flags are out, the bunting is flying, the hotels are jammed, the streets are
crowded, the people are chattering, the big search lights have been tested, the
acoustics have been arranged—for it is President's day in Reno." Thus did the Nevada State Journal report as Reno prepared for the arrival of President
Wilson on September 22, 1919.
Everywhere he stopped on his twenty-two day, 8,000-mile trip in support of the League of Nations he met with similar receptions. At some
venues the crowds rivaled those that had cheered Wilson during his triumphal parades through
European capitals after the war. At the same time, however, many voiced
skepticism, even passionate hostility toward Wilson's crusade. The Nevada State Journal was honored by the president's visit, but it
also dubbed his Western tour a propaganda campaign and criticized Wilson
himself as "a poor prophet and a man of extremely bad judgment."
have had similarly mixed opinions about Wilson's
Western tour. For his admirers, as John Milton Cooper Jr. has noted, the
Western tour was Wilson's
"finest hour," a "noble act of self-sacrifice" for an
equally noble cause. In their view, Wilson
"willingly, knowingly risked his health, indeed his life" to promote
what he genuinely believed was the only sure way to lasting peace. In short,
the Western tour "represented the purest and best in Woodrow Wilson."
To his detractors, on the other hand, Wilson's
decision to take his case to the people was a "willful, ill-conceived act
of vanity and desperation." Driven by "self-righteous egotism,
bordering on a messiah complex," Wilson
embarked upon the "swing around the circle" in a fit of anger, then
took such a rigid stance against any changes to the treaty that "he fell
prey to delusions of grandeur about his own persuasive powers and even to a
wish for martyrdom in a holy cause."
In the end, according to these historians, Wilson got just what he deserved: trying to
bully senators into ratifying the treaty without reservations, he instead
suffered a humiliating defeat when the U.S. Senate killed the treaty
the outcome, historians generally agree with Thomas Bailey that Wilson's Western tour
proved a "disastrous blunder."
Yet most still celebrate the final speech of the tour, in Pueblo,
Colorado, as the "high point" of the trip and a "fitting
climax" to a "world-shaking speaking career—perhaps the most
memorable in history."
What is it about the Pueblo
speech that has inspired historians to praise it and rhetorical scholars to
rank it among the "top 100 speeches" of the twentieth century?
Why, out of all of Wilson's speeches, is the Pueblo address among the
most famous? The answer, it seems, lies not so much in the speech itself as in
later events. Part of the answer also may lie in our changing conceptions of "eloquence"
and in our conviction that, in the end, Wilson
proved "right" about the League of Nations.
Wilson's Western tour came
at a transitional moment in the history of American public address. During the
Progressive Era, Americans celebrated a neo-classical ideal of reasoned and
disinterested oratorical statesmanship. Nostalgically recalling the Golden Age
of American Oratory, they fondly recalled the great orators of the antebellum
era, longing for a return of "great debates" to the American
political landscape. After the war, however, this neo-classical ideal began to
give way to a new, more cynical attitude toward mass persuasion and democratic
deliberation. Impressed by the wartime successes of the Committee on Public
Information, students of American politics increasingly viewed the public as
easily duped and manipulated. The age of "scientific" propaganda had
more than any other figure of his era, Woodrow Wilson embodied this tension
between the old and the new attitude toward public persuasion. Early in his
Western tour, he typically delivered elaborate, well-reasoned speeches in
support of the treaty, articulating the principles underlying the agreement and
engaging his audience in what he called "common counsel." Later,
however, he assumed the attitude of the propagandist, demonizing his opponents
and waving the bloody shirt of war sentimentality. Toward the end of the tour
he even began to question the motives and the patriotism of his critics, and
when that didn't work he tried to scare the public into supporting his
uncompromising position with talk of another, even more devastating war. By the
end of the tour, Wilson
was simply refusing to discuss the substantive issues surrounding the treaty,
declaring the debate over. He even threatened to kill the treaty himself if the
Senate did not capitulate to his demand for ratification without any sort of
conditions or reservations.
Wilson's drift toward demagoguery culminated in the Pueblo speech. Betraying
the neo-classical principles he had articulated as a scholar, Wilson
struck a defiant pose in Pueblo,
claiming a public mandate and simply refusing to debate the question of
reservations. By the time he reached Pueblo, Wilson was no longer
interested in finding common ground or proposing some compromise. Instead, he
proclaimed it time for a "showdown" and tried to bully his critics. In
doing so, he not only betrayed his own principles of oratorical statesmanship,
but foreshadowed some of the worst tendencies of the modern, "rhetorical"
Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton,
Virginia, on December 28, 1856. His father, Joseph
Ruggles Wilson, was a prominent Presbyterian minister who, in 1858, moved his
family to Augusta, Georgia, where he served as pastor
of the First Presbyterian Church during the Civil War. After the war, Joseph
Wilson accepted a position teaching "sacred oratory" at the Columbia
Theological seminary in South
Carolina. Nostalgic for "the bygone era when
oratory had a more central place in American society," the elder Wilson "never tired
of telling how he had seen the great Webster speak in person, or of bemoaning
the fallen state of contemporary public discourse."
Convinced that all young men aspiring to leadership should train in oratory and
debate, the Reverend Wilson encouraged his son to cultivate his speaking
skills. During adolescence the younger Wilson
could be found reciting great speeches in his father's empty church.
1873, the younger Wilson, still known as "Tommy"
to his friends and family, entered DavidsonCollege in North Carolina, where he excelled as a
student of English, rhetoric, and the ancient languages. At Davidson, he also
was elected to the Eumenean Society, a college debating club, and he began his
serious study of rhetoric and the great British orators. In the summer of 1874,
Wilson left Davidson to join his family in Wilmington, North
Carolina, where his father had accepted a new
pastoral appointment. During his final two years at Davidson, according to
scholar Robert Kraig, Wilson
developed his life's ambition: to "make himself into an oratorical
statesman of the first rank—an American Gladstone."
1875 to 1879, Wilson attended the College of New Jersey
(after 1896, PrincetonUniversity), where he
further immersed himself in the study of rhetoric and politics. As a student at
became a campus leader and, "within decorous limits, a bit of a radical."
Complaining that "very little attention" was paid to oratory at
editorialized in The Princetonian
about the need for a "systematic course of instruction" in the "Ciceronian
Lacking such instruction, Wilson
schooled himself, reading Aristotle's Rhetoric
and the speeches of Edmund Burke, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, among
others. He also joined the American Whig Society, one of two literary and
debating societies at Princeton. Later he
helped found the Liberal Debating Club, which was modeled on the British
Wilson wrote and published prolifically while a student at
Princeton. In his final year, he published a
prize-winning essay on William Earl Chatham, "the first of the
The same year he published an essay often cited as the fullest expression of
his early political thought: "Cabinet Government in the United States." In that essay,
proclaimed "debate . . . the essential function of a popular
representative body," and he complained about the lack of "real
deliberation" in the U.S. Congress. Arguing that the "very life of
free, popular institutions" depended on their "breathing the bracing
air of thorough, exhaustive, and open discussions," he advocated a
British-style cabinet government as the only way to attract "men of real
ability" to government service and assure "open and free debate."
