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Woodrow Wilson’s War Address To Congress: A Rhetorical Analysis Essay, Research Paper
A Rhetorical Analysis Of Woodrow Wilson?s War Address to Congress
With the status of the country?s belligerency heavily in question, an
apprehensive President Woodrow Wilson prepared to request from an
unmotivated and unprepared country a declaration of war against Germany.
After exerting every attempt possible to retain the peace and honor of the
United States, the President was finally forced to choose between the two,
in which he opted for the latter (Seymour 26). As he sat down to compose
his congressional address proposing war, the uncertainty of his decision
overwhelmed him. He confided to a member of his cabinet, Frank Cobb, that
he had never been as unsure about anything in his life as the judgment he
was making for the nation (Baker 506). Through a rhetorical analysis of
Wilson?s points of argumentation and his style in the presentation to the war
congress, we can gain a better understanding of the president?s purpose to
not only convince the Congress that American belligerency in the final stages
of the war would indefinitely shorten it and provide him with the opportunity
to organize the peace for Europe as well as the rest of the world (Ferrell 2),
but to sway the American people?s opinion to one of non-isolationism, to warn
Germany?s government that ?America would ultimately wield a powerful
sword to deny them victory? (Parsons 2), to compel German citizens to
relinquish the submarine attacks and negotiate peace and his terms (Parsons
2), and to calm his own uncertainty about his decision.
The need for Wilson?s speech and the current mindset of the
American public were a direct result of a succession of antagonistic events
in Europe that were rapidly effecting the United States. As the task of
remaining neutral became increasingly unfeasible due to numerous insults by
the British and German governments, Wilson was forced to shift his foreign
policy into a more internationalist scope, a path which the majority of
Americans failed to follow (Boyer 791). The same man who was reelected in
1916 on the platform ?he kept us out of war?, who delivered the ?peace
without victory? speech, who urged his country to remain neutral ?in action?
as well as ?in thought? was now asking Congress to approve American entry
into the war.
As President Wilson confronted the nation on the evening of April 2,
1917, he presented a case of past offenses coupled with present
circumstances in hopes of providing a more effective case for leading
America into war (Blakey, 2). He employed antecedent-consequence
throughout the beginning of his address to warrant his call for belligerency.
By recapitulating the events of German abomination as seen most profoundly
in the sinking of United States vessels, Wilson let the record speak for
itself. He appealed to the sense of compassion in his audience with the
mention of ?hospital ships as ships carrying aid to the stricken people of
Belgium….have been sunk with the same reckless lack of concern or principle?
(Baker 510) It was these ?hard-hitting charges of outrage and insult by
Germany? that stirred Wilson?s listeners (Baker 514). He continued to relate
events of the past to his present standpoint by admitting that he was at
first ?unable to believe that such things could be done by any government?
(Safire 110), but as American lives were unjustly taken he realized that the
German government had disregarded all respect for international law and
had declared war against mankind (Baker 510).
This war ?against mankind? Wilson defined as the intent of German
submarines to take the lives of innocent, uninvolved citizens, whose
activities, being supplying aid to bereaved nations or exporting goods on
merchant ships, have always been deemed as inoffensive and legitimate
pursuits, by no means worthy of assault (Safire 111). Wilson contrasted the
British?s interference with neutral trade as slight compared to the
immediate and intense conflict with Germany over submarine warfare,
illustrated by the comment ?Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful
and innocent people cannot be? (Safire 111).
The President went on to offer another definition in hopes of
justifying his call to war. He labeled the conflict as ?a war against all
nations? exemplifying the distress that other countries have experienced
due to the unbiased and relentless bombing of their own neutral ships
(Safire 111). By associating the United States with other friendly countries
who are also at odds with Germany, Wilson?s cry for war seemed more
convincing. He went on to assert that the choice made by the U.S must be
befitting to the singular characteristics of the country and that they must
be very clear what their motives upon entry into the war were: not
vengeance or profession of physical might, but to defend the principles of
peace and justice and ?to set up amongst the free people of the world an
observance of these ideals? (Safire 113). We were entering the war not to
battle with the German people, but to combat a greater menace, the system
that had impended these violations (Baker 512).
The president proceeded with regard to his stance on neutrality.
Aware of pacifists like Henry Cabot Lodge in the audience, Wilson appealed
to those who had not forgotten his promises of keeping America out of war.
He admitted that his assumption that armed neutrality would be adequate in
?safeguarding his people from unlawful violence? was in fact impossible and
he had failed 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? (Safire 111). Wilson delivered this phrase with the use of
the collective pronoun ?our? which worked to give the illusion that the
country was ununited on this war resolution (Safire 109). The president
continued to refute his previous position by pointing out that it is nearly
impossible for neutral ships to defend themselves on the open sea without
subscribing to the same inhumane measures the Germans have employed,
destroying ships before they reveal their intention. ?The position of armed
neutrality has worked only to produce what it was meant to prevent,?
