For Secondary Educators

Woodrow Wilson, “The Pueblo Speech” (25 September 1919)

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator.

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

  • Wilson’s Pueblo Speech marked a shift in presidential rhetoric to a more modern style of mass appeal. Targeting the public rather than the senators who would be voting on the League of Nations, Wilson utilized emotional arguments to mobilize public support for the Versailles treaty.  World War I saw the rise of modern propaganda campaigns, and Wilson’s rhetoric reflected the emerging view that emotions—fears of another war and memories of the sacrifice of those who died in World War I—were more powerful than logical arguments in shaping public opinion.
  • Senate approval of the League of Nations was Wilson’s primary goal in this speech. Although he failed to win approval for the treaty, Wilson’s vision was enacted after WWII through the formation of the United Nations and continues today as a lasting legacy of U.S. foreign policy.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

  • Wilson’s speech at Pueblo was the culmination of an ambitious and controversial speaking tour on behalf of the League of Nations and the Versailles Treaty. Wilson’s goal was to win the public’s approval of the League of Nations as a necessary next step in preserving international peace after one of the bloodiest wars in human history.
  • To argue his point, Wilson employed strategies we associate with modern presidential rhetoric, including directly addressing the American public, employing fear appeals, and using emotional arguments.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • This speech relied on implied accusations against people who opposed ratification of the Versailles treaty and the League of Nations, suggesting that they were disloyal and heartless. Furthermore, Wilson implied that if the U.S. did not join the League of Nations, the deaths of soldiers and civilians in World War I would be meaningless and many more mothers would have to sacrifice their sons in future wars.

Ideas for Pre-Reading and Discussion

  • Show students a picture of President Wilson with the short overview of his presidency (one paragraph) found here: Using these resources, have students individually write a list of 3-5 words that describe what type of person and president they think Wilson was.
  • Students will benefit from being introduced to the goals of the League of Nations and the Fourteen Points Wilson offered as a basis for ending World War I. They can read a brief overview at the Woodrow Wilson House: In groups, have students discuss how Wilson’s role in negotiating the treaty might have contributed to his reputation as a “great” president, even though he failed to win ratification of the treaty by the U.S. Senate.
  • Have students consider this quotation from Wilson in 1917: “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion.” In a class discussion, consider how this quotation compares to students’ understanding of current U.S. foreign policy and the nation’s role and responsibilities around the globe.
  • As Hogan noted in his VOD essay on the Pueblo speech, Wilson studied the great orators of British and American history and published a number of works on oratory and debate in American politics. Provide students with Wilson’s definition of the ideal “orator-statesman,” as described in Hogan’s essay. Discuss with them what, by Wilson’s own standards, would constitute a “good” or an “eloquent” speech. Then ask students to reflect on how Wilson’s definition of a “good” speech compares to speeches given today by politicians. How would students define the ideal “orator-statesman?”  Would they like to see today’s politicians change the way they speak to the public?
  • How do the attitudes toward immigrants in Wilson’s day compare to attitudes held today throughout the U.S.? Why does the issue of immigration seem to arise at times when there are also concerns over national security? Considering our national identity and history, have students reflect on whether immigration has been good or bad for the U.S.

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • “the treaty of peace” [para 2]: The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I after six months negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference
  • “any man who carries a hyphen” [para 2]: A reference to immigrants who Wilson implied still have sympathies with their countries of origin (from having a hyphenated national identity, like German-American)
  • “article 10” [para 9 and throughout]: The most controversial provision of the League of Nations covenant, requiring that all member nations come to the  assistance of any league member experiencing external aggression
  • “14 Points” [para 12]: Wilson’s principles of peace presented to the Paris Peace Conference, based on progressive democratic ideals that he claimed were not merely his ideas but universally held.
  • “Decoration Day” [para 17]: What is known today as Memorial Day—a U.S. federal holiday honoring those who died serving in the country’s armed forces

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-reading Activities & Introduction

  • Students will complete pre-reading of teacher’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
  • [Read paragraphs 1-4]
  • Students will analyze the opening of the speech, reflecting on how Wilson established his own credibility, defined the motives of his opposition, and described the purposes of his speech in Pueblo.

Day 2: The League of Nations: A Necessary Next Step in US Foreign Policy?

  • [Read paragraphs 5-14]
  • Students will assess how Wilson defended the League of Nation, particularly Article 10, and the strategies he used to make this complex treaty understandable to an audience of ordinary citizens.

Day 3: Conclusion & Post-Reading Activities

  • [Read paragraphs 15-18]
  • Students will discuss how Wilson appealed to emotions in the conclusion of the speech. They also will complete post-reading activities of their teacher’s choice.