Imagining a more "responsible government" led by true "orator-statesmen,"
cardinal feature of Cabinet government . . . is responsible leadership,—the
leadership and authority of a small body of men who have won the foremost
places in their party . . . by evidence of high ability upon the floor of
Congress in the stormy play of debate. None by the ablest can become leaders
and masters in this keen tournament in which the arguments are the weapons, and
the people the judges. . . . To keep men of the strongest mental and moral
fibre in Congress would become a party necessity. Party triumph would then be a
matter of might in debate, not of supremacy in subterfuge.
Not only did Wilson have faith in the
power of debate to clarify issues and reveal the truth, but he trusted ordinary
citizens to judge wisely.
graduating from Princeton, Wilson studied law at
the University of
Virginia for a year, then
dropped out to complete his legal studies on his own. After a disappointing
year practicing law in Atlanta, he undertook
doctoral studies in politics at JohnsHopkinsUniversity.
doctoral dissertation, "Congressional Government: A Study in Politics,"
was published in 1885 and immediately established his scholarly reputation. Echoing
many of his earlier orations and essays, Congressional Government reflected on
the lack of real debate in Congress and emphasized the need for a new
generation of orator-statesmen with intellect, moral character, and an "instinct
and capacity for leadership." Congressional Government did not directly
advocate reform, but it again lamented the lack of great orators in Congress
and the failure of that body "to embody the wisdom and will of its
three years on the faculty at Bryn Mawr and two more at WesleyanUniversity, Wilson
returned to Princeton in 1890 as a professor
of Jurisprudence and Political Economy. At Princeton,
his academic reputation soared, as he became one of the most popular lecturers
on campus and published prolifically. Between 1893 and 1902, Wilson
published nine books and thirty-five articles, including a popular history of
the Civil War, Division and Reunion, and a five-volume History of the American People. As a professor at Princeton, Wilson also fought for
curriculum reforms and earned a national reputation lecturing off campus.
1902, the trustees at Princeton elected Wilson
the thirteenth president of the college. During his eight years as Princeton's
continued to promote curriculum reform and established a "preceptorial,"
or British-style tutorial system. Toward the end of his presidency, however, he
became embroiled in two reform battles with the Old Guard at Princeton.
In the first, Wilson sought to replace Princeton's traditional "eating clubs" with a
system of "quadrangles" that he believed would eliminate "rivalries
and cliques" and create a sense of community, bringing "all four of
the classes" together in "a sort of family life."
In the second, he battled with the graduate dean, Andrew West, over whether a
new graduate school should be located on campus or "in lordly isolation
away from the undergraduates."
In the end, Wilson
lost both battles, but his reform efforts attracted national attention and
established his reputation as a crusader for democracy.
the fall of 1910, the Democratic political bosses of New
Jersey tapped Wilson
as their candidate for governor, confident that they could control and
manipulate such a political novice. Wilson
resigned his post at Princeton and accepted
the nomination, then campaigned against the very bossism that had won him the
nomination. Attracting support from progressives in both political parties, Wilson easily won the
election and, as Governor, he continued to attack special interests and promote
progressive reform. In June of 1912, the Democratic Party, badly divided
between conservatives and progressives, met in Baltimore to select its presidential nominee.
After forty-six ballots, they picked a relatively unknown candidate: the New Jersey governor with
but two years of political experience, Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
As Cooper has noted, the presidential campaign
of 1912 was "one of the great campaigns in American history"—a
campaign that "crackled with excitement" yet also aired "questions
that verged on political philosophy."
Building on his reputation as a democratic crusader, Wilson defended government
"by the people" against the alleged "paternalism" of
Theodore Roosevelt, who had bolted the GOP to run under the progressive, "Bull
Moose" banner. Meanwhile, the Republicans re-nominated William Howard
Taft, who lacked both Roosevelt's ability to dramatize issues and Wilson's intellectual
gifts. Wilson may have lacked Roosevelt's "animal
heat" and his "capacity for arousing mass affection,"
but with the Republican vote split Wilson won
what was, up to that time, the largest electoral majority in U.S. history.
had remarkable success promoting his New Freedom reforms, including banking
legislation, tariff reform, and new regulations on trade, monopolies, and
agricultural production. Combining appeals to public opinion with direct
leadership of Congress, he broke tradition by delivering some twenty-seven
addresses to Congress, making such speeches "a major weapon in his
oratorical arsenal." In the spirit of "common counsel," Wilson limited most of his
congressional speeches to basic principles, leaving "leeway for the
adjustments and compromises" that became "the hallmark" of his
leadership. The result, as Cooper has
written, was a "spectacular, possibly unmatched, record of legislative and
party leadership." As Cooper concludes, only FDR's New Deal and Lyndon
Johnson's Great Society "rival Wilson's
accomplishments with the New Freedom between 1913 and 1916."
Wilson had a tougher time
winning support for his foreign and military policies. After calling upon
Americans to embrace "the true spirit of neutrality," he soon found
it impossible to remain neutral himself. The sinking of the Lusitania in May of 1915,
the "rape of Belgium,"
and other German atrocities convinced Wilson
that only Germany's defeat
could save the United States
itself from attack. Arguing first for "preparedness," Wilson took his case to
the people in January and February of 1916, staking out a middle ground between
"the pacifists on one side and the militarists on the other."
As president, he pledged, he would protect both the peace and the honor of the
nation. Reelected in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of war," Wilson tried one last time
to avoid direct American intervention by mediating a peace settlement. Appearing
before Congress on January
22, 1917, Wilson spelled out the terms for a "peace without
victory"—the only sort of settlement, he argued, that could produce
lasting peace. The plan attracted little
enthusiasm from the belligerents, and in February Germany resumed unrestricted
submarine warfare, sinking eight American ships over the next two months. When Wilson again appeared before Congress, on April 2, 1917, he thus had a
very different purpose: to request a declaration of war against Germany.
Accusing that nation of casting aside "all restraints of law and humanity"
and warring against "mankind" itself, Wilson
committed the United States
not only to ending the war but ridding the world of the "menace" of "autocratic
governments." The world, he declared, "must be made safe for
than a year later, Wilson
appeared again before Congress to announce another plan for peace, the
so-called "Fourteen Points." Combining specific proposals for
resolving territorial disputes with idealistic principles of international
called for open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, free trade, and arms
reductions. The highlight of Wilson's
plan, however, was an idea that would become his consuming passion in the
closing years of his life: a "general association of nations . . . for the
purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and
territorial integrity to great and small states alike."
This "association," of course, would evolve into the proposed League
of Nations, an idea that many saw as a repudiation of America's isolationist tradition. In
however, such an association had become not only a practical but a moral
necessity. It offered the only hope for peace in the modern world, in his
opinion—the only way to make the world "safe for democracy."
