freedom or go in as those who are admitted after they have made a mistake and repented.

I wish I could do what is impossible in a great company like this. I wish I could read that Covenant to you, because I do not believe, if you have not read it yourself and have only listened to certain speeches that I have read, that you know anything that is in it. Why, my fellow citizens, the heart of the Covenant is that there shall be no war. To listen to some of the speeches that you may have listened to or read, you would think that the heart of it was that it was an arrangement for war. On the contrary, this is the heart of that treaty.

The bulk of it is concerned with arrangements under which all the members of the League - that means everybody but Germany and dismembered Turkey - agree that they never will go to war without first having done one or other of two things - either submitted the question at issue to arbitration, in which case they agree absolutely to abide by the verdict, or, if they do not care to submit it to arbitration, submitted it to discussion by the council of the League of Nations, in which case they must give six months for the discussion and wait three months after the rendering of the decision, whether they like it or not, before they go to war. They agree to cool off for nine months before they yield to the heat of passion, which might otherwise have hurried them into war.

If they do not do that, it is not war that ensues; it is something that will interest them and engage them very much more than war; it is an absolute boycott of the nation that disregards the Covenant. The boycott is automatic, and just as soon as it applies, then this happens: No goods can be shipped out of that country; no goods can be shipped into it. No telegraphic message may pass either way across its borders. No package of postal matter - no letter - can cross its borders either way. No citizen of any member of the League can have any transactions of any kind with any citizen of that nation. It is the most complete isolation and boycott ever conceived, and there is not a nation in Europe that can live for six months without importing goods out of other countries. After they have thought about the matter for six months, I predict that they will have no stomach for war.

All that you are told about in this Covenant, so far as I can learn, is that there is an Article X. I will repeat Article X to you; I think I can repeat it verbatim, the heart of it at any rate. Every member of the League promises to respect and preserve as against external aggression - not as against internal revolution - the territorial integrity and existing political independence of every other member of the League; and if it is necessary to enforce this promise - I mean, for the nations to act in concert with arms in their hands to enforce it - then the council of the League shall advise what action is necessary. Some gentlemen who doubt the meaning of English words have thought that advice did not mean advice, but I do not know anything else that it does mean, and I have studied English most of my life and speak it with reasonable correctness.

The point is this: The council cannot give that advice without the vote of the United States, unless it is a party to the dispute; but, my fellow citizens, if you are a party to the dispute you are in the scrap anyhow. If you are a party, then the question is not whether you are going to war or not but merely whether you are going to war against the rest of the world or with the rest of the world, and the object of war in that case will be to defend that central thing that I began by speaking about. That is the guarantee of the land titles of the world which have been established by this treaty. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Yugoslavia - all those nations which never had a vision of independent liberty until now - have their liberty and independence guaranteed to them.

If we do not guarantee them, then we have this interesting choice: I hear gentlemen say that we went into the recent war because we were forced into it, and their preference now is to wait to be forced in again. They do not pretend that we can keep out; they merely pretend that we ought to keep out until we are ashamed not to go in.

This is the Covenant of the League of Nations that you hear objected to, the only possible guarantee against war. I would consider myself recreant to every mother and father, every wife and sweetheart in this country, if I consented to the ending of this war without a guarantee that there would be no other. You say, "Is it an absolute guarantee?" No; there is no absolute guarantee against human passion; but even if it were only 10 percent of a guarantee, would not you rather have 10 percent guarantee against war than none? If it only creates a presumption that there will not be war, would you not rather have that presumption than live under the certainty that there will be war? For, I tell you, my fellow citizens, I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.

But I did not come here this morning, I remind myself, so much to expound the treaty as to talk about these interesting things that we hear about that are called "reservations". A reservation is an assent with a big but. We agree - but. Now, I want to call your attention to some of these buts. I will take them, so far as I can remember the order, in the order in which they deal with clauses of the League itself.

