Woodrow Wilson photo

Address at the St. Louis Coliseum in St. Louis, Missouri

February 03, 1916

Mr. Chairman and Fellow Citizens:

I came into the Middle West to find something, and I found it. I was told in Washington that the Middle West had a different feeling from the portions of the country that lie upon either coast, and that it was indifferent to the question of preparation for national defence. I knew enough of the Middle West of this great continent to know that the men who said that did not know what they were talking about. I knew the spirit of America to dwell as much in this great section of the country as in any other section of it, and I knew that the men of these parts loved the honor and safety of America as much as Americans everywhere love it and are ready to stand by it. I did not come out to find out how you felt or what you thought, but to tell you what was going on. I came out in order that there might be an absolute clarification of the issues which are involved in the questions immediately confronting us, because I, for one, have an absolute faith in the readiness of America to act upon the facts just as soon as America knows what the facts are.

The facts are very easily and briefly stated. What is the situation ? The situation is that America is at peace with all the world and desires to remain at peace with all the world. And it is not a shallow peace; it is a genuine peace, based upon some of the most fundamental influences of international intercourse. America is at peace with all the world because she entertains a real friendship for all the nations of the world. It is not, as some have mistakenly supposed, a peace based upon self-interest. It is a peace based upon some of the most generous sentiments that characterize the human heart.

You know, my fellow citizens, that this Nation is a composite Nation. It has a genuine friendship for all the nations of the world because it is drawn from all the nations of the world. The blood of all the great national stocks runs, and runs red and strong, in the veins of America, and America understands what the genuine ties of friendship and affection are. It would tear the heartstrings of America to be at war with any of the great nations of the world. Our peace is not a superficial peace. Our peace is not based upon the mere conveniences of our national life. If great issues were involved which it was our honorable obligation to defend, we should not be at peace, but would plunge into any struggle that was necessary in order to defend the honor and integrity of the Nation; but we believe, my fellow citizens, that we can show our friendship for the world and our devotion to the principles of humanity better and more effectively by keeping out of this struggle than by getting into it.

I do not misread the heart of this great country. The heart of this great country is sound, and it is made up of those fundamental principles of human sympathy which move all mankind when they are permitted free scope and are not interfered with by the politics of groups of men and the suggestions of those who do not represent the people themselves. I have no indictment against any form of government, but I do believe in my heart that the world has never witnessed a case, and never will witness a case, where one people desired to make war upon another people, and I believe that the security of America rests in the fact that no man is the master of America; that no man can lead America any whither that her people do not desire to be led. I believe it to be my duty, whatever my individual opinions might be, whatever my individual sympathies, whatever my individual points of view, to subordinate everything to the conscientious attempt to interpret and express in the international affairs of the world the genuine spirit of my fellow citizens.

So far as America is concerned no man need go about amongst us preaching peace. We are disciples of peace already, and no man need preach that gospel amongst us. I, in my individual capacity, am also a disciple of domestic peace and security; but, suppose that my neighbor's house is on fire and my roof is of combustible shingles, is it my fault if the fire eats into the wood, if the flames leap from timber to timber ? Is it my fault, because I love peace and security, that my doors are battered in and reckless men make light of the peace and security of my house? The danger is not from within, gentlemen; it is from without, and I am bound to tell you that that danger is constant and immediate, not because anything new has happened, not because there has been any change in our international relationships within recent weeks or months, but because the danger comes with every turn of events. Why, gentlemen, the commanders of submarines have their instructions, and those instructions are consistent for the most part with the law of nations, but one reckless commander of a submarine, choosing to put his private interpretation upon what his government wishes him to do, might set the world on fire. There are not only governments to deal with, but the servants of governments; there are not only the contacts of politics, but also those infinitely varied contacts which come from the mere movement of mankind, the quiet processes of the everyday world. There are cargoes of cotton on the seas; there are cargoes of wheat on the seas; there are cargoes of manufactured articles on the seas; and every one of those cargoes may be the point of ignition, because every cargo goes into the field of fire, goes where there are flames which no man can control.

