SAN JOSE, April 7, 2016 – Nearly a century ago, on April 2, 1917, the President of the United States went before a special joint session of Congress to request that the assembled body declare war on Germany. The night before that meeting, President Woodrow Wilson confided to a friend, a newspaper man, that Wilson had tried to avoid, in every possible way, committing the nation to war. He expressed 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…”
Such a rationale may seem quite lame compared to the dangers of the world engulfed in global conflict. His questionable logic may have been a last minute attempt on Wilson’s part to publicly salvage any political capital that he had earned in winning his re-election as POTUS the previous November.
Actually, the foundation of Woodrow 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.
Yet in April of 1917, only months after re-election, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. It was the same Woodrow Wilson that during his re-election campaign had been so adamant that the U.S. should not enter the war. Even after the deaths of over 120 Americans and over 1200 people in total, due to the extremely controversial torpedoing and sinking of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania in May of 1915, Wilson still remained steadfast in his concept of neutrality.
Ironically, this same period reveals Wilson’s contradictory nature as evidenced in his extreme desire to capture Poncho Villa after he and Mexican militia raided a military outpost in Columbus, New Mexico. Ten civilians and eight American soldiers were killed in the raid, and Wilson commissioned General John J. Pershing to go after Villa, much like the U.S. went after Osama bin Laden following the 9-11 attacks.
Wilson was so adamant that Poncho Villa be brought to justice, he risked going to war with Mexico in 1916. Possibly, Wilson may have considered that such retaliation would not have been “brutal and ruthless” and thus not too concerned about the “spirit of ruthless brutality” affecting the “very fiber of… national life.”
The comparison of Wilson’s attitude during these two global scenarios is not examined too often, yet it reveals a great deal about a politician at work. Ironically, the two scenarios converged, and Wilson was caught in a dilemma.
On February 24, 1917, British Intelligence turned over the Zimmerman telegram to President Wilson. The broken code revealed a clandestine effort designed to entice the Mexican government to join with the Central Powers in attacking the U.S. After Germany’s declaration of victory, Mexico would be awarded Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Then, on March 18th, when German U- boats sank three more U.S. cargo ships without warning (a substantial demonstration of a renewed German policy), many prominent Americans joined former President Teddy Roosevelt in demanding a declaration of war.
President Wilson then felt the political pressure, and managed to put aside his personal beliefs and idealism, and finally urged Congress to declare war. He later admitted that the decision was not easily made, but based on what he considered “unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty…”
Wilson had hesitated for a considerable period of time; the president had been sitting on the Zimmerman telegram, since February of 1917. The telegram had represented a direct threat to the United States, which would have brought the war to the U.S. doorstep, and yet Wilson did not approach Congress until much later for a special joint session.
The knowledge of the enticement of the Mexican government to join the Central Powers in attacking the U.S. should have been brought to the attention of Congress quickly, as an imminent threat against the nation. It can be acknowledged that Wilson had to seriously confront his own idealism, and wrestle with his ideological and political considerations before he made a final decision to involve the U.S. Congress.
In essence, it seemed Wilson waited until he felt he had no other options, and then he simply reduced the formidable task to the honorable act of upholding the President’s oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution, the country, and the people.
Wilson’s excuse for delaying the decision to request the declaration of war against Germany does not ring true in light of the events. The outcome of President Wilson’s actions to send American troops into the Great War may have saved Europe from a quite dismal fate in the early 1900s, but it certainly does not seem to have been Wilson’s first consideration to help the people of Europe. Additionally, it does not appear that his “unhesitating obedience to… constitutional duty” was his most important consideration in the time.
Woodrow Wilson’s decision-making can be more easily understood in 2016, as opposed to his own time, because such secondary consideration of “constitutional duty,” as well as the outright disregard for the Constitution, is more prevalent now than ever before in American history. This 2016 election year reveals much discontent and anger among American citizens as they vent their sentiments through voting in the primaries of both parties. A clear rejection of career politicians conducting “business as usual” is blowing in the wind this year.
Certainly, in 2016, Americans are challenged by a serious breakdown of the traditional political process with such callous attitudes prevalent in an increasing numbers of politicians willing to ignore the Constitution, or the general will of the people, or both. To counter such a breakdown of the traditional political process, American citizens would be best served by returning to their roots, and by channeling the emotions of anger and discontent into something much more positive. Ironically, a contemporary of Woodrow Wilson, provided Americans in such a dark time with an effort to rekindle the values inherent in the foundation of the nation.
William Tyler Page, elected Clerk of the House of Representatives in 1919, who served as a national public servant for 61-years, strove to help Americans in his time with rekindling their faith in America. Page is primarily known as the author of a patriotic document known as the American Creed. Sadly, it is likely that a majority of Americans today have no clue what the American Creed is about.
In his words, Page explained that “The American’s Creed is a summing up… of the basic principles of American political faith… It is a summary of the fundamental principles of American political faith as set forth in its greatest documents, its worthiest traditions and by its greatest leaders.”
On April 3, 1918, one year after Wilson went before Congress in “unhesitating obedience to… constitutional duty…” the U.S. Congress accepted the American Creed, into the “Congressional Record.” It was during this time that American men and boys were fighting and dying in Europe to “make the world safe for democracy.” It was not only important in that time; it is important to contrast politician Wilson’s hesitation to perform his constitutional duties to the efforts of a public servant like Page.
The American Creed is still extremely relevant in 2016. Here is the statement of patriotic faith he created:
“I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.
“I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.”
It is hard to express any better such love of country and the ideals upon which America was founded.
Today, these words of the American Creed are sometimes included in the swearing in of new citizens as part of the Naturalization Ceremony. Such radical content may be one of the reasons the current Obama administration would prefer to bypass such citizenship naturalization procedures in favor of amnesty for all illegal aliens.
Every true American should consider the richness and strength of sentiment of the words Page crafted in the American Creed. Today, this creed may be much more vital to the nation than a president’s oath.