In the 1st Article of the Covenant, it is provided that a nation can withdraw from the League on two years' notice, provided, at the time of its withdrawal, that is to say at the expiration of the two years, it has fulfilled all its international obligations and all its obligations under the Covenant. Some of our friends are very uneasy about that. They want to sit close to the door with their hands on the knob, and they want to say, "We are in this thing but we are in it with infinite timidity; we are in it only because you overpersuaded us and wanted us to come in, and we are going to try this thing every now and then and see if it is locked, and just as soon as we see anything we don't like, we are going to scuttle."

Now, what is the trouble? What are they afraid of? I want you to put this to every man you know who makes this objection, what is he afraid of? Is he afraid that when the United States withdraws it will not have fulfilled its international obligations? Is he willing to bring that indictment against this beloved country? My fellow citizens, we never did fall to fulfill an international obligation and, God guiding and helping us, we never will. I, for one, am not going to admit in any connection the slightest doubt that, if we ever choose to withdraw, we will then have fulfilled our obligations. If I make reservations, as they are called, about this, what do I do? This Covenant does not set up any tribunal to judge whether we have fulfilled our obligations at that time or not. There is only one thing to restrain us, and that is the opinion of mankind.

Are these gentlemen such poor patriots that they are afraid that the United States will cut a poor figure in the opinion of mankind? And do they think that they can bring this great people to withdraw from that League if at that time their withdrawal would be condemned by the opinion of mankind? We have always been at pains to earn the respect of mankind, and we shall always be at pains to retain it. I for one am too proud as an American to say that any doubt will ever hang around our right to withdraw upon the condition of the fulfillment of our international obligations.

I have already adverted to the difficulties under Article X and will not return to it. That difficulty is merely as I repeated it just now, that some gentlemen do not want to go in as partners; they want to go in as late joiners, because they all admit that in a war which imperils the just arrangements of mankind, America, the greatest, richest, freest people in the world, must take sides. We could not live without taking sides. We devoted ourselves to justice and to liberty when we were born, and we are not going to get senile and forget it.

They do not like the way in which the Monroe Doctrine is mentioned. Well, I would not stop on a question of style. The Monroe Doctrine is adopted. It is swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, and, being carefully digested into the central organism of the whole instrument, I do not care what language they use about it. The language is entirely satisfactory so far as I understand the English language. That puzzles me, my fellow citizens. The English language seems to have got some new meaning since I studied it that bothers these gentlemen. I do not know what dictionaries they resort to. I do not know what manuals of conscience they can possibly resort to. The Monroe Doctrine is expressly authenticated in this document, for the first time in history, by all the great nations of the world, and it was put there at our request.

When I came back to this dear country in March, I brought the first draft, the provisional draft, of the Covenant of the League. I submitted it to the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate of the United States, and I spent an evening discussing it with them. They made a number of suggestions. I carried every one of those suggestions to Paris, and every one of them was adopted. Now, apparently, they want me to go back to Paris and say, "We are much obliged to you, but we do not like the language." I suggested the other night that if they do not like that language there is another language in here. That page is English [illustrating]; this page is French [illustrating] - the same thing. If the English does not suit them, let them engage the interest of some French scholar and see if they like the French better. It is the same thing. It is done in perfect good faith. Nobody was trying to fool anybody else. This is the genuine work of honest men.

The fourth matter that they are concerned about is domestic questions, so they want to put in a reservation enumerating certain questions as domestic questions which everybody on both sides of the water admits are domestic questions. That seems to me, to say the least, to be a work of supererogation. It does not seem to me necessary to specify what everybody admits, but they are so careful - I believe the word used, to be "meticulous'! - that they want to put in what is clearly implied in the whole instrument.

