SAN JOSE, April 4, 2017 – 100 years ago, The Great War had been waging in Europe for over two and a half years, and America’s strongest peace advocate, President Woodrow Wilson, had called a special joint session of Congress to convene on April 2nd, with the intent to declare war on the Kaiser’s war machine in Germany. This was an incredible 180-degree departure from Wilson’s own personal hopes for peace, and certainly the opposite course of action he alluded to in his campaign for his re-election the previous year. It was the same Woodrow Wilson who only months before was determined that the U.S. should not enter the war.
This was an incredible 180-degree departure from Wilson’s own personal hopes for peace, and certainly the opposite course of action he alluded to in his campaign for his re-election the previous year. It was the same Woodrow Wilson who only months before was determined that the U.S. should not enter the war.
President Wilson, however, was forced to sincerely confront his idealism and wrestle with his concerns before he made his final decision. On the night of April 1st, Wilson confided in a friend that he had tried to avoid, in every possible way, committing the nation to war expressing his belief that, in going to war, the American people would “forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.”
Wilson felt that in order to fight, the nation would need to be “brutal and ruthless” and was concerned that the “spirit of ruthless brutality will enter the very fiber of… national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street…”
Nevertheless, in the end, Wilson managed to put aside his personal beliefs and political idealism finally urging Congress to declare war.
He admitted that the decision was not easily made, but based on what he considered “unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty…”
Possibly obedience to his oath as the President of the United States was what eventually turned Wilson’s mind around to accept the right thing to do, but he did hesitate quite a bit upon his “constitutional duty.” In reality, despite Wilson’s previous overtures for “peace without victory” to the European nations, it became clear to Wilson in the first months of 1917, the Kaiser’s government planned to distract the U.S. by bringing the Great War to the Western Hemisphere, specifically bringing the war to the U.S. doorstep.
On February 24, 1917, British Intelligence turned over the Zimmerman telegram to the United States that contained a clandestine effort designed to entice the Mexican government to join with the Central Powers in attacking the U.S. The reward would be, after the declaration of Germany’s victory, Mexico would be awarded Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. This finally signaled to Wilson that the German military would stop at nothing to secure victory in the European war. Yet, Wilson did not act immediately and waited, wrestling with the reality.
This finally signaled to Wilson that the German military would stop at nothing to secure victory in the European war. Yet, Wilson did not act immediately and waited, wrestling with the reality.
The foundation of Wilson’s re-election campaign in 1916 was that he had “kept us out of war” in Europe and with that the people let him keep his job. It is likely that in November of 1916, the majority of the American voters still hoped for non-intervention in the Great War. From the outbreak of the Great War in the summer of 1914, President Wilson had issued a proclamation of American neutrality (on August 4, 1914).
However, from Wilson’s re-election in November of 1916 to February of 1917, three major events converged to turn the world upside down forcing President Wilson to abandon U.S. neutrality.
Even after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May of 1915, and despite the fact that over 120 Americans and over 1,200 people were killed due to the extremely controversial torpedoing of the British passenger ship, the country still supported President Wilson’s efforts to remain out of the war.
After the sinking of the Lusitania, the U.S. had demanded and received Germany’s assurances that Kaiser Wilhelm’s government would cease such indiscriminate destruction of life and property with its impressive fleet of U-boats.
However, despite the agreement, Germany’s military strategy reversed their promises when they announced on January 31st, 1917 that they would resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1st.
Germany declared that without reservation their U-boats would sink any enemy vessel within shooting distance of the war-zone waters.
Additionally, in anticipation of the United States entering the war in response to such desperate measures to intensify their war effort, the Kaiser’s government plotted with Mexico to distract the U.S. by bringing the Great War to the Americas.
Finally, the Russian Revolution, which erupted in March of 1917, made a more direct and significant impact upon the German war effort. With Russian troops fighting against one another, Russia was forced to withdraw from the Great War and abandon its allies to fight against the Central Powers on a single front.
This single event freed most of the Kaiser’s troops to be strategically shifted from the fighting on the Eastern front in Russia to the Western front where they hoped to finalize the victory over France and Great Britain.
This loss of a powerful ally was crippling and the Allied Powers became increasingly vulnerable. The Allies made it apparent how desperately America was needed to make up for such a fundamental loss and to help preserve the freedom of the European peoples.
Ultimately on March 18th, when German submarines sank three more U.S. cargo ships without warning (a substantial demonstration of the renewed German policy), prominent Americans joined former President Teddy Roosevelt in demanding a declaration of war. President Wilson felt he was out of options.
Wilson’s speech to Congress on April 2nd portrayed the German submarine warfare as a “warfare against mankind… a war against all nations…” and went on to deem even “armed neutrality… impracticable” as it was virtually impossible to defend ships against such “pirates” and could basically provoke the enemy rather than protect citizens.
He envisioned the U.S. as a champion against such aggression and explained that his goal of neutrality was “no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved or the freedom of its peoples.”
Placing responsibility for such danger to humanity squarely upon the autocratic government of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Wilson exonerated the German people and stressed that he viewed the people as pawns who had no voice in the decisions of their rulers regarding the war.
Wilson contrasted the autocracy in Germany with the Russian Revolution that he mistakenly interpreted as a democratic uprising. The president stated that the U.S. was “…but one of the champions of the rights of mankind…” and poignantly declared that the “world must be safe for democracy…”
Wilson concluded by articulating the core of his beliefs:
It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people 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 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 a shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make for the world itself at last free.
In essence, Wilson reduced the formidable task to the simple act of upholding the President’s oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution, the country, and fundamentally the people. However, by this single decision, even more was accomplished.
By committing U.S. troops, it did help to make the world a bit more “safe for democracy.” The United States’ involvement in the Great War averted a tyranny in Europe that would have returned those nations to a Napoleonic dominion.
The noble effort ultimately brought some semblance of order and stability back into a war-torn world – even if it only lasted until the next huge challenge to the world’s freedom.