Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the Milwaukee Auditorium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

January 31, 1916

Mr. Chairman and Fellow Citizens: I need not inquire whether the citizens of Milwaukee and Wisconsin are interested in the subject of my errand. The presence of this great body in this vast hall sufficiently attests your interest, but I want at the outset to remove a misapprehension that I fear may exist in your mind. There is no sudden crisis; nothing new has happened; I am not out upon this errand because of any unexpected situation. I have come to confer with you upon a matter upon which it would, in any circumstances, be necessary for us to confer when all the rest of the world is on fire and our own house is not fireproof. Everywhere the atmosphere of the world is thrilling with the passion of a disturbance such as the world has never seen before, and it is wise, in the words just uttered by your chairman, that we should see that our own house is set in order and that everything is done to make certain that we shall not suffer by the general conflagration.

There were some dangers to which this Nation seemed at the outset of the war to be exposed, which, I think I can say with confidence, are now passed and overcome. America has drawn her blood and her strength out of almost all the nations of the world. It is true of a great many of us that there lies deep in our hearts the recollection of an origin which is not American. We are aware that our roots, our traditions, run back into other national soils. There are songs that stir us; there are some far-away historical recollections which engage our affections and stir our memories. We can not forget our forbears; we can not altogether ignore the fact of our essential blood relationship; and at the outset of this war it did look as if there were a division of domestic sentiment which might lead us to some errors of judgment and some errors of action; but I, for one, believe that that danger is passed. I never doubted that the danger was exaggerated, because I had learned long ago, and many of you will corroborate me by your experience, that it is not the men who are doing the talking always who represent the real sentiments of the Nation. I for my part always feel a serene confidence in waiting for the declaration of the principles and sentiments of the men who are not vociferous, do not go about seeking to make trouble, do their own thinking, attend to their own business, and love their own country.

I have at no time supposed that the men whose voices seemed to contain the threat of division amongst us were really uttering the sentiments even of those whom they pretended to represent. I for my part have no jealousy of family sentiment. I have no jealousy of that deep affection which runs back through long lineage. It would be a pity if we forget the fine things that our ancestors have done. But I also know the magic of America; I also know the great principles which thrill men in the singular body politic to which we belong in the United States. I know the impulses which have drawn men to our shores. They have not come idly; they have not come without conscious purpose to be free; they have not come without voluntary desire to unite themselves with the great nation on this side of the sea; and I know that whenever the test comes every man's heart will be first for America. It was principle and affection and ambition and hope that drew men to these shores, and they are not going to forget the errand upon which they came and allow America, the home of their refuge and hope, to suffer by any forgetfulness on their part. And so the trouble makers have shot their bolt, and it has been ineffectual. Some of them have been vociferous; all of them have been exceedingly irresponsible. Talk was cheap, and that was all it cost them. They did not have to do anything. But you will know without my telling you that the man who for the time being you have charged with the duties of President of the United States must talk with a deep sense of responsibility, and he must remember, above all things else, the fine traditions of his office which some men seem to have forgotten. There is no precedent in American history for any action of aggression on the part of the United States or for any action which might mean that America is seeking to connect herself with the controversies on the other side of the water. Men who seek to provoke us to such action have forgotten the traditions of the United States, but it behooves those with whom you have entrusted office to remember the traditions of the United States and to see to it that the actions of the Government are made to square with those traditions.

But there are other dangers, my fellow citizens, which are not past and which have not been overcome, and they are dangers which we can not control. We can control irresponsible talkers amidst ourselves. All we have got to do is to encourage them to hire a hall and their folly will be abundantly advertised by themselves. But we can not in this simple fashion control the dangers that surround us now and have surrounded us since this titanic struggle on the other side of the water began. I say on the other side of the water; you will ask me, "On the other side of which water," for this great struggle has extended to all quarters of the globe. There is no continent outside, I was about to say, of this Western Hemisphere which is not touched with it, but I recollected as I began the sentence that a part of our own continent was touched with it, because it involves our neighbors to the north in Canada. There is no part of the world, except South America, to which the direct influences of this struggle have not extended, so that now we are completely surrounded by this tremendous disturbance and you must realize what that involves.

