Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at The Chicago Auditorium in Chicago, Illinois

January 31, 1916

Mr. Chairman and Fellow Citizens: You put me under a great obligation to you by the generosity of your reception, and I am quite aware that it is largely because you know how desirous I am to speak to you with the utmost frankness upon some of the most essential issues of our national life. The Constitution of the United States explicitly lays upon the President the duty of reporting at the beginning of each annual session of Congress to the representatives of the people concerning the state of the Union, and it seems to me that it is a very natural inference from that command that the President should from time to time, when unusual circumstances arise, make his report, so far as it is possible for him to do so, directly to the people themselves. It is with that conception in view that I have taken the liberty of coming to you to-night. I have not permitted myself the privilege of leaving my duties at Washington very often, because they have been very exacting and very anxious duties, and there is a very clear sense in which it is my duty to be constantly there and constantly watchful of the changing circumstances of the day; but I thought you would feel me justified in the unusual circumstances of the time if I left my duties there for a little while and came to explain a few matters to you.

A year ago, though the war in Europe had then been six months in progress, I take it it would have seemed incredible to all of us that the storm should continue to gather in intensity instead of spending its force. I suppose that twelve months ago no one could have predicted the extraordinary way in which the violence of the struggle has increased from month to month; and the difficulties involved by reason of that war have also increased beyond all calculation. A year ago it did seem as if America might rest secure without very great anxiety and take it for granted that she would not be drawn into this terrible maelstrom, but those first six months was merely the beginning of the struggle. Another year has been added, and now no man can confidently say whether the United States will be drawn into the struggle or not. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that we should take counsel together as to what it is necessary that we should do. The circumstances of the day are so extraordinary that perhaps it is not prudent for a man upon whom the responsibility of affairs is laid to know too particularly the details of what is happening. The trouble with a great many of our fellow citizens is that they have let their imaginations become so engaged in this terrible affair that they cannot look upon it as those should who wish to keep a cool head and a detached judgment. So many men on this side of the water are seeing red that we seem to see in their thoughts the reflection of the blood that is being spent so copiously on the other side of the sea. It is not wise for us to let our thoughts become so deeply involved that we cannot think separately and must think with a sort of personal immersion in this great struggle.

I must admit to you very frankly that I have been careful to refrain from reading the details in the newspaper reports. I wish to see the thing and realize it only in its large aspects and to keep my thoughts concentrated on America, her duty, her circumstances, her tasks. And her tasks have been very difficult. They have not been merely negative. Have you not realized how all the world seems to have been constantly conscious from the beginning of this struggle that America was, so to say, the only audience before whom this terrible plot was being worked out; how everybody engaged in the struggle has seemed to turn to America for moral judgments concerning it; how each side in the titanic struggle has appealed to us to adjudge their enemies in the wrong; how there has been no tragical turn in the course of events that America has not been called on for some sort of protest or expression of opinion? And so those of us who are charged with the responsibility of affairs have realized very intensely that there was a certain sense in which America was looked to to keep even the balance of the whole world's thought.

And America was called upon to do something very much more than that, even; profoundly difficult, if not impossible, though that be, she was called upon to assert in times of war the standards of times of peace. There is an old saying that the laws are silent in the presence of war. Alas, yes; not only the civil laws of individual nations but also apparently the law that governs the relation of nations with one another must at times fall silent and look on in dumb impotency. And yet it has been assumed throughout this struggle that the great principles of international law and of international comity had not been suspended, and the United States, as the greatest and most powerful of the disengaged nations, has been looked to to hold high the standards which should govern the relationship of nations to each other.

I know that on the other side of the water there has been a great deal of cruel misjudgment with regard to the reasons why America has remained neutral. Those who look at us at a distance, my fellow citizens, do not feel the strong pulses of ideal principle that are in us. They do not feel the conviction of America, that her mission is a mission of peace, and that righteousness can be maintained as a standard in the midst of arms. They do not realize that back of all our energy by which we have built up great material wealth and created great material power we are a body of idealists, much more ready to lay down our lives for a thought than for a dollar. They suppose, some of them, that we are holding off because we can make money while others are dying, the most cruel misunderstanding that any nation has ever had to face; so wrong that it seems almost useless to try to correct it, because it shows that the very fundamentals of our life are not comprehended and understood.

