Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It
Exactly one hundred years ago today, on May 30, 1919, Woodrow Wilson delivered a Memorial Day address at a ceremony on the outskirts of Paris to dedicate the first overseas American military cemetery. The French government permanently donated to the U.S. the seven-and-a-half acre site, and the Suresnes American Cemetery to this day is home to the remains of more than 1,500 troops who died in French hospitals during World War I.
From 1868 through 1970, Memorial Day was officially celebrated on May 30 each year, and for the first half century, it was more commonly known as Decoration Day—and Wilson refers to the day by that name in his speech. The name referred to the tradition of decorating graves with flowers and, as Wilson noted when he recalled the event, there were “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.”
The speech Wilson gave that day is often considered one of his best—it is certainly Wilson at his most poignant—and what may amaze many readers is that he gave the speech extemporaneously, barely glancing at the few notes he’d made before arriving at the ceremony. To mark both the centenary of the event and the traditional date for Decoration Day, we present Wilson’s speech as our Story of the Week selection.