The world must be made safe for democracy, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proclaims on this day in 1917, as he appears before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany.
Under Wilson, the former Princeton University president and governor of New Jersey who was voted into the White House in 1912, the United States had proclaimed its neutrality from the beginning of World War I in the summer of 1914. Even after the German sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in May 1915, which killed 1,201 people, including 128 Americans, caused a public outrage in the U.S. and prompted Wilson to send a strongly worded warning to Germany, the president was re-elected in 1916 on a platform of strict neutrality. Late that same year, Wilson even attempted to broker a peace between the Allies and the Central Powers, which was looked at favorably by Germany but eventually rejected by both France and Great Britain.
The first months of 1917, however, brought new offenses by Germany against American interests at sea, namely the resumption of the German navy’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1 and the sinking of the American cargo ship Housatonic two days later. An angry Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Germany that same day. Meanwhile, British intelligence had decoded and informed the U.S. government of a secret message sent by the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador to Mexico. The so-called Zimmermann Telegram proposed a Mexican-German alliance in the case of war between the United States and Germany and promised Mexico financial and territorial rewards for its support. Wilson authorized the State Department to publish the text of the telegram; it appeared in America’s newspapers on March 1, provoking a great storm of anti-German sentiment among the U.S. population.
With German submarine warfare continuing unabated, the final straw came on April 1, 1917, when the armed U.S. steamer Aztec was torpedoed near Brest and 28 of its crew members drowned. The next day, Wilson stepped before Congress to deliver his historic war message, making clear exactly how high he considered the stakes of the war to be. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. Despite the risks, Wilson felt the U.S. could not stand by any longer; in the face of continued German aggression, the nation had the moral obligation to step forward and fight for the principles upon which it had been founded.
We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, Wilson famously intoned, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. In this speech, Wilson displayed the idealism and moral fervor that characterized his view of the rightful role of the U.S. in the world—a supremely self-righteous outlook that would earn him acclaim from many and criticism and derision from others during his lifetime and after his death (especially after his pet project at war’s end, the League of Nations, proved a failure). It was also an outlook that would, for better or worse, determine the direction of U.S. foreign policy for decades to come, up to and including the present day.
On April 4, the U.S. Senate voted in favor of war by 82 votes to 6; two days later, the House of Representatives delivered their own yes vote by 373 votes to 50, formally announcing the entrance of the United States into the First World War.