I need not tell you, my fellow citizens, that we have not held off from this struggle from motives of self-interest, unless it be considered self-interest to maintain our position as the trustees of the moral judgment of the world. We have believed, and I believe, that we can serve even the nations at war better by remaining at peace and holding off from this contest than we could possibly serve them in any other way. Your interest, your sympathy, your affections may be engaged on the one side or the other, but no matter which side they are engaged on it is your duty even to your affections in this great affair to stand off and not let this Nation be drawn into the war. Somebody must keep the great stable foundations of the life of nations untouched and undisturbed. Somebody must keep the great economic processes of the world of business alive. Somebody must see to it that we stand ready to repair the enormous damage and the incalculable losses which will ensue from this war, and which it is hardly credible could be repaired if every great nation in the world were drawn into the contest. Do you realize how nearly it has come about that every great nation in the world has been drawn in? The flame has touched even our own continent by drawing in our Canadian neighbors to the north of us, and, except for the South American Continent, there is not one continent upon the whole surface of the world to which this flame has not spread; and when I see some of my fellow citizens spread tinder where the sparks are falling, I wonder what their ideal of Americanism is.

I dare say you realize, therefore, the solemnity of the feeling with which I come to audiences of my fellow citizens at this time. I can not indulge the reckless pleasure of expressing my own private opinions and prejudices. I speak as the trustee of the Nation, called upon to speak its sober judgments and not its individual opinions; and it is with the feeling of this responsibility upon me that I have come to you to-night and have approached the other audiences that I have had the privilege of addressing upon this journey. Do you realize the peculiar difficulty of the situation in which your Executive is placed? You have laid upon me, not by implication, but explicitly— it has come to me by means of every voice that has been vocal in the Nation—you have laid upon me the double obligation of maintaining the honor of the United States and of maintaining the peace of the United States. Is it not conceivable that the two might become incompatible? Is it not conceivable that, however great our passion for peace, we would have to subordinate it to our passion for what is right? Is it not possible that in maintaining the integrity of the, character of the United States it may become necessary to see that no man does that integrity too great violence?

It is a very terrible thing, ladies and gentlemen, to have the honor of the United States intrusted to your keeping. It is a great honor, that honor of the United States! In it runs the blood of generations of men who have built up ideals and institutions on this side of the water intended to regenerate mankind, and any man who does violence; to right, any nation that does violence to the principles of just international understandings, is doing violence to the ideals of the United States. We observe the technical limits; we assert these rights only when our own citizens are directly affected, but you know that our feeling is just the same whether the rights of those individual citizens are affected or not, and that we feel all the concern of those who have built up things so great that they dare not let them be torn down or touched with profane hands.

Look at the task that is assigned to the United States, to assert the principles of law in a world in which the principles of law have broken down—not the technical principles of law, but the essential principles of right dealing and humanity as between nation and nation. Law is a very complicated term. It includes a great many things that do not engage our affections, but at the basis of the things that we are now dealing with lie the deepest affections of the human heart, the love of life, the love of righteousness, the love of fair dealing, the love of those things that are just and of good report. The things that are rooted in our very spirit are the stuff of the law that I am talking about now.

We may have to assert these principles of right and of humanity at any time. What means are available? What force is at the disposal of the United States to assert these things? The force of opinion? Opinion, I am sorry to say, my fellow citizens, did not bring this war on, and I am afraid that opinion can not stay its progress. This war was brought on by rulers, not by the people; and I thank God that there is no man in America who has the authority to bring war on without the consent of the people. No man for many a year yet can trace the real sources of this war, but this thing we know, that opinion did not bring it on and that the force of opinion, at any rate the force of American opinion, is not going to stop it.

I admire the hopeful confidence of those of our fellow citizens who believe that American opinion can stop it, but, being somewhat older than some of them, and having run through a rather wide gamut of experience, I am prevented from sharing their hopeful optimism. I would not belittle the influences of opinion, least of all the influences of American opinion—it is very influential—but it will not stop this overwhelming flood. And, if not the force of opinion, what force has America available to stop the flood from overflowing her own fair area?

