When Wilson Asked for War
One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson urged Congress to declare war on Germany, bringing America into the messy, tragic conflict it had long resisted. The speech he gave serves as a model of presidential integrity.
By Robert Lehrman
He was uncertain about so many things.
But Woodrow Wilson wasn’t at all uncertain about how to start, that first weekend in April 1917, when he ordered quiet in the White House, entered the second floor study, and began to write his speech asking Congress to declare war on Germany.
He would open by talking about the German submarine fleet.
Or rather, the almost unimaginable horror offered by this new weapon of war.
For thousands of years, ships on the high seas had at least the option of surrendering to an enemy ship. But in 1915, a German U-boat had torpedoed the luxury liner Lusitania, throwing 1,959 innocent people into the freezing Atlantic; 1,198 of them drowned, including 128 Americans.
To kill civilians, while you skulk around beneath the waves! The Lusitania attack shocked Americans — and Wilson. The day he got the news, people witnessed something rare: a distraught president walking out of the White House alone, ignoring the rain, pacing up 16th Street deep in thought. “To get my mind in hand,” he said later.
Privately, Wilson was not neutral in the European war; he favored democratic Great Britain over authoritarian Germany. But he kept that largely to himself, and still believed that America’s neutrality in the Great War was vital to a lasting world peace. He won reelection with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But on January 31, 1917, Germany announced it would target “all sea traffic.” It began attacking other ships with Americans on board. That made his reversal — and speech — inevitable.
Now, a century later, what do we make of that speech? Was it his “greatest,” as some historians say? Did it achieve his goals? Has it left a legacy? Is it different in any meaningful way than the speeches from FDR, LBJ, George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush calling for declarations of war or authority to use force? At a time when fact-checkers pore over the controversial rhetoric of a new president, does it offer food for thought?
To answer whether Wilson achieved his goal, we should understand what his goal was, and was not.
It was not to win over a recalcitrant Congress. Wilson was a perceptive politician; he knew that if he asked for war, he had the votes.
Neither was it meant to stir listening Americans with flights of passionate rhetoric. In 1917, almost no Americans would hear him deliver it. There was no YouTube — no television and few radios. Written at a college junior’s level, the speech was even too hard for most Americans to read; fewer than one out of ten had gotten past eighth grade.
Finally, composing it in a day, without a speechwriter’s help, Wilson did not aim for lyrical language. Filled with long sentences and passive voice, the speech contains little noteworthy language in any of its roughly 3,400 words.
There is, though, one noteworthy thing.
Wilson didn’t believe in the flamboyant style of, say, his former Secretary of State, William Jennings (“Do not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!”) Bryan. Wilson’s approach, says one biographer, was “education.”
Whether he had the votes or not, whether one or one million Americans were within earshot, America’s only president with a doctorate felt an obligation to educate. That way whoever was listening — present or future — would understand his reasoning. And compared to the requests for a declaration of war or authority to use force that followed, Wilson stayed true to that obligation.
He acknowledges error. His own error, that is. For two years, Wilson had persisted in the belief that neutrality was the best bet, and that Germany would not wage war with such savagery. “I was, for a little while unable to believe that such things would in fact be done by any government,” he says. And later, “When I addressed the Congress on the 26th of February last, I thought it would suffice to assert our neutral rights with arms… But armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable.” How likely is such candor in this age where a president’s media people massage every syllable?
He doesn’t proselytize. Not for Wilson the George W. Bush either/or fallacy (“You are with us or the terrorists”). “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” Wilson says. “Each nation must decide for itself.”
He acknowledges suffering ahead. FDR’s famous ‘infamy’ speech is all about optimism. “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.” Wilson’s tone, by contrast, is somber. He makes his ask with “a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking, and of the grave responsibilities which it involves.”
He offers compassion. Wilson doesn’t demonize. He reminds us that the enemy is not the German people, but only Germany’s “irresponsible government.” He mostly avoids criticizing Germany’s allies. He goes out of his way to remind listeners that German-Americans are “as true and loyal Americans as if they had never known any other fealty or allegiance.”
He tells the truth. Remember: history’s verdict is that LBJ’s Tonkin Gulf speech was a tissue of lies. George W. Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” turned out to be fiction. FDR concealed his certainty that war would come — and his fear about the country’s woeful failure to prepare. Wilson leaves some things unsaid. But he paints no sanitized picture of victory ahead. Instead, he warns of “fiery trial and sacrifice.” He acknowledges that the decision he asks of Congress is a “fearful thing.” He is explicit about the fact that America will “spend her blood.” And in uttering the famous phrase about making “the world safe for democracy,” he lays bare the personal philosophy he had soft-pedaled for so long.
Does that make it a great speech?
Not if we look for moving story, antithesis, gripping detail, or litanies of imagery. Speeches, though, are about more than language.
Has it left a legacy?
Only to historians. In fact, when aides suggested to FDR after Pearl Harbor that he imitate Wilson’s approach, providing background and context, FDR rejected their advice, fast.
That’s too bad. For what Wilson did, no president seeking war has done since. At a time when much of the public seems to doubt everyone in public life, when presidential speech comes from the computers of skillful writers ordered to avoid risk, when millions wait to pounce on any incautious phrase, his speech offers a model.
Or is that naive?
Can presidents risk honesty these days? Explain decisions in their complexity? Avoid vilifying the other side? Acknowledge the sadness in having to make a decision when all available options carry tragic consequences?
Believe it or not, yes. That’s what leaders must do. Whatever happened with his larger goals, Wilson succeeded with this speech. There was more to talk about than German subs. We should admire his approach in the last century — and hope it educates presidents in this one.
Robert Lehrman, former chief speechwriter to vice president Al Gore in the White House, has written four novels and The Political Speechwriter’s Companion (CQ Press 2009). Last year, he co-wrote and co-edited Democratic Orators from JFK to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). He last contributed to American Experience with an essay on FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech. He teaches public speaking and speech writing at American University.
Published April 2017.