Germany's drive to win the war before America
could mobilize its forces almost succeeded. By the fall of 1918, however, some
1,750,000 American troops had arrived on the Western front, and the tide of the
war began to turn. Following a string of military victories, Allied forces
finally captured the Hindenburg Line, Germany's supposedly impregnable
barrier of heavily defended trenches. As their military defeats accumulated,
the Germans hastily installed a parliamentary government, and in October 1918
the new German government agreed to consider a peace settlement based on Wilson's Fourteen Points. After
a month of negotiations, the Kaiser fled to Holland and the armistice was signed. World
War I officially ended on November
than a month later, on December 4, Woodrow Wilson set sail as the head of a
large delegation to the Paris
peace conference. Wilson
faced sharp criticism at home for his personal diplomacy and for the make-up of
his delegation, which included but one Republican. In Europe, however, he
received tumultuous welcomes, with huge throngs cheering him in France, England,
At the talks themselves, he met stiff Allied opposition to his "Fourteen
Points," and he ultimately compromised away much of his program for peace.
On the proposed League of Nations, however, he remained firm, and the
conference rewarded his persistence by making the League Covenant an integral
part of the Versailles treaty.
as he conceded that the treaty as a whole was far from ideal, Wilson
triumphant. Whatever imperfections remained in the treaty itself, he reasoned,
could be worked out under the auspices of the new League
of Nations. Back home, however, Wilson's congressional opponents objected not
only to the terms of the peace settlement but also to the League Covenant. Concerned
that the League might compromise U.S.
sovereignty and constrain America's
freedom of action, more than a third of the senators and senators-elect signed
a Round Robin letter announcing that they would oppose the treaty without
changes. Furious with the letter and its chief sponsor, Senator Henry Cabot
lashed back with accusations that the sponsors of the Round Robin were
deliberately trying to "embarrass the administration of the Government."
Compounding his difficulties, Wilson
delivered a "dud" of a speech to the Senate on July 10, 1918. Botching the delivery
and failing to address the concerns of those senators opposed to the treaty, he
played right into the hands of those bent on amending or even killing the
Wilson met with
Lodge's Foreign Relations Committee and announced that he had no objection to
what he called "interpretive" reservations. Nevertheless, public
opinion appeared to be turning against the League, so in August, 1919, Wilson played his trump
card: he announced that he would take his case to the people in a "swing
around the circle." It was, as historian Arthur S. Link has observed, "one
of the most fateful decisions of his career"—a
decision that would not only decide the outcome of the treaty debate but shape Wilson's legacy for
decades to come.
for Wilson's "swing around the circle"
actually began before he returned from Paris.
Rumors of the tour appeared in the newspapers as early as February, and by the
end of June the president's personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty, had drafted
tentative plans for the tour. After deciding to go ahead with the tour in
August, Tumulty finalized the plans: the president would tour the Midwest and
the Far West, covering more than ten thousand
miles in twenty-seven days and delivering some forty major speeches. He would
start in Columbus, Ohio
on September 4, and the tour would end with a speech in Louisville on September 29. Carefully planning
the details of the president's visit to each city, Tumulty designed the tour to
maximize media coverage and to rally public opinion behind the League. In
retrospect, it proved to be one of the first tours of the modern, "rhetorical"
presidency: a tour designed to go "over the heads" of Congress by
appealing directly to "the people."
Wilson's Rhetorical Philosophy
Dayton David McKean noted in A History
and Criticism of American Public Address, Woodrow Wilson "never
published any systematic statement of his views on the art of public speaking."
But as a young scholar of oratory and politics, he celebrated a neo-classical
rhetorical tradition that emphasized reasoned argument, civility and decorum,
and a commitment to the public good. Like the ancient rhetoricians, Wilson drew a clear
ethical distinction between the responsible orator—Quintillian's "good man
skilled in speaking"—and the sophist or the demagogue. In Wilson's view, the true "orator-statesman"
could be distinguished from the "artful dialectician" by his "high
and noble thoughts," his refusal to compromise his core principles and
convictions, and his emotional self-restraint.
Proclaiming the orator who maintained "complete sovereignty over his
emotions . . . a thousandfold more powerful and impressive than he who 'saws
the air' and 'tears a passion to tatters,'" Wilson
summarized his oratorical ideals in a speech on John Bright that he delivered
while a student at Virginia.
Praising Bright for never allowing his "passions" to "master
located his "marvelous powers of public speech" not in physical or
emotional display, but in high principles and noble ideas:
No orator ever more signally illustrated that
eloquence is not of the lips alone. Eloquence is never begotten by empty pates.
Groveling minds are never winged with high and noble thoughts. Eloquence
consists not in sonorous sound or brilliant phrases. Thought is the fibre,
thought is the pith of eloquence. Eloquence lies in the thought, not in the
throat. . . . It is persuasion inspired by conviction.
Wilson's distaste for
passionate display reflected his faith in public opinion. In response to fears
that democratic deliberation might be dominated by demagogues, Wilson argued that "sophistry"
could never walk "openly in the cloak of wisdom and truth unchallenged and
undiscovered," and he viewed public exposure as an effective check on
demagoguery. As Wilson explained in an
unpublished essay also written while he was at Virginia: "Subtle word-play, dialectic
dexterity, rhetorical adroitness, passionate declamation cannot shield [the
sophist] from the searching scrutiny to which his principles and his plans will
be subjected at every turn . . . . A charlatan cannot long play the statesman
successfully while the whole country is looking critically on." Few
persons had any "just conception" of the "informing and
unmasking disclosures of thorough debate," he concluded, and he disagreed
with those who argued that the masses could not be "brought to exercise
intelligent discretion." From that opinion "I utterly dissent,"
he declared; "I believe . . . the people's choices will be deliberate and
Wilson viewed public
opinion not only as an effective check on demagoguery, but also as a moderating
force. "In a free government founded on public opinion," he wrote,
the "great principles" of governance had to be "worked out
cautiously, step by step." Public opinion "must not be outstripped"
but "kept pace with."Wilson admired
strong leaders, but he insisted that leaders should never lead too far in
advance of public opinion. In his most mature scholarly work, Constitutional Government in the United
States (1908), he imagined an active, "rhetorical" president who
might educate and lead public opinion while remaining true to the "real
sentiment and purpose of the country." If the president "rightly"
interpreted the "national thought" and "boldly" insisted
upon it, Wilson
concluded, he would be politically "irresistible."
But if he led too far in advance of public opinion, he would lose his moral and
Daniel Stid has argued, there is "little doubt" that Wilson was thinking about
Theodore Roosevelt when he wrote Constitutional Government.
In Roosevelt, he found a leader who satisfied
the public's "instinct" for "unified action"—that
craving for inspired leadership that had gone unsatisfied in a government
dominated by Congress. Yet he also considered TR too "brash
and strident"—too much the spellbinder, too prone to vituperative harangues—to
be considered a true orator-statesman.