We have one considerable arm of force, a very considerable arm of force, namely, the splendid Navy of the United States. I am told by the experts, to whose judgment I must defer in these matters, that the Navy of the United States, in respect of its enumerated force, ranks only fourth among the navies of the world. I indulge myself in the opinion that in quality it ranks very much higher than fourth place. The United States has never been negligent of its Navy, despite what some gentlemen may say; least of all has it been negligent in recent years. Three years ago there were 182 vessels in commission in that Navy; there are now 238. Three dreadnoughts and fifteen subordinate craft will be added within a month or two. There have been added six thousand capable sailors to the ranks of the enlisted men of that Navy. The Congress of the United States in the last three years has poured out more money than was poured out on the average in any previous years in the history of the United States for the maintenance and upbuilding of the United States Navy; has spent forty-four million dollars a year as contrasted with a previous average of not more than thirty-three and a half million. All the subsidiary arms of the service have been built up. Three years ago there were four officers assigned the duty connected with aviation, and they did not have a single available—at any rate usable—craft at their service; now there are thirty-seven airships, 121 commissioned officers, and a large number of noncommissioned officers and a sufficient force of enlisted men in the school of practice at Pensacola; and that is only the beginning, because the Sixty-third Congress, the last Congress, was the first to make a specific appropriation for aviation in connection with the Navy.

We have given to the present fleet of the United States an organization such as it never, had before, I am told by Admiral Fletcher, and we have made preparations for immediate war, so far as the Navy is concerned. The trouble is not with the quality or the organization of the existing Navy; it is merely that we have followed plans piecemeal, a little bit at a time, now in this direction, now in that direction; that we have never had a plan thought out to cover a number of years in advance; that we have never set ourselves a definite goal of equipment and set our resolution to attain that goal within a reasonable length of time. The plans that are being proposed to the present Congress, and which the present Congress will adopt, are plans to remedy this piecemeal treatment of the Navy and bring it to its highest point of efficiency by steady plans carried out from month to month and year to year. It is going to cost a good deal of money, and I find that the difficulty with some Members of Congress is, not what ought to be done about the Navy, but what they are going to tax in order to get the money. I do not happen to be a Member of Congress but I would be willing to go before any constituency in the United States in the confidence that they were willing to pay for the defense of the Nation. We are neither poor not niggardly. We know how things cost and we intend to pay for them; and we do not intend to pay for them more than they are worth.

That is a matter which is troubling a good many people. I have proposed to the Congress that for one thing we at once build our own armor plant, not for the purpose of making all the armor that our ships need, unless that should become necessary, but for the purpose of keeping the price within sight. I have proposed to the Congress that we prepare to manufacture also the munitions which the Government may need—for the same purpose—not to drive other people out of business, but merely to serve other people with notice that if necessary we will manufacture all the munitions we need. We have had some experience in this matter. The Navy now makes a very large proportion of its own powder. Before it began, it paid 53 cents a pound for it, and now it pays 36 cents. That shows the very interesting effect of Government competition upon the price. So all along the line we mean business, and we are going to see that business characterizes the processes of national defense. We would not be Americans if we did not.

But what Army have we available? I can tell you, because it has been necessary for us to take care of the patrolling of a very long southern border between us and Mexico. We have not men enough in the United States Army for the routine work of peace, and the increase in the Regular Army that is being proposed to the present Congress is intended only to bring the Regular Army up to an adequate peace establishment. I say that that is all that is being proposed with regard to the Regular Army. The United States has never, my fellow citizens, depended upon the Regular Army to conduct its wars. It has depended upon the Volunteers of the United States, and it has never been disappointed either in their numbers or in their quality. But modern warfare is very different from what warfare used to be. Warfare has changed so within the span of a single life that it is nothing less than brutal to send raw recruits into the trenches and into the field. I am told by gentlemen who are very much more expert in knowing things that nobody else knows than I am that there are probably several million men in this country who have been trained to arms either in this country or in the country of their nativity. It may be, but who has a list of them? Where are they? What law lays upon them the duty of coming into the ranks of the armed forces of the United States if it should be necessary to call for volunteers? How are they organized? Who can reach them? Who can command them? There might be several million men with that training, but if they would not come upon the call they would be of no immediate use to the United States.