I know the spirit of America to be this: We respect other nations, and absolutely respect their rights so long as they respect our rights. We do not claim anything for ourselves which they would not in like circumstances claim for themselves. Every statement of right that we have made is grounded upon the previous utterances of their own public men and their own judges. There is no dispute about the rights of nations under the understandings of international law. America has drawn no fine points. America has raised no novel issue. America has merely asserted the rights of her citizens and her Government upon what is written plain upon all the documents of international intercourse. Therefore America is not selfish in claiming her rights; she is merely standing for the rights of mankind when the life of mankind is being disturbed by an unprecedented war between the greatest nations of the world. Some of these days we shall be able to call the statesmen of the older nations to witness that it was we who kept the quiet flame of international principle burning upon its altars while the winds of passion were sweeping every other altar in the world. Some of these days they will look back with gratification upon the steadfast allegiance of the United States to those principles of action which every man loves when his temper is not upset and his judgment not disturbed.

I am ready to make every patient allowance for men caught in the storm of national struggle. I am not in a critical frame of mind. I am ready to yield everything but the absolute final essential right, because I know how my heart would burn, I know how my mind would be in a whirl if America were engaged in what seemed a death grapple. I know how I would be inclined to sweep aside the minor impediments of the ordinary transactions of government, and how I would be inclined to say to myself: "Why, we are fighting for our lives, and we are not going to be punctilious as to how we are fighting for our lives. Punctilio has nothing to do with it." I am ready to make every allowance for both sides, for, having pledged myself, as your chairman has reminded you, to maintain, if it be possible for me to maintain, the peace of the United States, I have thereby pledged myself to think as far as possible from the point of view of the other side as well as from the point of view of America. I want the record of the conduct of this administration to be a record of genuine neutrality and not of pretended neutrality.

You know the circumstances of the time. You know how one group of belligerents is practically shut off by circumstances over which we have no control from the ordinary commerce of the world. You know, therefore, how the spirit of America has not been able to express itself adequately in both directions. But I believe that the people of America are genuinely neutral. I believe that their desire is to stand in unprejudiced judgment upon what is going on; not that they would arrogate to themselves the right to utter rebuking judgment upon any nation, but that they are holding themselves off to assist neither side in what is wrong, and to countenance both sides in what they are doing for the legitimate defense of their national honor.

The fortunate circumstance of America, my fellow countrymen, is that it desires nothing but a free field and no favor. Our security is in the purity of our motives. The minute we get an impure motive we are going to deserve to be insecure. The minute we desire what we have no right to, then we are going to get into trouble and ought to get into trouble. But, my fellow citizens, while we know our own hearts and know our own desires, it does not follow that other nations and other governments understand our purpose and our principle of action. These are days of infinite prejudice and passion, because they are days of war. It is said by an old maxim that amidst war the law is silent. It is also true that amidst war the judgment is silent. Men press forward towards their object with a certain degree of blind recklessness, and they are apt to excite their passion particularly against those who in any way stand in their way. Therefore, this is the situation that I have come to remind you of, for you need merely to have it stated to see it: The peace of the world, including America, depends upon the aroused passion of other nations and not upon the motives of the United States. It is for that reason that I have come to call you to a consciousness of the necessity for preparing this country for anything that may happen.

Here is the choice, and I do not see how any prudent man could doubt which side of the alternative to take: Either we shall stand still and wait for the necessity for immediate national defence to come and then call for raw volunteers who for the first few months would be impotent as against a trained and experienced enemy, or we shall adopt the ancient American principle that the men of the country shall immediately be made ready to take care of their own Government. You have either got to make the men of this Nation in sufficient number ready to defend the Nation against initial disaster, or you have got to take the risk of initial disaster. Think of the cruelty, think of the stupidity, of putting raw levies of inexperienced men into the modern field of battle! We are not asking for armies; we are asking for a trained citizenship which will act in the spirit of citizenship and not in the spirit of military establishments. If anybody is afraid of a trained citizenship in America he is afraid also of the spirit of America itself. I do not want to command a great army under the authority granted me by the Constitution to be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States; I want to command the confidence and support of my fellow citizens.

Of course you will back me up and come to my assistance if I need you, but will you come knowing what you are about, or will you not? Will you come knowing the character of the arms that you carry in your hands, knowing something of the discipline of organization, knowing something of how to take care of yourselves in camp, knowing something of all those things that it is necessary to know so as not to throw human life away ? It is handsome, my fellow citizens, to sacrifice human life intelligently for something greater than life itself, but it is not handsome for any cause whatever to throw human life away.

