This Day In History: June 14

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On June 14, 1917, as the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) travel to join the Allies on the battlefields of World War I in France, United States President Woodrow Wilson addresses the nation’s public on the annual celebration of Flag Day.

Just the year before, on May 30, 1916, Wilson had officially proclaimed June 14 “Flag Day” as a commemoration of the “Stars and Stripes,” adopted as the national flag on June 14, 1777, when the design featured just 13 stars representing the original 13 states.

In his Flag Day address on June 14, 1917, barely two months after the American entry into World War I, Wilson spoke strongly of the need to confront an enemy–Germany–that had, as he had said in his April 2 war message to Congress, violated the principles of international democracy and led the world into “the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.” In the June 14 speech, after repeating the distinction he had made in earlier speeches between the German people and their leaders, Wilson absolved the former of guilt and listed the numerous transgressions of the latter—U-boat warfare, espionage, the attempt to build an alliance with Mexico against the U.S.—that had provoked the U.S. into declaring war.

The “military masters of Germany,” Wilson declared, were a “sinister power that has at last stretched its ugly talons out and drawn blood from us.” He also asserted that Germany, at the head of the Central Powers, had started the war to create “a broad belt of power across the very center of Europe and beyond the Mediterranean into the heart of Asia.” Most disturbingly for pacifist listeners and critics of the speech, Wilson dismissed all previous peace proposals, given the fact that they had all been based on terms favorable to Germany. As journalist Philip Snowden wrote in the Labour Leader, “Six months ago President Wilson was the greatest hope for peace. Today he is probably the greatest obstacle to it.”

On a less rhetorical and more practical note, Wilson also declared in his Flag Day speech that the initial transport of AEF troops would be followed, as quickly as possible, by the departure of more soldiers for Europe. In fact, the first U.S. troops arrived in France just 12 days later, on June 26. Though it would be more than a year before they could be trained and organized enough to play a significant role on the battlefields alongside the French and British soldiers, the eventual impact of the American entrance into World War I—both in terms of manpower, resources and economic assistance to the Allies—would be significant.