By: Woodrow Wilson
Date: April 2, 1917
Source: Wilson, Woodrow. "Address by the President of the United States." Congressional Record, 65th Congress, 1st sess., April 2, 1917, 102–104. Reprinted in Hyser, Raymond M., and J. Chris Arndt. Voices of the American Past: Documents in U.S. History. Vol. 2. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace, 1995, 122–124.
About the Author: Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), born in Virginia, was the first post–Civil War president from the South. He earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and became president of Princeton University in 1902. He was elected president of the United States in 1912 and reelected in 1916. He championed progressive reform, tariff reform, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Federal Reserve Act.
George Washington's farewell address warned the nation against becoming involved in "entangling alliances," and throughout the nineteenth century the policy of the United States was to stay out of European affairs. The Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823, warned European countries not to further colonize the Western Hemisphere; an unspoken corollary to this doctrine was that the United States would stay out of Europe. Thus, when World War I (1914–1918) began, the question arose as to what position the United States would take. Woodrow Wilson called for the United States to remain "impartial in thought as well as deed." Neutrality, though, proved to be difficult, for many Americans were first-or second-generation immigrants from Europe, and U.S. businesses did a thriving trade in Europe. Historically, the United States had been closer to Great Britain than to Germany and consequently made loans to Great Britain to help that nation finance its war effort.
Pressure for American intervention increased after the British bombarded the United States with stories, many of them fictitious, of German brutality in Belgium, which had been neutral in the conflict before Germany invaded it. Wilson, however, was determined to remain neutral and in 1916 ran for reelection as president on a platform of neutrality; indeed, his campaign slogan was "He kept us out of war." A potential source of conflict with Germany was its submarine warfare, but after U.S. protests, Germany promised to attack only British ships, not American ones. Germany, though, was becoming desperate and needed to reduce the amount of supplies arriving in England, many of which were coming from the United States. For this reason, in early 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, even though it knew that doing so would likely draw the United States into the conflict.
The Germans believed that the United States could not fully mobilize in time to rescue the Europeans. This belief proved to be a mistake. In February 1917, President Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. He refused, though, to ask Congress to declare war in the absence of "actual overt acts" against American lives and property. Late in February, German submarines sank two American ships, then sank four more in March. On April 2, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Four days later, Congress passed the war resolution, with only six senators and fifty representatives voting to remain neutral.
Wilson's idealism is apparent throughout this message, including his goal that the world be "made safe for democracy." These idealistic goals for the war were later reflected in his Fourteen Points, his vision for a postwar Europe. This idealistic vision created tensions both at the Versailles Peace Conference, where the victorious European allies wanted to humiliate Germany, and during Senate deliberations on the Treaty of Versailles. The idealistic goals announced in Wilson's call for a declaration of war were never achieved, leading to a generation of disillusioned American fighting men and America's isolationism in the 1930s.
Primary Source: Woodrow Wilson's Declaration of War Message [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: Wilson first declares that human rights is the key issue in the conflict and that neutrality is no longer possible. The responsibility of the United States is to force civilized conduct between nations. He goes on to say that America's quarrel is not with the German people but with the German government, and that the goal of the United States in entering the conflict is to promote democracy throughout the world. He concludes by noting the "fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us."
The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.
It is a war of all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperance of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.…
With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it; and that it take immediate steps, not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.…
Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up among the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles. Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of an autocratic government backed by an organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not the will of their people. We have seen the last of neutrality in such circumstances. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined as wars used to be determined in the old, unhappy days when peoples nowhere [were] consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellowmen as pawns and tools.…
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 domination. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.…
It will be all the easier for us to conduct ourselves as belligerents in a high spirit of right and fairness because we act without animus, not in enmity toward a people or with the desire to bring any injury or disadvantage upon them, but only in armed opposition to an irresponsible government which has thrown aside all considerations of humanity and of right and is running amuck. We are, let mesay again, the sincere friends of the German people, and shall desire nothing so much as the early reestablishment of intimate relations of mutual advantage between us—however hard it may be between them, for the time being, to believe that this is spoken from our hearts. We have borne with their present government through all these bitter months because of that friendship—exercising a patience and forebearance which would otherwise have been impossible. We shall, happily, still have an opportunity to prove that friendship in our daily attitude and actions toward the millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live among us and share our life, and we shall be proud to prove it toward all who are in fact loyal to their neighbors and to the Government in the hour of test. They are, most of them, as true and loyal Americans as if they had never known any other fealty or allegiance.…
It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful nation into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.
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