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Wilson’s War Message to Congress

Woodrow Wilson’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress Requesting a Declaration of War against Germany, 2 April 1917

After nearly three years of remaining officially on the sidelines of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany on 2 April 1917; they complied four days later. Wilson’s request was a response to the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on the part of the German government and the publication of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the German government offered to return territory that Mexico had lost to the United States in 1848 in exchange for Mexican attacks on the United States. Wilson also felt able to join the war at this point because Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had abdicated, paving the way for a liberal revolution there—a revolution that had not yet become communist in the spring of 1917. In the speech, Wilson lays out his goals for the war—including making the world “safe for democracy”—points to the presence of German spies on US soil, and calls for Congress and the American public to support the executive branch fully in their conduct of the war.

  • Wilson, War Message, 1917.

This is a extremely rich speech, and there are a variety of things teachers might do with it. A debate in class about whether or not the United States should enter the war is one option; students could assume a variety of roles, including pacifists, isolationists, pro-Allied advocates of Anglo-Saxon unity and US Great Power status, business interests, recent immigrants, and second- or third-generation Americans. Given the arguments that Wilson actually uses in his speech to get Congress to declare war, which people in the debate does he consider most important and why?

Have students compare various presidential requests for war, particularly this speech of Wilson’s, FDR’s request after Pearl Harbor, and George W. Bush’s 2003 address on the invasion of Iraq. How do the presidents define or construct the enemy, their allies, and the aims of the war? When is the United States presented as acting for itself, and when is it acting for a broader group? Why? How much choice do they present to Americans about joining the war? What tactics are the same across the various speeches and what is different? What accounts for those similarities and differences?

Wilson notes that “If there should be any disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression; but, it if it lifts its head at all, it will lift it only here and there and without countenance except from a lawless and malignant few.” This lends itself well to a discussion of domestic opposition to the war—which was strong—and Wilson administration efforts to shut down that opposition through new legislation, such as the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, as well as through the efforts of an expanded Justice Department. – N. M. Phelps, University of Vermont

Bibliography:

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Capazolla, Christopher. “The Only Badge Needed Is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America.” Journal of American History 88, no. 4 (2002): 1354-82.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Safe for Democracy: The Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 1913-1923. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Gregory, Ross. The Origins of American Intervention in the First World War. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1971.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kennedy, Kathleen. Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion During World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Safford, Jeffrey J. Wilsonian Maritime Diplomacy, 1913-1921. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1978.

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