Primary Documents - President Wilson's Announcement to the Armistice to Congress, 11 November 1918

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson With German military morale in evident decline on the Western Front and revolution brewing at home - Kaiser Wilhelm II was himself obliged to abdicate on 9 November 1918 - the German government determined to negotiate an armistice with the Allies on 6 November, having issued preliminary diplomatic feelers two days earlier.

Consequently on 7 November the German Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg exchanged a series of telegrams with the Supreme Allied Commander, Ferdinand Foch, to agree a date, time and place for formal negotiations.  (Click here and here to read Allied eyewitness accounts of the armistice negotiations; click here to read an account by a German delegate.)

Although Germany had insisted that it would only enter into negotiations on the understanding that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's so-called 'Fourteen Points' would form the basis for a settlement, the armistice terms were nevertheless punitive.  The Allies agreed to an armistice only on the basis that Germany effectively disarm herself, thereby preventing the latter from renewing hostilities.

The Allies' armistice terms were first presented to German negotiators on 8 November 1918; alarmed at the severity of the terms the Germans lodged formal protests before reluctantly signing revised terms at 5 a.m. on 11 November; the armistice was to come into effect six hours later, at 11 a.m.

President Wilson shortly afterwards announced details of the armistice to Congress (reproduced below), and further celebrated the agreement in a Thanksgiving Address at the close of the month.

President Wilson's Announcement to the Armistice to Congress, 11 November 1918

The war thus comes to an end; for, having accepted these terms of armistice, it will be impossible for the German command to renew it.

It is not now possible to assess the consequences of this great consummation.  We know only that this tragical war, whose consuming flames swept from one nation to another until all the world was on fire, is at an end and that it was the privilege of our own people to enter it at its most critical juncture in such fashion and in such force as to contribute, in a way of which we are all deeply proud, to the great result.

We know, too, that the object of the war is attained; the object upon which all free men had set their hearts; and attained with a sweeping completeness which even now we do not realize.

Armed imperialism such as the men conceived who were but yesterday the masters of Germany is at an end, its illicit ambitions engulfed in black disaster.  Who will now seek to revive it?

The arbitrary power of the military caste of Germany, which once could secretly and of its own single choice disturb the peace of the world, is discredited and destroyed.  And more than that - much more than that - has been accomplished.  The great nations which associated themselves to destroy it have now definitely united in the common purpose to set up such a peace as will satisfy the longing of the whole world for disinterested justice, embodied in settlements which are based upon something much better and more lasting than the selfish competitive interests of powerful States.

There is no longer conjecture as to the objects the victors have in mind.  They have a mind in the matter, not only, but a heart also.  Their avowed and concerted purpose is to satisfy and protect the weak as well as to accord their just rights to the strong.

The humane temper and intention of the victorious Governments have already been manifested in a very practical way.  Their representatives in the Supreme War Council at Versailles have by unanimous resolution assured the peoples of the Central Empires that everything that is possible in the circumstances will be done to supply them with food and relieve the distressing want that is in so many places threatening their very lives; and steps are to be taken immediately to organize these efforts at relief in the same systematic manner that they were organized in the case of Belgium.

By the use of the idle tonnage of the Central Empires it ought presently to be possible to lift the fear of utter misery from their oppressed populations and set their minds and energies free for the great and hazardous tasks of political reconstruction which now face them on every hand.  Hunger does not breed reform; it breeds madness and all the ugly distempers that make an ordered life impossible.

For with the fall of the ancient Governments, which rested like an incubus on the people of the Central Empires, has come political change not merely, but revolution; and revolution which seems as yet to assume no final and ordered form, but to run from one fluid change to another, until thoughtful men are forced to ask themselves, With what Governments and of what sort are we about to deal in the making of the covenants of peace?

With what authority will they meet us, and with what assurance that their authority will abide and sustain securely the international arrangements into which we are about to enter?  There is here matter for no small anxiety and misgiving.  When peace is made, upon whose promises and engagements besides our own is it to rest?

Let us be perfectly frank with ourselves and admit that these questions cannot be satisfactorily answered now or at once.  But the moral is not that there is little hope of an early answer that will suffice.  It is only that we must be patient and helpful and mindful above all of the great hope and confidence that lie at the heart of what is taking place.

Excesses accomplish nothing.  Unhappy Russia has furnished abundant recent proof of that.  Disorder immediately defeats itself.  If excesses should occur, if disorder should for a time raise its head, a sober second thought will follow and a day of constructive action, if we help and do not hinder.

The present and all that it holds belong to the nations and the peoples who preserve their self-control and the orderly processes of their Governments; the future to those who prove themselves the true friends of mankind.  To conquer with arms is to make only a temporary conquest; to conquer the world by earning its esteem is to make permanent conquest.

I am confident that the nations that have learned the discipline of freedom and that have settled with self-possession to its ordered practice are now about to make conquest of the world by the sheer power of example and of friendly helpfulness.

The peoples who have but just come out from under the yoke of arbitrary government aid who are now coming at last into their freedom will never find the treasures of liberty they are in search of if they look for them by the light of the torch.

They will find that every pathway that is stained with the blood of their own brothers leads to the wilderness, not to the seat of their hope.  They are now face to face with their initial test.  We must hold the light steady until they find themselves.

And in the meantime, if it be possible, we must establish a peace that will justly define their place among the nations, remove all fear of their neighbours and of their former masters, and enable them to live in security and contentment when they have set their own affairs in order.

I, for one, do not doubt their purpose or their capacity.  There are some happy signs that they know and will choose the way of self-control and peaceful accommodation.  If they do, we shall put our aid at their disposal in every way that we can.  If they do not, we must await with patience and sympathy the awakening and recovery that will assuredly come at last.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Russia mobilised 12 million men during the war; France 8.4 million; Britain 8.9 million; Germany 11 million; Austria-Hungary 7.8 million; Italy 5.6 million; and the USA 4.3 million.

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