Saturday, May 25, 2019

Memorial Day Address at Suresnes

Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith laying a wreath in Suresnes American Cemetery, Memorial Day, 1919. (National Archives/Army Signal Corps).
A century ago, in May 1919, U.S. Ambassador to France Hugh Wallace invited President Woodrow Wilson to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony to honor the Americans killed during World War I. Wilson responded:
I have no time that I can honestly call my own in the hours of daylight. I am almost continuously in conference or engaged on my papers, except for the intervals when I try to snatch a breath of fresh air, and I feel that I cannot in good conscience accept an afternoon engagement, at any rate for such an hour as three o’clock. If the Committee could change the hour of the exercises at Bagnolet Cemetery from three to two, I would try to be present and say a few words, taking the liberty of coming away in time for my afternoon engagements with the conference. I sincerely hope that this may prove possible and satisfactory to the committee.
The ceremony was subsequently moved to the Suresnes American cemetery. After the American entry in the war in 1917, the Army Quartermaster Corps had created in Suresnes a makeshift graveyard on the slope of Mont Valérien overlooking Paris for the burial of troops who died in city hospitals, including those who died during the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919. The French government donated the land permanently to the U.S., making it the first overseas American military cemetery, and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who was unable to attend the event, sent a letter that was read at the ceremony. “With America,” he wrote, “France will preserve in peace as an inspiration and example an undying remembrance of their enthusiasm, discipline and courage. We see the wreaths on their tombs and will take care of them as piously and gratefully as the tombs of our own soldiers.” The site was beautifully renovated by French architect Jacques Gréber in 1922 and to this day it holds the remains of 1,541 Americans. The chapel walls list the names of 974 others who went missing in action.

Wilson had been in France since mid-March; in April he collapsed, a victim of the flu epidemic, and the demands of the peace process continued to exhaust him. Only the day before the Memorial Day ceremony, on May 29, Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, the president of the German delegation, presented vehement objections to the proposed Treaty of Versailles and declared, “Thus must a whole people sign the decree for its own proscription, nay, its own death sentence.” Despite Wilson’s ill health, the pressing nature of events, and the threat that the Germans might refuse to sign the treaty, the President attended the ceremony, which had been moved to an earlier hour in the day. He made it back in time for the 4:00 meeting of the Council of Four, which took place at his own residence in Paris.

Wilson’s appearance at the cemetery would be one of the more memorable events of his stay in France. “Extemporizing from notes, he delivered one of the most poignant speeches of his life,” writes biographer A. Scott Berg. “The notes proved to be an essential crutch, for the pathos of the occasion almost broke the President’s self-control.” The journalist Ray Stannard Baker, who didn’t even notice Wilson glancing at his notes, was awestruck by both the speech and Wilson’s delivery. “I saw tears in the eyes of those around me and felt them in my own,” he wrote in his diary. “On the whole, I think this is the greatest speech—the greatest speech in its power over the people present—of any I ever heard.” Afterward Baker wholeheartedly commended Wilson, who responded, “I am glad to hear it. When I speak extemporaneously, I am as uncertain and nervous just after it is over as I usually am just before.” Charles L. Swem, Wilson’s stenographic secretary, transcribed the speech and gave a typescript copy to Baker barely an hour later. We present it below as our Story of the Week selection.

Later that year, after Wilson had returned to the States, he realized that the Senate was unlikely to ratify the treaty creating the League of Nations. To drum up popular support, he went on a whistle-stop tour across the country. In spite of his fatigue and piercing headaches, he delivered hour-long appeals, projecting his voice to be heard by immense audiences of hundreds or even thousands of people. During the speech in Pueblo, Colorado, he recalled the Memorial Day ceremony in Paris:
My friends, on last Decoration Day, I went to a beautiful hillside near Paris, where was located the cemetery of Suresnes, a cemetery given over to the burial of the American dead. Behind me on the slopes 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. Right by the side of the stand where I spoke, there was a little group of French women who had adopted these boys—they were mothers to these dear boys—putting flowers every day upon those graves, taking them as their own sons, their own beloved, because they had died to save France. France was free, and the world was free because America had come!
The speech in Pueblo was the last Wilson ever gave. Ordered by his doctor to end the trip, he returned to the White House, where he suffered an ischemic stroke on October 2, leaving him paralyzed on his left side and restricting his ability to speak. He did not make public appearances for the remainder of his presidency and the full extent of his condition was concealed from the nation. The Senate voted against his treaty.

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Mr. Ambassador, ladies and gentlemen, fellow countrymen: No one with a heart in his breast, no American, no lover of humanity, can stand in the presence of these graves without the most profound emotion. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.