By Naval History and Heritage Command
Nearly a century ago President Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress to ask for a declaration of war on Germany. They voted to do just that on April 6, 1917. Getting to that point was not a simple task for Wilson who faced opposition from both his own party and isolationists. However, he had learned well as a Princeton professor and the son a Presbyterian pastor, how to slowly guide an audience to see his side of an argument. In front of the joint session of Congress, he was just as methodical and as patient as he had been for the past two years canvassing America, convincing the U.S. to prepare for an inevitable war.
In an almost monotone voice with a simple raise and lower of the arm, Wilson showed himself as calm and collected. He had to present the U.S. composed with “hands unstained and passions not aroused.” Even his opening sentence appeared more of a request than a declaration of war: “I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.”
He started out almost bland then slowly making his points one by one using increasingly stronger language. Even the Cornell Daily Sun noted that his call for war was, “… a dispassionate but unmeasured denunciation of the course of the Imperial German Government.”
Laying the Groundwork
The year before, Wilson had painstakingly pulled the U.S. from her self-imposed isolation to build a formidable naval presence with the passage of the Naval Act of 1916. That might sound odd given Teddy Roosevelt previously justified a prominent navy and just five years earlier sent the Great White Fleet to circumnavigate the globe. But Germany had changed the game with its U-boat submarines which had all but decimated the European navies, vividly demonstrating the outdated state of the day’s navies. In the face of German submarine warfare, it seemed everything was outdated.
If not to prepare for war, Wilson had to get America on board with the idea of at least supporting a stronger navy, which he initially believed would give America more clout to encourage an end to the war. However, House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin, argued that “true neutrality necessitated a commitment to remaining demilitarized.” According to historian Alex Arnett, a professor at Furman University, in his book, Claude Kitchin and The Wilson War Politics, Wilson’s challenge was to tone down the inflammatory accusations of those aligned against him by turning words like “militarization” to “preparedness.”
In Pittsburgh on Jan. 29, 1916, Wilson stood before an audience and claimed, “I would not be a true American if I did not love peace.” The Great War was well into its second year, and Americans were fearful of losing another generation of men. Wilson was only four when the Civil War broke out. He had grown up with his father in Columbia, S.C., which was charred and still in ruins. His own party’s platform since then had been “keep us out at all costs,” and his 1916 reelection campaign’s motto was “He [Wilson] kept us out of war!” To some it wasn’t good enough. His own Secretary of State resigned once Wilson placed demands on Germany after one of its U-boats sank RMS Lusitania killing 128 Americans.
Wilson did his best to placate such die hard pacifists. He altered his delivery and began by merely asking for an “adequate” and “efficient” Navy. Then out came his punch line, “in all honesty, it [the U.S. Navy] ranks no more than fourth in size and strength.” Once, he let it slip in St. Louis what he really wanted. On Feb. 2, 1916 he stated he wanted the U.S. Navy “to be incomparably the greatest navy in the world.” In the official text, he struck “greatest” to “most adequate.” Then, he back tracked pleading with Americans to be “neutral in action… in spirit and in feeling,” but warned the U.S. can’t be “an ostrich with its head in the sand.” Using the back and forth language, Wilson incrementally made the point: love peace, but hate cowardice.
Then came the Battle of Jutland on the evening of May 31, 1916 while Congress debated the Navy Act. Although Britain claimed the best navy and outgunned the German fleet, Britain lost a staggering 6,100 sailors compared to 2,500 German casualties. There are those who believe the British Navy’s stunning loss helped make it possible for Wilson to eventually sign the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916 on Aug. 20, 1916.
A few weeks earlier, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, the new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, expedited the purchase from Denmark for twenty-five million dollars what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands for a very good reason: Denmark bordered Germany and although neutral, Wilson didn’t want to risk Germany potentially angling into the Western Hemisphere, especially so close to Puerto Rico. Wilson was working the chess board on a global scale.
On Jan. 31, 1917, Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador to the U.S., presented to Wilson Germany’s formal declaration to commence unrestricted submarine warfare … effective the following day. Stunned, Wilson notified Congress on Feb. 3 that he had severed diplomatic relations with Germany. Then, two weeks later British Naval Intelligence gave Wilson a telegram they had intercepted from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to the German Ambassador in Mexico City. This is known as the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram.” In it, Germany promised to help the Mexican government recover California, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona if Mexico supported Germany if it went to war against America.
Wilson immediately asked Congress to authorize arming American merchant ships with Navy personnel and equipment. Anti-war senators filibustered the measure for nearly a month. Wilson needed a “final and last straw” which happened April 1, 1917. A German U-boat torpedoed the private steamer Aztec off of France, killing 28 American crewmen. The French government informed the American Ambassador William Graves Sharp the next day. On April 2, Wilson carefully crafted his response to Congress with an appeal to their honorable nature and protection of future generations.
“It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. 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.” On April 4, 1917, the Senate voted in for war by 82 to 6. Two days later, the House seconded the Senate’s approval by a vote of 373 to 50. After two arduous years, Wilson had motivated the American people and the Congress to approve a powerful navy and to go to war. Now he needed the Navy to cripple Germany’s destructive submarines.
Rear Adm. William S. Sims then met with British First Sea Lord, Sir John Jellicoe, in London. He reported, “The submarine issue is very much more serious than the people realize in America. It is therefore, urgently necessary that the maximum number of destroyers and other antisubmarine craft be sent abroad immediately.” Sims also reported that there was only enough food for the civilian population to survive no more than two months.
He immediately approved the use of destroyers to patrol and protect American and Allied ships delivering supplies. In three months, the Navy had convoyed 10,000 ships. The Navy had 34 destroyers prowling U-boat operating areas, thereby forcing submarines to remain submerged. Navy destroyers practically rendered useless the German submarine, which many thought to be the future of naval warfare.
While World War I was primarily a land conflict, the U.S. Navy played a central role in the victory. The Navy successfully fended off 183 attacks and safely escorted a total of 18,653 ships that carried large freight quantities to armies in France and to Allied civilian populations. To the pride of the Navy and the nation, the Navy safely delivered for the Army 2,000,000 soldiers. Wilson’s keen vision and foresight combined with a tenacious persistence was key to unleashing the full force of naval power to support the people of Europe and allied forces ashore bringing World War I to a victorious end.