Thursday, April 2, 2015



Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) Ninety-eight years ago today, April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, speaking to a joint session of Congress, asked for a war declaration against Germany.

The World War, later to be labeled World War I, had begun in 1914.  President Wilson asked the American people to be neutral "in thought as well as deed." That would be easier said than done for the people as well as the president.  

In January 1917, critical factors would lead to President Wilson's decision to ask for the war declaration the following April.

Germany had initiated a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.  This meant that any vessel of any country, at war or neutral, military or civilian, was subject to attack if sailing in the established "war zone."

When an unarmed French vessel named the Sussex was torpedoed in the English Channel by a German submarine in March 1916, President Wilson threatened to cut off diplomatic relations unless Germany agreed to refrain from attacks on ALL passenger ships and allow the crews of enemy merchant vessels to abandon ship prior to any attack.

The Germans agreed to the "Sussex Pledge" on May 4, 1916.  By January 1917, the decision was made to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in hopes that Great Britain could be defeated within five months time.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, believing this decision would bring the United States into the war, objected. 

The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, as the Chancellor feared, resulted in President Wilson's decision to break off diplomatic relations with Germany.  

In February and March 1917, German submarines attacked and sank several U.S. ships. Also, a secret telegram sent by the German ambassador to Mexico, Arthur Zimmerman, was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence.  

The Zimmerman Telegram offered Mexico return of lost territory to the United States if she agreed to join Germany in the war against her neighbor to the north.

In his address to Congress of April 2, 1917, President Wilson called the attacks by German submarines to be "a warfare against mankind".  The President concluded his message with these words:

"There are many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead....civilization seeming to be in the balance.  But the right is more precious than peace..."

"We shall fight for democracy....and make the world itself at last free.  God helping (America) can do no other."

The United States Senate approved the war declaration on April 4th and the House of Representatives followed on April 6th.

The United States of America had entered the war to "make the world safe for democracy."  Very soon, America's "doughboys" would be on their way "over there."


"U.S. Entry Into World War I, 1917," United States Department of State, Office of the Historian,

President Wilson Asks for War Declaration
April 2, 1917
Library of Congress Photo