TR lacked the discernment and prudence—that is, he lacked the character— of Wilson's ideal statesman. Similarly, Wilson criticized such
popular "spellbinders" as William Jennings Bryan and Robert LaFollette
as too impetuous. Wilson found it troubling that the likes of Bryan could
compete for the White House with only "a good voice and a few ringing
sentences," and he complained more
generally about speakers who "disturb without instructing," who "exaggerate,
distort, [and] distract."
For Wilson, the
true spirit of eloquence rested not in a powerful voice or dramatic emotional
appeals, but in broad liberal learning, an understanding of the "character,
spirit, and thought of the nation," and knowledge of "the history and
leading conceptions" of the nation's institutions.
a candidate for president in 1912, Wilson
transformed his scholarly views on rhetorical leadership and democratic debate
into campaign issues, calling for a revival of public deliberation and
political renewal "from below." There was something "astir in
the air of America,"
he declared on the campaign trail, "an almost startling change in the
temper of the people." In the past, campaigns had been occasions for "whooping
it up." But now a new spirit had overtaken America,
according to Wilson—a
spirit of "frank discussion" and "common counsel." Citing
the movement to open schoolhouse doors to town hall debates, Wilson concluded that Americans were longing
to "get together" and "hear things of the deepest consequences
discussed." He also reiterated his absolute faith in the ability of
ordinary citizens to deliberate intelligently and govern themselves wisely:
I am not afraid of the American people getting
up and doing something. . . You cannot make a reckless, passionate force out of
a body of sober people earning their living in a free country. . . . I am not
afraid of [their] judgments . . . because the deepest conviction and passion of
my heart is that the common people . . . are to be absolutely trusted.
Wilson generally remained
true to these ideals throughout his first term in office. Promoting his New
Freedom legislation, he led public opinion in "a careful and constructive
manner," occasionally taking his case to the people, but rarely resorting
to the sort of dramatic, personal appeals that defined Roosevelt's
During his second term, however, Wilson
seemed to change his attitude toward public opinion. Seeking a consensus to go
to war, he authorized the most massive propaganda campaign in U.S. history: the Committee on
Public Information's (CPI) effort to build public support for the war. Headed
by journalist George Creel, the CPI distributed some seventy-five million
pamphlets, plastered stirring pro-war posters on walls across the nation, and
mobilized 75,000 "Four Minute Men" to deliver speeches to tens of
millions of Americans—all singing the praises of "Americanism" and
discrediting all things German."
Manipulating news coverage and stifling dissent, the CPI encouraged not public
deliberation, but "hysteria, hatred, [and] an atmosphere of intolerance."
The CPI, in short, embodied a very different attitude toward public opinion:
instead of a body of collective wisdom to be "absolutely trusted,"
public opinion was now something to be manipulated or manufactured.
the war, Wilson's
own speeches seemed to reflect this new attitude toward public opinion. Early
in his League of Nations tour, he for the most
part engaged his audiences in "common counsel," emphasizing the "great
principles" underlying the peace treaty and making the case for the League
in positive and substantive terms. As the tour progressed, however, he
increasingly embraced the "modern" style advocated by his advisers: a
more emotional, even demagogic style emphasizing the horrors of war and
questioning the integrity and even the patriotism of his critics. Instead of
celebrating democratic deliberation and the collective wisdom of the people, Wilson now tried to
silence dissent and close off debate by suggesting that all who disagreed with
his view had been corrupted by "pro-German propaganda." This drift
toward demagoguery—this abandonment of Wilson's
own neo-classical rhetorical principles—culminated in the most famous speech of
the Western tour: his final speech in Pueblo,
Colorado on September 25, 1919.
in a blue coat, white trousers, white shoes, and a straw hat, Woodrow Wilson
began his Western tour on September 3, 1919, departing from Union Station in
Washington, D.C. Traveling with the president onboard his special railroad car,
the Mayflower, was Mrs. Wilson, his physician Cary T. Grayson, Charles L. Swem,
his personal stenographer, and, of course, Joseph Tumulty, his personal
secretary and closest adviser. Also onboard the train were more than twenty
reporters and wire service correspondents, along with motion picture
photographers and a small contingent of secret service men. In planning the
tour, Tumulty left nothing to chance. Detailed itineraries, called "maneuver
sheets," were prepared for each stop, outlining the president's
activities, accommodations, intra-urban transportation, and meetings with local
his first stop, in Columbus, Ohio, the crowds in the streets proved
disappointing, but his speech to a packed Memorial Hall was a "great hit
with the crowd," Grayson recorded in his diary, as the president "lost
no time in getting right after the opponents of the Treaty."
Later that same day, Wilson addressed a crowd
estimated at between 16,000 and 20,000 people at the State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, making
headlines by challenging his critics to "Put Up or Shut Up!" The next
day in St. Louis he responded to news out of Washington that the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee had voted to recommend four reservations to
the treaty. Declaring the age of isolationism "gone and all but forgotten,"
his critics of betraying those who had fought in the war and labeled them "contemptible
quitters." The next day in Des Moines, he delivered a more magnanimous and
philosophical speech, emphasizing the virtues of a League
of Nations. Not surprisingly, however, newspaper coverage of this
first leg of the tour emphasized his attacks on his critics in the Senate. According
to Robert T. Small, a reporter for the Atlanta
Constitution, the president's "pent-up bitterness" had already "burst
forth," and there was "no telling" what he might say about the
opposition before his tour was over.
a day of rest on Sunday, September 7, Wilson began
the second week of his tour with a parade and speech in Omaha, Nebraska.
Reporters covering the tour found the street crowds in Omaha "depressingly
small," but when the president
arrived at the auditorium for his speech he found it "crowded to the roof"
with some 7,500 cheering supporters, many of whom had "gone without beds"
for the night in order to see him.
Then it was on to Sioux Falls,
South Dakota, where another
capacity crowd of some 7,000 people turned out despite rainy weather. In Minneapolis and St.
another "great crowd" greeted the president's train, and after
addressing the Minnesota State Legislature he again spoke to large,
enthusiastic crowds at both the Minneapolis Armory and the St. Paul Auditorium.
The next day in Bismarck, Wilson's "first
audience of farmers" filled the 1,500-seat city auditorium;
in Billings on September 11, nearly 9,000 people
(including a "large number of Indians") greeted the president; and in
that same day another big crowd proved "extremely friendly to the
President." Only in Coeur
d'Alene, Idaho did the crowd
disappoint, as fewer than 2,000 turned out to hear Wilson speak in a circus tent that could have
held many more. Later that same day, however, nearly 5,000 packed into the National
Guard Armory in Spokane, and the next day his
reception in Seattle/Tacoma was "so overwhelming and unrestrained as to
triumphal Italian tour."
Greeted by some 25,000 flag-waving citizens at the Tacoma stadium, Wilson spoke
twice in that city before traveling to Seattle, where the spirit of the crowd
was "akin to fanaticism," according to the New York Times.
