State of the Union Address

Woodrow Wilson

December 04, 1917

GENTLEMEN OF THE CONGRESS:

Eight months have elapsed since I last had the honor of addressing you.
They have been months crowded with events of immense and grave significance
for us. I shall not undertake to detail or even to summarize those events.
The practical particulars of the part we have played in them will be laid
before you in the reports of the executive departments. I shall discuss
only our present outlook upon these vast affairs, our present duties, and
the immediate means of accomplishing the objects we shall hold always in
view.

I shall not go back to debate the causes of the war. The intolerable wrongs
done and planned against us by the sinister masters of Germany have long
since become too grossly obvious and odious to every true American to need
to be rehearsed. But I shall ask you to consider again and with a very
grave scrutiny our objectives and the measures by which we mean to attain
them; for the purpose of discussion here in this place is action, and our
action must move straight toward definite ends. Our object is, of course,
to win the war; and we shall not slacken or suffer ourselves to be diverted
until it is won. But it is worth while asking and answering the question,
When shall we consider the war won?

From one point of view it is not necessary to broach this fundamental
matter. I do not doubt that the American people know what the war is about
and what sort of an outcome they will regard as a realization of their
purpose in it.

As a nation we are united in spirit and intention. I pay little heed to
those who tell me otherwise. I hear the voices of dissent-who does not? I
bear the criticism and the clamor of the noisily thoughtless and
troublesome. I also see men here and there fling themselves in impotent
disloyalty against the calm, indomitable power of the Nation. I hear men
debate peace who understand neither its nature nor the way in which we may
attain it with uplifted eyes and unbroken spirits. But I know that none of
these speaks for the Nation. They do not touch the heart of anything. They
may safely be left to strut their uneasy hour and be forgotten.

But from another point of view I believe that it is necessary to say
plainly what we here at the seat of action consider the war to be for and
what part we mean to play in the settlement of its searching issues. We are
the spokesmen of the American people, and they have a right to know whether
their purpose is ours. They desire peace by the overcoming of evil, by the
defeat once for all of the sinister forces that interrupt peace and render
it impossible, and they wish to know how closely our thought runs with
theirs and what action we propose. They are impatient with those who desire
peace by any sort of compromise deeply and indignantly impatient–but they
will be equally impatient with us if we do not make it plain to them what
our objectives are and what we are planning for in seeking to make conquest
of peace by arms.

I believe that I speak for them when I say two things: First, that this
intolerable thing of which the masters of Germany have shown us the ugly
face, this menace of combined intrigue and force which we now see so
clearly as the German power, a thing without conscience or honor of
capacity for covenanted peace, must be crushed and, if it be not utterly
brought to an end, at least shut out from the friendly intercourse of the
nations; and second, that when this thing and its power are indeed defeated
and the time comes that we can discuss peace when the German people have
spokesmen whose word we can believe and when those spokesmen are ready in
the name of their people to accept the common judgment of the nations as to
what shall henceforth be the bases of law and of covenant for the life of
the world-we shall be willing and glad to pay the full price for peace, and
pay it ungrudgingly.

We know what that price will be. It will be full, impartial justice-justice
done at every point and to every nation that the final settlement must
affect, our enemies as well as our friends.

You catch, with me, the voices of humanity that are in the air. They grow
daily more audible, more articulate, more persuasive, and they come from
the hearts of men everywhere. They insist that the war shall not end in
vindictive action of any kind; that no nation or people shall be robbed or
punished because the irresponsible rulers of a single country have
themselves done deep and abominable wrong. It is this thought that has been
expressed in the formula, “No annexations, no contributions, no punitive
indemnities.”

Just because this crude formula expresses the instinctive judgment as to
right of plain men everywhere, it has been made diligent use of by the
masters of German intrigue to lead the people of Russia astray and the
people of every other country their agents could reach-in order that a
premature peace might be brought about before autocracy has been taught its
final and convincing lesson and the people of the world put in control of
their own destinies.