claimed the President with hopes of validating his attitude reversal. The
president was certain that armed neutrality would accomplish nothing but
bring America into a war that it was unprepared for and the country would
consequently, lack effectiveness (Safire 111). Wilson, forced to make a
choice for his country as to either maintain its honor or peace, stated
?There is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making……We will
not choose the path of submission? (Low 239). With this sentence, Wilson
defined neutrality as being synomous with submission and he refused to allow
the rights and/or the people of the United States to be violated or
With neutrality voided, the President moved on to address the main
concern of his speech. With a solemnity of language, Wilson asked to
Congress to declare the recent insults of the German government as
?nothing less than war against the government and people of the United
States? and he advised that they accept their newfound status of
belligerent and work to prepare the country?s resources and people to defeat
the evil German empire and resolve the war(Clements 2). The president
expressed his regret in having to make such a move but found it as his
?constitutional duty? to do no other(Safire 112). Through the use of
anaphora for emphasis, he stated the need for an army to be raised through
drafting, the levying of taxes, making money readily available to the Allied
powers, increasing agricultural and industrial production, and overall
commitment by the country to give its all to destroy the ?Prussian
autocracy? (Clements 140). Wilson was asking for more than had ever been
demanded of the country before; requesting not only their loyalty and
enthusiasm, but ?organization of the nation?s strength to fight the enemies
of democracy and reestablish the proper balance of power in Europe? (Blakey
The President reminded the nation that during the course of the last
two months his war objectives had remained unchanged and he proceeded to
warn Americans of the nessecity of retaining their virtuous motives and aims
as the country mobilized for war(Safire 113). Wilson then called America to
war ?for the noblest purpose a war has ever been undertaken? (Baker 511).
?Our object….is to vindicate the principles
of peace and justice in the life of the world
as against selfish and autocratic power and
to set up amongst the really free and self-governed
peoples of the world such a concert of purpose
and of action as will henceforth insure the
observance of these principles….We are at the
beginning of an age in which it will be insisted
that the same standards of conduct and of
responsibility for wrong done shall be observed
among nations and the individual citizens of
civilized states? (Ferrell 2).
With this statement, Wilson ruled out any questions as to why he was
leading his country into combat and it became evident that ?His words
pointed to principle, not selfish interest, as the motive for war? (Safire
109). Wilson refused to accept a ?moral double standard? in international
affairs and he recognized the dawning of a new age in which the same
principles of conduct and consequences of wrongdoing would be observed by
all (Ferrell 2).
Then President Wilson went on to address the American position on
the German people. He proclaimed America wasn?t fighting against the
general public of Germany, but we were engaged in a battle opposing the the
government of which the people had no control over.
?We have no feeling towards 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? (Baker 512).
Wilson went on to compare the war declaration of Germany to those of
forgotten days when the public was never consulted or made aware of the
intentions of a warring nation. Obviously insulting the administration of the
Germans, Wilson acknowledged that ?self-governed nations do not fill their
neighbor states with spies or set the course of intrigue to bring about some
critical posture of affairs which will give them the opportunity to strike and
make conquest.?–all of these statements implying that if Germany were
under democratic rule, the submarine warfare campaign would be
non-existent (Safire, 114). One must see the irony in this statement in light
of America?s numerous attempts to gain influence in other countries by
means of military intervention and economic domination as exemplified
during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, who
utilized the Roosevelt Corollary and dollar diplomacy as their tools of
In order to establish peace and morality in the world, Wilson asserts
that the world must be governed by the rule of the people. In order to
maintain ?a steadfast concert for peace?, Wilson concludes that the only
answer is democracy (Safire 114).
?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? (Baker 512).
Wilson provided Russia as the prime example of this ideal ?League of Honor?
by pointing out how the country had prepared itself to join in the ?forces
fighting for freedom in the world, for justice, and for peace? ( Baker 513).
The Germans had failed to conform to this Wilsonian view of world peace,
and therefore ?proved itself a ?natural foe to liberty? by its conduct in the
war, its subversive activities in the United States, and its intrigues and its
plots, as evidenced in the Zimmerman note? (Baker 513). President Wilson
called his nation to put forth every effort to halt the power of the German
This sentiment is manifested in his next paragraph as Wilson
summarizes his war aims into one all encompassing goal: to make the world
safe for democracy (Clements 140). Wilson uses an hyperbole to
characterize American?s struggle as one to secure peace for the whole
world, one to insure to rights of nations great and small, and one to
safeguard the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of
obedience (Baker 513). Once again Wilson affirms that the United States
upon entry into the war desires ?no conquest, no dominion? (Baker 513). The
United States is readily willing to make sacrifices without compensation in
order to secure the undenible rights of mankind (Safire 115). These
statements regarding Wilson?s principles work not only to convince the nation
of the obligation America has in guaranteeing freedom, but also to pacify his
own reservations as to why he might be leading his country into war.
Wilson ended with an apologetic peroration full of regret. He began
by admitting the anguish he felt over having to bring this issue before
Congress and acknowledged that his was an ?oppressive and distressing duty?
(Baker 513). The President wearily recognized that the road ahead of the
Allies was going to be a long one and he did not attempt to shield the
country from the ?after-cost in terms of trial and sacrifice to the nation
and to civilization? ( Baker 513).
Wilson expressed his personal objectives in the final paragraph of his
speech (Baker 514). Solemn, though very powerful, Wilson asked his fellow
Americans to dedicate their ?lives and their fortunes, everything that we
are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that day
has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for
the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has
treasured,? (Low 239) to the effort of democratizes the world. He ended
with, ?God helping her she can do no other.? With this closing sentence
Woodrow Wilson left with America with no choice but to defend her honor
((Blakey 2). Americans had never before made the sacrifices their country
was calling for, but Wilson was confident of the outcome. Two days later
Congress voted overwhelming that ?the state of war…..which had been thust
upon the United States is hereby formally declared? (Bailey 10).
In conclusion, after a rhetorical analysis of Woodrow Wilson?s address
to the war congress on April 2, 1917 the reader is more aware of all of the
opposing factions to which Wilson had to appeal to and the methods he
employed to do so. By admitting his own fears about American entry into
the Great War, he helped to calm the apprehensions of the American people
as he sought to rally them behind his cause to safeguard democracy for the
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