This speech was made by Woodrow Wilson,
the 28th President of the United States, in 1917 and marked the entry of America into World War I. Up to this point the country had been neutral – although Wilson had actively mediated for peace, both overtly and secretly, since 1914. In 1917 Germany renewed its all-out submarine warfare and, as a result of public opinion and the pressure of world events, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, a decision passed by a majority.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson grew up in an academic household and lived his later life by a strict personal code of conduct. After studying law and being admitted to the Bar in 1881, he turned to academia. He taught at Princeton University (where he was elected President) for 12 years. He then moved into Democratic politics, working his way up until he became President of the United States in 1913. Wilson strongly believed in the rights of all men and set out to establish equality of opportunity within the country. During his presidency he tried to maintain peaceful relations with foreign countries by avoiding the use of threat or force.
Once America was involved in the war, Wilson worked to influence the peace settlement.
In 1918 he presented a 14-point peace plan that brought the Allies and Germans to the bargaining table in late 1918. Wilson headed the US delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference, where he was greeted as a hero. He was successful in gaining acceptance that a League of Nations should be part of the treaty. He was, however, dismayed by the nationalistic aspirations of the different countries attending and was forced to make concessions to national, territorial and economic demands. It was only his shrewd bargaining that prevented harsher terms being imposed on Germany.
However, Wilson faced opposition to the League in the US. His dream of America being part of the League of Nations was never realized, due in part to his own refusal to allow the treaty to be modified.
He launched himself on a gruelling national tour defending the League and arguing that US membership was essential to lasting world peace. The strain provoked a stroke in 1919. He continued to oppose restrictions to the League from his bed and viewed the 1920 presidential election as a referendum on the League. The Republican Warren Hardy, an opponent of the League, won by a landslide.
In 1919 Woodrow Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of his vision of an international organisation that would work for world peace.
Gentlemen of the Congress: … The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is war against all nations … 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 temperateness of judgement 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.
‘It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war.’
… Armed neutrality is ineffectual enough at best; in such circumstances and in the face of such pretensions it is worse than ineffectual; it is likely only to produce what it was meant to prevent; it is practically certain to draw us into the war without either the rights or the effectiveness of belligerents. There is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs: they cut to the very roots of human life.
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 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 defence 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 .
… We should keep constantly in mind the wisdoms of interfering as little as possible in our own preparation and in the equipment of our own military forces with the duty – for it will be a very practical duty – of supplying the nations already at war with Germany with the materials which they can obtain only from us or by our assistance. They are in the field and we should help them in every way to be effective there.
… While we do these things, these deeply momentous things, let us be very clear, and make very clear to all the world what our motives and our objects are … Our object … 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 ensure the observance of those principles .
… 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 honour, a partnership of opinion.
… 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 dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall cheerfully 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 is a distressing and oppressive duty, Gentlemen of the 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 people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilisation 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 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.
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)