"Well," you say, "why not?" Well, why not, my fellow citizens? The conference at Paris will still be sitting when the Senate of the United States has acted upon this treaty. Perhaps I ought not to say that so confidently. No man, even in the secrets of Providence, can tell how long it will take the United States Senate to do anything, but I imagine that in the normal course of human fatigue the Senate will have acted upon this treaty before the conference in Paris gets through with the Austrian treaty and the Bulgarian treaty and the Turkish treaty. They will still be there on the job.

Now - every lawyer will follow me in this - if you take a contract and change the words, even though you do not change the sense, you have to get the other parties to accept those words. Is not that true? Therefore, every reservation will have to be taken back to all the signatories of this treaty, and I want you to notice that that includes Germany. We will have to ask Germany's consent to read this treaty the way we understand it. I want to tell you that we did not ask Germany's consent with regard to the meaning of any one of those terms while we were in Paris. We told her what they meant and said, "Sign here." Are there any patriotic Americans who desire the method changed? Do they want me to ask the assembly at Weimar if I may read the treaty the way it means but in words which the United States Senate thinks it ought to have been written in?

You see, reservations come down to this, that they want to change the language of the treaty without changing its meaning and involve all the embarrassments. Because, let me say, there are indications - I am judging not from official dispatches but from the newspapers - that people are not in as good a humor over in Paris now as they were when I was there, and it is going to be more difficult to get agreement from now on than it was then. After dealing with some of those gentlemen, I found that they were as ingenious as any American in attaching unexpected meanings to plain words, and, having gone through the mill on the existing language, I do not want to go through it again on changed language.

I must not turn away from this great subject without adverting to one particular in the treaty itself, and that is the provision with regard to the transfer of certain German rights in the province of Shantung, China, to Japan. I have frankly said to my Japanese colleagues in the conference, and therefore I can without impropriety say it here, that I was very deeply dissatisfied with that part of the treaty. But, my fellow citizens, Japan agreed at that very time, and as part of the understanding upon which those clauses were put into the treaty, that she would relinquish every item of sovereignty that Germany had enjoyed to China, and that she would retain only what other nations have elsewhere in China, certain economic concessions with regard to the railway and the mines, which she was to operate under a corporation and subject to the laws of China. As I say, I wish she could have done more.

But suppose, as some have suggested, that we dissent from that clause in the treaty. You cannot sign all of the treaty but one part, my fellow citizens. It is like the President's veto. He cannot veto provisions in a bill. He has got either to sign the bill or veto the bill. We cannot sign the treaty with the Shantung provision out of it; and, if we could, what sort of service would we be doing to China?

Let us state the facts with brutal frankness. England and France are bound by solemn treaty, entered into before the conference at Paris, before the end of the war, to give Japan what she gets in this treaty in the Province of Shantung. They cannot in honor withdraw from that promise. They cannot consent to a peace treaty which does not contain those provisions with regard to Shantung. England and France, therefore, will stand behind Japan; and if we are not signatories to the treaties and not parties, she will get all that Germany had in Shantung, more than she will get under the promises which she made to us, and the only way we can get it away from her is by going to war with Japan and Great Britain and France.

Does that look like a workable proposition? Is that doing China a service? Whereas, if we do accept this treaty, we are members of the League of Nations, China is a member of the League, and Japan is a member of the League, and, under that much-criticized Article X, Japan promises and we guarantee that the territorial integrity and political independence of China will be respected and preserved. That is the way to serve China. That is the only possible way in the circumstances to serve China.

Therefore, we cannot rewrite this treaty. We must take it or leave it, and gentlemen, after all the rest of the world has signed it, will find it very difficult to make any other kind of treaty. As I took the liberty of saying the other night, it is a case of "put up or shut up." The world cannot breathe in the atmosphere of negotiations. The world cannot deal with nations who say, "We won't play!" The world cannot have anything to do with an arrangement in which every nation says, "We will take care of ourselves."

Source: The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Ray S. Baker and William E. Dodd, eds., Authorized Edition, Vol. 1, New York, 1924, pp. 30-44.


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