Friday, March 24, 2017

One Century Ago: The President's Words of War

By Reece Nortum
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war on Germany on April 2, 1917. Two days later, SS Marguerite was sunk in the Mediterranean by German u-boat U-35, while SS Missourian was sunk by u-boat U-52. In total, 19 US merchant vessels were sunk by German u-boats since 1917 began. (Library of Congress)
When hostilities broke out between several nations of Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson was quick to declare America’s intent to stay neutral and called on all Americans to remain impartial in thought as well as in action. However, the United States found it increasingly difficult to remain in a neutral state due to incidents like the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915, which killed 124 Americans. After the attack on the British liner Sussex the following March, during which more Americans were killed, the Germans pledged to cease attacking ships without warning after Wilson had threatened to sever diplomatic relations. The pledge did not extend to the activities of German agents ashore. On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom ammunition depot in New Jersey, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, was blown up by German saboteurs. 

Early 1917 brought new attacks by Germany against America and their interests, mainly because of the German navy’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, which resumed on February 1. This led to the sinking of the American cargo ship Housatonic on February 3. The furious President broke off diplomatic relations with Germany the same day. Meanwhile, British Intelligence had decoded and informed the U.S. government of a secret message sent by the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador to Mexico. The “Zimmermann Telegram” proposed a Mexican-German alliance if the United States were to enter WW1 against Germany. Zimmermann promised Mexico financial and territorial rewards for its support, including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Zimmerman Telegram appeared in America’s newspapers on March 1, provoking a great storm of anti-German sentiment among the U.S. population. President Wilson was to finally deliver his war message to Congress on April 2, 1917. German submarine warfare had continued, resulting in the sinking of additional ships, and the terrible loss of American lives.
“Crime by Moonlight,” painted by H.R. Butler, shows a German U-boat sinking an Allied vessel during World War I. (Naval History and Heritage Command via Flickr)
Wilson’s words to Congress brought to light many of the injustices done to America and its people. He said, in part:

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. 

Four days later, Congress overwhelmingly passed the War Resolution, which brought the United States into a war of unprecedented dimension.

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