Key During Reading Passages

  • Paragraph 1: Wilson undertook this campaign to speak directly to the people with the goal of persuading the public to support the League of Nations. Discuss with students the opening of the speech. Who was the audience? What was the tone and language used? How did Wilson attempt to establish a personal connection with the crowd? How did he try to establish a sense of unity? What purpose might he have had in doing so?
  • Paragraphs 2: After the opening, Wilson addressed criticism of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Already there was a shift in the language and tone of Wilson’s address. What do students notice? How did Wilson describe critics of the treaty? Did he provide evidence, sources, statistics, or other means to counter their criticism? Have students note exact words or phrases with strong emotional connotations (e.g. “disloyalty,” “enemy of the Republic”). Why did he accuse his opponents of disloyalty to the country? This paragraph contains perhaps the most famous line of the speech, defining the “hyphenated American” as one who “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic” What do students think about this line, which refers to German-Americans and other immigrants? Was this accusation justified by Wilson in his speech or was it mere name calling?
  • Paragraphs 3 and 4: Here Wilson celebrated the accomplishments of the Versailles treaty. He focused on the great principles it represented: the right to self-determination, the rights of labor, and a mobilization of the “moral forces of the world” against aggression and war. How did this discussion of the Treaty of Versailles cast it as the “people’s treaty?”  What specific principles or ideals did Wilson claim the treaty affirmed, and how did those principles relate to the foundational principles of the U.S. throughout history?
  • Paragraph 5: After discussing the broader principles behind the treaty, Wilson focused on the role of the League of Nations. What language did Wilson employ when discussing the League? Have students identify key terms and phrases in Wilson’s discussion of the League. What patterns or tone do they notice emerging? What did Wilson claim was the purpose of the League?
  • Paragraphs 6-11: These passages answered criticisms of the treaty by explaining how the proposed League of Nations would work. Wilson explained the alleged voting advantage of the British, and he also discussed a provision that allowed Japan to retain its jurisdiction over part of China. Then he addressed more directly the fears of isolationist Americans. How would the voting process guarantee protection of U.S. interests?  How did Wilson refute concerns that the treaty might compromise America’s right to self-determination? How might Wilson’s assurances have softened the fears of Americans at that time? About half-way through the speech (paragraph 9), Wilson came to the “heart of the whole matter”: the controversy over Article 10. What is Article 10 and why was it so controversial?
  • Paragraphs 12-14: Wilson suggested that the League of Nations would be worthless without the guarantee to “respect and preserve the territorial integrity and existing political independence of every other member of the League as against internal aggression.” In addition to claiming the strength of public opinion behind his foreign policy decisions, Wilson turned to former president Theodore Roosevelt’s endorsement of the basic ideas of the League of Nations. What kind of public figure was TR at this time? Although he did not cite the date, his quotation from TR came from 1914, before the start of World War I. Why did Wilson quote from TR at such length, and what is the significance of this seeming endorsement?
  • Paragraph 15: Wilson declared that the nation had a decision to make. What choice did he lay before his audience? How did Article 10 tie into this decision and responsibility before the U.S. people? Why was there “no middle course” according to Wilson, and what “tragedy” would happen if the Senate rejected the treaty, both in the U.S. and around the world? Who would be affected? This paragraph also begins the passionate conclusion to Wilson’s speech, as he poses a poignant rhetorical question: “What of our pledges to the men that lie dead in Europe?” Who did Wilson describe as his “clients,” and what did he say was owed to the “next generation?”
  • Paragraph 16: This paragraph builds on the notion that those who died in the war died for the League of Nations by recalling the mothers of dead soldiers he had met while in France. They offered their blessings, Wilson recalled, because they believed their sons had died for a worthy cause.  Suggesting that rejection of the treaty would be a betrayal of those mothers and their dead sons, he concluded with the image of “serried ranks of those boys in khaki” standing up against rejection or “qualification” of this treaty.  Why do you suppose Wilson invoked this image, and was it fair of him to equate “rejection” with “qualification” of the treaty?
  • Paragraphs 17-18: Wilson closed his speech in an emotional tone by describing a “beautiful hillside near Paris” where American soldiers were buried. Why did he close with this story, and why might he have talked about the mothers of dead soldiers a second time? He then made this declaration: “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 . . . and feel the moral obligation that rests upon us not to got back on these boys.” What does that statement imply about the League’s critics? Wilson then conceded that there is no “absolute guarantee” against future wars but insisted that some guarantee is better than none. What tone did Wilson adopt for the closing of his speech? What imagery and language did he employ? Do students think it was a successful closing to his speech?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • In his critical essay, Hogan criticized Wilson for “waving the bloody shirt” in his Pueblo speech. What is meant by the phrase, “waving the bloody shirt”? Do students agree that Wilson should be criticized for doing that? Is a speaker ever justified in “waving the bloody shirt”? Consider the outcome of the Senate vote to reject the League of Nations, as well as what contemporary historians say now about this decision. Did Wilson make the best case for the treaty in his Pueblo speech?
  • Hold a class debate or discussion around the idea that Wilson’s crusade for a League of Nations has been “redeemed” by history. In what aspects has he ultimately proved “right” about the need for collective security and an organization like the League of Nations? Has the United Nations worked as Wilson envisioned? Has it provided at least some “insurance” against war?
  • Presidential scholars often refer to “Wilsonian internationalism.” How would students characterize the principles or philosophy of Wilsonian internationalism, and how does it differ from the practices and traditions of American foreign policy before Wilson? Is the influence of Wilsonian internationalism still evident today? Who, among today’s politicians, would be considered a supporter or an opponent of Wilsonian internationalism?
  • Media coverage of Wilson’s Western tour was limited to newspaper accounts, many of which provided full texts of Wilson’s speeches on the tour and extensive front-page coverage. How are major presidential addresses covered by the media today? Have students identify a major speech on the War on Terror delivered by Presidents Trump, Obama, or Bush since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and evaluate the coverage of that speech in one major national newspaper (e.g. the New York Times) and one major Internet news sites (e.g. Do students think that the media today provide better, more complete coverage of major presidential addresses than they did in 1919? What might the media do to improve their coverage of presidential speeches? Is it more important for the news media to provide (a) extensive quotation or even the full texts of the presidential speech itself, or (b) extensive analysis of the speech by journalists or expert commentators?