Woodrow Wilson photo

Address At Soldiers' Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

January 29, 1916

Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen:

I am conscious of a sort of truancy in being absent from my duties in Washington, and yet it did seem to me to be clearly the obligation laid upon me by the office to which I have been chosen that, as your servant and representative, I should come and report to you upon the progress of public affairs.

It has always been a feeling of mine that the best place for public servants was in the presence of those they serve, and that it was the obvious duty of every public man to hold frank counsel with the people themselves. I must frankly admit, with apologies to the chairman of the meeting and his associates, that I get a great deal more inspiration outside of Washington than inside of it; not because others are not as devoted as I am to the performance of their duties, but because the people of the United States live outside of Washington. And the subject upon which I have come to address you is one upon which frank counsel is particularly needed.

You know that there is a multitude of voices upon the question of national defence, and I, for my part, am not inclined to criticise any of the views that have been put forth upon this important subject, because if there is one thing we love more than another in the United States, it is that every man should have the privilege, unmolested and uncriticised, to utter the real convictions of his mind. Some of the things that are being said proceed from sentiment, and I would be the last to detract from genuine sentiment. I feel myself moved by some of the sentiments, with the conclusions of which I can not agree, just as much as the gentleman are moved themselves who utter them. I believe in peace, I love peace. I would not be a true American if I did not love peace. But I know that peace costs something, and that the only way in which you can maintain peace is by thoroughly enjoying the respect of everybody with whom you deal. While, therefore, I can subscribe to every desire which those fine people have who are counselling us against assuming arms in this country, I must ask them to think a second time about the circumstances under which we are living.

There are other counselors the source of whose counsel is passion, and with them I can not agree. It is not wise, it is not possible, to guide national policy under the impulse of passion. I would be ashamed of the passion of fear, and I would try to put the passion of aggression entirely aside in advising my fellow citizens what they should do at any great crisis of their national life. America does not desire anything that any other nation can give it except friendship and justice and right conduct, and I am sorry for my part to see any passion, whether of fear or of dislike, stir the counsels of America. I have counseled my fellow citizens not only to be neutral in action in the presence of the present great European struggle, but also to be neutral in spirit and in feeling, and I have tried for my own part to hold off from every passion. I know it is not easy. When the world is running red with blood it is hard to keep the judgment cool. When men are suffering and offering up heroic sacrifice it is hard not to let the passion of sympathy take precedence over cool judgment. But while I can understand the excitements of the mind which circumstances have generated, I would tremble to see them guide the decisions of the country.

And there is other advice which we get, which proceeds from professional enthusiasm. I am glad that the soldiers and sailors of the United States have professional enthusiasm, but I would not like them to run away with me any more than I would like the passions and sympathies of my fellow countrymen to run away with me. While we admire their zeal, we must square their judgment with other standards than the professional standard. I admire every man's professional enthusiasm, but I would not wish to be guided by every man's professional enthusiasm. It is time, therefore, that we attempted at any rate to apply the standards of our own situation and of our own life to this great question of national defence.

What is it that we want to defend? You do not need to have me answer that question for you; it is your own thought. We want to defend the life of this Nation against any sort of interference. We want to maintain the equal right of this Nation as against the action of all other nations, and we wish to maintain the peace and unity of the Western Hemisphere. Those are great things to defend, and in their defence sometimes our thought must take a great sweep, even beyond our own borders. Do you never stop to reflect just what it is that America stands for? If she stands for one thing more than another, it is for the sovereignty of self-governing peoples, and her example, her assistance, her encouragement, has thrilled two continents in this Western World with all the fine impulses which have built up human liberty on both sides of the water. She stands, therefore, as an example of independence, as an example of free institutions, and as an example of disinterested international action in the maintenance of justice. These are very great things to defend, and wherever they are attacked America has at least the duty of example, has at least the duty of such action as it is possible for her with self-respect to take, in order that these things may not be neglected or thrust on one side.

