Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Des Moines Coliseum in Des Moines, Iowa

February 01, 1916

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellency, and Fellow Citizens: I am greatly cheered, as well as greatly honored, by the sight of this great audience. I have been very much impressed by being told that you have been waiting here patiently for more than two hours for the exercises of the evening, and I think I know, I hope I know, what that means. It is not only that in your gracious courtesy you have waited to greet the President of the United States, but that, knowing the errand upon which he has come, you are profoundly interested, as he is, in the candid discussion of some of the chief things which concern the welfare and the safety of the Nation.

Some one who does not know our fellow citizens quite as well as he ought to know them told me that there was a certain degree of indifference and lethargy in the Middle West with regard to the defence of the Nation. I said, "I do not believe it, but I am going out to see"; and I have seen. I have seen what I expected to see—great bodies of serious men, great bodies of earnest women, coming together to show their profound interest in the objects of this visit of mine. I know, therefore, that it is my privilege to address those who will realize the spirit of responsibility in which I speak to them.

My fellow citizens, it would be easy, if I permitted myself to do so, to draw a picture of the present situation of the world which would deeply stir your feelings and perhaps deeply excite your apprehension, but you would not think that it was right for your Chief Magistrate to speak any word of excitement whatever. I want you to believe that in what I say to you I am endeavoring as far as extemporaneous speech will permit to weigh every word that I say. I said a moment ago that you know the errand upon which I have come to you, but do you know the reasons why I have undertaken that errand? There are some very conclusive and imperative reasons. Some of our fellow citizens are seeking to darken counsel upon this great matter; not I hope and believe out of wrong motives, but certainly I believe out of mistaken conceptions of the duty and interest of America.

On the one hand there is a considerable body of men who are trying to stir the very sort of excitement in this country upon which every true, well-balanced American ought to frown. There are actually men in America who are preaching war, who are preaching the duty of the United States to do what it never would before seek entanglement in the controversies which have arisen on the other side of the water—abandon its habitual and traditional policy and deliberately engage in the conflict which is now engulfing the rest of the world. I do not know what the standards of citizenship of these gentlemen may be. I only know that I for one can not subscribe to those standards. I believe that I more truly speak the spirit, of America when I say that that spirit is a spirit of peace. Why, no voice has ever come to any public man more audibly, more unmistakably, than the voice of this great people has come to me, bearing this impressive lesson, "We are counting upon you to keep this country out of war." And I call you to witness, my fellow countrymen, that I have spent every thought and energy that has been vouchsafed me in order to keep this country out of war. It can not be disclosed now, perhaps it can never be disclosed, how anxious and difficult that task has been, but my heart has been in it. I have not grudged a single burden that has been thrown upon me with that end in view, for I knew that not only my own heart, but the heart of all America, was in the cause of peace.

Yet, my fellow citizens, there are some men amongst us preaching peace who go much further than I can go. Not further than I can go in the sentiment of peace; not further than truth warrants them in going in interpreting the desire and sentiment of America, but further than I can follow them, further, I believe, than you can follow them, in preaching the doctrine of peace at any price and in any circumstances. There is a price which is too great to pay for peace, and that price can be put in one word. One can not pay the price of self-respect. One can not pay the price of duties abdicated, of glorious opportunities neglected, of character, national character left without vindication and exemplification in action. America has a character as distinct as the character of any individual amongst us. We read that character in every page of her singular and glorious history. It is written in invisible signs which, nevertheless, our spirits can decipher upon the very folds of the flag which is the emblem of our national life.

The gentlemen who are out-and-out pacifists are making one fundamental mistake. That is not a mistake about the sentiments of America, but a mistake about the circumstances of the world. America does not constitute the world. In many of her sentiments and predilections she does not represent or influence the world. The angers to our peace do not come any longer from within our own borders. I could not have said that a few months ago. Passion was astir in this country. There was a clash of sympathies and a heat of passion which made our air tense and made men hold their breath for fear some of our fellow countrymen would forget that their first loyalty was to America and only their second loyalty to the ancient affections which bound them, and honorably bound them, to some older country and polity. But those dangers have passed. America has regained her self-possession. Men are now ready to feel and to act in common in the great cause of a common national life, and no influence within America is going to disturb the peace of America.