Our thoughts are concentrated upon our own affairs and our own relations to the rest of the world, but the thoughts of the men who are engaged in this struggle are concentrated upon the struggle itself, and there is daily and hourly danger that they will feel themselves constrained to do things which are absolutely inconsistent with the rights of the United States. They are not thinking of us. I am not criticising them for not thinking of us. I dare say if I were in their place neither would I think of us. They believe that they are struggling for the lives and honor of their nations, and that if the United States puts its interests in the path of this great struggle, she ought to know beforehand that there is danger of very serious misunderstanding and difficulty. So that the very uncalculating, unpremeditated, one might almost say accidental, course of affairs may touch us to the quick at any moment, and I want you to realize that, standing in the midst of these difficulties, I feel that I am charged with a double duty of the utmost difficulty. In the first place, I know that you are depending upon me to keep this Nation out of the war. So far I have done so, and I pledge you my word that, God helping me, I will if it is possible. But you have laid another duty upon me. You have bidden me see to it that nothing stains or impairs the honor of the United States, and that is a matter not within my control; that depends upon what others do, not upon what the Government of the United States does. Therefore there may at any moment come a time when I can not preserve both the honor and the peace of the United States. Do not exact of me an impossible and contradictory thing, but stand ready and insistent that everybody who represents you should stand ready to provide the necessary means for maintaining the honor of the United States.

I sometimes think that it is true that no people ever went to war with another people. Governments have gone to war with one another. Peoples, so far as I remember, have not, and this is a government of the people, and this people is not going to choose war. But we are not dealing with people; we are dealing with Governments. We are dealing with Governments now engaged in a great struggle, and therefore we do not know what a day or an hour will bring forth. All that we know is the character of our own duty. We do not want the question of peace and war, or the conduct of war, entrusted too entirely to our Government. We want war, if it must come, to be something that springs out of the sentiments and principles and actions of the people themselves; and it is on that account that I am counseling the Congress of the United States not to take the advice of those who recommend that we should have, and have very soon, a great standing Army, but, on the contrary, to see to it that the citizens of this country are so trained and that the military equipment is so sufficiently provided for them that when they choose they can take up arms and defend themselves.

The Constitution of the United States makes the President the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the Nation, but I do not want a big Army subject to my personal command. If danger comes, I want to turn to you and the rest of my fellow countrymen and say, "Men, are you ready?" and I know what the response will be. I know that there will spring up out of the body of the Nation a great host of free men, and I want those men not to be mere targets for shot and shell. I want them to know something of the arms they have in their hands. I want them to know something about how to guard against the diseases that creep into camps, where men are unaccustomed to live. I want them to know something of what the orders mean that they will be under when they enlist under arms for the Government of the United States. I want them to be men who can comprehend and easily and intelligently step into the duty of national defense. That is the reason that I am urging upon the Congress of the United States at any rate the beginnings of a system by which we may give a very considerable body of our fellow citizens the necessary training.

I have not forgotten the great National Guard of this country, but in this country of one hundred million people there are only 129,000 men in the National Guard; and the National Guard, fine as it is, is not subject to the orders of the President of the United States. It is subject to the orders of the governors of the several States, and the Constitution itself says that the President has no right to withdraw them from their States even, except in the case of actual invasion of the soil of the United States. I want the Congress of the United States to do a great deal for the National Guard, but I do not see how the Congress of the United States can put the National Guard at the disposal of the national authorities. Therefore it seems to me absolutely necessary that in addition to the National Guard there should be a considerable body of men with some training in the military art who will have pledged themselves to come at the call of the Nation.

