Address to Peace Conference: Article XXVI

Woodrow Wilson

Excerpt on League of Nations

February 14, 1919

Amendments to this Covenant will take effect when ratified by the States whose representatives compose the Executive Council and by three-fourths of the States whose representatives compose the Body of Delegates

It gives me pleasure to add to this formal reading of the result of our
labors that the character of the discussion which occurred at the sittings of the
commission was not only of the most constructive but of the most encouraging sort. It was
obvious throughout our discussions that, although there were subjects upon which there
were individual differences of judgment with regard to the method by which our objects
should be obtained, there was practically at no point any serious differences of opinion
or motive as to the objects which we were seeking. Indeed, while these debates were not made the opportunity for the
expression of enthusiasm and sentiments, I think the other members of the commission will
agree with me that there was an undertone resolve and of enthusiasm for the thing we were trying to do, which was heartening throughout every meeting; because we felt that in a way this conference had entrusted into us the
expression of one of its highest and most important purposes, to see to it that the
concord of the world in the future with regard to the objects of justice should not be
subject to doubt or uncertainty; that the cooperation of the great body of nations should
be assured in the maintenance of peace upon terms of honor and of international
obligations. The compulsion of that task was constantly upon us, and at no point was
there shown the slightest desire to do anything but suggest the best means to accomplish
that great object. There is very great significance, therefore, in the fact that the
result was reached unanimously. Fourteen nations were represented, among them all of those powers which
for convenience we have called the great powers, and among the rest a representation of
the greatest variety of circumstances and interests. So that I think we are justified in saying that it was a representative group of the members of this great conference. The significance of the result, therefore, has the deepest of all meanings, the union of wills in a common purpose, a union of wills which cannot be resisted, and which I dare say no nation will run the risk of attempting to resist.

Now, as to the character of the document. While it has consumed some
time to read this document, I think you will see at once that it is, after all, very simple, and in nothing so simple as in the structure which it suggests for the League of Nations—a Bodt of Delegates, and Executive Council, and a Permanent Secretariat. Inasmuch as I am stating it in the presence of the official
representatives of the various governments here present, including myself, I may say that
there is a universal feeling that the world cannot rest satisfied with merely official
guidance. There has reached us through many channels the feeling that if the deliberating
body of the League was merely to be a body of officials representing the
various governments, the peoples of the world would not be sure that some of the mistakes
which preoccupied officials had admittedly made might not be repeated.
It was impossible to conceive a method or an assembly so large and
various as to be really representative of the great body of the peoples of the world,
because, as I roughly reckon it, we represent as we sit around this table more than twelve hundred million people. You cannot have a representative assembly of twelve hundred million people, but if
you leave it to each government to have, if it pleases, one or two or three
representatives, though only with a single vote, it may vary its representation from time
to time, not only, but it may originate the choice of its several representatives, if it should have several, in different ways. Therefore, we thought that this was a proper and a very prudent concession to the practically universal opinion of plain men everywhere that they wanted the door left open to a variety of representation instead of being confined to a single official body with which they might or might not find themselves in sympathy.

And you will notice that this body has unlimited rights of discussion—I mean of discussion of anything that falls within the field of international relationship—and that it is specially agreed that war or international misunderstandings or anything that may lead to friction and trouble is everybody’s business, because it may effect the peace of the world. And in order to safeguard the popular power so far as we could of this
representative body, it is provided, you will notice, that when a subject is submitted, not to arbitration, but to discussion by the Executive Council, it can upon the initiative of either one of the parties to the dispute be drawn out of the Executive Council on to the larger forum of the general Body of Delegates, because throughout this instrument we are depending primarily and chiefly upon one great force, and that is the moral force of the public opinion of the world—the cleansing and clarifying and compelling influences of publicity—so that intrigues can no longer have their coverts, so that designs that are sinister can at any time be drawn into the open, so that those things that are destroyed by the light may be properly destroyed by the overwhelming light of the universal expression of condemnation of the world.

Armed force is in the background in this program; but it is in the
background, and, if the moral force of the world will not suffice, the physical force of
the world shall. But that is the last resort, because this is intended as a constitution
of peace, not as a league of war.

The simplicity of the document seems to me to be one of its chief
virtues, because, speaking for myself, I was unable to see the variety of circumstances
with which this League would have to deal. I was unable, therefore, to plan all the
machinery that might be necessary to meet the differing and unexpected contingencies.
Therefore, I should say of this document that it is not a straitjacket but a vehicle of
life. A living thing is born, and we must see to it what clothes we put upon it do not hamper it—a vehicle of power, but a vehicle in which power may be varied at the discretion of those who edxercise it in accordance with the changing circumstances of the time.
And yet, while it is elastic, while it is general in its terms, it is definite in the one
thing that we were called upon to make definite.

