World War I Comes to America
It has been said by many that 1917 marked the end of innocence for America and its citizens. The year had begun optimistically; the vast majority of Americans who paid federal income taxes fell into the 1 percent bracket, and employment was up as the country benefited from selling war materials and food to the Allies fighting in Europe. Meanwhile, former New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson had won a second term as president in a narrow victory with the slogan “he kept us out of war.”
Unfortunately, things were beginning to change.
On Jan. 10, the Allies rejected Wilson’s attempt to negotiate peace without victory, and on the 31st, Germany announced it would begin unrestricted submarine warfare the next day, meaning ships flying the U.S. flag were now fair targets.
On Feb. 3, Wilson told Congress, “If it is still the purpose of the Imperial German Government to prosecute relentless and indiscriminate warfare against vessels of commerce by the use of submarines without regard to what the Government of the United States must consider the sacred and indisputable rules of international law and the universally recognized dictates of humanity, the Government of the United States is at last forced to the conclusion that there is but one course it can pursue. Unless the German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.”
On Feb. 24, Wilson received from the British a copy of a hacked, decoded telegram sent by the German foreign minister in January to the German embassy in Mexico City. After several days, Wilson gave the telegram to the press, and The New York Times printed it on the front page on March 1.
“On the 1st of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.
“If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement.
“You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States, and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan. At the same time, offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.”
As some newspapers called this an act of war, Wilson was preparing to deliver his second inaugural address. The nation held its breath waiting for America’s angry reply. Instead he tried to defuse the situation saying, “… matters lying outside our own life as a nation and over which we had no control, but which, despite our wish to keep free of them, have drawn us more and more irresistibly into current and influence.
“It has been impossible to avoid them. They have affected the life of the whole world. They have shaken men everywhere with a passion and an apprehension they never knew before. It has been hard to preserve calm counsel while the thought of our own people swayed this way and that under their influence. We are a composite and cosmopolitan people. We are of the blood of all the nations that are at war. … The war inevitably set its mark from the first alike upon our minds, our industries, our commerce, our politics and our social action. To be indifferent to it, or independent of it, was out of the question.
“… We have been deeply wronged upon the seas, but we have not wished to wrong or injure in return; have retained throughout the consciousness of standing in some sort apart, intent upon an interest that transcended the immediate issues of the war itself.
“As some of the injuries done us have become intolerable we have still been clear that we wished nothing for ourselves that we were not ready to demand for all mankind – fair dealing, justice, the freedom to live and to be at ease against organized wrong. … We stand firm in armed neutrality since it seems that in no other way we can demonstrate what it is we insist upon and cannot forget.”
By this time, many American merchant ships were staying in port, fearing submarine attack, which was threatening the U.S. economy. On March 12, Wilson announced the arming of U.S. merchant ships, and three days later the world learned that the czar of Russia had abdicated, leading many to hope he would be replaced with a democratic government. On the 20th, the president’s cabinet voted unanimously in secret session that there should be a declaration of war. Still Wilson waited; it was finally announced he would address Congress on April 2, 1917.
The Trenton Times in a rush to print the story forgot to read the Constitution when the paper stated, “Formal notification of this fact to the world will be made at 8 o’clock tonight by President Wilson, addressing Congress in joint session.
“The President’s announcement will take the form of an assertion that a state of war exists between the two countries.
“The chief executive would not wait until tomorrow but insisted upon appearing immediately after completion of the House organization.
“He reached this decision suddenly about 3:30 this afternoon. … This will be the first time the President has addressed Congress at night. It is expected he will appear in evening clothes and the galleries may be filled with gorgeously gowned women and men in dress suits, adding an unusual picture to the deep solemnity of the occasion.”
But under the Constitution, only Congress can declare war. The New York Times also noted not everyone was on board.
“The President delivered this speech before an audience that had been carefully sifted. All day Washington had been in the hands of belligerent pacifists, truculent in manner, and determined to break into the Capitol. They tried to take possession of the Capitol steps, up which the President must go when he entered, and met the same fate that Coxey’s rioters fell in with twenty-three years ago at the hands of the police, who dispersed them.
“A handful of them fell upon Senator Lodge and assaulted him. Others entered the Vice President’s room and were so aggressive that they were put out. But by nightfall the authorities had them eliminated, so far as any possibility of trouble was concerned, and they were not admitted to the Capitol at all.
“Two troops of the Second Cavalry guarded the approaches, and admitted nobody who could not be vouched for and the building swarmed with Secret Service men, Post Office Inspectors, and policemen on guard to see that no harm from the lovers of peace befell the President of the United States in his charge of a constitutional duty.”
The president himself opened his address with the statement that made it clear this would not be called Mr. Wilson’s war.
“I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.”
After laying out the reasons, “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, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less 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 defense 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.”
Wilson now put forth the goals for the country.
“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 freely 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.”
While Wilson was an idealist, he realized “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, civilization 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 fights 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 itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and 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.”
The New York Times noted, “The President ended at 9:11, having spoken thirty-six minutes. Then the great scene that had been enacted at his entrance was repeated. The diplomats, the Supreme Court, the galleries, the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike, stood in their places and the Senators waved flags they had brought with them. Those who were wearing, not carrying flags, tore them from their lapels or their sleeves and waved with the rest, and they all cheered wildly.
“The President rapidly (went) out of the hall, and when he had gone, the Senators and the Supreme Court and the diplomats went their way. Four minutes after his departure the Speaker called the House to order for the passage of a resolution.”
The question of war and peace was now in the hands of the U.S. Congress, and like Wilson’s decision, it wouldn’t be an easy one. It would take four long days of debate, and when Congress voted, it would change New Jersey and America forever.
Next Week: A new world order.