I have been told by those who have a greater knack at guessing statistics than I have that there are probably several million men in the United States who, either in this country or in other countries from which they have come to the United States, have received training in arms. It may be; I do not know, and I suspect that they do not either, but even if it be true, these men are not subject to the call of the Federal Government. They would have to be found; they would have to be induced to enlist; they would have to be organized; their numbers are indefinite; and they would have to be equipped. Such are not the materials which we need. We want to know who these men are and where they are and to have everything ready for them if they should come to our assistance. For we have now got down, not to the sentiment of national defence, but to the business of national defence. It is a business proposition and it must be treated as such. And there are abundant precedents for the proposals which have been made to the Congress. Even that arch-Democrat, Thomas Jefferson, believed that there ought to be compulsory military training for the adult men of the Nation, because he believed, as every true believer in democracy believes, that it is upon the voluntary action of the men of a great Nation like this that it must depend for its military force.

There is another misapprehension that I want to remove from your minds: Do not think that I have come to talk to you about these things because I doubt whether they are going to be done or not. I do not doubt it for a moment, but I believe that when great things of this sort are going to be done the people of this country are entitled to know just what is being proposed. As a friend of mine says, I am not arguing with you; I am telling you. I am not trying to convert you to anything, because I know that in your hearts you are converted already, but I want you to know the motives of what is proposed and the character of what is proposed, in order that we should have only one attitude and counsel with regard to this great matter.

It is being very sedulously spread abroad in this country that the impulse back of all this is the desire of men who make the materials of warfare to get money out of the Treasury of the United States. I wish the people that say that could see meetings like this. Did you come here for that purpose? Did you come here because you are interested to see some of your fellow citizens make money out of the present situation? Of course you did not. I am ready to admit that probably the equipment of those men whom we are training will have to be bought from somebody, and I know that if the equipment is bought, it will have to be paid for; and I dare say somebody will make some money out of it. It is also true, ladies and gentlemen, that there are men now, a great many men, in the belligerent countries who are growing rich out of the sale of the materials needed by the armies of those countries. If the Government itself does not manufacture everything that an army needs, somebody has got to make money out of it, and I for my part have been urging the Congress of the United States to make the necessary preparations by which the Government can manufacture armor plate and munitions, so that, being in the business itself and having the ability to manufacture all it needs, if it is put upon a business basis, it can at any rate keep the price that it pays within moderate and reasonable limits. The Government of the United States is Hot going to be imposed upon by anybody, and you may rest assured, therefore, that while I believe you prefer that private capital and private initiative should bestir themselves in these matters, it is also possible, and I assure you that it is most likely, that the Government of the United States will have adequate means of controlling this matter very thoroughly indeed. There need be no fear on that side. Let nobody suppose that this is a money-making agitation. I would for one be ashamed to be such a dupe as to be engaged in it if it had any suspicion of that about it, but I am not as innocent as I look; and I believe that I can say for my colleagues in Washington that they are just as watchful in such matters as you would desire them to be.

And there is another misapprehension that I do not wish you to entertain. Do not suppose that there is any new or sudden or recent inadequacy on the part of this Government in respect of preparation for national defense. I have heard some gentlemen say that we had no coast defenses worth talking about. Coast defenses are not nowadays advertised, you understand, and they are not visible to the naked eye, so that it you passed them and nothing exploded, you would not know they were there. The coast defenses of the United States, while not numerous enough, are equipped in the most modern and efficient fashion. You are told that there has been some sort of neglect about the Navy. There has not been any sort of neglect about the Navy. We have been slowly building up a Navy which in quality is second to no navy in the world. The only thing it lacks is quantity. In size it is the fourth navy in the world, though I have heard it said by some gentlemen in this very region that it was the second. In fighting force, though not in quality, it is reckoned by experts to be the fourth in rank in the world; and yet when I go on board those ships and see their equipment and talk with their officers I suspect that they could give an account of themselves which would raise them above the fourth class. It reminds me of that very quaint saying of the old darky preacher, "The Lord says unto Moses, come fourth, and he came fifth and lost the race." But I think this Navy would not come fourth in the race, but higher.

