Woodrow Wilson photo

Address to an Overflow Meeting at Soldiers' Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvanis

January 29, 1916

Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen:

I feel that I was lured here under false pretenses. I was told that I was to address an audience of women, and the men, as usual, have been usurpers and have come in. When I reflected what I should say to a body of women about military preparation for national defense, it seemed to me that there was no excuse for making any difference between what I should say to them and what I should say to any other body of citizens of the United States, unless, indeed, there was this reason for a difference: There is a sense in which the women of the country live closer to the life of it than the men. The preoccupations of business for the man who has to work for his daily bread and for the bread of those whom he loves and who are dependent on him are such that sometimes the material side of life seems to him the only real side of life. I find that very few men stop to think of the life of the family, of the life of the community, of the life of the State and the Nation; their absorption is necessarily so great in the daily task that the spiritual needs do not often or very closely touch them, and it has seemed to me that in the home, in the contact with the children, in the anxieties for the morals and the daily conduct of those whom they love, the women perhaps feel the pulse of the country more than the men do. And it is in order that we may preserve the thoughtful ideals of America that it is necessary we should make preparation for national defense.

The old cry for the defense of your hearth and home does not seem to me a very handsome appeal. It is easy to love what is your own, and it is easy to fight for what is your own. No man with a drop of manliness in him would do anything else. The thing that is hard is to fight for the things that do not immediately touch us in order that others may live whom we do not love and do not even know, in order that the great tides of the national life might flow free and unobstructed, in order that the great ideals and purposes and longings of the people we never see might be realized. That is the life of a nation. No man ever saw the people of whom he forms a part. No man ever saw a government. I live in the midst of the Government of the United States, but I never saw the Government of the United States. Its personnel extends through all the nations and across the seas and into every corner of the world; in the presence of the representatives of the United States in foreign capitals, and in foreign centers of commerce. I never saw the Government of the United States. It is an ideal, and I must share its spirit by the use of my imagination. I must make myself a part of it with thoughts that are national—the things that move great bodies of men to devote themselves to great tasks and even great adventures.

I suppose that as the women of the country meditate upon the life that surges around them there must very often come into their hearts something of the profound feeling that pulses through great national existence. I do not believe that the women of this country are interested in national defense merely in order that they may be physically protected. If that was all we cared for, there would not be any spirit of America. The flag would not stand for anything if it were merely a roof over my head or a bulwark against an attack upon me. The flag stands for something for which we are all trustees, the great part that America is to play in the world.

And what is the part that America is to play in the world? America stands, first of all, for the right of men to determine whom they will obey and whom they will serve; for the right of political freedom and a people's sovereignty; and anybody who interferes with those conceptions by touching the affairs of America makes it necessary that America should assert her rights. America has not only to assert her right to her own life within her own borders, she has also to assert her right to the equal and just treatment of her citizens wherever they go. And she has something even more than that to insist upon, because she made up her mind long ago that she was going to stand up, so far as this Western Hemisphere is concerned, for the right of peoples to choose their own politics without foreign influence or interference. So she has a gigantic task which she can not shirk without disgrace.

In ordinary circumstances it has not been necessary for America to think of force, because everybody knows that there is latent in her as much force as resides anywhere in the world. This great body of 100,000,000 people has an average of intelligence and resourcefulness probably unprecedented in the history of the world. Nobody doubts that, given time enough, we can assert any amount of force that may be necessary; but when the world is on fire how much time can you afford to take to be ready? When you know that there are combustible materials in the life of the world and in your own national life, and that the sky is full of floating sparks from a great conflagration, are you going to sit down and say it will be time when the fire begins to do something about it? I do not believe that the lire is going to begin, but I would be surer of it if we were ready for the fire. And I want to come as your responsible servant and tell you this, that we do not control the fire. We are under the influences of it, but we are not at the sources of it. We are where it at any time may affect us, and yet we can not govern its spread and progress. If it once touches us, it may touch the very sources of our life, for it may touch the very things we stand for, and we might for a little while be unable successfully to vindicate and defend them. I am not come here to tell you of any immediate threat of a definite danger, because by very great patience, by making our position perfectly clear, and then steadfastly maintaining the same attitude throughout great controversies, we have so far held difficulty at arm's length; but I want you to realize the task you have imposed upon your Government.

There are two things which practically everybody who comes to the Executive Office in Washington tells me. They tell me, "The people are counting upon you to keep us out of this war." And in the next breath, what do they tell me, "The people are equally counting upon you to maintain the honor of the United States." Have you reflected that a time might come when I could not do both? And have you made yourselves ready to stand behind your Government for the maintenance of the honor of your country, as well as for the maintenance of the peace of the country? If I am to maintain the honor of the United States and it should be necessary to exert the force of the United States in order to do it, have you made the force ready? You know that you have not, and the very fact that the force is not ready may make the task you have set for me all the more delicate and all the more difficult. I have come away from Washington to remind you of your part in this great business. There is no part that belongs to me that I wish to shirk, but I wish you to bear the part that belongs to you. I want every man and woman of you to stand behind me in pressing a reasonable plan for national defense.

