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President Wilson in Bismarck

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President Woodrow Wilson visited North Dakota only once – in 1919. The First World War had ended, and Wilson wanted to convince the Nation that the United States should accept the Treaty of Versailles and become a member of the newly proposed League of Nations. He carried out his campaign by way of an 8,000-mile train trip, to the West Coast and back.

It was on this date that Wilson spoke in Bismarck. He arrived at the Belle Mehus Auditorium in a motorcade, and when the hall was full, the doors were locked. Unfortunately, assistant secret service chief, Edmund Starling, was accidentally left outside and had to break in through a basement window. Upstairs, the president stated his case.

“For the first time in history,” he told the crowd, “the counsels of mankind are to be drawn together (to defend) the rights and (improve) the conditions of working people – men, women, and children – all over the world.”

Wilson felt there was only one way that could happen. He said, “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”

The plan he championed had three fundamental principles: first, people needed to have the right to choose their sovereignty; second, small nations as well as large ones ought to be guaranteed territorial integrity; and third, all nations had the right to be protected from aggression.

The treaty stated that members of the League would agree to never go to war without first doing one of two things: One, submit their issue to arbitration and abide by the verdict, or two, submit the issue for discussion among League members, allowing six months for discussion and a three-month cooling off period after a decision was rendered. Nations that didn’t comply would be shunned, or boycotted. It was a new concept.

“No goods can be shipped out of that country; no goods can be shipped into it,” Wilson said. “No telegraphic message may pass either way across its borders. No package of postal matter – no letter – can cross its borders.”

Two weeks after his Bismarck stop, Wilson collapsed from exhaustion, and a week later, he had a major stroke from which he never fully recovered. Despite his best efforts, isolationists successfully lobbied Congress to turn down the treaty, and the following year, Warren G. Harding – who was anti-League – was elected president.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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