So it seems to me that the thing that we are in love with in America is efficiency. Not merely business efficiency; not merely efficiency in manufacture and in the professions; not merely the raising of great crops and the getting of our treasure out of the bowels of the earth and the manufacture of our raw materials into the things that are most useful to civilization. That efficiency merely underlies and furnishes a foundation for something a great deal bigger than that. We want the spirit of America to be efficient. We want American character to be efficient. We want American character to display itself in what I may perhaps be allowed to call spiritual efficiency— clear, disinterested thinking and fearless action along the right lines of thought. America is nothing if it consists merely of each of us; it is something only if it consists of all of us, and it can not consist of all of us unless our spirits are banded together in a common enterprise. That common enterprise is the enterprise of liberty and justice and right. Therefore, I for my part have a great enthusiasm for rendering America spiritually efficient, and that conception lies at the basis of what seems very far removed from it, namely, the plans that have been proposed for the military efficiency of this Nation.

Those plans do not involve a great army, because that is not America's way of being efficient in respect of her physical force. We do not intend, we never intend, to have a stand army greater than is necessary for the ordinary uses of peace; but we want to have back of that army a people who can rally to its assistance in the most efficacious fashion at any time they are called on to do so, but who, in the meantime, are not professional soldiers, who do not take the professional soldier's point of view in respect of public affairs, whose thought is upon their daily tasks of peaceful industry, and who know that in the United States the civilian takes precedence of the soldier.

Your chairman has just told you that the Constitution of the United States makes the President Commander in Chief of the armies and navies of the United States, and not often has the President been a soldier. I have sometimes said playfully that it was very awkward when dressed in a frock coat and a silk hat to ride a horse and review troops, and the only reason I have consented to do so is because those formal garments, the very sombre and formal garments which constitute a man's full dress in the daytime, are the symbol upon such occasions of the supremacy of the civil power over the military. A plain gentleman in black—sometimes a very plain gentleman—presides over the military force of the Nation, and the thing is symbolic. We think first of peace, we think first of the civilian life, we think first of industry; we want the men who are going to defend the Nation to be immersed in these pursuits of peace. But we want them to know how, when occasion arises, to rally to the assistance of the professional soldier of the country and show the nations of the world the might of America. Such men will not seek war. Such men will dread it as we all dread it. Such men will know that the happiness of their families and the prosperity of their countrysides and the wealth of their cities and everything upon which their life depends is rooted and grounded in peace, but they will also know that upon occasion infinite sacrifice must be made of life and of wealth and that there are things that are higher than the ordinary occupations of life, namely, all assertions of the ideals of right.

I am not going before audiences like this to go into the details of the programme which has been proposed to the Congress of the United States, because, after all, the details do not make any difference. I believe in one plan; others may think that an equally good plan can be substituted, and I hope my mind is open to be convinced that it can; but what I am convinced of and what we are all working for is that there should be provided, not a great militant force in this country, but a great reserve of adequate and available force which can be called on upon occasion. I have proposed that we should be supplied with at least half a million men accustomed to handle arms and to live in camps; and that is a very small number as compared with the gigantic proportions of modern armies. Therefore, it seems to me that no man can speak of proposals like that as if they pointed in the direction of militarism.

When men talk of the threat of what is proposed, I wonder if they have really stopped to consider what is actually proposed. It is astonishing how many men of straw are set up and gallantly knocked down. It is astonishingly easy to prove that something is wrong which nobody has proposed, and this Nation is not going to be deceived by the fears of gentlemen who are fearful only of the things which they have imagined. We are not going to be stalked and daunted by ghosts and fancies. We are proposing a very businesslike thing. I for my part believe that I am proposing a thoroughly business-like thing. For I am proposing something more than what is temporary. It is my conception that as the Government of the United States has done a great deal, though even yet probably not enough, to promote agricultural education in this country, it ought to do a great deal to promote industrial education in this country, and that along with thoroughgoing industrial and vocational training it is perfectly feasible to instruct the youth of the land in the mechanism and use of arms, in the sanitation of camps, in the more rudimentary principles and practices of modern warfare, and so not to bring about occasions such as we have sometimes brought about, when upon a sudden danger youngsters were summoned by the proclamation of the President out of every community, who came crude and green and raw into the service of their country—infinitely willing but also wholly unfitted for the great physical task which was ahead of them. No nation should waste its youth like that. A nation like this should be ashamed to use an inefficient instrument when it can make its instrument efficient for everything that it needs to employ it for, and can do it along with the magnifying and ennobling and quickening of the tasks of peace.

