When the European theater entered into World War I during the summer of 1914, Americans were less than enthusiastic about sending their sons and daughters to engage in the conflict. This position was mirrored by President Woodrow Wilson who intended to remain neutral in order to increase America’s potential as a negotiator of peace between the belligerent nations. However, by the spring of 1917, the President’s position had changed. For various reasons, including the Zimmerman telegram and Germany’s decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, President Wilson gave a speech to congress asking for a declaration of war. The speech was on April 2, 1917 and is one of my favorite speeches in American history. (For what it’s worth, Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address is my favorite).
Two significant aspects of the speech stand out.
First, President Wilson beautifully acknowledges the unique and obligatory role the United States must play in securing the freedom of nations to determine for themselves their future direction. However, he manages to highlight the significance of the U.S. in this endeavor without suggesting superiority over the other world governments. He outlines how America must enter into the conflict “for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy.” But to dispel any notion that America would be the boastful, independent hero of the war, Wilson emphatically announces how “our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.” What a remarkable statement.
I find this balance to be extraordinarily important and challenging in leadership of any kind, and for my purposes, pastoral leadership. On the one hand, a person or a nation needs to understand the role they play, perhaps a significant role, in guiding the direction of the people. Undermining or downplaying the influence of a leadership position is not in the best interest of anyone. On the other hand, the single greatest characteristic of a leader is humility. From a biblical worldview, Jesus Christ was the greatest leader the world has ever known. And the greatest servant.
Wilson managed to assert the United States’ necessary role in the war without communicating an oppressive elitism. His determination to use the military power of the United States for the good of all people is a philosophy that has shaped foreign policy ever since.
Second, President Wilson was concerned the war effort might harm the relationship of the United States with the people of Germany. Knowing the world would be listening to this war message to Congress, the President spoke with a touching concern for the German people and viewed them in a different sphere than the evil government under which they were controlled. Perhaps even more important, Wilson wanted to make sure Americans were listening to this distinction. I believe his foresight into the potential fear that lurks in the hearts of humanity, a fear that can lead to immoral decision making, is to be recognized and commended. Several years later, a disastrous decision to relocate and incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWII would go down as one of the darker moments in U.S. history. To avoid this kind of mistake, Wilson make these incredible remarks:
“It will be all the easier for us to conduct ourselves as belligerents in a high spirit of right and fairness because we act without animus, not in enmity towards a people or with the desire to bring any injury or disadvantage upon them, but only in armed opposition to an irresponsible government which has thrown aside all considerations of humanity and of right and is running amuck. We are, let me say again, the sincere friends of the German people, and shall desire nothing so much as the early reestablishment of intimate relations of mutual advantage between us — however hard it may be for them, for the time being, to believe that this is spoken from our hearts”
There are certain presidential hopefuls in this current election cycle that it seems would not have this kind of insight or moral urgency to their decision making.
As with all presidents, Woodrow Wilson had his share of faults. But this speech to Congress in 1917 is one that deserves another reading from time to time. To read the entire speech, click here.
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