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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

America's Road to War, 2 April 1917: President Woodrow Wilson Asks Congress to Declare War on Imperial Germany

By Professor David Traxel, University of the Sciences

April 2nd was another day of rain, but this "a soft, fragrant rain of early spring," as William McAdoo remembered. "The illuminated dome of the Capitol stood in solemn splendor against the dark, wet sky."Just before 8:30 that evening, the president was driven in an  automobile toward that glowing dome protected by a troop of cavalry, hooves clattering along wet streets lined with flag-waving citizens. Standing on the podium before an overflow audience, also flag-bedecked, of senators, representatives, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, ambassadors, and every worthy who could wrangle entry, Woodrow Wilson eloquently laid out the case for war, though he had to wait five minutes for the standing ovation to subside.

Dispassionately, in that winning, musical voice that had been noted by so many, he went over the recent history of German aggression: "Even hospital ships and ships carrying relief to the sorely bereaved and stricken people of Belgium. . .have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle." Over the centuries, with great difficulty, a minimum of law had been established to protect the lives and property of innocent travelers upon the sea. That had now been swept aside. "Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people cannot be. The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations...The challenge is to all mankind."

Armed neutrality had turned out to be "impracticable" and "ineffectual," so "with a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking...I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against...the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it." The hall exploded with cheers and shouts as people jumped to their feet, the cheering led by Chief Justice White, himself a Confederate veteran and enthusiastic supporter of the Allies.

Wilson went on to emphasize that war had been thrust upon the country not by the German people themselves—"We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship"—but by the "Prussian autocracy." He then discussed at some length the sabotage and other unlawful acts that had been directed against the country, pointing out: "Prussian autocracy...from the very outset of the present war... 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." Such threatening despotism had to be countered by a free people: "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." And since the United States did not desire conquest or dominion, it would "observe with proud punctilio the principles of right and of fair play we profess to be fighting for."

"We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts," he said at the close, "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."

Now the great hall shook again with cheers and clapping, just as over the next few days presidential mail would reach flood proportions with more huzzahs and congratulations. Even his once-and-future enemy Henry Cabot Lodge, little the worse for his recent fistfight, pushed through the crowd to congratulate him. Wilson had labored long, hard, and in seclusion on the speech, but it was obvious from his drawn face that none of this patriotic enthusiasm gave him pleasure.   Some definitely were not applauding. Though Jack Reed had been given a Senate pass by Robert La Follette, he refused to attend the historic session, instead taking part in a mass antiwar meeting. Partway through, word came that the president had just asked for war to be declared. Several of the speakers—including the chairman, David Starr Jordan, head of Stanford University and longtime peace activist—then announced that they saw no choice but to support the country, but Reed disagreed, announcing from the platform: "This is not my war, and I will not support it. This is not my war, and I will have nothing to do with it."

Source:  This selection originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of OVER THE TOP.

Tomorrow: Some Dissenters in Congress

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