It is a definite guarantee of peace. It is a definite guarantee by word
against aggression. It is a definite guarantee against the things which have just come near
bringing the whole structure of civilization into ruin. Its purposes do not for a moment lie vague. Its purposes are declared,
and its powers are unmistakable.

It is not in contemplation that this should be merely a
league to secure the peace of the world. It is a league which can be used for cooperation
in any international matter. That is the significance of the provision introduced concerning labor.
There are many ameliorations of labor conditions which can be effected by conference and
discussion. I anticipate that there will be a very great usefulness in the Bureau of Labor
which it is contemplated shall be set up by the League. While men and women and children who work have been in the background through
long ages and sometimes seemed to be forgotten, while governments have had their watchful
and suspicious eyes upon the maneuvers of one another, while the thought of statesmen has
been about structural action and the larger transactions of commerce and of finance, now, if I may believe the picture which I see, there comes into the
foreground the great body of the laboring people of the world, the men and women and
children upon whom the great burden of sustaining the world must from day to day fall,
whether we wish it to do so or not; people who go to bed tired and wake up without the
stimulation of lively hope. These people will be drawn into the field of international
consultation and help, and will be among the wards of the combined governments of the
world. This is, I take leave to say, a very great step in advance in the mere conception
of that.

Then, as you will notice, there is an imperative article concerning the
publicity of all international agreements. Henceforth no member of the League can call any
agreement valid which it has not registered with the Secretary General, in whose
office, of course, it will be subject to the examination of any body representing a member
of the League. And the duty is laid upon the Secretary-General to publish every document of that sort at the earliest possible time. I suppose most persons who have not been conversant with the business of
foreign affairs do not realize how many hundreds of these agreements are made in a single
year, and how difficult it might be to publish the more unimportant of them immediately-how uninteresting it would be to most of the world to publish them immediately- but even
they must be published just as soon as it is possible for the secretary general to publish
them.

Then,there is a feature about this Covenant which to my mind is one of the greatest and most satisfactory advances that have been made. We are done with annexations of helpless people, meant in some instances by some powers to be used merely for exploitation. We recognize in the most solemn manner that the helpless and undeveloped peoples of the world, being in that condition, put an obligation upon us to look after their interests primarily before we use them for our interest; and that in all cases of this sort hereafter it shall be the duty of the League to see that the nations which are assigned as the tutors and advisers and directors of those peoples shall look to their interest and to their development before they look to the interests and material desires of the mandatory nation itself. There has been no greater advance than this, gentlemen. If you look back upon the history of the world you will see how helpless peoples have too often been a prey to powers that had no conscience in the matter. It has been one of the many distressing revelations of recent years that the great power which has just been happily defeated put intolerable burdens and injustices upon the helpless people of some of the colonies which it annexed to itself; that its interest was rather their extermination than their developmentl that the desire was to possess their land for European purposes, and not to enjoy their confidence in order that mankind might be lifted in those places to the next higher level. Now, the world, expressing its conscience in law, says there is an end of that. Our consciences already shown that they can exercise a conscience in this matter, and under their tutelage the helpless peoples of the world will come into a new light and into a new hope.

So I think I can say of this document that it is at one and the same time a practical document and a humane document. There is a pulse of sympathy in it. There is a compulsion of conscience throughout it. It is practrical, and yet it is intended to purify, to rectify, to elevate. And I want to say that, so far as my observation instructs me, this is in one sense a belated document. I believe that the conscience of the world has long been prepared to express itself in some such way. We are not just now discovering our sympathy for these people and our interest in them. We are simply expressing it, for it has long been felt, and in the administration of the affairs of more than one of the great states representened here—that human impulse has already expressed itself in their dealings with their colonies whose people were yet at a low stage of civilization. We have had many instancces of colonies lifted into the sphere of complete self-government. This is not the discovery of a principle. It is the universal application of a principle. It is the agreement of the great nations which have tried to live by these standards in their separate administrations to unite in seeing that their common force and their common thought and intelligence are lent to this great and humane enterprise. I think it is an occasion, therefore, for the most profound satisfaction that this humane decision should have been reached in a matter for which the world has long been waiting and until a very recent period thought that it was still too early to hope.

Many terrible things have come out of this war, gentlemen, but some very beautiful things have come out of it. Wrong has been defeated, but the rest of the world has been more conscious than it ever was before of the majesty of right. People that were suspicious of one another can now live as friends and comrades in a single family, and desire to do so. The miasma of distrust, of intrigue, is cleared away. Men are looking eye to eye and saying; “We are brothers and have a common purpose. We did not realize it before, but no we do realize it, and this is our Covenant of fraternity and of friendship.”

 

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