Reviewing the Pacific fleet before addressing another standing-room-only crowd
at the Seattle Arena, Wilson's reception on the
West Coast convinced many observers that Wilson
was indeed winning the debate.
confidence only increased during the third week of the tour. Beginning in Portland, Wilson
heeded the advice of friends that he "warm up a bit," pull out all the stops, and give his
audiences some "sob stuff."
He also began to respond more directly to his critics, not by answering their
concerns but by questioning their motives and even their patriotism. In San Francisco, he accused his critics of encouraging "pro-German
propaganda," and in a brief appearance in Berkeley
he accused both his critics and "some of the newspapers" of "misleading
the opinion of the United
The next day in San Diego, before an enormous
crowd of between 40,000 and 50,000 people, Wilson again complained that the people had
been misled and warned that rejecting the treaty would mean a "death
warrant" for the nation's children.
Concluding his third week on the road with a "monster mass meeting"
at the Shriners' Auditorium in Los Angeles, Wilson even suggested that
the treaty's critics lacked sympathy for those who had died in the Great War: "Have
these gentlemen no hearts? Do they forget the sons that are dead in France?
Do they forget the great sacrifice this nation has made?"
the newspapers declared the debate all but over. Wilson had "crystallized public opinion,"
the Los Angeles Times reported, and
the "obstructionists" were in disarray and retreat.
His reception in California
had been a clear repudiation of those who sought to amend or kill the treaty. As
Charles Grasty reported in the New York
Times, public sentiment for ratification was now "simply overwhelming."
As Wilson turned back east on the last leg of
his tour, however, he did not sound at all confident of victory. In Salt Lake City, he
delivered a speech "filled with defiance and highlighted by flashes of
anger," warning that the "spectre of Bolshevism" hung over the
debate and accusing even the mild reservationists of succumbing to "pro-German
influences." It was, as Cooper has argued, the "worst outburst"
of "inflammatory statements" during the entire tour.
Moreover, the first signs of "real
trouble" with Wilson's health appeared in Salt Lake City, as the
president "faltered in his speech" and did not seem to have his "usual
command over words."
Even the loyal Joseph Tumulty recognized that Wilson
had missed his mark in Salt Lake City,
telling the president that "your 'punch' did not land last night. . . .
you simply pushed the ball; there was no snap in your stroke." According
to Tumulty, neither the press nor his audience "really caught the point"
of why the president so stubbornly resisted reservations, nor did they grasp
his explanation of why Article X—the controversial provision committing the United States
to defend other League members against "external aggression"—was the "heart"
of the treaty. Again Tumulty urged Wilson
to emphasize the sacrifice of those who had died in the war and to portray
ratification without reservations as a matter of national honor.
Wilson did just that in his last two speeches before
arriving in Pueblo.
In Cheyenne, Wyoming, he declared it time for a "showdown"
and announced that, as president, he would regard Senate adoption of
reservations as "a rejection of the treaty." He then tried to
frighten the opposition with predictions that the next world war would make
World War I seem like "child's play" and concluded: "The issue
is final. We cannot avoid it. We have got to make it now, and once made, there
can be no turning back."
In Denver, he
spoke in even more petulant and defiant tones, announcing at the start of his
speech that all the objections to the treaty had been "cleared away"
and blaming continued resistance to ratification on "hyphenated"
Americans whose loyalties remained with their native countries: "Hyphen is
the knife that is being stuck into this document." Again declaring the
debate over, he also repeated his threat to treat any qualification or reservation
by the Senate as a rejection of the entire treaty.
by his raucous reception in Denver, Wilson set out for Pueblo
at on September
25. Although he was suffering from a "splitting headache" and was "practically
at the limit of his physical powers,"
he agreed to be driven around the state fairgrounds in Pueblo, where a big crowd waited to cheer
him. He then proceeded to the brand new civic auditorium, where 3000 people
awaited his formal address. By "common consent," it would be the "most
moving" speech of the Western tour—a speech that historian Thomas Bailey
would later call the "high point
of the entire trip."
In many ways, however, it was also one of the most demagogic—a speech that not
only betrayed Wilson's own principles of oratorical statesmanship, but also
foreshadowed some of the worst tendencies of the modern rhetorical presidency.
The Pueblo Speech
was a little after
on Thursday, September 25 when Wilson rose to
speak in Pueblo, Colorado. "This will have to be a short
speech," he told the reporters who had heard him speak some thirty times
already. "Aren't you fellows getting pretty sick of this"?
Yet inspired by ten minutes of cheering, Wilson
somehow found the strength to deliver a 6152-word address that summarized
virtually every theme he had addressed on the tour. Perhaps the warmth of his
reception energized the ailing president. Or perhaps he somehow sensed that
this might be his last speech. Whatever his inspiration, Wilson delivered a passionate speech that,
according to legend, left at least some in the audience in tears.
Wilson broke little new ground in his Pueblo speech. Summarizing the results of his
tour, he began by claiming that he had gotten an "inspiring impression"
of public opinion during his tour (1). Yet he also confessed to some "unpleasant
impressions," as he found himself forced to respond to the "absolutely
false impression" of the treaty created by the "organized propaganda"
of its critics. Coming from "exactly the same sources" that had
demonstrated their "disloyalty" before the war, Wilson again blamed "hyphenated"
Americans. In perhaps the most famous line of the address, Wilson seemingly condemned all who boasted of
their foreign ancestry: "And I want to say—and I can't say it too
often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is
ready to plunge into the vitals of this republic whenever he gets the chance. If
I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest, I will know that I
have caught an enemy of the republic" (2).
to "clear away the mists"
and "check the falsehoods" (2), Wilson
returned to his earlier emphasis on the great principles behind the document,
reviewing how it affirmed the right of self-determination, provided a "great
international charter for the rights of labor" (4), and mobilized the "moral
forces of the world" against aggression and war (5). He also addressed two
issues that had been emphasized by critics of the treaty: an alleged voting advantage
that the British would derive from their colonies in the League, and a
provision allowing Japan to
retain its ill-gotten jurisdiction over the Shantung province in China.
About half-way through the speech, Wilson
finally came to what he now defined as the "heart of the whole matter":
the controversy over Article X. All the other objections had been "blown
away like bubbles," he declared, and the nation now had to make a choice:
either "accept or reject" the treaty, including its promise to "respect
and preserve the territorial integrity and existing political independence of
every other member of the League as against external aggression" (9). In Pueblo, Wilson again
suggested that the League of Nations would be
worthless without this guarantee, and he again made clear that he was in no
mood to compromise. Article X struck at the "taproot of war" (12), he
insisted, and to qualify or reject it would undermine the whole League.
