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President Wilson in Bismarck

9/10/2004:

President Woodrow Wilson visited North Dakota only one time – in 1919. The First World War had ended, and an armistice had been signed. Now, Wilson wanted to convince Congress and the Nation that the United States should accept the Treaty of Versailles and to 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, so he could appeal directly to the people.

It was on this date that Wilson delivered his speech in Bismarck – it was his only formal presentation in North Dakota. He arrived at the Auditorium in a motorcade, and when the hall was full, the doors were locked. Unfortunately, someone forgot to check whether the president’s security men were inside at the time. Assistant Secret Service Chief, Edmund Starling, was locked out and had to break in through a basement window to get in. Upstairs, the president was stating his case.

“For the first time in history,” he told crowds, “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. Such a thing as that was never dreamed of before, and what you are asked to (consider) in discussing the League of Nations is the matter of seeing that this thing is not interfered with. There is no other way to do it than by a universal league of nations...”

Wilson wanted the “War to End All Wars” to never be repeated, and he felt there was only one way that could happen. “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together,” he said.

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, people of all nations had the right to be protected from aggression by other nations. A group with representatives from every nation could assure success.

The treaty stated that members of the League would agree to never go to war without first doing one of two things: 1. Submit their issue to arbitration and agree absolutely to abide by the verdict, or 2. submit the issue for discussion among the League of Nations’ members. The second option demanded six months for the discussion and a three-month cooling off period after a decision was rendered. Nations that didn’t comply would be subjected to what Wilson felt would be much more effective than war – they 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,” he said. “No telegraphic message may pass either way across its borders. No package of postal matter – no letter – can cross its borders... It is the most complete isolation...ever conceived...there is not a nation in Europe that can live for six months without importing goods out of other countries.”

Wilson desperately wanted the United States to ratify the proposal and join the League. “The world cannot deal with nations who say, ‘We won’t play!’” he insisted. “The world cannot have anything to do with an arrangement in which every nation says, ‘We will take care of ourselves.’”

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