Woodrow Wilson photo

Address At the Cleveland Armory in Cleveland, Ohio

January 29, 1916

Mr. President and Fellow Citizens: I esteem it a real privilege to be in Cleveland again and to address you upon the serious questions of public policy which now confront us. I have not given myself this sort of pleasure very often since I have been President, for I hope that you have observed what my conception of the office of President is. I do not believe that, ordinarily speaking, it is a speechmaking office. I have found the exactions of it such that it was absolutely necessary for me to remain constantly in touch with the daily changes of public business, and you so arranged it that I should be President at a time when there was a great deal of public business to remain in touch with. But the times are such, gentlemen, that it is necessary that we should take common counsel together regarding them.

I suppose that this country has never found itself before in so singular a position. The present situation of the world would, only a twelvemonth ago, even after the European war had started, have seemed incredible, and yet now the things that no man anticipated have happened. The titanic struggle continues. The difficulties of the world's affairs accumulate. It was, of course, evident that this was taking place long before the present session of Congress assembled, but only since the Congress assembled has it been possible to consider what we ought to do in the new circumstances of the times. Congress can not know what to do unless the Nation knows what to do, and it seemed to me not only my privilege but my duty to go out and inform my fellow countrymen just what I understood the present situation to be.

What are the elements of the case? In the first place, and most obviously, two-thirds of the world are at war. It is not merely a European struggle; nations in the Orient have become involved, as well as nations in the west, and everywhere there seems to be creeping even upon the nations disengaged the spirit and the threat of war. All the world outside of America is on fire.

Do you wonder that men's imaginations take color from the situation? Do you wonder that there is a great reaction against war? Do you wonder that the passion for peace grows stronger as the spectacle grows more tremendous and more overwhelming? Do you wonder, on the other hand, that men's sympathies become deeply engaged on the one side or the other? For no small things are happening. This is a struggle which will determine the history of the world, I dare say, for more than a century to come. The world will never be the same again after this war is over. The change may be for weal or it may be for woe, but it will be fundamental and tremendous.

And in the meantime we, the people of the United States, are the one great disengaged power, the one neutral power, finding it exceedingly difficult to be neutral, because, like men everywhere else, we are human; we have the deep passions of mankind in us; we have sympathies that are as easily stirred as the sympathies of any other people; we have interests which we see being drawn slowly into the maelstrom of this tremendous upheaval. It is very difficult for us to hold off and look with cool judgment upon such stupendous matters.

And yet we have held off. It has not been easy for the Government at Washington to avoid the entanglements which seemed to beset it on every side. It has needed a great deal of watchfulness and an unremitting patience to do so, but all the while no American could fail to be aware that America did not wish to become engaged, that she wished to hold apart; not because she did not perceive the issues of the struggle, but because she thought her duties to be the duties of peace and of separate action. And all the while the nations themselves that were engaged seemed to be looking to us for some sort of action, not hostile in character but sympathetic in character. Hardly a single thing has occurred in Europe which has in any degree shocked the sensibilities of mankind that the Government of the United States has not been called upon by the one side or the other to protest and intervene with its moral influence, if not with its physical force. It is as if we were the great audience before whom this stupendous drama is being played out, and we are asked to comment upon the turns and crises of the plot. And not only are we the audience, and challenged to be the umpire so far as the opinion of the world is concerned, but all the while our own life touches these matters at many points of vital contact.

The United States is trying to keep up the processes of peaceful commerce while all the world is at war and while all the world is in need of the essential things which the United States produces, and yet by an oversight for which it is difficult to forgive ourselves we did not provide ourselves when there was proper peace and opportunity with a mercantile marine, by means of which we could carry the commerce of the world without the interference of the motives of other nations which might be engaged in controversy not our own; and so the carrying trade of the world is for the most part in the hands of the nations now embroiled in this great struggle. Americans have gone to all quarters of the world, Americans are serving the business of the world in every part of it, and every one of these men when his affairs touch the regions that are on fire is our ward, and we must see to his rights and that they are respected. Do you not see how all the sensitive places of our life touch these great disturbances?

Now in the midst of all this, what is it that we are called on to do as a nation? I suppose that from the first America has had one peculiar and particular mission in the world. Other nations have grown rich, my fellow citizens, other nations have been as powerful as we in material resources in comparison with the other nations of the world, other nations have built up empires and exercised dominion; we are not peculiar in any of these things, but we are peculiar in this, that from the first we have dedicated our force to the service of justice and righteousness and peace. We have said, "Our chief interest is not in the rights of property but in the rights of men; our chief interest is in the spirits of men that they might be free, that they might enjoy their lives unmolested so long as they observed the just rules of the game, that they might deal with their fellow- men with their heads erect, the subjects and servants of no man; the servants only of the principles upon which their lives rested." And America has done more than care for her own people and think of her own fortunes in these great matters. She has said ever since the time of President Monroe that she was the champion of the freedom and the separate sovereignty of peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. She is trustee for these ideals and she is pledged, deeply and permanently pledged, to keep these momentous promises.