But America can not be an ostrich with its head in the sand. America can not shut itself out from the rest of the world, because all the dangers at this present moment, and they are many, come from her contacts with the rest of the world. Those contacts are going to be largely determined by other nations and not determined by ourselves. I have not come to tell you that there is any danger to our national life from anything that your Government may do or your Congress propose. I have come to tell you that there is danger to our national life from what other nations may do. And let me say, ladies and gentlemen, that I would not speak of other nations in a spirit of criticism. Not only would it not become me to do so, as your spokesman and representative, but I would not be interpreting my real feeling if I did so. Every nation now engaged in the titanic struggle on the other side of the water believes, with an intensity of conviction that can not be exaggerated, that it is fighting for its rights, and in most instances that it is fighting for its life and we must not be too critical of the men who lead those nations. If America's liberty were involved, if we thought that America's life was involved, would we criticize our leaders and public men because they went every length of even desperate endeavor to see that the Nation did not suffer and that the Nation did triumph? I have it not in my heart to criticize these men. But I want you to know the dangers that they are running, and that the dangers they are running are dangers which involve us also.

Look what it is that America is called on to do. I can tell you what America is called on to do, because there is hardly a day goes by that some bit of news does not bear to my office some kind of appeal. There is hardly a week goes by that some delegation does not come to the Executive Office in Washington bearing some kind of protest, some kind of request, some kind of urgent message, looking toward interference in the interest of peace. Why, I have talked with earnest men and women, not of our own citizenship, but come out of the body of these other great nations, who plead with me to put the moral force of the Government of the United States into one or other of the European scales, so as to see that this struggle was the sooner brought to a peaceful conclusion. America is looked upon to sit in a sort of moral judgment upon the processes of war. And the processes of what a war! The world, my fellow citizens, never witnessed a struggle like this before. Do you know that there is not a single continent except the continent of South America that has not been touched by the flame of this terrible conflagration? Do you know that there is not a single country in the world, not even excepting our own, into which the influences of this tremendous struggle have not been thrust by way of political influence and effect? The whole world is tremulous with the influences of passion and of desperate struggle, and the only great disengaged nation is this Nation which we love and whose interests we would conserve.

What is America expected to do? She is expected to do nothing less than keep law alive while the rest of the world burns. You know that there is no international tribunal, my fellow citizens. I pray God that if this contest have no other result, it will at least have the result of creating an international tribune and producing some sort of joint guarantee of peace on the part of the great nations of the world. But it has not yet done that, and the only thing, therefore, that keeps America out of danger is that to some degree the understandings, the ancient and honorable understandings, of nations with regard to their relations to one another and to the citizens of one another are to some extent still observed and followed. And whenever there is a departure from them, the United States is called upon to intervene, to speak its voice of protest, to speak its voice of insistence.

Do you want it to be only a voice of insistence? Do you want the situation to be such that all that the President can do is to write messages; to utter words of protest? If these breaches of international law which are in daily danger of occurring should touch the very vital interests and honor of the United States, do you wish to do nothing about it? Do you wish to have all the world say that the flag of the United States, which we love, can be stained with impunity? Why, to ask the question is to answer it. I know that there is not a man or a woman in the hearing of my voice who would wish peace at the expense of the honor of the United States.

I said just now that an unmistakable voice had come to my ears from out the great body of this Nation, saying, "We depend upon you to keep us out of war;" but that same voice added always this sentence also, "But we depend upon you to maintain unsullied and unquestioned the honor and integrity of the United States;" and many a night when it has seemed impossible for me to sleep, because of the thought of the apparently inextricable difficulties into which our international relations were drifting, I have said to myself, "I wonder if the people of the United States fully realize what that mandate means to me?" And then sleep has come because I have known, as I have known in my own mind and in my own heart, that there was not a community in America that would not stand behind me in maintaining the honor of the United States.

