With the status of the country’s belligerency heavily in question, an apprehensive President Woodrow Wilson prepared to request from an unmotivated and unprepared country a declaration of war against Germany. After exerting every attempt possible to retain the peace and honor of the United States, the President was finally forced to choose between the two, in which he opted for the latter (Seymour 26).
As he sat down to compose his congressional address proposing war, the uncertainty of his decision overwhelmed him. He confided to a member of his cabinet, Frank Cobb, that he had never been as unsure about anything in his life as the judgment he was making for the nation (Baker 506).
Through a rhetorical analysis of Wilson’s points of argumentation and his style in the presentation to the war congress, we can gain a better understanding of the president’s purpose tonot only convince the Congress that American belligerency in the final stages of the war would indefinitely shorten it and provide him with the opportunity to organize the peace for Europe as well as the rest of the world (Ferrell 2), but to sway the American people’s opinion to one of non-isolationism, to warn Germany’s government that “America would ultimately wield a powerful sword to deny them victory” (Parsons 2), to compel German citizens to relinquish the submarine attacks and negotiate peace and his terms (Parsons 2), and to calm his own uncertainty about his decision. The need for Wilson’s speech and the current mindset of the American public were a direct result of a succession of antagonistic events in Europe that were rapidly effecting the United States. As the task of remaining neutral became increasingly unfeasible due to numerous insults by the British and German governments, Wilson was forced to shift his foreign policy into a more internationalist scope, a path which the majority of Americans failed to follow (Boyer 791).
The same man who was reelected in 1916 on the platform “he kept us out of war”, who delivered the “peace without victory” speech, who urged his country to remain neutral “in action” as well as “in thought” was now asking Congress to approve American entry into the war. As President Wilson confronted the nation on the evening of April 2, 1917, he presented a case of past offenses coupled with present circumstances in hopes of providing a more effective case for leading America into war (Blakey, 2). He employed antecedent-consequence throughout the beginning of his address to warrant his call for belligerency. By recapitulating the events of German abomination as seen most profoundly in the sinking of United States vessels, Wilson let the record speak for itself.
He appealed to the sense of compassion in his audience with the mention of “hospital ships as ships carrying aid to the stricken people of Belgium…. have been sunk with the same reckless lack of concern or principle” (Baker 510) It was these “hard-hitting charges of outrage and insult by Germany” that stirred Wilson’s listeners (Baker 514). He continued to relate events of the past to his present standpoint by admitting that he was at first “unable to believe that such things could be done by any government” (Safire 110), but as American lives were unjustly taken he realized that the German government had disregarded all respect for international law and had declared war against mankind (Baker 510).
This war “against mankind” Wilson defined as the intent of German submarines to take the lives of innocent, uninvolved citizens, whose activities, being supplying aid to bereaved nations or exporting goods on merchant ships, have always been deemed as inoffensive and legitimate pursuits, by no means worthy of assault (Safire 111). Wilson contrasted the British’s interference with neutral trade as slight compared to the immediate and intense conflict with Germany over submarine warfare, illustrated by the comment “Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people cannot be” (Safire 111). The President went on to offer another definition in hopes of justifying his call to war. He labeled the conflict as “a war against all nations” exemplifying the distress that other countries have experienced due to the unbiased and relentless bombing of their own neutral ships (Safire 111).
By associating the United States with other friendly countries who are also at odds with Germany, Wilson’s cry for war seemed more convincing. He went on to assert that the choice made by the U. S must be befitting to the singular characteristics of the country and that they must be very clear what their motives upon entry into the war were: not vengeance or profession of physical might, but to defend the principles of peace and justice and “to set up amongst the free people of the world an observance of these ideals” (Safire 113). We were entering the war not to battle with the German people, but to combat a greater menace, the system that had impended these violations (Baker 512). The president proceeded with regard to his stance on neutrality. Aware of acifists like Henry Cabot Lodge in the audience, Wilson appealed to those who had not forgotten his promises of keeping America out of war. He admitted that his assumption that armed neutrality would be adequate in “safeguarding his people from unlawful violence” was in fact impossible and he had failed to “assert our neutral rights with arms, our right to use the seas against unlawful interference, our right to keep our people safe against unlawful violence” (Safire 111). Wilson delivered this phrase with the use of the collective pronoun “our” which worked to give the illusion that the country was ununited on this war resolution (Safire 109).
The president continued to refute his previous position by pointing out that it is nearly impossible for neutral ships to defend themselves on the open sea without subscribing to the same inhumane measures the Germans have employed,destroying ships before they reveal their intention. “The position of armed neutrality has worked only to produce what it was meant to prevent,” claimed the President with hopes of validating his attitude reversal. The president was certain that armed neutrality would accomplish nothing but bring America into a war that it was unprepared for and the country would consequently, lack effectiveness (Safire 111). Wilson, forced to make a choice for his country as to either maintain its honor or peace, stated “There is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making…… We will not choose the path of submission” (Low 239).