What we are proposing now is not the sudden creation of a Navy, for we have a splendid Navy, but the definite working out of a program by which within five years we shall bring the Navy to a fighting strength which otherwise might have taken eight or ten years; along exactly the same lines of development that have been followed and followed diligently and intelligently for at least a decade past. There is no sudden panic, there is no sudden change of plan; all that has happened is that we now see that we ought more rapidly and more thoroughly than ever before to do the things which have always been characteristic of America. For she has always been proud of her Navy and has always been addicted to the principle that her citizenship must do the fighting on land. We are working out American principle a little faster, because American pulses are beating a little faster, because the world is in a whirl, because there are incalculable elements of trouble abroad which we cannot control or alter. I would be derelicit to the duty which you have laid upon me if I did not tell you that it was absolutely necessary to carry out our principles in this matter now and at once.

And yet all the time, my fellow citizens, I believe that in these things we are merely interpreting the spirit of America. Who shall say what the spirit of America is? I have many times heard orators apostrophize this beautiful flag which is the emblem of the Nation. I have many times heard orators and philosophers speak of the spirit which was resident in America. I have always for my own part felt that it was an act of audacity to attempt to characterize anything of that kind, and when I have been outside of the country in foreign lands and have been asked if this, that, or the other was true of America I have habitually said, "Nothing stated in general terms is true of America, because it is the most variegated and varied and multiform land under the sun. Yet I know that if you turn away from the physical aspects of the country, if you turn away from the variety of the strains of blood that make up our great population, if you turn away from the great variations of occupation and of interest among our fellow citizens, there is a spiritual unity in America. I know that there are some things which stir every heart in America, no matter what the racial derivation or the local environment, and one of the things that stirs every American is the love of individual liberty. We do not stand for occupations. We do not stand for material interests. We do not stand for any narrow conception even of political institutions; but we do stand for this, that we are banded together in America to see to it that no man shall serve any master who is not of his own choosing. And we have been very liberal and generous about this idea. We have seen great peoples, for the most part not of the same blood with ourselves, to the south of us build up polities in which this same idea pulsed and was regnant, this idea of free institutions and individual liberty, and when we have seen hands reached across the water from older political polities to interfere with the development of free institutions on the Western Hemisphere we have said: "No; we are the champions of the freedom of popular sovereignty wherever it displays or exercises itself throughout both Americas." We are the champions of a particular sort of freedom, the sort of freedom which is the only foundation and guarantee of peace.

Peace lies in the hearts of great industrial and agricultural populations, and we have arranged a government on this side of the water by which their preferences and their predilections and their interests are the mainsprings of government itself. And so when we prepare for national defense we prepare for national political integrity; we prepare to take care of the great ideals which gave birth to this Government; we are going back in spirit and in energy to those great first generations in America, when men banded themselves together, though they were but a handful upon a single coast of the Atlantic, to set up in the world the standards which have ever since floated everywhere that Americans asserted the power of their Government. As I came along the line of the railway to-day, I was touched to observe that everywhere, upon every railway station, upon every house, where a flag could be procured, some temporary standard had been raised from which there floated the stars and stripes. They seemed to have divined the errand upon which I had come, to remind you that we must subordinate every individual interest and every local interest to assert once more, if it should be necessary to assert them, the great principles for which that flag stands.

Do not deceive yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, as to where the colors of that flag came from. Those lines of red are lines of blood, nobly and unselfishly shed by men who loved the liberty of their fellow men more than they loved their own lives and fortunes. God forbid that we should have to use the blood of America to freshen the color of that flag; but if it should ever be necessary again to assert the majesty and integrity of those ancient and honorable principles, that flag will be colored once more, and in being colored will be glorified and purified.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the Milwaukee Auditorium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/317546

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