The national safety and the economic welfare of the United States were at stake in the War of Secession, although the attempt to secede resulted from institutional rather than ethnic causes. The same was true when in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837 the French inhabitants of the Province of Lower Canada attempted for ethnic reasons to free themselves from British sovereignty. Had the right of “self-determination” in the latter case been recognized as “imperative” by Great Britain, the national life and economic growth of Canada would have been strangled because the lines of communication and the commercial routes to the Atlantic seaboard would have been across an alien state. The future of Canada, with its vast undeveloped resources, its very life as a British colony, depended upon denying the right of “self-determination.” It was denied and the French inhabitants of Quebec were forced against their will to accept British sovereignty.
Experience has already demonstrated the unwisdom of having given currency to the phrase “self-determination.” As the expression of an actual right, the application of which is universal and invariable, the phrase has been repudiated or at least violated by many of the terms of the treaties which brought to an end the World War. Since the time that the principle was proclaimed, it has been the excuse for turbulent political elements in various lands to resist established governmental authority; it has induced the use of force in an endeavor to wrest the sovereignty over a territory or over a community from those who have long possessed and justly exercised it. It has formed the basis for territorial claims by avaricious nations. And it has introduced into domestic as well as international affairs a new spirit of disorder. It is an evil thing to permit the principle of “self-determination” to continue to have the apparent sanction of the nations when it has been in fact thoroughly discredited and will always be cast aside whenever it comes in conflict with national safety, with historic political rights, or with national economic interests affecting the prosperity of a nation.
This discussion of the right of “self-determination,” which was one of the bases of peace which President Wilson declared in the winter of 1918, and which was included in the modifying clause of his guaranty as originally drafted, is introduced for the purpose of showing the reluctance which I felt in accepting his guidance in the adoption of a principle so menacing to peace and so impossible of practical application. As a matter of fact I never discussed the subject with Mr. Wilson as I purposed doing, because a situation arose on January 10, 1919, which discouraged me from volunteering to him advice on matters which did not directly pertain to legal questions and to the international administration of legal justice.
THE CONFERENCE OF JANUARY 10, 1919