Wilson sounded exasperated
as he once again responded to the treaty's critics. Reacting to fears that
Article X might force the United States to take military action, he noted that
the Council of the League could only "advise what steps, if any, are
necessary to carry out" the article's guarantee of territorial integrity
and independence for member nations. "I do not know any other meaning for
the word 'advise' except 'advise,'" Wilson
exclaimed. The Council merely "advised," and it could not even "advise"
without the affirmative vote of the United States. Conceding that this
provision might "impair somewhat the vigor of the League," Wilson
seemed puzzled over objections to the provision: "Why gentlemen should
fear that the Congress of the United States would be advised to do something
that it did not want to do, I frankly cannot imagine, because they cannot even
be advised to do anything unless their own representative has participated in
the advice" (11).
all of the ideas he championed at Paris, Wilson claimed that
Article X embodied American ideals and public opinion. "I would have felt
very lonely . . . if, sitting at the peace table in Paris,
I had supposed that I was expounding my own ideas," Wilson explained. He had "proposed
nothing whatever" that he did not know with certainty "embodied the
moral judgment of the citizens of the United States." In effect, he
had gone to Paris with "explicit
instructions," just as he had earlier expressed the "thought of the
people of the United States"
in his Fourteen Points. Recalling that earlier statement, Wilson
claimed that he had "every assurance" that the Fourteen Points
expressed the "moral judgment of the United States and not my single
judgment." After the fourteen points became the basis for peace, he "crossed
the ocean under bond to my own people and to the other governments with which I
was dealing." He and the other negotiators were merely "architects"
building on "specifications" established beforehand (12). Noting that
many other leading public figures had endorsed the basic idea behind a League of Nations, he quoted from an editorial by
Theodore Roosevelt calling for collective security in October of 1914. "The
one effective move for obtaining peace," TR had written, "is by an
agreement among all the great powers in which each should pledge itself not
only to abide by the decisions of a common tribunal, but to back its decisions
by force" (13).
on his critics. Claiming that there was "not a leg for these gentlemen to
stand on," he recalled how he had first presented a draft of the covenant
to the Senate in March. Then he had met with the Foreign Relations Committee
and carried back to Paris a number of their suggestions, "every one"
of which was "adopted." Venting his frustration, Wilson exclaimed: "What more could I
have done? What more could have been obtained" (14)? He then left little
doubt about where he stood on reservations. Inasmuch as he already had
responded to the Senate's concerns, we now had to do "one or other of two
things—we have got to adopt it or reject it. There is no middle course." Equating
reservations with entering the League "on a special-privilege basis,"
he pronounced the American people "too proud to ask to be exempted from
responsibilities which the other members of the League will carry." We had
to go into the League "upon equal terms" or "we do not go in at
all." Finally, he described the "tragedy" that would result if "dangerous
pride" led the Senate to reject the treaty. Should that happen, Wilson argued, the United States would need to stand "ready
to take care of ourselves," which meant maintaining "great standing
armies and an irresistible navy." It also meant having "the
organization of a military nation," with a "general staff, with the
kind of power that the General Staff of Germany had, to mobilize this great
manhood of the nation when it pleases." Under such a regime, he warned, "all
the energy of our young men" would be "drawn into the thought and
preparation for war" (15).
Wilson began the long, emotional peroration of his Pueblo speech with a rhetorical question: "What of
our pledges to the men that lie dead in Europe?"
Then marshaling his entire repertoire of emotional proofs, he declared his "clients"
to be "the children"—the "next generation"—and he pledged
to redeem his promise that they would never have to go "upon a similar
errand" (15). He also recalled how grieving mothers had "blessed"
him despite losing their sons in the war. "Again and again," he said,
"mothers who lost their sons in France" had come up to him, taken his
hand, and with tears in their eyes had said: "God bless you, Mr.
President!" Why, Wilson
asked, "should they pray to God to bless me? I advised the Congress . . .
to create the situation that led to the death of their sons. I ordered their
sons overseas. I consented to their sons being put in the most difficult parts
of the battle line, where death was certain, as in the impenetrable
difficulties of the forest
of Argonne." Why
would such women bless the president? The answer, of course, was that these
mothers understood better than anyone the larger purposes and meaning of the
war. They believed that their boys died for a cause "that vastly
transcends any of the immediate and palpable objects of the war." They
believed, and "rightly" so, "their sons saved the liberty of the
world." They believed that, "wrapped up with the liberty of the
world," was the "continuous protection of that liberty by the
concerted powers of all civilized people." And, above all, they believed
that "this sacrifice was made in order that other sons should not be
called upon for a similar gift—the gift of life, the gift of all that died"
Wilson claimed, in effect, that who died in the
war died for the League of Nations. And to
reject the League now would not only diminish their sacrifice but tarnish their
memory. If the treaty were rejected, Wilson
asked, "would not something of the halo go away from the gun over the
mantelpiece, or the sword? Would not the old uniform lose something of its
significance?" Those men were "crusaders," and "their
transcendent achievement" had made "all the world believe in America
as it believes in no other nation . . . in the modern world." Picturing
soldiers lined up by his side as he battled for the League of Nations, Wilson
imagined even the dead rallying to his cause: "There seems to me to stand
between us and the rejection or qualification of this treaty the serried ranks
of those boys in khaki—not only those boys who came home, but those dear ghosts
that still deploy upon the fields of France" (16).
Wilson took his audience to a "beautiful
hillside near Paris"—the
American cemetery at Suresnes, where he had spoken on Memorial Day. "Behind
me on the slopes," he recalled, "was rank upon rank of living
American soldiers. And, lying before me upon the levels of the plain, was rank
upon rank of departed American soldiers." As he spoke, Wilson recalled, a "little group of
French women" stood nearby, paying their respects to the American boys who
they had adopted as their own. Becoming "mothers to these dear boys,"
the French women put flowers on the graves of American boys every day "because
they had died to save France."
Implying that his critics lacked both sympathy and understanding, Wilson declared: "I
wish that some men in public life who are now opposing the settlement for which
these men died could visit such a spot as that. I wish that the feeling which
came to me could penetrate their hearts." If only they could "feel
the moral obligation that rests upon us not to go back on those boys,"
they would "see the thing through" and "make good their
redemption of the world. For nothing less depends upon us, nothing less than
the liberation and salvation of the world" (17).
Wilson conceded that the League of
Nations provided no "absolute guarantee" against future
wars. But sounding a theme he had emphasized throughout the tour, he insisted
that some "insurance" against war was better than "no insurance
at all" and sounded an ironic note: "Now that the mists of this great
question have cleared away, I believe that men will see the truth, eye to eye
and face to face." In Pueblo,
of course, it was Wilson himself who fogged the whole debate in the mists of war
sentimentality. And in closing, he awkwardly conjured up an especially foggy,
dream-like image, wistfully imagining peaceful pastures and a world without
war: "We have accepted [the] truth, and we are going to be led by it, and
it is going to lead us, and, through us, the world, out into pastures of
quietness and peace such as the world never dreamed of before" (18).
the time, reporters traveling with the president sensed nothing special about
address. Reporting for the Chicago Tribune, Philip Kinsley observed that
the president's emotional appeals were "effective as everywhere," and
he noted that Mrs. Wilson had "tears on her cheeks" as the president
finished his address. Yet Kinsley led his dispatch that day with news of the
steel strike in Pueblo, and he described Wilson's reception as "respectful
and friendly" but "not particularly enthusiastic."