My fellow citizens, you may be called upon any day to stand behind me to maintain the honor of the United States. And how are you going to do it? There are two ways of doing it. One is the careless, easy-going, wasteful way in which we have done these things hitherto; You say, "There are plenty of fighting men in the United States; there are unexhausted and inexhaustible material resources in the United States; nobody could do more than put us at a disadvantage for a little while." Yes; there are plenty of fighting men in the United States; but do they know how modern war is conducted? Do they know how to guard themselves against disease in the camp? Do they know what the discipline of organization is? Shall we send the whole body of those men who first volunteer to be butchered because they did not know how to make themselves immediately ready for the battlefield and the trench; because they did not know anything about the terrible vicissitudes and disciplines of modern battle?

Why, war has been transformed almost within the memory of men. The mere mustering of volunteers is not war. Mere bodies of men are not an army; and we have neither the men nor the equipment for the men if they should be called out. It would take time to make an army of them—perhaps a fatal length of time—and it would take a long time to provide them with the absolute necessities of warfare. America is not going to sacrifice her youth after that fashion. America is going to prepare for war by preparing citizens who know what war means and how war can be conducted. It is going to increase its standing army up to the point of efficiency for the present uses for which it is needed, and it is going to put back of that army a great body of peaceful men, following their daily pursuits, knowing that their own happiness and the happiness of everybody they love depends upon peace, who, nevertheless, at the call of their country, will know how immediately to make themselves into an army and to come out and face an enemy in a fashion which will show that America can neither be daunted nor taken by surprise.

I spoke just now of equipment. I know that there is a very general impression that influences are at work in this country whose impulse does not come from a thoughtful conviction of danger, but which is said to come from a very thoughtful prospect of profit. I have heard the preposterous statement made that the agitation for preparation for national defense has come chiefly from the men who make armor plate for the ships and munitions for the Army. Why, ladies and gentlemen, do you suppose that all the thoughtful men who are engaged upon this side of this great question are susceptible of being led by influences of that sort? Do you suppose that they are so blind to the manifest opportunities for that sort of profit that they do not know the influences that are abroad and effective in such matters? I have not found the impulse for national defense coming from those sources. I have found it coming from the men with whom I rubbed shoulders on the street and in the factory; I have found it coming from the men who have nothing to do with the making of profits, but who have everything to do with the making of the daily life of this country. And it is from them that I take my inspiration. But I know the points of danger, and from the first, ladies and gentlemen, I have been urging upon Congress—I urged upon Congress before this war began—that the Government of the United States supply itself with the necessary plants to make the armor for the ships and to make the munitions for the guns and the men, and I believe, and confidently predict, that the adoption of measures of that sort will be part of the preparation for national defense; not in order, for it is not necessary, that the Government should make all the armor plate needed for the fleet or all the munitions needed for the men and the guns, but in order that it should make enough to regulate and control the price.

We are not theorists in this matter. We have tried it in one field. The Government is now manufacturing a very considerable proportion of the powder needed for the Navy. The consequence is that it has reduced its price from 53 cents to 36 cents. The point is that it can now get its powder from the private manufacturers of powder at 36 cents, because they know that it can be manufactured for that with a reasonable profit, and that if the Government can not buy it from them, it will make it for itself.

Of course somebody is going to make money out of the things privately manufactured, manufactured by private capital. There are men now in the great belligerent countries making, I dare say, vast sums of money out of the war, but making it perfectly legitimately, and I for one do not stand here to challenge or doubt their patriotism in the matter. America is not going to be held back from any great national enterprise by any great financial interest of any sort, because America, of all places in the world, is alive to things of that sort and knows how to avoid the difficulties which are involved. If there is any thought on the part of those who make armor plate and munitions that they will get extraordinary profit out of preparation for national defense, all I have to say is that they will be sadly disappointed. But these are things which to my mind go without saying, for, ladies and gentlemen, if it is necessary to defend this Nation we are going to defend it no matter who makes money and no matter what it costs.

