Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at Convention Hall in Kansas City, Missouri

February 02, 1916

Mr. Chairman and Fellow Citizens: You have certainly given me a most royal welcome to Kansas City, and I esteem it a very great privilege to deliver the message which I have come to deliver to this great throng of intelligent people. My natural duty to you, ladies and gentlemen, is in Washington, not here. I have a certain scruple of conscience in being away from Washington for many days at a time, because it is one of the interesting circumstances of the moment that there is hardly a day which does not in some degree alter the aspect of affairs. It is important for your sake, and, I venture to add, for the sake of the peace of the world, that those who represent you in responsible stations should keep in constant touch with these changes. You will, therefore, credit me when I say that it is only an extraordinary occasion which draws me away from duties needing such constant attention.

I would not have come away from Washington had I not believed that there was a stronger compulsion of conscience to acquaint you with the state of affairs than there was to remain during this week at the place of guidance. You will know without my describing it to you what the task assigned me has been. It has been the task of keeping the scales so poised from day to day that no man should throw into one scale or the other any makeweight which would imperil the peace of the United States; for I have felt that you were depending upon your Government to keep you out of this turmoil which is disturbing the rest of the world. You are counting upon me to do more than keep you out of trouble, however. You are counting upon me to see to it that the rights of citizens of the United States, wherever they might be, are respected by everybody. You have counted upon me to see that your energies should be released also along the channels of trade in order that you might serve the world as the only Nation disengaged and ready to serve it. You have expected me to see that the rest of the world permitted America thus to express and exercise her humane and legitimate energy.

I have come out to ask you what there was behind me in this task. You know the lawyers speak of the law having a sanction back of it. The judge as he sits on his bench has something back of him. He has the whole physical force of the nation back of him. The laws reside and sit upon him, no matter how commonplace his individual aspect, with a sort of majesty, because there is the sovereignty of the people and of the people's government back of him. When he utters a judgment the man against whom it is uttered knows that he dare not resist it. But when I, as your spokesman and representative, utter a judgment with regard to the rights of the United States in its relations to other nations, what is the sanction? What is the compulsion? What lies back of that? You will say, "The force and majesty of the United States. " Yes; the force and majesty of the United States; but is it ready to express itself? If you resist the judge, there are the bailiffs of the court; if you resist the bailiffs of the court, there are those who assist the sheriff of the county; if you resist the sheriff, there is the National Guard; if you resist the National Guard, there is the Army of the United States. But if you ignore in some foreign capital what the President of the United States urges as the rights of the people and Government of the United States, what is there back of that?

It is necessary, my fellow citizens, that I should ask you this question, because I do not know how long the mere word and insistence of your Government will prevail to maintain your honor and the dignity and power of the Nation. There may come a time— I pray God it may never come, but it may, in spite of everything we do, come upon us, and come of a sudden—when I shall have to ask: "I have had my say; who stands back of me? Where is the force by which the majesty and right of the United States are to be maintained and asserted?" I take it that there may in your own conviction come a time when that might and force must be vindicated and asserted. You are not willing that what your Government says should be ignored.

I have seen editorials written in more than one part of the United States sneering at the number of notes that were being written from the State Department to foreign Governments, and asking, "Why does not the Government act?" And in those same papers I have seen editorials against the preparation to do anything whatever effective if those notes are not regarded. Is that the temper of the United States? It may be the temper of some editorial offices, but it is not the temper of the people of the United States.

I came out upon this errand from Washington, and see what happened. Before I started everybody knew what errand I was bound on. I expected to meet quiet audiences and explain to them the issues of the day, and what did I meet? At every stop of the train multitudes of my fellow citizens crowded out, not to see the President of the United States merely—he is not much to look at—but to declare their ardent belief in the majesty of the Government which he stands for and for the time being represents, and to declare in one fashion or another, if it were only by cheers, that they stood ready to do their duty in the hour of need. I have been thrilled by the experiences of these few days, and I shall go back to Washington and smile at anybody who tells me that the United States is not wide awake. But, gentlemen, crowds at the stations, multitudes in great audience halls, cheers for the Government, the display—the ardent display, as from the heart—of the emblem of our Nation, the Stars and Stripes, only express the spirit of the Nation; they do not express the organized force of the Nation. And while I know, and knew before I left Washington, what the spirit of the people was, I have come out to ask them what their organization is and what they intend to make it.

