One hundred years ago, in June of 1919, President Wilson took a break from the peace conference in Paris to take a trip through Belgium by automobile. In a letter to his wife, after a long anecdote, Dr. Grayson mentions that he, himself, will be glad to go on the trip, suggesting the frustrations of their time facing off with diplomats in France. A memo to one of the drivers beforehand shows that this would include several cars from America and suggests the complexity of planning the tour.
Belgium had suffered intensely during the Great War, with invasion, shellings, and counter-attacks. The country was also still feeling the war’s effects in food shortages and lack of health care in 1919. So, Belgians needed assistance, and the United States government was eager help. We should think of President Wilson’s tour, then, as a way to deepen connections between the two countries who would be working together for many years on reconstruction. He met with dignitaries, waved to the crowds, and gave speeches at every stop.
However, Wilson also got to see the horrible devastation that the region had suffered. The convoy stopped at several major battle sites and bombings, sometimes interviewing survivors. Everywhere there was wreckage and gangs of German prisoners of war working at rebuilding projects. President Wilson saw the wounds of war, and the determination of the people. This short tour over the course of just June 18th and 19th gave him new affection for Belgium, and made him more determined to cement the peace.