What we wish is a definite citizen reserve of men trained to arms to a sufficient extent to make them quickly transformable into a fighting force, organized under the immediate direction of the United States, subject to a definite pledge to serve the United States, and pledged to obey immediately the call of the President when Congress authorizes him to call them to arms. We do not want men to devote the greater part of their time to training in arms. We want men whose occupation and passion and habit is peace, because they are the only men who can carry into the field the spirit of America as contrasted with the spirit of the professional soldier. I would not have you for a moment understand me as detracting from the character and reputation of the professional soldier as we know him in the United States. I have dealt with him; he is as good an American as I am. He has a degree of intelligence and of devotion to his duty which commands my entire admiration. But the spirit of every profession is different from the spirit of the community. I would not trust any particular business to any particular profession exclusively if it were the public business, because every profession that I know anything about has its special point of view. But when a man has to defend his country outside the circle of the things that he ordinarily does, he has, I believe, the spirit of his country in a degree that he would not have it if he were merely performing a professional duty.

Have you looked at the most valued souvenir of families in America? Have you never seen a rusty sword treasured from the days of the Revolution or from the days of the Civil War? Have you never seen an old-fashioned musket hung up in some conspicuous place of honor? Did you ever see a spade hung up, or a pick hung up, or a yardstick hung up, or a ledger hung up? Did you ever see in such place of honor any symbol of the ordinary occupations of peace? Why? Because America loves war and honors it more than she loves peace? Certainly not! But because America honors utter self-sacrifice more than she honors anything else. It is no self-sacrifice to earn your daily bread; it is a necessity—a necessity which, if you accomplish it with success, you are deserving of all praise. But it is not self-sacrifice. It is no self-sacrifice to work for yourself and the people you love. The self-sacrifice comes when you are ready to forget yourself, forget your loved ones, forget everything, even your love of life itself, to serve an invisible master, the great spirit of America herself. We dread war, we condemn war in America. We love peace. But we know that the lads who carried those sword9 and those muskets loved something more even than they loved peace— that they loved honor and the integrity of the Nation.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, we have to prepare ourselves not to be unfair to the men who are going to make this self-sacrifice should the terrible necessity arise for them to make it. We ought to make sure that we are not responsible for leaving them unprepared in knowledge and in training, and we ought to make it the pride of America that great bodies of men greater than the Government calls for are ready to prepare themselves for the day of exigency and the day of sacrifice. Every lad that did this would feel better for it. Every lad that obeyed his officers in the process of training would feel that he was obeying something greater than the officer, that he was obeying the instinct of patriotic service, and clothing himself with a new nobility by reason of the process.

I have been asked by questioning friends in Washington whether I thought a sufficient number of men would volunteer for the training or not. Why, if they did not, it is not the America that you and I know; something has happened. They have said, "Do you suppose that the men who employ young men would give them leave to take this training"? I say, "Certainly I suppose it; I know it." Because I know that the patriotism of America is not a name and an empty boast, but a splendid reality. If they did not do it, I should be ashamed of America, and I never expect to see the day when America gives me the slightest reason to be ashamed of her. I am sorry for the skeptics who believe that the response would not be tremendous; not grudging, but overflowing in its abundant strength. And it is to

grove that that we want to try the plans that are before the present Congress.

You will remind me of the great National Guard of the country; but how great is it, ladies and gentlemen? There are one hundred million people in this country and there are only 129, 000 men in the National Guard, and those 129, 000 men are under the direction, by the constitutional arrangement of our system, of the governments of more than two score States. The President of the United States is not at liberty to call them out of their States except upon the occasion of actual invasion of the territory of the United States. We are not now thinking of invasion of the territory of the United States. That is not what is making us anxious. We are not asking ourselves, "Shall we be prepared to defend our own shores and our own homes?" Is that all that we stand for, to keep the door securely shut against enemies? Certainly not. What of the great trusteeship we have set up for liberty of government and national independence in the whole Western Hemisphere? What of the pledges back of that great principle that has been ours and guided our foreign affairs ever since the day of President Monroe? We stand pledged to see that both the continents of America are left free to be used by their peoples as those peoples choose to use them, under a principle of national popular sovereignty as absolute and unchallenged as our own. And at this very moment, as I am speaking to you, the Americas are drawing together upon that handsome principle of reciprocal respect and reciprocal defence.

