President Wilson's Address to the Senate, January 22, 1917

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WWI Document Archive > 1916 Documents > Official Communications and Speeches Relating to Peace Proposals 1916-1917 > President Wilson's Address to the Senate, January 22, 1917


President Wilson's Address to the Senate, January 22, 19171

     Mr. President and gentlemen of the Senate: On the eighteenth
of December last I addressed an identic 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 definite-
ness to imply details, the arrangements, guarantees, and acts of repara-
tion which they deem to be the indispensable conditions of a satisfac-
tory settlement. We are that much nearer a definite discussion of the
peace which shall end the present war. We are that much nearer the
discussion of the international concert which must thereafter hold the
world at peace. In every discussion of the peace that must end this
war it is taken for granted that that peace must be followed by some
definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that
any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again. Every lover of
mankind, every sane and thoughtful man must take that for granted.
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 with-
out reserve the thought and purpose that have been taking form in
my mind in regard to the duty of our Government in the days to come
when it will be necessary to lay afresh and upon a new plan the founda-
tions 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 can not 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. Such a settlement can not now
be long postponed. It is right that before it comes this Government
should frankly formulate the conditions upon which it would feel
justified in asking our people to approve its formal and solemn adhe-
rence to a League for Peace. I am here to attempt to state those
conditions.
     The present war must first be ended; but we owe it to candor and
to a just regard for the opinion of mankind to say that, so far as our
participation in guarantees of future peace is concerned, it makes a
great deal of difference in what way and upon what terms it is ended.
The treaties and agreements which bring it to an end must embody
terms which will create a peace that is worth guaranteeing and pre-
serving, a peace that will win the approval of mankind, not merely a
peace that will serve the several interests and immediate aims of the
nations engaged. We shall have no voice in determining what those
terms shall be, but we shall, I feel sure, have a voice in determining
whether they shall be made lasting or not by the guarantees of a uni-
versal covenant; and our judgment upon what is fundamental and
essential as a condition precedent to permanency should be spoken
now, not afterwards when it may be too late.
     No covenant of cooperative peace that does not include the peoples
of the New World can suffice to keep the future safe against war;
and yet there is only one sort of peace that the peoples of America
could join in guaranteeing. The elements of that peace must be ele-
ments that engage the confidence and satisfy the principles of the
American governments, elements consistent with their political faith
and the practical convictions which the peoples of America have once
for all embraced and undertaken to defend.
     I do not mean to say that any American government would throw
any obstacle in the way of any terms of peace the governments now
at war might agree upon, or seek to upset them when made, whatever
they might be. I only take it for granted that mere terms of peace
between the belligerents will not satisfy even the belligerents them-
selves. Mere agreements may not make peace secure. It will be
absolutely necessary that a force be created as a guarantor of the per-
manency of the settlement so much greater than the force of any nation
now engaged or any alliance hitherto formed or projected that no
nation, no probable combination of nations could face or withstand it.
If the peace presently to be made is to endure, it must be a peace made
secure by the organized major force of mankind.
     The terms of the immediate peace agreed upon will determine
whether it is a peace for which such a guarantee can be secured.
The question upon which the whole future peace and policy of the
world depends is this : 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 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 antago-
nists. 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 partici-
pation in a common benefit. The right state of mind, the right feeling
between nations, is as necessary for a lasting peace as is the just settle-
ment of vexed questions of territory or of racial and national allegiance.
The equality of nations upon which peace must be founded if it is
to last must be an equality of rights; the guarantees exchanged must
neither recognize nor imply a difference between big nations and small,
between those that are powerful and those that are weak. Right must
be based upon the common strength, not upon the individual strength,
of the nations upon whose concert peace will depend. Equality of ter-
ritory or of resources there of course can not be; nor any other sort
of equality not gained in the ordinary peaceful and legitimate develop-
ment of the peoples themselves. But no one asks or expects anything
more than an equality of rights. Mankind is looking now for freedom
of life, not for equipoises of power.
     And there is a deeper thing involved than even equality of right
among organized nations. No peace can last, or ought to last, which
does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive
all their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that no
right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from sovereignty to
sovereignty as if they were property. I take it for granted, for in-
stance, if I may venture upon a single example, that statesmen every-
where are agreed that there should be a united, independent, and
autonomous Poland, and that henceforth inviolable security of life, of
worship, and of industrial and social development should be guaran-
teed to all peoples who have lived hitherto under the power of govern-
ments devoted to a faith and purpose hostile to their own.
I speak of this, not because of any desire to exalt an abstract political
principle which has always been held very dear by those who have
sought to build up liberty in America, but for the same reason that I
have spoken of the other conditions of peace which seem to me clearly
indispensable, — because I wish frankly to uncover realities. Any peace
which does not recognize and accept this principle will inevitably be
upset. It will not rest upon the affections or the convictions of man-
kind. The ferment of spirit of whole populations will fight subtly
and constantly against it, and all the world will sympathize. The
world can be at peace only if its life is stable, and there can be no
stability where the will is in rebellion, where there is not tranquillity
of spirit and a sense of justice, of freedom, and of right.
So far as practicable, moreover, every great people now struggling
towards a full development of its resources and of its powers should
be assured a direct outlet to the great highways of the sea. Where this
can not be done by the cession of territory, it can no doubt be done by
the neutralization of direct rights of way under the general guarantee
which will assure the peace itself. With a right comity of arrange-
ment no nation need be shut away from free access to the open paths
of the world's commerce.
     And the paths of the sea must alike in law and in fact be free. The
freedom of the seas is the sine qua non of peace, equality, and coopera-
tion. No doubt a somewhat radical reconsideration of many of the
rules of international practice hitherto thought to be established may
be necessary in order to make the seas indeed free and common in
practically all circumstances for the use of mankind, but the motive for
such changes is convincing and compelling. There can be no trust or
intimacy between the peoples of the world without them. The free,
constant, unthreatened intercourse of nations is an essential part of
the process of peace and of development. It need not be difficult either
to define or to secure the freedom of the seas if the governments of
the world sincerely desire to come to an agreement concerning it.
     It is a problem closely connected with the limitation of naval arma-
ments opens the wider and jerhaps more difficult question of the
seas at once free and safe. And the question of limiting naval arma-
ments opens the wider and perhaps more difficult question of the
limitation of armies and of all programs of military preparation.
Difficult and delicate as these questions are, they must be faced with
the utmost candor and decided in a spirit of real accommodation if
peace is to come with healing in its wings, and come to stay. Peace
can not be had without concession and sacrifice. There can be no
sense of safety and equality among the nations if great preponderating
armaments are henceforth to continue here and there to be built up
and maintained. The statesmen of the world must plan for peace and
nations must adjust and accommodate their policy to it as they have
planned for war and made ready for pitiless contest and rivalry. The
question of armaments, whether on land or sea, is the most immedi-
ately and intensely practical question connected with the future for-
tunes of nations and of mankind.
     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
amongst 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 mankind 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 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 fulfil-
ment, 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 polity over any other nation
or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its
own polity, 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 competitions 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 con-
ference representatives of the United States have urged with the elo-
quence 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 could stand
for no others. And they are also the principles and policies of forward
looking men and women everywhere, of every modern nation, of every
enlightened community. They are the principles of mankind and must
prevail.


1Congressional Record, January 22, 1917, p. 1947.