The only possible reasonable plan is an American plan. The American plan is not a great military establishment. The American plan is a great body of citizens who are ready to rally to the national defense and adequately serve the national defense when it is necessary to do so. Just as the heart of our politics lies in the breast of the average man. so the strength of the Nation rests in the capacity of the individual man. He ought to know how modern arms are made and how they ought to be handled; he ought to know the rudimentary principles of camp sanitation; he ought to know the elements of military discipline, so that when he goes to the defense of his Nation he will not be a raw recruit, but a man who knows what is expected of him and needs only the guidance of competent officers to do it.

You know how every constitution in the United States—the Constitution of the Nation and the constitutions of the States—lays it down as a principle that every man in America has the right to carry arms. He has not the right to conceal them, because you would converse with a man with a gun over his shoulder perhaps in a different tone of voice than if he had the gun concealed. Concealed arms are not the constitutional privilege of anybody, but obviously arms are the constitutional privilege of everybody in the United States, for the very conception of our politics is that the country is going to be taken care of by the men who live in it, and that they are not going to depute the task. Every audience still, after the passage of more than a hundred years, is stirred by the stories of the embattled farmers at Lexington, the men who had arms, who seized them and came forth in order to assert the independence and political freedom of themselves and their enterprise. That is the ideal picture of America, the rising of the Nation. But do we want the Nation to rise unschooled, inexperienced, ineffective, and furnish targets for powder and shot before they realize how to defend themselves at all?

I am not going to expound to you a particular plan for training a great citizen reserve, because the detail of the plan is not the important part of it. The important part is that it is imperatively necessary that we should have a plan, have it early, and put it into execution at the earliest possible moment, by which we will have a great reserve of men sufficiently trained for any kind of military service and ready when they are called on. These are the things that we are going to have. I say that because I believe it to be an actual necessity: I say it because I am confident that the men in Congress know a national necessity when they see it. I know there will be a great deal of debate and many differences of opinion—many honest and intelligent differences of opinion—as to how the thing ought to be done, but there is not going to be any difference of purpose as to what ought to be done.

Of course, there are some gentlemen who allow themselves to be deceived by very handsome sentiments. If a man is so in love with peace that he can not imagine any kind of danger, I almost envy him the trance he is in, and so long as he is in the trance he is not going to do anything but enjoy the vision. But such men are not many. America is a hard-headed nation, and America generally wants to see the facts as they come before they get here. And the facts of the world are such that it is my duty to counsel my fellow citizens that preparation for national defense can not any longer be postponed.

I am not one of those who believe that a great standing army is the means of maintaining peace, because if you build up a great profession those who form parts of it want to exercise their professions, and I can not blame them for it. I should myself hate to be ready to do an expert thing and never be permitted to do it. But, for my part, I am sure we have never encouraged in America the spirit of militarism, and we shall never have militarism in the United States. What I am particularly interested in is that my fellow citizens should make a distinction between militarism in any form and the things that are now being proposed to the Congress of the United States. If men are engaged nine months out of the twelve in the pursuits of commerce and manufacture and agriculture and are in camp to take a little training only two or three months in the year, do you suppose they are going to have the spirit of the three months and not the spirit of the nine months? Do you not see that they are immersed in the civil and economic life of the Nation? They know what war means; they know what it will cost them and those dependent on them. There will be bred in them no spirit of military ardor; there will merely be bred in them a sober spirit of readiness to defend peace and fend off war, to make good the ideals of America and the performance of all the great tasks which she has set herself. And there will be also bred in them the spirit of obedience, the thought of the Nation, the consciousness of having some kind of personal connection with the great body politic which they profess as citizens to serve; and there will be in them great fountains of sober sentiment which will affect their neighbors as well as themselves, and Americans will be a little less careless of the general interest of the Nation, a little less thoughtful of their own peculiar and selfish interest, and something of the old spirit of '76, which was not the spirit of aggression, but the spirit of love of country and pure and undefiled patriotism, will grow stronger and stronger in this country that we love.

And so, my fellow citizens, what I am pleading for with the utmost confidence is the revival of that great spirit of patriotism for which a hall like this stands as a symbol. I was saying the other night that it was a very interesting circumstance that we never hang a lad's yardstick up over the mantelpiece, but that we do hang his musket up when he is gone. Not because the musket stands for a finer thing than the yardstick in itself—it is a brutal thing to kill—but that the musket stood for the risk of life, for something greater than the lad's own self. It stood for infinite sacrifice to the point of death, and it is for that sentiment of willingness to die for something greater than ourselves that we hang the musket up over the mantelpiece, and in doing so make a sacred record of the high service of the family from which it sprang.

It is for that reason that we erect buildings like this; it is for that reason that we make monuments to those who serve us; and when we summon the young men of this country to volunteer for brief training every year in order that they may be a source of security to the Nation and its ideals, I know that the response will bring something more than a few thousand youngsters in the field; it will bring the spirit of America back to self-consciousness, and we shall again know what it is to belong to a country that throbs with a spirit of life that will arrest the attention of mankind.

Woodrow Wilson, Address to an Overflow Meeting at Soldiers' Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvanis Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317569

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