Modern wars are not won by mere numbers. They are not won by. mere enthusiasm. They are not won by mere national spirit. They are won by the scientific conduct of war, the scientific application of irresistible force. And what is there behind the President of the United States? Well, in the first place, there is a Navy, which, for my part, I am very proud of; a Navy, which for its numbers, ship by ship, man by man, officer by officer, I believe to be the equal of any navy in the world. But look at the great sweep of our coasts. Mind you, this war has engaged all the rest of the world outside of South America and the portion of North America occupied by the United States, and if this flame begins to creep in on us, it may, my fellow citizens, creep in toward both coasts, and here are thousands upon thousands of miles of coast. Do you know that the great sweep from the canal up the coast to Alaska is something like half the circumference of the world? Do you remember the great reaches of sea from the canal up to the St. Lawrence River? Do you know the bays, the inviting harbors, the great cities which cluster upon those coasts? And do you think that a Navy that ranks only fourth in the world in force is enough to defend the coasts and make secure the territory of a great continent like this?

We have been interested in our Navy for a great many years, and we have been slowly building it up to excellent force, but we have done it piecemeal and a little at a time. There has been a party in Congress that was for a little Navy, as well as a party in Congress that was for a big Navy, and it seemed to me a sort of theoretical situation as to whether we wanted a Navy to be proud of or not. No nation ought to wish either an Army or Navy to be proud of, to make a display with, to make a toy of. It is the arm of force which must lie back of every sovereignty in the world, and the Navy of the United States must now be as rapidly as possible brought to a state of efficiency and of numerical strength which will make it practically impregnable to the navies of the world. The fighting force of the Navy now is splendid, and I should expect very great achievements from the fine officers and trained men that constitute it, but it is not big enough; it is not numerous enough; it is incomplete. It must be completed, and what the present administration is proposing is that we limit the number of years to five within which we shall complete a definite program which will make that Navy adequate for the defense of both coasts.

But, on land what stands behind the President, if he should have to act in your behalf to enforce the demands of the United States for respect and right? An Army so small that I have not had men enough to patrol the Mexican border. The Mexican border is a very long border, I admit; it runs the whole southern length of Texas and the whole southern length of New Mexico and Arizona besides, and that is a great strip of noble territory. But what is that single border to the whole extent and coast of the United States? I have not had men enough to prevent bandits from raiding across the border of Mexico into the United States. It has been a very mortifying circumstance indeed. I have been tempted to advise Congress to help Texas build up its little force of Texas Rangers; and now, if you please, because I am asking the Congress to give the Government an Army adequate to the uses of peace, to the uses of the moment, some gentlemen go about and prate of military establishments. They see phantoms, they dream dreams. Militarism in the United States springing out of any of the proposals of this administration is, —why, a man must have a very strong imagination indeed to conceive any such nonsense as that! I am not asking, the administration is not asking, to be backed by any bigger standing Army than is necessary for the uses of the moment, but it is asking this:

Do you remember the experiences of the Spanish-American war? That was not much of a war, was it? It did not last very long. You remember the satirical verses that some newspaper man wrote about it—

War is rude and impolite,

It quite upsets a nation;

It's made of several weeks of fight,

And years of conversation.

A war which was parodied in verse! What happened? You sent thousands of men to their death because they were ignorant. They did not get any farther than the camps in Florida. They did not get on the water even, much less get to Cuba, and they died in the camps like flies, of all sorts of camp diseases, of all sorts of diseases that come from the ignorance of medical science and camp sanitation. Splendid boys, boys fit, with a little training, to make an invincible army, but sent to their death by miserable disease, the soil of which was ignorance, helpless ignorance. Why, the percentage of our loss in that war by disease in the camp was greater than the percentage of the loss of the Japanese by disease and battle together in their war with Russia.

It is a very mortifying thing. There is not any place in the world where medical science is more nobly studied or more adequately applied than in the United States, but we poured crude, ignorant, untrained boys into the ranks of those armies and they died before they got sight of an enemy. Do you want to repeat that? And while that is going on what may happen? What sort of disaster may come to you while you are trying to make an army out of absolutely raw material? Why, it seems almost ridiculous to state how little the present administration is asking for. It is asking that you give it something that is not mere raw material out of which to begin to make an army when it is absolutely necessary to make an army. It is asking that five hundred thousand men be asked to volunteer to take a little training every year for three years, not more than two or three months out of the year, in order that when volunteers are called for in the case of war we may have men, at least five hundred thousand of them, who know something about the use of arms, something about the sanitation of camps, something about the organization and discipline of war in the field and in the trenches. That is all that we are asking for at the present time, and if there is any criticism to be made upon it, it is that it is too little, not too much.