But we have to create the schools and develop the schools to do these things, and we can not at present wait for this slow process. We must go at once to the task of training a very considerable body of men to the use of arms and the life of camps, and we can do so upon one condition, and one condition only. The test, ladies and gentlemen, of what we are proposing is not going to be the action of Congress; it is going to be the response of the country. It is going to be the volunteering of the men to take the training and the willingness of their employers to see to it that no obstacle is put in the way of their volunteering. It will be up to the young men of this country and to the men who employ them; then, and not till then, we shall know how far it is true that America wishes to prepare itself for national defense—not a matter of sentiment, but a matter of hard practice.

Are the men going to come out, and are those who employ them going to facilitate their coming out? I for one believe that they will. There are many selfish influences at work in this country, as in every other; but when it comes to the large view America can produce the substance of patriotism as abundantly as any other country under God's sun. I have no anxiety along those lines, and I have no anxiety along the lines of what Congress is going to do. You elect men to Congress who have opinions, and it is not strange that they should have differing opinions. I am not jealous of debate. If what I propose can not stand debate, then something ought to be substituted for it which can. And I am not afraid that it is going to be all debate. I am not afraid that nothing is going to come out of it. I am not afraid that we shall fail to get out of it the most substantial and satisfactory results. Certainly when I talk a great deal myself I am not going to be jealous of the other man's having a chance to talk also. We are talking, I take it, in order to get at the very final analysis of the case, the final proof and demonstration of what we ought to do.

My own feeling, ladies and gentlemen, is that it is a pity that this is a campaign year. I hope, with the chairman of the meeting, that the question of national preparation for defense will not by anybody be drawn into campaign uses or partisan aspects. There are many differences between Democrats and Republicans, honest differences of opinion and of conviction, but Democrats do not differ from Republicans upon the question of the Nation's safety, and no man ought to draw this thing into controversy in order to make party or personal profit out of it. I am ready to acknowledge that men on the other side politically are just as deeply and just as intelligently interested in this question as I am, of course, and I shall be ashamed of any friends of mine who may take any different view of it.

I want you to realize just what is happening, not in America but in the rest of the world. It is very hard to describe it briefly. It is very hard to describe it in quiet phrases. The world is on fire, and there is tinder everywhere. The sparks are liable to drop anywhere, and somewhere there may be material which we can not prevent from bursting into flame. The influence of passion is everywhere abroad in the world. It is not strange that men see red in such circumstances. What a year ago was incredible has now happened and the world is so in the throes of this titanic struggle that no part of it is unaffected.

You know what is happening. You know that by a land of improvidence which should be very uncharacteristic of America we have neglected for several generations to provide the means to carry our own commerce on the seas, and, therefore, being dependent upon other nations for the most part to carry our commerce, we are dependent upon other nations now for the movement of our commerce when other nations are caught in the grip of war. So that every natural impulse of our peaceful life is embarrassed and impeded by the circumstances of the time, and wherever there is contact there is apt to be friction. Wherever the ordinary rules of commerce at sea and of international relationship are thrust aside or ignored, there is danger of the more critical kind of controversy. Where nations are engaged as many nations are now engaged, they are peculiarly likely to be stubbornly steadfast in the pursuit of the purpose which is the main purpose of the moment; and so, while we move among friends, we move among friends who are preoccupied, preoccupied with an exigent matter which is foreign to our own life, foreign to our own policy, but which nevertheless inevitably affects our own life and our own policy. While a year ago it seemed impossible that a struggle upon so great a scale should last a whole twelvemonth, it has now lasted a year and a half and the end is not yet, and all the time things have grown more and more difficult to handle.

It fills me with a very strange feeling sometimes, my fellow citizens, when it seems to be implied that I am not the friend of peace. If these gentlemen could have sat with me reading the dispatches and handling the questions which arise every hour of the twenty-four, they would have known how infinitely difficult it had been to maintain the peace and they would have believed that I was the friend of peace. But I also know the difficulties, the real dangers, dangers not about things that I can handle, but about things that the other parties handle and I can not control.