With this sentence, Wilson defined neutrality as being synomous with submission and he refused to allow the rights and or the people of the United States to be violated or ignored(Safire 113). With neutrality voided, the President moved on to address the main concern of his speech. With a solemnity of language, Wilson asked to Congress to declare the recent insults of the German government as “nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States” and he advised that they accept their newfound status of belligerent and work to prepare the country’s resources and people to defeat the evil German empire and resolve the war(Clements 2).
The president expressed his regret in having to make such a move but found it as his “constitutional duty” to do no other(Safire 112). Through the use of anaphora for emphasis, he stated the need for an army to be raised through drafting, the levying of taxes, making money readily available to the Allied powers, increasing agricultural and industrial production, and overall commitment by the country to give its all to destroy the “Prussian autocracy” (Clements 140). Wilson was asking for more than had ever been demanded of the country before; requesting not only their loyalty and enthusiasm, but “organization of the nation’s strength to fight the enemies of democracy and reestablish the proper balance of power in Europe” (Blakey2).
The President reminded the nation that during the course of the last two months his war objectives had remained unchanged and he proceeded to warn Americans of the nessecity of retaining their virtuous motives and aims as the country mobilized for war(Safire 113). Wilson then called America to war “for the noblest purpose a war has ever been undertaken” (Baker 511). “Our object…. is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the word 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 insure the observance of these principles…. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and the individual citizens of civilized states” (Ferrell 2).
With this statement, Wilson ruled out any questions as to why he was leading his country into combat and it became evident that “His word pointed to principle, not selfish interest, as the motive for war” (Safire109). Wilson refused to accept a “moral double standard” in international affairs and he recognized the dawning of a new age in which the same principles of conduct and consequences of wrongdoing would be observed by all (Ferrell 2). Then President Wilson went on to address the American position on the German people. He proclaimed America wasn’t fighting against the general public of Germany, but we were engaged in a battle opposing the the government of which the people had no control over. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval” (Baker 512). Wilson went on to compare the war declaration of Germany to those of forgotten days when the public was never consulted or made aware of the intentions of a warring nation. Obviously insulting the administration of the Germans, Wilson acknowledged that “self-governed nations do not fill their neighbor states with spies or set the course of intrigue to bring about some critical posture of affairs which will give them the opportunity to strike and make conquest. –all of these statements implying that if Germany were under democratic rule, the submarine warfare campaign would be non-existent (Safire, 114). One must see the irony in this statement in light of America’s numerous attempts to gain influence in other countries by means of military intervention and economic domination as exemplified during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, who utilized the Roosevelt Corollary and dollar diplomacy as their tools of expansionism. In order to establish peace and morality in the world, Wilson assert that the world must be governed by the rule of the people. In order to maintain “a steadfast concert for peace”, Wilson concludes that the only answer is democracy (Safire 114). Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own” (Baker 512). Wilson provided Russia as the prime example of this ideal “League of Honor” by pointing out how the country had prepared itself to join in the “forces fighting for freedom in the world, for justice, and for peace” ( Baker 513). The Germans had failed to conform to this Wilsonian view of world peace, and therefore “proved itself a ‘natural foe to liberty’ by its conduct in the war, its subversive activities in the United States, and its intrigues and its plots, as evidenced in the Zimmerman note” (Baker 513). President Wilson called his nation to put forth every effort to halt the power of the German Empire.
This sentiment is manifested in his next paragraph as Wilson summarizes his war aims into one all encompassing goal: to make the world safe for democracy (Clements 140). Wilson uses an hyperbole to characterize American’s struggle as one to secure peace for the whole world, one to insure to rights of nations great and small, and one to safeguard the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience (Baker 513). Once again Wilson affirms that the United States upon entry into the war desires “no conquest, no dominion” (Baker 513). The United States is readily willing to make sacrifices without compensation in order to secure the undenible rights of mankind (Safire 115).
These statements regarding Wilson’s principles work not only to convince the nation of the obligation America has in guaranteeing freedom, but also to pacify his own reservations as to why he might be leading his country into war. Wilson ended with an apologetic peroration full of regret. He began by admitting the anguish he felt over having to bring this issue before Congress and acknowledged that his was an “oppressive and distressing duty” (Baker 513). The President wearily recognized that the road ahead of the Allies was going to be a long one and he did not attempt to shield the country from the “after-cost in terms of trial and sacrifice to the nation and to civilization” ( Baker 513).
Wilson expressed his personal objectives in the final paragraph of his speech (Baker 514). Solemn, though very powerful, Wilson asked his fellow Americans to dedicate their “lives and their fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that 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,” (Low 239) to the effort of democratizes the world. He ended with, “God helping her she can do no other. ” With this closing sentence Woodrow Wilson left with America with no choice but to defend her honor ((Blakey 2).
Americans had never before made the sacrifices their country was calling for, but Wilson was confident of the outcome. Two days later Congress voted overwhelming that “the state of war….. which had been thust upon the United States is hereby formally declared” (Bailey 10). In conclusion, after a rhetorical analysis of Woodrow Wilson’s address to the war congress on April 2, 1917 the reader is more aware of all of the opposing factions to which Wilson had to appeal to and the methods he employed to do so. By admitting his own fears about American entry into the Great War, he helped to calm the apprehensions of the American people as he sought to rally them behind his cause to safeguard democracy for the world.