But the fact that a wrong use has been made of a just idea is no reason why
a right use should not be made of it. It ought to be brought under the
patronage of its real friends. Let it be said again that autocracy must
first be shown the utter futility of its claim to power or leadership in
the modern world. It is impossible to apply any standard of justice so long
as such forces are unchecked and undefeated as the present masters of
Germany command. Not until that has been done can right be set up as
arbiter and peacemaker among the nations. But when that has been done-as,
God willing, it assuredly will be-we shall at last be free to do an
unprecedented thing, and this is the time to avow our purpose to do it. We
shall be free to base peace on generosity and justice, to the exclusions of
all selfish claims to advantage even on the part of the victors.

Let there be no misunderstanding. Our present and immediate task is to win
the war and nothing shall turn us aside from it until it is
accomplished. Every power and resource we possess, whether of men, of
money, or of materials, is being devoted and will continue to be devoted to
that purpose until it is achieved. Those who desire to bring peace about
before that purpose is achieved I counsel to carry their advice elsewhere.
We will not entertain it. We shall regard the war as won only when the
German people say to us, through properly accredited representatives, that
they are ready to agree to a settlement based upon justice and reparation
of the wrongs their rulers have done. They have done a wrong to Belgium
which must be repaired. They have established a power over other lands and
peoples than their own–over the great empire of Austria-Hungary, over
hitherto free Balkan states, over Turkey and within Asia-which must be
relinquished.

Germany’s success by skill, by industry, by knowledge, by enterprise we did
not grudge or oppose, but admired, rather. She had built up for herself a
real empire of trade and influence, secured by the peace of the world. We
were content to abide by the rivalries of manufacture, science and commerce
that were involved for us in her success, and stand or fall as we had or
did not have the brains and the initiative to surpass her. But at the
moment when she had conspicuously won her triumphs of peace she threw them
away, to establish in their stead what the world will no longer permit to
be established, military and political domination by arms, by which to oust
where she could not excel the rivals she most feared and hated. The peace
we make must remedy that wrong. It must deliver the once fair lands and
happy peoples of Belgium and Northern France from the Prussian conquest and
the Prussian menace, but it must deliver also the peoples of
Austria-Hungary, the peoples of the Balkans and the peoples of Turkey,
alike in Europe and Asia, from the impudent and alien dominion of the
Prussian military and commercial autocracy.

We owe it, however, to ourselves, to say that we do not wish in any way to
impair or to rearrange the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is no affair of ours
what they do with their own life, either industrially or politically. We do
not purpose or desire to dictate to them in any way. We only desire to see
that their affairs are left in their own hands, in all matters, great or
small. We shall hope to secure for the peoples of the Balkan peninsula and
for the people of the Turkish Empire the right and opportunity to make
their own lives safe, their own fortunes secure against oppression or
injustice and from the dictation of foreign courts or parties.

And our attitude and purpose with regard to Germany herself are of a like
kind. We intend no wrong against the German Empire, no interference with
her internal affairs. We should deem either the one or the other absolutely
unjustifiable, absolutely contrary to the principles we have professed to
live by and to hold most sacred throughout our life as a nation.

The people of Germany are being told by the men whom they now permit to
deceive them and to act as their masters that they are fighting for the
very life and existence of their empire, a war of desperate self-defense
against deliberate aggression. Nothing could be more grossly or wantonly
false, and we must seek by the utmost openness and candor as to our real
aims to convince them of its falseness. We are in fact fighting for their
emancipation from the fear, along with our own-from the fear as well as
from the fact of unjust attack by neighbors or rivals or schemers after
world empire. No one is threatening the existence or the independence of
the peaceful enterprise of the German Empire.