There are men in Congress asking, "Can you get the five hundred thousand men? Will they volunteer?" Why, I believe you could get them out of any one State in the Union. You could almost get five thousand of them out of this audience. But, ladies and gentlemen, do not forget that that is not all there is to this problem. Suppose that I knew that back of the insistence of the United States upon its rights was a great navy that ranked first in the world and a body of men trained to arms adequate, at any rate, to fend off any initial disaster to the United States while we were making a greater army ready. That would be only the beginning. There are other things that we have been very much concerned about in Washington and that we are taking steps to attend to. The railroads of this country have never been drawn into the counsels of the Government, never until recently, in such fashion as to make plans for coordinating all of them, to transport troops and transport provisions and transport munitions in such a way as to be the effective arteries of the red blood and energy of the Nation; never until recently, though we are now beginning to do it, for we called the business men and the engineers of the country into counsel to say, "What are the resources of manufacture in this country, and how can we coordinate them and put them into cooperation, so that there will be no waste of time, no duplication of effort, and no failure to get every part of the machinery into operation should we need to use them in times of war?" We are taking counsel with regard to that now; but, mark you, the munitions of war are made in this country almost exclusively near the borders of the country, and for the most part upon the Atlantic seaboard, and any initial disaster to the force of the United States might put the greater part of them, if not all of them, in the possession of an enemy. So that you see the circle of my argument leads right back to the necessity for a force of men who can prevent an initial disaster, so that there will be no first failure, no first invasion, no first disaster.

Did you ever hear more momentous things spoken of than these? Did it ever before occur to you that you must put more than the authority of words into the mouths of the men who speak for you? I have been wringing my heart and straining every energy of mind that I have to preserve the honor and integrity and peace of the United States, but think of what must lie at the back of my thought. I know what you want me to do. I would be ashamed if I did not use the utmost powers that are in me to do it. But suppose that some morning I should have to turn to you and say, "Fellow citizens, I have done as much as I can; now I must ask you to back me up with the force of the Nation. " And suppose that I should know before I said it that I had not told you what that meant, as I am telling you to-night. Suppose that I had not warned you of what was involved. Suppose that I had not challenged you in a moment of peace to make ready. Do not suppose, however, that I am afraid that it is not going to be done. I would not do the injustice that that implication would involve to the gallant men upon the Hill yonder in Washington who make the laws of the Nation. They are going to do a good deal of debating, but they are going to deliver the goods. Do not misunderstand me; I do not mean that I can oblige them to deliver the goods; they are going to deliver the goods because you want them delivered.

I am a believer not only in some of the men who talk, though not all of them, but also in that vast body of my fellow citizens who do not do any talking. I would a great deal rather listen to the still, small voice that comes out of the great body of the Nation than to all the vocal orators in the land. But there are times when I must come out and say, " Do not let the voice be too small and too still "; when I must come out and say, "Fellow citizens, get up on your hind legs, and talk and tell the people who represent you, wherever they are—in your State Capital or in your National Capital—what it is that the Nation desires and demands. " The thing that everybody is listening for in a democracy is the tramp, tramp, tramp of the facts and the people.

Did you ever realize what the force of a democracy is? May I give you a small, whimsical example? A cynical English writer once said that the problem in every nation was how, out of a multitude of knaves, to make an honest people. Now, I, for my part, deny utterly that any nation is a multitude of knaves, but if it were a multitude of knaves as numerous as the people of the United States, you could make an honest nation out of them in this way: They are not all selfishly interested in the same things at the same time; they are going to take care of each other and neutralize each other and inspire one another. Suppose that an audience as great as this surrounded, let us say, a football field, too far away from the field to hear anything that was said out in the middle of the field itself; and suppose two men, dressed in the ordinary street dress and not expected to pummel each other as the players perhaps are, should come out before the players and, standing in the sight of that great multitude, should suddenly fall to blows. You know what would happen. A great outcry would be raised, "Put them out! Put them out! and there would be universal indignation that they should have so lost their self-possession and forgotten their decency. Now, what happened? Perhaps one of those men said to the other something that nobody would allow another man to say to him without hitting him. Perhaps there was not a man in the whole, body of the audience who would not have struck the first blow upon the same provocation. But it was not his provocation. He did not hear what was said; if he did, it was not addressed to him, and he is cool while they are hot.

Now, that is the way to answer the Englishman's cynical question. This country is so vast, its interests are so various, there are so many competing interests in it, that, while any body of citizens is hot, the vast majority are cool, and the vast majority are going to sit in judgment on the minority and tell them they have got to keep their heads and decide the quarrel in decent fashion. That is the way a democracy works. We are all of us fit to be judges about what is none of our business, and that is the way that great bodies of men come to the most cool-headed judgments. Their passions are not involved, their special interests are not involved; they are looking at the thing with a certain remove, with a certain aloofness of, judgment.