She not only, therefore, must play her part in keeping this conflagration from spreading to the people of the United States; she must also keep this conflagration from spreading on this side of the sea. These are matters in which our very life and our whole pride are embedded and rooted, and we can never draw back from them. And I my fellow citizens, because of the extraordinary office with which you have intrusted me, must, whether I will or not, be your responsible spokesman in these great matters. It is my duty, therefore, when impressions are deeply borne in upon me with regard to the national welfare to speak to you with the utmost frankness about them, and that is the errand upon which I have come away from Washington.

For my own part, I am sorry that these things fall within the year of a national political campaign. They ought to have nothing whatever to do with politics. The man who brings partisan feeling into these matters and seeks partisan advantage by means of them is unworthy of your confidence. I am sorry that upon the eve of a campaign we should be obliged to discuss these things, for fear they might run over into the campaign and seem to constitute a part of it. Let us forget that this is a year of national elections. That is neither here nor there. The thing to do now is for all men of all parties to think along the same lines and do the same things and forget every difference that may have divided them.

And what ought they to do? In the first place, they ought to tell the truth. There have been some extraordinary exaggerations both of the military weakness and the military strength of this country. Some men tell you that we have no means of defense and others tell you that we have sufficient means of defense, and neither statement is true. Take, for example, the matter of our coast defenses. It is obvious to every man that they are of the most vital importance to the country. Such coast defenses as we have are strong and admirable, but we have not got coast defenses in enough places. Their quality is admirable, but their quantity is insufficient. The military authorities of this country have not been negligent; they have sought adequate appropriations from Congress, and in most instances have obtained them, so far as we saw the work in hand that it was necessary to do, and the work that they have done in the use of these appropriations has been admirable and skillful work. Do not let anybody deceive

you into supposing that the Army of the United States, so far as it has had opportunity, is in any degree unworthy of your confidence.

And the Navy of the United States. You have been told that it is the second in strength in the world. I am sorry to say that experts do not agree with those who tell you that. Reckoning by its actual strength, I believe it to be one of the most efficient navies in the world, but in strength it ranks fourth, not second. You must reckon with the fact that it is necessary that that should be our first arm of defense, and you ought to insist that everything should be done that it is possible for us to do to bring the Navy up to an adequate standard of strength and efficiency.

Where we are chiefly lacking in preparation is on land and in the number of men who are ready to fight. Not the number of fighting men, but the number of men who are ready to fight. Some men are born troublesome, some men have trouble thrust upon them, and other men acquire trouble. I think I belong to the second class. But the characteristic desire of America is not that she should have a great body of men whose chief business is to fight, but a great body of men who know how to fight and are ready to fight when anything that is dear to the Nation is threatened. You might have what we have, millions of men who had never handled arms of war, who are mere material for shot and powder if you put them in the field, and America would be ashamed of the inefficiency of calling such men to. defend the Nation. What we want is to associate in training with the Army of the United States men who will volunteer for a sufficient length of time every year to get a rudimentary acquaintance with arms, a rudimentary skill in handling them, a rudimentary acquaintance with camp life, a rudimentary acquaintance with military drill and discipline; and we ought to see to it that we have men of that sort in sufficient number to constitute an initial army when we need an army for the defense of the country.

I have heard it stated that there are probably several million men in this country who have received a sufficient amount of military drill either here or in the countries in which they were born and from which they have come to us. Perhaps there are, nobody knows, because there is no means of counting them; but if there are so many, they are not obliged to come at our call; we do not know who they are. That is not military preparation. Military preparation consists in the existence of such a body of men known to the Federal authorities, organized provisionally by the Federal authorities, and subject by their own choice and will to the immediate call of the Federal authorities.

We have no such body of men in the United States except the National Guard. Now, I have a very great respect for the National Guard. I have been associated with one section of that guard in one of the great States of the Union, and I know the character of the officers and the quality of the men, and I would trust them unhesitatingly both for skill and for efficiency, but the whole National Guard of the United States falls short of 130,000 men. It is characterized by a very great variety of discipline and efficiency as between State and State, and it is by the Constitution itself put under authority of more than two score State executives. The President of the United States has not the right to call on these men except in the case of actual invasion, and, therefore, no matter how skillful they are, no matter how ready they are, they are not the instruments for immediate National use. I believe that the Congress of the United States ought to do, and that it will do, a great deal more for the National Guard than it ever has done, and everything ought to be done to make it a model military arm.

