Saturday, April 2, 2016


JFK+50:  Volume VI, No. 1907


Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) On April 2, 1917, 99 years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson asked for a war declaration against Germany.  Mr. Wilson spoke to a joint session of Congress.

When the Great War* began in 1914, the President asked the American people to be neutral "in thought as well as deed."   In January 1917, however, critical factors would lead to Mr. Wilson's decision to ask for war.

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. Sussex, was torpedoed in the English Channel by a German submarine in March 1916, the President  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.

While the Germans agreed to the Sussex Pledge on May 4, 1916, in  January 1917, they resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in the hope that Great Britain could be defeated within five months.

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 entered the war to "make the world safe for democracy."  Soon doughboys would be on their way to Europe and pledged not to return "until its over, over there!"**


Over There, Over There
Send the word, send the word, over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere

So prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word, to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over
And we won't come back till its over, over there.

*The world war that began in Europe in 1914 was known as The Great War or The World War, or even The War to End All Wars, but after that war ended and another began, it was rechristened World War I.

**"Over There" was a song written by George M. Cohan in 1917 shortly after the US declared war on Germany. Cohan was an actor, singer, dancer, and producer as well as songwriter.  His other tunes include "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Give My Regards to Broadway," and "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy."

"Over There" was recorded by Nora Bayes, Enrico Caruso, Billy Murray, Arthur Fields & Charles King.  In 1936, FDR awarded Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal.


"Over There: A Patriotic Song of World War I," About Education,

"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