Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ten Interesting Quotes from President Wilson's War Message

Some notes from a line-by-line reading of President Wilson's speech of 2 April 1917. The full message can be found here.




A Dramatic Moment in American History

1. The Best-Known Quote

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.

2. Reasons for America Entering the War

a. The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.

b. 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. .  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. . .  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 amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles.

Note:  I don't about you readers, but to the editor this second abstract (foggier) argument detracts from the first concrete point. It's also interesting that the second line of reasoning permeates the entire speech, while the specifics of Germany's infractions are much briefer.

3.  Already Thinking About the League of Nations

A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. It must be a league of honor, a partnership of opinion. Intrigue would eat its vitals away; the plottings of inner circles who could plan what they would and render account to no one would be a corruption seated at its very heart. Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.

Note: A century later, this sounds like Wilson already had his heart set  on  his solution to all the world's troubles.

4.  You Just Can't Trust Those Prussians

One of the things that has served to convince us that the Prussian autocracy was not and could never be our friend is that from the very outset of the present war it has filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity of counsel, our peace within and without, our industries and our commerce. . . But they have played their part in serving to convince us at last that that Government entertains no real friendship for us and means to act against our peace and security at its convenience. That it means to stir up enemies against us at our very doors the intercepted note to the German Minister at Mexico City is eloquent evidence.

5.  Topical Mention of Hospital Ships


Even hospital ships and ships carrying relief to the sorely bereaved and stricken people of Belgium, though the latter were provided with safe conduct through the proscribed areas by the German Government itself and were distinguished by unmistakable marks of identity, have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle.

Note: I was surprised by this mention. I didn't think the Germans would be foolish enough to sink a hospital ship while the U.S. was considering entering the war. However, HMHS Gloucester was sunk on 30 March 1917 by U-32.

6.  A Soft Sell on the Military Effort That Will Be Needed

It will involve the immediate full equipment of the navy in all respects but particularly in supplying it with the best means of dealing with the enemy’s submarines. It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law in case of war at least five hundred thousand men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service, and also the authorization of subsequent additional increments of equal force so soon as they may be needed and can be handled in training.

Note:  Eventually 4.7 million men served in the armed forces in WWI.

7.  Russia Was Always Democratic???

Russia was known by those who knew it best to have been always in fact democratic at heart, in all the vital habits of her thought, in all the intimate relationships of her people that spoke their natural instinct, their habitual attitude towards life.

8.  Austria-Hungary Temporarily Off the Hook

The Austro-Hungarian Government has, indeed, avowed its unqualified endorsement and acceptance of the reckless and lawless submarine warfare adopted now without disguise by the Imperial German Government, and it has therefore not been possible for this Government to receive Count Tarnowski, the Ambassador recently accredited to this Government by the Imperial and Royal Government of Austria-Hungary; but that Government has not actually engaged in warfare against citizens of the United States on the seas, and I take the liberty, for the present at least, of postponing a discussion of our relations with the authorities at Vienna.

Note: The United States Senate, in a 74 to 0 vote, declared war on Austria-Hungary on 7 December 1917, citing Austria-Hungary's severing of diplomatic relations with the United States, its use of unrestricted submarine warfare and its alliance with Germany. The declaration passed in the United States House of Representatives by a vote of 365 to 1.

Wilson and the Peace Commissioners in Paris, 1919

9.  A Warning to the Citizenry

If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of stern repression; but, if it lifts its head at all, it will lift it only here and there and without countenance except from a lawless and malignant few.

10. Concludes with a Tip of the Hat to Martin Luther

God helping her [America], she can do no other.

Note: From Luther's quote: “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. . . I can do no other.”

4 comments:

  1. It's lengthy and kind of lawyerly at times, but I find this to be one of the best speeches a President has ever given.

    I believe the reason that the "foggier" reason to enter the war was Wilson trying to convince himself there had to be a higher purpose. Much like Union realizing the Civil War had to be about something greater than just "Union" Wilson argued that this war had to have a higher aim than just stopping submarine warfare on US citizens.

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    1. Even hospital ships and ships carrying relief to the sorely bereaved and stricken people of Belgium, though the latter were provided with safe conduct through the proscribed areas by the German Government itself and were distinguished by unmistakable marks of identity, have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle.

      My father and his twin brother were seaman on the U.S.S. Solace a hospital ship stationed at Pearl Harbor when Japan launched its surprise attack. The hospital ship was spared. It was the only hospital ship in the Pacific until 1944. My father was at sea on the U.S.S. Solace until then. Years later while watching the History channel he found out Emperor Hirohito told the navy not to attack the hospital ship. The only time the hospital ship was attacked was when a Dutch merchant ship shot across her bow. The Dutch ship mistook the green cross for the rising sun. After that the navy had the hospital ship travel with its lights on alone!

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  2. No mention of the billions we (J.P Morgan) were lending Britain, or the munitions we were making for Britain, or the Canadian trains carrying troops and munitions across Maine to Canadian Atlantic ports. We were surely in the war, although our troops weren't. Yet.

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  3. All high lofty words, but point nine clearly stirred anti-German sentiment in the country. Several Americans of German descent were beaten and one lynched if I remember correctly. Wilson made an effort to remove hyphenation, no German-American, Irish-American, to name a few, just Americans.

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