I have heard some gentleman say, "My constituents do not object to the program, but they do object to the bills that will have to be paid afterwards." I would be very sorry to give that account of any constituency in the United States. I would be very sorry to believe, and I do not believe, that any constituency in the United States will be governed by considerations of that sort. Of course it is going to cost money to prepare for defense, but equally of course the American people are going to pay for it, and pay for it without grumbling. We are not selfishly rich; we are a very rich people, but we can not be rich as a people unless we maintain our character and integrity as a people. Life is not worth anything for us as a nation if the very issues of life for the Nation itself are put in jeopardy by the action which we neglect to take. So I have come out on this errand merely to get into touch with you, my fellow citizens, merely to let you know in temperate words from my own lips that the men who are saying that preparation for national defense is necessary, and immediately necessary, are speaking the sober truth. And I believe that you will credit the statement that no man is in a better position to know that than I am.

One aspect of this matter makes me very glad, indeed. Party politics, my friends, sometimes plays too large a part in the United States. Parties are worth while only when their differences are based upon absolute conviction. They are not worth while when they are based upon differences of personal ambition. Parties are dignified and worthy of the consideration of a nation only when their arguments are for the national benefit, each arguing according to their genuine opinion, their real observation of facts, their real ardor for the national welfare; and it is very delightful sometimes, as upon this occasion, to find an issue regarding which no line can be drawn between one party and another. I have not the embarrassment in standing before you to-night of making the impression that I am urging the advantage of a party or the advantage of an individual. There are just as many men interested in national defense on the one side as on the other. They are all actuated by the same motives; they differ as to details, but they do not differ as to their objects, and I thank God that there is no party politics when it comes to the life and welfare of the United States. Do you suppose that if the country were in danger, any man would hesitate to volunteer on the ground that he belonged to this party or to that? Do you suppose that if a Republican administration were in power at Washington any Democrat would hesitate to enlist, or that, a Democratic administration being there, any Republican would hesitate to enlist? Why, the whole history of the country gives an emphatic negative to that question. We are not Democrats or Republicans to-night. We are Americans.

It was a very thrilling thing to me as I came into this hall to see the multitude of American flags that waved above the heads of this audience, and upon every stage of my journey since I left Washington, on Friday last, I have seen flags, big flags, little flags, flags of every sort, old flags torn with use, new flags brought out for the first time, displayed any way—upon improvised poles, upon the roof trees of houses, upon chimneys, upon any point of vantage where somebody might throw to the breeze this thrilling signal of our national life; and it has seemed to me that as each stage of the journey was accomplished, there was imprinted still deeper upon my heart this solemn reflection, that the honor of that flag was in my keeping not only, but in the keeping of the people who displayed it, for, ladies and gentlemen, the impulses of government in this country do not come from the rulers, they come from the people. I was saying the other night that I know of no case where one people made war upon another people. I know only of cases where one Government made war upon another Government. No Government can make war in the United States. The people make war through their representatives. The Constitution of the United States does not give the President even a participating part in the making of war. War can be declared only by the Congress, by an action which the President does not take part in and can not veto. I am literally, by constitutional arrangement, the mere servant of the people's representatives.

I know that a great pulse of feeling underlies the thought of every one of you, as it underlies my thought. We teach our children, ladies and gentlemen, the history of the United States, and I suppose we do incidentally point out to them the great material growth and tremendous physical power of this country, but that is not what we emphasize in our history. We tell them the stories (how proudly we tell them the stories) of the men who have died for their country without any thought of themselves; of the great ideal principles for the vindication of which America was set up, and which the flag that we honor was designed to represent. And as I look at that flag I seem to see many characters upon it which are not visible to the physical eye. There seem to move there ghostly visions of devoted men who, looking to that flag, thought only of liberty, of the rights of mankind, of the mission of America to show the way to the world for the realization of the rights of mankind; and every grave of every brave man of the country would seem to have upon it the colors of the flag, if he was a true American; would seem to have on it that stain of red which means the true pulse of blood, and that beauty of pure white which means the peace of the soul. And then there seems to rise over the graves of these men and to hallow their memories that blue space of the sky in which stars swim, those stars which exemplify for us that glorious galaxy of the States of the Union, bodies of free men banded together to vindicate the rights of mankind.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Des Moines Coliseum in Des Moines, Iowa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317535

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