Words That Men Live By
Pres. Woodrow Wilson (1919)
VERSAILLES, France, Jan. 25, 1919 - Standing before the delegates of a score of countries, in the Hall of Mirrors in the most beautiful palace left to history by the Bourbons of France, a President who had lost the support of his own country today outlined a dream of future world security based upon an idealism for which it is doubtful whether the world is ready.
The President is Woodrow Wilson, wartime leader of a victorious United States that in the past two years has become a major world power. As the "architect of allied victory" he is in world affairs the peer or superior of the European giants with whom he walks - Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Premiers Clemenceau and Or- lando. Yet at home he saw two months ago his own country, voting in an interim election, swamp his own party by the election of majorities from the opposition party-the Republican - to both the Senate and the House.
But if this is his swan song, it is magnificent, because he projected today the final argument in a world forum for the League of Nations, an idea first embodied in a program writ- ten before the United States entered the war and later incorporated in what are now known around the world as the Fourteen Points. As he painted it, the League of Nations will rise above national governments, and be the guardian of liberty for the people of the world.
"We must concert our best judgment," said the drawling, sparse-figured man in Prince Albert coat, slightly stooped and peering through thick-lensed eyeglasses, "to make the League of Nations a vital thing-not merely a formal thing, not an occasional thing, not a thing sometimes called into life to meet an exigency, but always functioning in watchful attendance upon the interests of the nations, and that its continuity should be a vital continuity ."
The delegations listened in respectful silence to Mr. Wilson, but with some mental reservations as to his latter arguments. How strong, many were asking by evening, is the support represented by the President of the United States? Or is his own enthusiasm carrying him out of the depths of realism?
There are other questions, too, principally as to how to fit together this idealistic statement with the concerted arrangements by Clemenceau and Lloyd George who, while paying public lip-service to the League, are using it. as an obvious cloak to cover widely-differing attitudes over reparations from Germany? And what is the attitude of the Russian Bear, now thrashing about in a titanic struggle between opposing factions, with the Bolsheviks daily gaining greater force in government?
We have assembled here for the purpose of doing very much more than making the present settlements that are necessary .We are assembled under very peculiar conditions of world opinion. I may say, without straining the point, that we are not representatives of governments, but representatives of peoples. It will not suffice to satisfy governmental circles anywhere. It is necessary that we should satisfy the opinion of mankind. ...
It is a solemn obligation on our part, therefore, to make permanent arrangements that justice shall be rendered and peace maintained. This is the central object of our meeting. Settlements may be temporary, but the action of the nations in the interest of peace and justice must be permanent. We can set up permanent processes. We may not be able to set up permanent decisions. Therefore, it seems to me that we must take, so far as we can, a picture of the world into our minds.
Is it not a startling circumstance, for one thing, that the great discoveries of science, that the quiet studies of men in laboratories, that the thoughtful developments which have taken place in quiet lecture-rooms, have now been turned to the destruction of civilization? The powers of destruction have not so much multiplied as gained facility. The enemy whom we have just overcome had at his seats of learning some of the principle centers of scientific study and discovery, and he used them in order to make destruction sudden and complete; and only the watchful, continuous cooperation of men can see to it that science, as well as armed men, is kept within the harness of civilization.
In a sense, the United States is less interested in this subject than the other nations here assembled. With her great territory and her extensive sea borders, it is less likely that the United States should suffer from the attack of enemies than that many of the other nations here should suffer; and the ardor of the United States - for it is a very deep and genuine ardor - for the society of nations is not an ardor springing out of fear or apprehension, but an ardor springing out of the ideals which have come to consciousness in this war. In coming into this war the United States never for a moment thought that she was intervening in the politics of Europe, or the politics of Asia, or the politics of any part of the world. Her thought was that all the world had now become conscious that there was a single cause which turned upon the issues of this war. That was the cause of justice and of liberty for men of every kind and place. Therefore, the United States would feel that her part in this war had been played in vain if there ensued upon it a body of European settlements. She would feel that she could not take part in guaranteeing those European settlements unless that guaranty involved the continuous superintendence of the peace of the world by the associated nations of the world.
Therefore, it seems to me that we must concert our best judgment in order to make this League of Nations a vital thing-not merely a formal thing, not an occasional thing, not a thing sometimes called into life to meet an exigency, but always functioning in watchful attendance upon the interests of the nations, and that its continuity should be a vital continuity. ...
...Gentlemen, the select classes of mankind are no longer the governors of mankind. The fortunes of mankind are now in the hands of the plain people of the whole world. Satisfy them, and you have not only justified their confidence, but established peace. Fail to satisfy them, and no arrangement that you can make will either set up or steady the peace of the world.
You can imagine, gentlemen, I dare say, the sentiments and the purpose with which representatives of the United States support this great project for a League of Nations. We regard it as the keystone of the whole program which expressed our purposes and ideals in this war and which the associated nations accepted as the basis of the settlement. If we return to the United States without having made every effort in our power to realize this program, we should return to meet the merited scorn of our fellow-citizens. For they are a body that constitutes a great democracy. They expect their leaders to speak their thoughts and no private purpose of their own. They expect their representatives to be their servants. We have no choice but to obey their mandate. But it is with the greatest enthusiasm and pleasure that we accept that mandate; and because this is the keystone of the whole fabric, we have pledged our every purpose to it, as we have to every item of the fabric. We would not dare abate a single item of the program which constitutes our instruction. We would not dare compromise upon any matter as the champion of this thing-this peace of the world, this attitude of justice, this principle that we are the masters of no people, but are here to see that every people in the world shall choose its own masters and govern its own destinies, not as we wish but as it wishes. We are here to see, in short, that the very foundations of this war are swept away.
Those foundations were the private choice of small coteries of civil rulers and military staffs. Those foundations were the aggression of great powers upon small. Those foundations were the holding together of empires of unwilling subjects by the duress of arms. Those foundations were the power of small bodies of men to work their will and use mankind as pawns in a game. And nothing less than the emancipation of the world from these things will accomplish peace. ...
~ Postlogue ~
In retrospect, it is evident that the ideals of the League of Nations might have fared better had their utterance been less of a personal venture by President Wilson.
His determination carried him past the point of the all-important element of willingness to negotiate that is the essence of success in putting over ideas molded in the great design.
On his return to Washington, when he laid the projected peace treaty incorporating the league idea before the new powers in Congress, Wilson so antagonized these Republicans, including the now mature Henry Cabot Lodge with his demand for ratification of the treaty without the "crossing of t or the dotting of an i" that he pronounced the death sentence for his own idea.
In the fall of 1919, Wilson set forth on a tour of the country to rescue his child and, by the very force of public opinion, to overcome the opposition of the Senate Republican majority to it. But his mission was foredoomed, and so was his public career.
On September 25, 1919, while speaking at Pueblo, Colorado, Wilson collapsed.
Home demobilization was not yet accomplished, and the unscrambling of a war-torn world was hardly started. But Wilson there and then passed from the effective stage of political leadership.
Within two months, other persons would be battling his ideas, using as the principal lever of argument the contention that the United States, if it subscribed to the League, would sacrifice its own independence to the whims of an international combine.
In this debate, no voice carried more weight than that of William E. Borah. Printable version