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WASHINGTON, D.C., April 2, 1917 - Appearing before a Joint Session of the Congress, listening in hushed expectancy to hear the words leading up to a conclusion which came as a surprise to no one, Woodrow Wilson today exercised the ultimate responsibility of the Presidency by plunging the United States into the war that has laid waste much of Europe and pushed the Allied friendly powers to the point of desperation.
As with so many dramatic steps in the 150-year history of the United States, Mr. Wilson's declaration involved an acceptance of great events that already had dictated their own conclusion, rather than a broaching of new ventures. In his audience were men who remembered the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.
As a historian and student, a distinguished Virginian by birth, former President of the University of Prince- ton and Governor of New Jersey, he was as keenly aware as any other of the meaning of this step, the irrevocable commitment of the United States to its fate in a world where dominance beckons it.
But he attempted in every paragraph of this long message to lay down for the pennanent record the reluctant nature of the step: that it is purely defensive and not predatory; that this is a peaceful country goaded to extremity; that no hate for the peoples of the enemy governments enters into the great decision.
Sketching briefly what everyone already knew-the start of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Central Powers and the violation of our neutrality in flagrant manner - President Wilson said that our involvement be side our new Allies would be complete until victory is assured.
"We are at the beginning of an age," he declared, "in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of the civilized states."
When I addressed the Congress on the twenty-sixth of February last I thought that it would suffice to assert our neutral rights with arms, our right to use the seas against unlawful interference, our right to keep our people safe against unlawful violence. But armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable...it is practically certain to draw us into the war without either the rights or the effectiveness of belligerents. There is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making; we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.
With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it; and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense, but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.
What this will involve is clear. It will involve the utmost practicable cooperation in counsel and action with the governments now at war with Germany, and, as incident to that, the extension to those governments of the most liberal financial credits, in order that our resources may so far as possible be added to theirs. It will involve the organization and mobilization of all the material resources of the country to supply the materials of war and serve the incidental needs of the nation in the most abundant and yet the most economical and efficient way possible.
It will involve the immediate full equipment of the navy in all respects but particularly in supplying it with the best means of dealing with the enemy's submarines. It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law in case of war of at least five hundred thousand men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service, and also the authorization of subsequent additional increments of equal force so soon as they may be needed and can be handled in training. It will involve also, of course, the granting of adequate credits to the Government, sustained, I hope, so far as they can equitably be sustained by the present generation, by well- conceived taxation. ....
While we do these things, these deeply momentous things, let us be very clear, and make very clear to all the world, what our motives and our objects are. My own thought has not been driven from its habitual and normal course by the unhappy events of the last two months. ....
We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days when peoples were no- where consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellow-men as pawns and tools. ....
A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partner- ship of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. It must be a league of honor, a partnership of opinion. Intrigue would eat its vitals away; the plottings of inner circles who could plan what they would and render account to no one would be a corruption seated at its very heart. Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.
~ Postlogue ~
While these words laid down the humane and intellectual background of the reasoning that guided the United States into its first great involvement in foreign wars, the question thereafter remained: What comes afterward, and how will victory be exploited, in line with these high principles?
In reply to that question, the President again went before a Joint Session of the Congress nine months later to state a program.