I am anxious, therefore, my fellow citizens, that you should look at the hot stuff of war before you touch it; that you should be cool; that you should apply your hard business sense to the proposition, "Shall we be caught unawares and do a scientific job like tyros and ignoramuses? Or shall we be ready? Shall we know how to do it, and when it is necessary to do it; shall we do it to the queen's taste? " I know what the answer of America is, but I want it to be unmistakably uttered, and I want it to be uttered now. Because, speaking with all solemnity, I assure you that there is not a day to be lost; not, understand me, because of any new or specially critical matter, but because I can not tell 24 hours at a time whether there is going to be trouble or not. And whether there is or not does not depend upon what I do or what I say, or upon what any man in the United States does or says. It depends upon what foreign governments do; what the commanders of ships at sea do; what those in charge of submarines do; what those who are conducting blockades do. Upon the judgment of a score of men, big and little, hang the vital issues of peace or war for the United States.

This month should not go by without something decisive done by the people of the United States by way of preparation of the arms of self-vindication and defence. My heart burns within me, my fellow citizens, when I think of the importance of this matter and of all that is involved. I am sorry that there should be anybody in the United States who goes about crying out for war. There are such men, but they are irresponsible men, who do a great deal of talking, and they are appealing to some of the most fundamental and dangerous passions of the human heart. And yet they are appealing, it must also be said, to some of the handsomest passions of the human heart. If I see somebody suffering, suffering cruelly, suffering unjustly, and believe that by the exercise of force on my part I can stop the suffering, it is not a low but an exalted passion which leads me to wish to go in and help. And there are men in this country, men by the thousand, who believe that we ought to intervene to stop the intolerable suffering which is involved in some of the processes of this terrible war. Yet I, for my part, am so convinced that we can help better by keeping out of the war, by giving our financial resources to the use of the injured world, by giving our cotton and our woolen stuffs to clothe the world; I am so convinced that the processes of peace are even now the helpful and healing and redeeming forces that I do not see how any man can think that by adding to the number of guns you can decrease the suffering or the tragedy of the world.

There is tragedy abroad in the world, my fellow citizens. We in these peaceful areas of this blessed country go about our daily tasks unmolested and unafraid. It seems very strange that this tragedy should be enacted while we lie so still and peaceful in our own abodes, but the world has never before in the history of mankind seen war upon such a scale, seen war with so many terrible features, seen the sweep of destruction comparable to that which is now devastating the fields of Europe. We think our own Civil War one of the bloodiest wars in history, but all the suffering of all the four years of that war are as dust in the balance as compared to the josses and sufferings and sacrifices which are being witnessed in Europe and upon the seas to-day. We are witnessing a cataclysm, and God only knows what the issue will be.

See, therefore, the noble part that is assigned to America, —to stand steady, to stand cool, to keep alive all the wholesome processes, of peace, —and we who are trustees to repair the world when the damage is done must take counsel with one another how we shall see to it that we shall not be prevented from the efficacious performance of that task. I would not condescend to appeal to your passions. I would be ashamed of myself if I tried to do anything but quiet your judgments. I do not wish you to be any more excited than I am. I am too solemn to be excited. I would not draw a passionate breath for fear I might disturb the nice equipoise of the peace of this part of the world. But, ladies and gentlemen, one cannot help seeing visions, one cannot help realizing what it means to stand for the honor of a great nation like this. You little realize the feeling that it gives me when I see those little flags lifted in the air, and know that every one of them is a symbol of the solemn duty laid upon those selected to represent you in the counsels of the world. And I have come in all solemnity to ask you to sustain the judgment of those who represent you in applying the means, the necessary means, the only means which will make it certain that those great interests may be conserved and cared for.

I am going away from here reassured beyond even the hope that I entertained when I came here; and yet I want to beg of you that you do not let the impressions of this hour die with the hour. Let every man and woman in this place go out of here with the feeling that he must concentrate his influence from this moment until the thing is accomplished upon making certain the security and adequacy of national defence. Because, if America suffer, all the world loses its equipoise. Madness has entered into everything, and that serene flag which we have thrown to the breeze upon so many occasions as the beckoning finger of hope to those who believe in the rights of mankind will itself be stained with the blood of battle, and staggering here and there among its foes will lead men to wonder where the star of America has gone and why America has allowed herself to be embroiled when she might have carried that standard serenely forward to the redemption of the affairs of mankind. I beg of you to stand by your Government with your minds as well as your hearts, and let us redeem America by applying our judgments to the wholesome process of national defence.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at Convention Hall in Kansas City, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317517

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