It amazes me to hear men speak as if America stood alone in the world and could follow her own life as she pleased. We are in the midst of a world that we did not make and can not alter; its atmospheric and physical conditions are the conditions of our own life also, and therefore, as your responsible servant, I must tell you that the dangers are infinite and constant. I should feel that I was guilty of an unpardonable omission if I did not go out and tell my fellow countrymen that new circumstances have arisen which make it absolutely necessary that this country should prepare herself, not for war, not for anything that smacks in the least of aggression, but for adequate national defence.

So I have come out from the seclusion of Washington and have broken what I hope you consider a good rule, namely, that a man ought steadfastly to attend to business. Counsel has become the most necessary business of the hour. The most necessary thing to do now is to make America acquainted with her own situation in the world and acquainted with the fact that not all the processes of conduct are within her own control; that, on the contrary, they are daily and hourly affected by things which she can not govern or direct. Appeals of this sort are apt to be only too adequate. I am not afraid that America will do nothing. I am only desirous that she should be very coolly considerate of what she does. One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to do is to supply light and not heat. There ought, if there is any heat at all, to be that warmth of the heart which makes every man thrust aside his own personal feelings, his own personal interests, and take thought of the welfare and benefit of others.

We seem sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, to be very careless in our use of words, and yet there are some words about which we are very careful. We call every sort of man who has displayed unusual powers "great"; we call some bad men "great"; but we reserve the word "honorable" for those who are great, but spend their greatness upon others rather than upon themselves. You erect statues to men who have made great sacrifices or to men who have given great beneficences. You do not erect statues to men who have served only themselves. There is a patriciate even in democratic America. Our peers are the men who have spent their great energies outside the narrow circle of their own self-interest, and who have seen to it that great largess of intellectual effort was given for the benefit of the communities in which they lived. These are the men we honor; these are the men who are the characteristic Americans. America was born into the world to do mankind service, and no man is a true American in whom the desire to do mankind service does not take precedence over the desire to serve himself. If I believed that the might of America was a threat to any free man in the world, I would wish America to be weak, but I believe the might of America is the might of righteous purpose and of a sincere love for the freedom of mankind.

For my own part I am very much stirred by every sight that I get of the flag of the United States. I did not use to have the sentiment as poignantly as I have it now, but if you stood in my place, ladies and gentlemen, and felt that in some peculiar and unusual degree the honour of that flag was entrusted to y0ur keeping, how would you feel? Would you not feel that you were a sort of trustee for the ideals of America? Would you not feel that you ought to go out and seek counsel of your fellow citizens as to what they thought America to be and what they thought you ought to do honourably and perfectly to represent America? Would you not feel that if anything were incumbent upon you more than another it was to understand what that flag stands for? That flag was originally stained in very precious blood, blood spilt, not for any dynasty, not for any small controversies over national advantage, but in order that a little body of three million men in America might make sure that no man was their master; and as this Nation has accumulated in population and in power, as the tread of it has shaken every foot of this great continent, as we have built up great wealth and majestic cities and made fertile farms to bloom from one side of it to the other, there have been built up men who were calling constantly upon their public representatives to be trustees of that original conception.

America can not afford to be weak, and she can not afford to use her strength for anything which does not honour the Stars and Stripes. What I want you to do is this: I do not want you merely to listen to speeches. I want you to make yourselves vocal. I want you to let everybody who comes within earshot of it know that you are a partisan for the adequate preparation of the United States for national defence. I have come to ask you not merely to go home and say, "The President seems to be a good fellow and to mean what he says"; I want you to go home determined that within the whole circle of your influence the President, not as a partisan but as the representative of the national honour, shall be backed up by the whole force that is in the Nation.

I know that that appeal is not in vain, for I know what deep fountains of sentiment well up in America. I know that the surface of our life sometimes seems sordid. I know that the men who do most of the talking do not always hear the undertones of our life; but I know that the men who go in and out on the farm, the men who go in and out at the factory door, the men who go in and out at the offices, the men who go abroad upon ships, the men who travel up and down the country to quicken the courses of our commerce, underneath the surface of every one of these men there is the beating of a heart which is willing to make a profound sacrifice for the country that we all love; and those hearts are now going to be guided by very hard-headed minds, by minds that know how to think and plan and insist; and out of what seems an intricate debate there is going to come a great plan for national defence of which we will all be proud and which will lead us to forget partisan differences in one great enthusiasm for the United States of America.

Woodrow Wilson, Address At Soldiers' Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317413

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