When I speak of preparation for national defence I am speaking of something intangible and visionary; I am looking at a vision of the mind. America has never seen its destiny with the physical eye. The destiny of America lies written in the lines of poets, in the characters of self-sacrificing soldiers, in the conceptions and ambitions of her greatest statesmen; lies written in the teachings of her schoolrooms, in all those ideals of service of humanity and of liberty for the individual which are to be found written in the very schoolbooks of the boys and girls whom we send to be taught to be Americans. The destiny of America is an ideal destiny. America has no reason for being unless her destiny and her duty be ideal. It is her incumbent privilege to declare and stand for the rights of men. Nothing less is worth fighting for, nothing less is worth sacrificing for. The men and women of the American Colonies were physically comfortable. Even the much complained of arrangements of trade in those days were not unfair in the sense that they did not bring prosperity. America was offended and restless under the mere suggestion that she was not allowed to get her prosperity in her own way and under the guidance of her own spirit and purpose, and the American Revolution was fought for an ideal. We would have been as prosperous under the British Crown, but we should not have been as happy and we should not have respected ourselves as much.

Therefore, what America is bound to fight for when the time comes is nothing more nor less than her self-respect. There is no immediate prospect that her material interests may be seriously affected, but there is constant danger, every day of the week, that her spiritual interests may suffer serious affront, and it is in order that they may be safeguarded, in order that America may show that the old conceptions of liberty are ready to translate themselves in her hands into conceptions and manifestations of power at any time that it is necessary so to transform them, that we must make ourselves ready. You have not sent your representatives to Washington, ladies and gentlemen, to represent your business merely, to represent your ideals of material lire. You have sent them there to represent you in your character as a Nation, and it is only from that point of view that they counsel you; it is only upon that rooting that they can appeal to you. I feel this so profoundly that I want to add this: I did not come away from Washington because I had the least misgiving as to what the United States was going to do. You must not get impatient because there are long processes of debate at Washington. Wait for the end of the debate. The things that are necessary to be done are going to be done and thoroughly done. I for my part would be sorry for the man who did not take part in doing them if he had to stand up and give the reasons why, and I hope that every man who does not consent to do them will be made to stand up and give the reasons why. But it is empty to say that, because there is no danger; the things are going to be done. I came merely in order that you might understand the spirit in which they are proposed, and also receive from my lips the assurance of the absolute necessity that they should be done thoroughly and done very soon. For it they are not done and thoroughly done and done very soon it may turn out that you have laid upon me an impossible task, and that I should have to suffer the mortification and you the disappointment of having the combination of peace with honor prove to be impossible.

It is not a happy circumstance to have these moments of national necessity arise, and yet I for my part am not sorry that this necessity has arisen. It has awakened me, myself, I frankly confess to you, to many things and many conditions which a year ago I did not realize. I did not realize then that the things were possible which have since become actual facts. I am glad that I know better than I knew then exactly the sort of world we are living in. I would be ashamed of my intelligence if I did not understand the significance of indubitable facts. And it may be that large bodies of our fellow citizens were resting in a false security, based upon an imaginary correspondence of all the world with the conceptions under which they were themselves conducting their own lives. It is probably a fortunate circumstance, therefore, that America has been cried awake by these voices in the disturbed and reddened night, when fire sweeps sullenly from continent to continent, and it may be that in this red flame of light there will rise again that ideal figure of America holding up her hand of hope and of guidance to the people of the world and saying, "I stand ready to counsel and to help; I stand ready to assert whenever the flame is quenched those infinite principles of rectitude and peace which alone can bring happiness and liberty to mankind."

Woodrow Wilson, Address at The Chicago Auditorium in Chicago, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317542

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