The plans now laid before the Congress of the United States are merely plans not to throw the life of American youth away. Those plans are going to be adopted. I am not jealous and you are not jealous of the details; no man ought to be confident that his judgment is correct about the details; no man ought to say to any legislative body, " You must take my plan or none at all"—that is arrogance and stupidity—but we have the right to insist, and I believe that it will not be necessary to insist, that we get the essential thing; that is to say, a principle, a system, by which we can secure a trained citizenship, so that if it becomes necessary to defend the Nation the first line of defence on land will be an adequate and intelligent line of defence.

I say " on land " because America apparently has never been jealous of armed men if they are only at sea. America also knows that you can not send volunteers to sea unless you want to send them to the bottom. The modern fighting ship, the modern submarine, every instrument of modern naval warfare must be handled by experts. America has never debated or disputed that proposition, and all that we are asking for now is that a sufficient Dumber of experts and a sufficient number of vessels be at our disposal. The vessels we have are manned by experts. There is not a better service in the world than that of the American Navy. But no matter how skilled and capable the officers or devoted the men, they must have ships enough, and we are going to give them ships enough. We have been doing it slowly and leisurely and good-naturedly, as we are accustomed to do everything in times of peace, but now we must get down to business and do it systematically. We must lay down a programme and then steadfastly carry it out and complete it. There are no novelties about the programme. All the lines of it are the lines already established, only drawn out to their legitimate conclusion, and drawn out so that they will be completed within a calculable length of time. Do you realize the task of the Navy? Have you ever let your imagination dwell upon the enormous stretch of coast from the Canal to Alaska,—from the Canal to the northern corner of Maine ? There is no other navy in the world that has to cover so great an area of defense as the American Navy, and it ought, in my judgment, to be incomparably the most adequate navy in the world.

As I say, you have never been jealous of armed force at sea; you have been jealous of armed force on land; and I must say that I share with you the jealousy of a great military establishment. But I never have shared any prejudice against putting arms in the hands of trained citizens whose interest is to defend their own homes and their own security, and not to serve any political purpose whatever. There is no politics in national defense, ladies and gentlemen. I would be sorry to see men of different parties differ about anything but the details of this great question; and I do not anticipate any essential differences. Some men do not see anything. Some men look straight in the face of the facts and see nothing but atmospheric air. Some men are so hopelessly and contentedly provincial that they can not seen the rest of the world; but they do not constitute a large or influential minority even. You must listen to them with indulgence, and then absolutely ignore them. They have a right to talk, but they have no right to affect our conduct. Indeed, if I were in your place 1 would encourage them to talk. Nothing chills folly like exposure to the air, and these gentlemen ought to be encouraged to hire large halls, and the more people they can get to hear them the safer the country will be.

The judgment of America is a very hard-headed judgment. The judgment of America is not based upon sentiment; it is based upon facts, and I want to say to you that nothing has encouraged me more upon this trip that I have been making than the consciousness that America is awake to the facts. I do not want to say anything disrespectful about any newspaper, but it is astonishing how little some newspaper editors know, and I would like from some of them a candid expression of the impression they have got from what has happened since I left Washington. They probably will give it their own interpretation, but they will not (and this ought to comfort them if they are moral men), they will not deceive anybody. From the time I left Washington until now I have just had this feeling: The country is up; there is not a man who is not awake; there is not a man who does not realize what the situation is and what we ought to do in order to meet the situation.

The strength of America is in that part of it which is not vocal. The voice of America is a very still but a very powerful voice. My constant endeavor in Washington is to hear that voice. I have often said that it has seemed to me a very fortunate circumstance that all the living rooms of the White House are on the side from which, if you look out of the windows, you can not see the city of Washington. You see instead the broad spaces of Virginia across the river, and your imagination has free flight from those free spaces to those great stretches of country where the quiet people on the farms and the busy people in the factories and the absorbed men in the offices are realizing and living the life of America; and from out those great national areas the people seem to send in at those southern windows of the Executive Mansion their message of reassurance. That is where I listen for the still voice of America, and I believe that that voice has brought to me in unmistaken accents the resolution of this country to do whatever it is adequate and necessary to do in order that no man might question the honor or invade the integrity or disregard the rights of the United States of America.

Woodrow Wilson, Address at the St. Louis Coliseum in St. Louis, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/316900

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