But that is not the arm that we are immediately interested in. We are interested in making certain that there are men all over the United States prepared, equipped, and ready to go out at the call of the National Government upon the shortest possible notice. You will ask me, "Why do you say the shortest possible notice?" Because, gentlemen, let me tell you very solemnly you can not afford to postpone this thing. I do not know what a single day may bring forth. I do not wish to leave you with the impression that I am thinking of some particular danger; I merely want to leave you with this solemn impression, that I know that we are daily treading amidst the most intricate dangers, and that the dangers that we are treading amongst are not of our making and are not under our control, and that no man in the United States knows what a single week or a single day or a single hour may bring forth. These are solemn things to say to you but I would be unworthy of my office if I did not come out and tell you with absolute frankness just exactly what I understand the situation to be.

I do not wish to hurry the Congress of the United States. These things are too important to be put through without very thorough sifting and debate and I am not in the least jealous of any of the searching processes of discussion. That is what free people are for, to understand what they are about and to do what they wish to do only if they understand what they are about. But it is impossible to discuss the details of plans in great bodies, unorganized bodies, of men like this audience, for example. All that I can do in this presence is to tell you what I know of the necessities of the case, and to ask you to stand back of the executive authorities of the United States in urging upon those who make our laws as early and effective action as possible.

America is not afraid of anybody. I know that I express your feeling and the feeling of all our fellow citizens when I say that the only thing I am afraid of is not being ready to perform my duty. I am afraid of the danger of shame; I am afraid of the danger of inadequacy; I am afraid of the danger of not being able to express the great character of this country with tremendous might and effectiveness whenever we are called upon to act in the field of the world's affairs.

For it is character we are going to express, not power merely. The United States is not in love with the aggressive use of power. It despises the aggressive use of power. There is not a foot of territory belonging to any other Nation which this Nation covets or desires. There is not a privilege which we ourselves enjoy that we would dream of denying any other nation in the world. If there is one thing that the American people love and believe in more than another it is peace and all the handsome things that belong to peace. I hope that you will bear me out in saying that I have proved that I am a partisan of peace. I would be ashamed to be belligerent and impatient when the fortunes of my whole country and the happiness of all my fellow countrymen were involved. But I know that peace is not always within the choice of the Nation, and I want to remind you, and remind you very solemnly, of the double obligation you have laid upon me. I know you have laid it upon me because I am constantly reminded of it in conversation, by letter, in editorial, by means of every voice that comes to me out of the body of the Nation. You have laid upon me this double obligation: "We are relying upon you, Mr. President, to keep us out of this war, but we are relying upon you, Mr. President, to keep the honor of the Nation unstained."

Do you not see that a time may come when it is impossible to do both of these things? Do you not see that if I am to guard the honor of the Nation, I am not protecting it against itself, for we are not going to do anything to stain the honor of our own country. I am protecting it against things that I cannot control, the action of others. And where the action of others may bring us I cannot foretell. You may count upon my heart and resolution to keep you out of the war, but you must be ready if it is necessary that I should maintain your honor. That is the only thing a real man loves about himself. Some men who are not real men love other things about themselves, but the real man believes that his honor is dearer than his life; and a nation is merely all of us put together, and the Nation's honor is dearer than the Nation's comfort and the Nation's peace and the Nation's life itself. So that we must know what we have thrown into the balance; we must know the infinite issues which are impending every day of the year, and when we go to bed at night and when we rise in the morning, and at every interval of the rush of business, we must remind ourselves that we are part of a great body politic in which are vested some of the highest hopes of the human race.

Why is it that all nations turn to us with the instinctive feeling that if anything touches humanity it touches us? Because it knows that ever since we were born as a Nation we have undertaken to be the champions of humanity and of the rights of men. Without that ideal there would be nothing that would distinguish America from her predecessors in the history of nations. Why is it that men who loved liberty have crowded to these shores? Why is it that we greet them as they enter the great harbor at New York with that majestic Statue of Liberty holding up a torch whose visionary beams are meant to spread abroad over the waters of the world, and to say to all men, "Come to America where mankind is free and where we love all the works of righteousness and of peace."

Woodrow Wilson, Address At the Cleveland Armory in Cleveland, Ohio Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317553

Filed Under




Simple Search of Our Archives