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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

ignored(Safire 113).

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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