President Wilson Travels to Europe and Receives a Tumultuous Welcome
President Wilson and French President Poincaré, Paris,
14 December 1918
On 4 December 1918, President Woodrow Wilson departed from Washington to embark on the first European trip by an American chief executive. After nine days at sea aboard the S.S. George Washington, a German-built passenger liner interned in New York at the start of World War I, Wilson arrived in Brest, France, and traveled to Paris.
The German magazine Der Spiegel described the reception he received in Paris:
As a man who was promising freedom, self-determination and eternal peace, it was no surprise that he was welcomed and celebrated as a savior in Europe. Herbert Hoover, who would later become president and managed food exports to Europe under Wilson, wrote: "Woodrow Wilson had reached the zenith of intellectual and spiritual leadership of the whole world, never hitherto known in history."
His first stop was Paris. Edith Wilson, who was at her husband's side, as always, could hardly believe what she saw, noting: "Paris was wild with celebration. Every inch was covered with cheering, shouting humanity. The sidewalks, the buildings, even the stately horse-chestnut trees were peopled with men and boys perched like sparrows in their very tops. Roofs were filled, windows overflowed until one grew giddy trying to greet the bursts of welcome that came like the surging of untamed waters."
The loyal Hoover was equally enthusiastic, writing: "No such man of moral and political power and no such an evangel of peace had appeared since Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount. It was the star of Bethlehem rising again.".
The Lord Mayor of London Escorts the President
on His Official Welcome
to the City
Christmas day he traveled to AEF General Headquarters at Chaumont for his only official contact with the troops during his time in Europe. He was greeted by General Pershing on his arrival, visited the soldiers in their quarters, and was treated to a Presidential Review of the 26th Yankee Division, which was quartered nearby.
After his initial visit and meetings in France, the President visited the other major Allies' homelands. He visited with Prime Minister Lloyd George and King George V and toured Great Britain between the holidays, returned to Paris for the New Year, and then left for a week in Italy, where he received another stunning welcome. During this time Wilson met with King Vittorio Emanuele III and Prime Minister Orlando and had an audience with Pope Benedict XV at the Vatican.
President Wilson with King Vittorio Emanuele III in Rome
From Der Spiegel:
The Wilsons' second stop was London. They had been warned that the British would undoubtedly behave with more reserve during the first official visit of an American president. Prime Minister Lloyd George viewed Wilson with some mistrust, rightfully assuming that this new power posed a greater threat to the future of the British Empire than the German Empire had ever done. Nevertheless, Wilson was greeted with as much applause in London as on the streets in Paris. Shortly after they had arrived in their rooms in Buckingham Palace, King George V and Queen Mary sent a message to the presidential couple that the crowd outside the palace had grown so large that they would have to make a joint appearance on the balcony.
Rome, stop three, was the apotheosis. The Wilsons were showered with white roses. Wilson's bodyguard, Secret Service agent Edmund Starling, wrote: "The reception in Rome exceeded anything I have ever seen in all my years of witnessing public demonstrations. The people literally hailed the President as a god – the God of Peace."
Afterward, President Wilson returned to Paris for the start of the peace conference, little realizing that his popularity, influence, and reputation had crested and were soon to decline dramatically.
Sources: "WWI and America's Rise as a Superpower," Der Spiegel Online, 24 January 2014; the National Archives