Words That Men Live By
Pres. Woodrow Wilson (1917)
WASHINGTON, D. C., Jan. 21, 1917 - President Woodrow Wilson, in a speech before the Senate, today called upon the warring nations of Europe whose actions daily threaten to involve the United States in the conflict, to aim for a "peace without victory" patterned after a fashion upon the Monroe Doctrine as it operates in the Western Hemisphere.
Mr. Wilson specified that he spoke largely as an individual, but noted that as President of the United States he is - in this twilight of world conflict - today the only head of a major state free to speak his mind and policies openly without giving perhaps some advantage to an enemy.
His talk, in fact, seemed to some observers to constitute a flashback to the Virginia scholar noted, prior to his political career, as the president of one of the country's great universities, Princeton, and a writer who has won a touch of the promise of immortality in his historical works. Yet, he also must be today a President who sees in the threat of unrestricted warfare al- ready broached by Germany, a public optimist and a private pessimist who reads in the daily dispatches the threat of Armageddon overhanging America.
Gentlemen of the Senate: On the I8th of December last I addressed an identical note to the Governments of the nations now at war requesting them to state, more definitely than they had yet been stated by either group of belligerents, the terms upon which they would deem it possible to make peace. I spoke on behalf of humanity and of the rights of all neutral nations like our own, many of whose most vital interests the war puts in constant jeopardy.
The Central Powers united in a reply, which stated merely that they were ready to meet their antagonists in conference to discuss terms of peace.
The Entente Powers have replied much more definitely, and have stated, in general terms, indeed, but with sufficient definiteness to imply details, the arrangements, guarantees, and acts of reparation which they deem to be the indispensable conditions of a satisfactory settlement.
We are that much nearer a definite discussion of the peace, which shall end the present war.
I have sought this opportunity to address you because I thought that I owed it to you, as the council associated with me in the final determination of our international obligations, to disclose to you without reserve the thought and purpose that have been taking form in my mind in regard to the duty of our Government in those days to come when it will be necessary to lay afresh and upon a new plan the foundations of peace among the nations.
It is inconceivable that the people of the United States should play no part in that great enterprise. To take part in such a service will be the opportunity for which they have sought to prepare themselves by the very principles and purposes of their polity and the approved practices of their Government, ever since the days when they set up a new nation in the high and honorable hope that it might in all that it was and did show mankind the way to liberty. They cannot, in honor, withhold the service to which they are now about to be challenged. They do not wish to withhold it. But they owe it to themselves and to the other nations of the world to state the conditions under which they will feel free to render it.
That service is nothing less than this - to add their authority and their power to the authority and force of other nations to guarantee peace and justice throughout the world.
Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure peace or only for a new balance of power? If it be only a struggle for a new balance of power, who will guarantee, who can guarantee, the stable equilibrium of the new arrangement? Only a tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe. There must be, not only a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.
Fortunately, we have received very explicit assurances on this point. The statesmen of both of the groups of nations, now arrayed against one another, have said, in terms that could not be misinterpreted, that it was no part of the purpose they had in mind to crush their antagonists. But the implications of these assurances may not be equally clear to all, may not be the same on both sides of the water. I think it will be serviceable if I attempt to set forth what we understand them to be.
They imply first of all, that it must be a peace without victory. It is not pleasant to say this. I beg that I may be permitted to put my own interpretation upon it and that it may be understood that no other interpretation was in my thought. I am seeking only to face realities and to face them without soft concealments. Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor's terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory, upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.
Only a peace between equals can last; only a peace the very principle, of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit.
I have spoken upon these great matters without reserve, and with the utmost explicitness because it has seemed to me to be necessary if the world's yearning desire for peace was anywhere to find free voice and utterance. Perhaps I am the only person in high authority among all the peoples of the world who is at liberty to speak and hold nothing back. I am speaking as an individual, and yet I am speaking also, of course, as the responsible head of a great Government, and I feel confident that I have said what the people of the United States would wish me to say.
May I not add that I hope and believe that I am, in effect, speaking for liberals and friends of humanity in every nation and of every program of liberty? I would fain believe that I am speaking for the silent mass of man- kind everywhere who have as yet had no place or opportunity to speak their real hearts out concerning the death and ruin they see to have come already upon the persons and the homes they hold most dear.
And in holding out the expectation that the people and the Government of the United States will join the other civilized nations of the world in guaranteeing the permanence of peace upon such terms as I have named, I speak with the greater boldness and confidence because it is clear to every man who can think that there is in this promise no breach in either our traditions or our policy as a nation, but a fulfillment rather of all that we have professed or striven for.
I am proposing, as it were, that the nations should with one accord adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world: That no nation should seek to extend its policy over any other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own policy, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and powerful.
I am proposing that all nations henceforth avoid entangling alliances which would draw them into competition of power, catch them in a net of intrigue and selfish rivalry, and disturb their own affairs with influences intruded from without. There is no entangling alliance in a concert of power. When all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose, all act in the common interest and are free to live their own lives under a common protection.
I am proposing government by the consent of the governed; that freedom of the seas which in international conference after conference representatives of the United States have urged with the eloquence of those who are the convinced disciples of liberty; and that moderation of armaments which makes of armies and navies a power for order merely, not an instrument of aggression or of selfish violence.
These are American principles, American policies. We can stand for no others. And they are also the principles and policies of forward-looking men.
~ Postlogue ~
The sequel was blighted hope, of course.
Within three months, unrestricted submarine warfare put into practice by Germany and other rebuffs of the peaceful offers of good offices by the United States had changed this country from a "neutral" into a combatant.
But the thoughts put forth by Wilson still live, running as a refrain through much of the subsequent expression of democratic hopes.Printable version