4: We Must Accept War
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Message to the Congress
April 2, 1917
Gentlemen of the Congress:
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.
On the 3d of February last I officially laid before you the
extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on
and after the first day of February it was its purpose to put aside
all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink
every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain
and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports
controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean. That
had seemed to be the object of the German submarine warfare earlier in
the war, but since April of last year the Imperial Government had
somewhat restrained the commanders of its undersea craft in conformity
with its promise then given to us that passenger-boats should not be
sunk, and that due warning would be given to all other vessels which
its submarines might seek to destroy when no resistance was offered or
escape attempted, and care taken that their crews were given at least
a fair chance to save their lives in their open boats.
The precautions taken were meager and haphazard enough, as was proved
in distressing instance after instance in the progress of the cruel
and unmanly business, but a certain degree of restraint was observed.
Germany's Ruthless Policy
The new policy has swept every restriction aside. Vessels of every
kind, whatever their flag, their character, their cargo, their
destination, their errand, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom
without warning, and without thought of help or mercy for those on
board, the vessels of friendly neutrals along with those of
belligerents. Even hospital-ships and ships carrying relief to the
sorely bereaved and stricken people of Belgium, though the latter were
provided with safe conduct through the proscribed areas by the German
Government itself and were distinguished by unmistakable marks of
identity, have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or
I was for a little while unable to believe that such things would,
in fact, be done by any Government that had hitherto subscribed to
the humane practices of civilized nations. International law had its
origin in the attempt to set up some law which would be respected and
observed upon the seas, where no nation had right of dominion, and
where lay the free highways of the world. By painful stage after stage
has that law been built up with meager enough results, indeed, after
all was accomplished that could be accomplished, but always with a clear
view at least of what the heart and conscience of mankind demanded.
This minimum of right the German Government has swept aside under the
plea of retaliation and necessity, and because it had no weapons which
it could use at sea except these, which it is impossible to employ as
it is employing them without throwing to the winds all scruples of
humanity or of respect for the understandings that were supposed to
underlie the intercourse of the world.
I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved, immense and
serious as that is, but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction
of the lives of non-combatants, men, women, and children engaged in
pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modem
history, been deemed innocent and legitimate. Property can be paid
for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people cannot be.
German Warfare Against Mankind
The present German warfare against commerce is a warfare against
mankind. It is a war against all nations. American ships have been
sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very
deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and
friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the
same way. There has been no discrimination. 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 a temperateness of judgment 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.
When I addressed the Congress on the 26th of February last I thought
that it would suffice 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. But armed neutrality,
it now appears, is impracticable. Because submarines are in effect
outlaws when used as the German submarines have been used against
merchant shipping, it is impossible to defend ships against their
attacks as the law of nations has assumed that merchant men would
defend themselves against privateers or cruisers, visible craft giving
chase upon the open sea.
It is common prudence in such circumstances, grim necessity, indeed,
to endeavor to destroy them before they have shown their own intention.
They must be dealt with upon sight, if dealt with at all.
The German Government denies the right of neutrals to use arms at
all within the areas of the sea which it has proscribed, even in the
defense of rights which no modern publicist has ever before questioned
their right to defend. The intimation is conveyed that the armed
guards which we have placed on our merchant-ships will be treated as
beyond the pale of law and subject to be dealt with as pirates would be.
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 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 not common wrongs;
they reach out to the very roots of human life.
Belligerency Thrust Upon Us
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 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 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.
What This Will Involve
What this will involve is clear. It will involve the utmost
practicable co-operation in counsel and action with the Governments
now at war with Germany, and as incident to that the extension to
those Governments of the most liberal financial credits in order that
our resources may so far as possible be added to theirs.
It will involve the organization and mobilization of all the material
resources of the country to supply the materials of war and serve the
incidental needs of the nation in the most abundant and yet the most
economical and efficient way possible.
It will involve the immediate full equipment of the navy in all
respects, but particularly in supplying it with the best means of
dealing with the enemy's submarines.
It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the
United States already provided for by law in case of war at least
500,000 men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle
of universal liability to service, and also the authorization of
subsequent additional increments of equal force so soon as they may
be needed and can be handled in training.
It will involve also, of course, the granting of adequate credits to
the Government, sustained, I hope, so far as they can equitably be
sustained by the present generation, by well-conceived taxation. I say
sustained so far as may be equitable by taxation because it seems to
me that it would be most unwise to base the credits which will now be
necessary entirely on money borrowed.
It is our duty, I most respectfully urge, to protect our people so far
as we may against the very serious hardships and evils which would be
likely to arise out of the inflation which would be produced by vast
In carrying out the measures by which these things are to be
accomplished we should keep constantly in mind the wisdom 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.
I shall take the liberty of suggesting, through the several executive
departments of the Government, for the consideration of your
committees measures for the accomplishment of the several objects I
have mentioned. I hope that it will be your pleasure to deal with them
as having been framed after very careful thought by the branch of the
Government upon which the responsibility of conducting the war and
safeguarding the nation will most directly fall.
Our Motives And Objects
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. My own thought has not been driven from its habitual
and normal course by the unhappy events of the last two months, and
I do not believe that the thought of the nation has been altered or
clouded by them.
I have exactly the same thing in mind now that I had in mind when I
addressed the Senate on the 22d of January last; the same that I had
in mind when I addressed the Congress on the 3d of February and on the
26th of February.
Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and
the 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 insure the observance of those principles.
Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the
world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to
that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic Governments
backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will,
not by the will of their people. We have seen the last of neutrality
in such circumstances.
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 their Governments that are
observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.
We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward
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.
It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the
old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers
and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of
little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their
fellow-men as pawns and tools.
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 an opportunity to strike and make conquest. Such
designs can be successfully worked only under cover and where no one has
the right to ask questions.
Cunningly contrived plans of deception or aggression, carried, it may
be, from generation to generation, can be worked out and kept from the
light only within the privacy of courts or behind the carefully
guarded confidences of a narrow and privileged class. They are happily
impossible where public opinion commands and insists upon full
information concerning all the nation's affairs.
Peace Through Free Peoples
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 honor, a partnership of opinion. Intrigue would eat its
vitals away, the plottings of inner circles who could plan what they
would and render account to no one would be a corruption seated at its
very heart. 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.
Does not every American feel that assurance has been added to our hope
for the future peace of the world by the wonderful and heartening
things that have been happening within the last few weeks in Russia?
Russia was known by those who know it best to have been always in fact
democratic at heart, in all the vital habits of her thought, in all
the intimate relationships of her people that spoke their natural
instinct, their habitual attitude toward life.
Autocracy that crowned the summit of her political structure, long as
it had stood and terrible as was the reality of its power, was not in
fact Russian in origin, in character or purpose; and now it has been
shaken and the great, generous Russian people have been added, in all
their native majesty and might, to the forces that are fighting for
freedom in the world, for justice and for peace. Here is a fit partner
for a league of honor.
One of the things that have served to convince us that the Prussian
autocracy was not and could never be our friend is that from the very
outset of the present war it has filled our unsuspecting communities
and even our offices of Government with spies and set criminal
intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity of council,
our peace within and without, our industries and our commerce.
Indeed, it is now evident that its spies were here even before the war
began, and it is, unhappily, not a matter of conjecture, but a fact
proved in our courts of justice, that the intrigues which have more
than once come perilously near to disturbing the peace and dislocating
the industries of the country have been carried on at the instigation,
with the support, and even under the personal direction, of official
agents of the Imperial German Government accredited to the Government
of the United States.
Even in checking these things and trying to extirpate them we have
sought to put the most generous interpretation possible upon them
because we knew that their source lay, not in any hostile feeling or
purpose of the German people toward us (who were, no doubt, as
ignorant of them as we ourselves were), but only in the selfish
designs of a Government that did what it pleased and told its people
nothing. But they have played their part in serving to convince us
at last that that Government entertains no real friendship for us
and means to act against our peace and security at its convenience.
That it means to stir up enemies against us at our very doors the
intercepted note to the German Minister at Mexico City is eloquent
A Challenge Of Hostile Purpose
We are accepting this challenge of hostile purpose because we know
that in such a Government, following such methods, we can never have a
friend; and that in the presence of its organized power, always lying
in wait to accomplish we know not what purpose, there can be no
assured security for the democratic Governments of the world.
We are now about to accept the gage of battle with this natural foe to
liberty, and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation
to check and nullify its pretensions and its power. We are glad, now
that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them, to
fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation
of its peoples, the German people included; for the rights of nations
great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their
way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for
democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the trusted foundations of
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 the nation can
Just because we fight without rancor and without selfish objects,
seeking nothing for ourselves but what we shall wish to share with
all free peoples, we shall, I feel confident, conduct our operations
as belligerents without passion and ourselves observe with proud
punctilio the principles of right and of fair play we profess to be
I have said nothing of the Governments allied with the Imperial
Government of Germany because they have not made war upon us or
challenged us to defend our right and our honor.
The Austro-Hungarian Government has indeed avowed its unqualified
endorsement and acceptance of the reckless and lawless submarine
warfare adopted now without disguise by the Imperial German
Government, and it has therefore not been possible for this Government
to receive Count Tarnowski, the ambassador recently accredited to this
Government by the Imperial and Royal Government of Austria-Hungary;
but that Government has not actually engaged in warfare against
citizens of the United States on the seas, and I take the liberty,
for the present at least, of postponing a discussion of our relations
with the authorities at Vienna.
Opposition To The German Government
Friendship Toward The German People
We enter this war only where we are clearly forced into it because
there are no other means of defending our rights.
It will be all the easier for us to conduct ourselves as belligerents
in a high spirit of right and fairness because we act without animus,
not in enmity toward a people or with the desire to bring any injury
or disadvantage upon them, but only in armed opposition to an
irresponsible Government which has thrown aside all considerations of
humanity and of right and is running amuck.
We are, let me say again, the sincere friends of the German people,
and shall desire nothing so much as the early reestablishment of
intimate relations of mutual advantage between us—however hard it may
be for them, for the time being, to believe that this is spoken from
our hearts. We have borne with their present Government through all
these bitter months because of that friendship—exercising a patience
and forbearance which would otherwise have been impossible.
We shall, happily, still have an opportunity to prove that friendship
in our daily attitude and actions toward the millions of men and women
of German birth and native sympathy who live amongst us and share our
life, and we shall be proud to prove it toward all who are, in fact,
loyal to their neighbors and to the Government in the hour of test.
They are, most of them, as true and loyal Americans as if they had
never known any other fealty or allegiance. They will be prompt to
stand with us in rebuking and restraining the few who may be of a
different mind and purpose. If there should be disloyalty it will be
dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression; but, 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.
Right More Precious Than Peace
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, 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 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 itself 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.
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