Similarly, the Los Angeles Timesonly briefly paraphrased Wilson's
pledge to fight for the children, emphasizing instead his attack on hyphenated
Americans and his call for a political "showdown."
Instead of noting Wilson's
sentimental reflections on war, the newspapers emphasized his defiance,
highlighting how in both of his speeches that day he had threatened to kill the
treaty himself. Several years later, a
reporter traveling with the president, David Lawrence, would recall the Pueblo speech as a "masterpiece
At the time, however, nobody seemed to sense anything special about the speech.
Nobody imagined that it would go down in history as one of the greatest
speeches of Wilson's
elevated the Pueblo
speech to the status of a "great" presidential address? Why do we
remember it as one of the "top 100 speeches" of the twentieth
century? The answer lies not so much in the speech itself as in what happened
afterwards. As told and retold over the years, the story of the Pueblo speech became one
of the great political dramas of American history—a story of visionary
leadership, personal courage, and heroic self-sacrifice. Moreover, historians
have concluded that Wilson was right about the
need for a League of Nations. By the 1960s,
the revisionist portrait of Wilson had become
firmly entrenched, redeeming not only the content of the Pueblo speech but also its passionate style. Today,
we praise the Pueblo speech, not only because we
have decided that Wilson
was "right," but also because we now have a very different conception
of presidential "eloquence."
The Legacy of
Wilson was very tired and "suffering" when he returned to his
railroad car following his speech in Pueblo,
according to Grayson. So twenty miles outside of town, Grayson ordered the
train stopped so the president could take a walk and get some fresh air.
That walk, along with what happened later that night, became the key events in
a tragic narrative that continues to color our memories of the Pueblo speech. After
returning from his walk, according to his wife Edith, the president was "much
refreshed" and even "cheerful." Yet later that night, Mrs.
Wilson summoned Grayson with news that Wilson
was very sick and in "unbearable" pain.
Fearing that he might die, Grayson recommended that the rest of the trip be
canceled. The treaty debate would go on, but the Western tour was over.
the presidential train sped back toward Washington,
news of Wilson's
illness caused a "sensation."
When the train finally arrived back in Washington
on September 28, the president reportedly walked unaided to a waiting car,
convincing some observers that he would be just fine after a few days rest. But
then, on October 2, the president suffered a stroke and collapsed on the
bathroom floor, where Edith found him "bloody and unconscious."
For the remaining seventeen months of his presidency, Wilson remained a virtual invalid, with Mrs.
Wilson jealously guarding his privacy and the fate of the treaty hanging in
this time, the Senate twice voted to reject the Versailles treaty—first on November 19, then
again on March 19 of the following year. As Wilson regained a measure of his health, he
tried to fight back, proposing a wild scheme for turning the 1920 election into
a "great and solemn referendum" on the treaty.
Yet, for many, these efforts only confirmed that he was a "petulant and
sick man" and, in his opposition to reservations, had become "the
principal obstacle to ratification."
Before long, even the most devoted treaty supporters gave up the fight, and Wilson's great
crusade—indeed, his "great political career"—came to a "pitiful
Western tour might have been remembered as a lesson in failed presidential
leadership—an illustration of Wilson's
own principle that public opinion "must not be outstripped" but "kept
pace with." Instead, it lives on in
history and public memory as a tale of heroic personal sacrifice and lost
opportunity. Had the nation only listened to Wilson, or so the story goes, World War II
might have been avoided. The events surrounding the Pueblo speech are an important part of this
story, at least as they have been dramatized and fictionalized over the years.
came Joseph Tumulty's memoir, published just two years after the tour.
Recalling the Pueblo speech as "one of the
best and most passionate" of Wilson's
career, Tumulty reveled in Wilson's portrait of
that "beautiful hillside near Paris"
and recalled how the speech left some in tears.
Then came Edith Wilson's memoir, published in 1938. Recalling the president's
promise to make only a "short speech," Mrs. Wilson wrote of the
surprising, even mysterious burst of energy and passion that seemed to overtake
the ailing president. "Strangely," she wrote, the speech he delivered
that day—a day in which he was suffering terribly from a headache—"was one
of the longest, one of the most vigorous and touching he made on the tour."
As he "warmed to his subject," Edith recalled, his "weariness
seemed to leave him. New and undiscovered reservoirs of strength seemed to
reinforce his efforts."
Tumulty and Mrs. Wilson portrayed Wilson
as a heroic martyr, vigorously resisting the decision to call off the trip,
even though his "whole left side was paralyzed." "Don't you see
that if you cancel this trip," Tumulty recalled Wilson saying, "Senator Lodge and his
friends will say that I'm a quitter and that the Western trip was a failure,
and the Treaty will be lost?" Tumulty concluded with a heroic portrait of
this martyr to peace: "Suffering the greatest pain, paralyzed on his left
side, he was still fighting desperately for the thing that was so close to his
heart—a vindication of the things for which he had so gallantly fought on the
other side. Grim old warrior that he was, he was ready to fight to the death
for the League of Nations."
Edith too recalled Wilson
protesting the decision to cancel the tour, although in somewhat different
words: "No, no, no. I must keep going." According to Edith, however, Wilson finally "accepted
the decree of Fate as gallantly as he had fought the fight," never once
voicing a "syllable of self-pity or regret" over the decision to
cancel the tour.
the years, the legend of Pueblo has been
embellished by popular historians and even Hollywood
filmmakers. In 1944, for example, Oscar-winning producer Darryl F. Zanuck
released a lavish 20th Century Fox production, Wilson, that told an even
more dramatic version of the story of Pueblo.
In a liberal exercise of dramatic license, Zanuck had Wilson
delivering his Pueblo address from the rear
platform of his train car (not in Pueblo's new
civic auditorium), and he depicted Wilson
being struck down during the speech by some sort of seizure. In Zanuck's
rendition, Wilson did not speak the words he
actually spoke in Pueblo,
but rather delivered a dark, fatalistic speech in which he apologized to
soldiers who had fought in the Great War: "You are betrayed! You fought
for something that you did not get!" In a variation upon words that Wilson
actually delivered three weeks earlier in St. Louis, Zanuck also had Wilson
warning of a time when, "in the vengeful providence of God," another
world war would claim the lives not of a "few hundred thousand fine young
men from American" but "as many millions" as would be necessary
to secure "the final freedom of the peoples of the world." Yet then,
after speaking less than three minutes, Wilson
was visibly jolted and had to be helped back into the train. To this day, at
least one on-line educational site still has Wilson
collapsing during his Pueblo
speech, either from a "mild stroke" or some sort of "nervous
revisionist portrait of Wilson
as a prophetic and courageous crusader for world peace received official,
bipartisan sanction in 1956, when the U.S. Congress created the Woodrow Wilson
Centennial Celebration Commission. Charged with developing "suitable plans"
for celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wilson's
birth, the Commission sponsored educational programs, commemorative services,
and scholarly publications, all designed to put Wilson "high on the list of great
American Presidents." Scarcely a generation before, the Commission
conceded, Wilson had been a "highly
controversial" figure, a president at the "center of the bitterest
political battles," and a man who suffered a "calamitous defeat"
in the League of Nations debate. Yet "momentous
events," including a "second and more devastating world war,"
had dictated a reassessment of Wilson.
Now we had come to appreciate Wilson's
"mastery of lucid prose," his "deep humanitarian instincts,"
and his "realistic vision of instrumentalities to promote world peace."
By "nationwide accord," the Commission concluded, Wilson
was now "recognized as one of America's greatest presidents."
the 1950s, the revisionist portrait of Wilson
has been reinforced in both popular and scholarly histories. In 1964, for
example, Gene Smith, a journalist with a "strong sense of history's drama,"
crafted a version of the Western tour "straight out of Greek tragedy."
In reconstructing the Pueblo
speech, Smith wrote of the look of "terror" on the First Lady's face
with the president stumbled over some words early in the speech. But the
president somehow "gathered himself together," recalling his speech
on Memorial Day and wishing that the senators opposing the League "might
have been there on that day." According to Smith, "men and women
alike" reached for handkerchiefs to "wipe their eyes"—a slight
embellishment on other accounts of the speech. Then, after speaking of the "dear
ghosts who still deploy upon the fields of France,"
lost focus. "He halted," Smith wrote. "The people looked at him
and he at them." Smith then invented a dramatic scene that not even Hollywood had imagined: "The President of the United States,
standing before an audience of some several thousand of his fellow citizens,
was crying. . . . He turned away and the First Lady came to him. Their tears
mixed." According to Smith, Wilson
also "burst into tears" when later told that the trip had to be
historians engage in such complete fabrication, of course, and not all
historians have praised the Pueblo
speech as a masterpiece of Wilsonian eloquence. Historians Robert H. Ferrell
criticized the concluding lines of the speech as "tired words, not
Wilsonian," while biographer Kendrick
A. Clements has called Wilson's language "tired and ordinary" and the
speech as a whole "not very good."
Yet most historians seem to agree with Thomas Bailey's assessment that the Pueblo speech was the "high point of the entire trip,"
and even the most careful historian of the League debate, John Milton Cooper,
Jr., considers it among the "best performances" of the tour.
Aside from sympathy for Wilson's
physical suffering after the speech, what might account for such praise? Why
have historians for the most part celebrated the Pueblo speech?
of the answer lies in our changing conceptions of presidential eloquence. Since
the presidency has become even more of a speech-making office, and we have come
to expect presidents to "go public" to promote themselves and their
policies. Having lost touch with the neo-classical tradition, we find it
neither surprising nor inappropriate for a president to deliver a passionate,
campaign-style speech in support of a policy initiative. Indeed, we expect
presidents to speak in emotional and highly partisan terms, engaging in a "permanent
campaign" to promote their policy agenda.
For Jeffrey Tulis, that is the hallmark of the modern "rhetorical presidency,"
and the explanation for Wilson's failure in the League debate rests in the fact
that people in his day took the president's popular speech far too seriously. Today,
according to Tulis at least, we recognize that presidents don't really mean what
they say in public. And in Tulis's view, that is a good thing, for a president
cannot possibly be "candid and forthright in popular speech" and
still deliberate seriously with Congress.
also celebrate Wilson's Pueblo speech because they believe, along
with historian Arthur S. Link, that he was "right in his larger vision."
After World War II, Link has argued, we finally learned the lesson that Wilson tried to teach in
1919: that the "most immoral thing" a nation could do was to "refuse
to exercise power responsibly when it possesses it." For two decades, America
ignored that principle, retreating back into what Link has characterized as an
outmoded isolationism and spurning "the responsibility that accompanied
its power." More recently, Cooper has
echoed Link's views, proclaiming Wilson
"absolutely right" in his larger vision, even if he "failed to
be as flexible and persuasive" as he might have been. "For all their
decency and intelligence," Cooper has concluded, "Wilson's opponents were wrong. For all his
flaws and missteps, Wilson
was right. He should have won the League fight. His defeat did break the heart
of the world."
if Wilson had "won" the League of Nations debate, there would have been no
Hitler, no Holocaust, no World War II. In a sense, however, he did win the
debate, as his "new vision" of American internationalism has been
embraced by "almost every American president since Franklin Roosevelt."
Today, we assume that the United States
has a right, even a moral obligation, to "mind other peoples' business,"
as Wilson himself put it in Indianapolis.
As a result, we find ourselves constantly embroiled in international conflicts
around the world. In an age of widespread resentment toward American foreign
policy, perhaps the time has come to reconsider the ethical and practical
utility of Wilsonian internationalism. Perhaps the time has come for another "great
debate" over American foreign policy.
Updated: September 2006
Michael Hogan is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, and Co-Director
of the Center for Civic Engagement and Democratic Deliberation, at the PennsylvaniaStateUniversity.
 Loren B. Chan, "Fighting
for the League: President Wilson in Nevada,
Historical Journal (Summer 1979): 115, 118-120.
 John Milton Cooper Jr., "Fool's
Errand or Finest Hour? Woodrow Wilson's Speaking Tour in September 1919,"
in The Wilson Era: Essays in Honor of
Arthur S. Link, ed. John Milton Cooper Jr. and Charles E. Neu (Arlington
Heights, Il: Harlan Davidson, 1991), 198-199.
 Thomas A. Bailey, Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal
(1945; reprint, Chicago:
Quadrangle Books, 1963), 90.
 John Milton Cooper Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson
and Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1983), 22-23.
 See "To the Editor,"
in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69
vols., ed. Arthur S. Link, et. al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1966-94), 1: 238-39; and "Editorial in The
Princetonian," in ibid., 294-96.Hereafter cited as PWW.
 Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States,"
PWW, 18: 114.
Daniel D. Stid, "Rhetorical
Leadership and 'Common Counsel' in the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson," in Speaking to the People: The Rhetorical
Presidency in Historical Perspective, ed. Richard J. Ellis (Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 165.
 Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States, 114.
 Kendrick A. Clements, Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman (1987;
Ivan R. Dee, 1999), 215; and Kendrick A. Clements, The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (Lawrence: University Press of
Kansas, 1992), 196.
 Bailey, Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal, 113.
 Cooper, Breaking the Heart of the World, 186.
 See Sidney Blumenthal, The Permanent Campaign: Inside the World of
Elite Political Operatives (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980).
 Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1987), 161.
 Cooper, Breaking the Heart of the World, 433.
 Jason C. Flanagan, "Woodrow
Wilson's 'Rhetorical Restructuring': The Transformation of the American Self
and the Construction of the German Enemy," Rhetoric and Public Affairs 7 (Summer 2004): 115.