The worst that can happen to the detriment the German people is this, that
if they should still, after the war is over, continue to be obliged to live
under ambitious and intriguing masters interested to disturb the peace of
the world, men or classes of men whom the other peoples of the world could
not trust, it might be impossible to admit them to the partnership of
nations which must henceforth guarantee the world’s peace. That partnership
must be a partnership of peoples, not a mere partnership of governments. It
might be impossible, also, in such untoward circumstances, to admit Germany
to the free economic intercourse which must inevitably spring out of the
other partnerships of a real peace. But there would be no aggression in
that; and such a situation, inevitable, because of distrust, would in the
very nature of things sooner or later cure itself, by processes which would
assuredly set in.

The wrongs, the very deep wrongs, committed in this war will have to be
righted. That, of course. But they cannot and must not be righted by the
commission of similar wrongs against Germany and her allies. The world will
not permit the commission of similar wrongs as a means of reparation and
settlement. Statesmen must by this time have learned that the opinion of
the world is everywhere wide awake and fully comprehends the issues
involved. No representative of any self-governed nation will dare disregard
it by attempting any such covenants of selfishness and compromise as were
entered into at the Congress of Vienna. The thought of the plain people
here and everywhere throughout the world, the people who enjoy no privilege
and have very simple and unsophisticated standards of right and wrong, is
the air all governments must henceforth breathe if they would live.

It is in the full disclosing light of that thought that all policies must
be received and executed in this midday hour of the world’s life. Ger. man
rulers have been able to upset the peace of the world only because the
German people were not suffered under their tutelage to share the
comradeship of the other peoples of the world either in thought or in
purpose. They were allowed to have no opinion of their own which might be
set up as a rule of conduct for those who exercised authority over them.
But the Congress that concludes this war will feel the full strength of the
tides that run now in the hearts and consciences of free men everywhere.
Its conclusions will run with those tides.

All those things have been true from the very beginning of this stupendous
war; and I cannot help thinking that if they had been made plain at the
very outset the sympathy and enthusiasm of the Russian people might have
been once for all enlisted on the side of the Allies, suspicion and
distrust swept away, and a real and lasting union of purpose effected. Had
they believed these things at the very moment of their revolution, and had
they been confirmed in that belief since, the sad reverses which have
recently marked the progress of their affairs towards an ordered and stable
government of free men might have been avoided. The Russian people have
been poisoned by the very same falsehoods that have kept the German people
in the dark, and the poison has been administered by the very same hand.
The only possible antidote is the truth. It cannot be uttered too plainly
or too often.

From every point of view, therefore, it has seemed to be my duty to speak
these declarations of purpose, to add these specific interpretations to
what I took the liberty of saying to the Senate in January. Our entrance
into the war has not altered out attitude towards the settlement that must
come when it is over.

When I said in January that the nations of the world were entitled not only
to free pathways upon the sea, but also to assured and unmolested access to
those-pathways, I was thinking, and I am thinking now, not of the smaller
and weaker nations alone which need our countenance and support, but also
of the great and powerful nations and of our present enemies as well as our
present associates in the war. I was thinking, and am thinking now, of
Austria herself, among the rest, as well as of Serbia and of Poland.

Justice and equality of rights can be had only at a great price. We are
seeking permanent, not temporary, foundations for the peace of the world,
and must seek them candidly and fearlessly. As always, the right will prove
to be the expedient.

What shall we do, then, to push this great war of freedom and justice to
its righteous conclusion? We must clear away with a thorough hand all
impediments to success, and we must make every adjustment of law that will
facilitate the full and free use of our whole capacity and force as a
fighting unit.

One very embarrassing obstacle that stands hi our way is that we are at war
with Germany but not with her allies. I, therefore, very earnestly
recommend that the Congress immediately declare the United States in a
state of war with Austria-Hungary. Does it seem strange to you that this
should be the conclusion of the argument I have just addressed to you? It
is not. It is in fact the inevitable logic of what I have said.
Austria-Hungary is for the time being not her own mistress but simply the
vassal of the German Government.

We must face the facts as they are and act upon them without sentiment in
this stern business. The Government of Austria and Hungary is not acting
upon its own initiative or in response to the wishes and feelings of its
own peoples, but as the instrument of another nation. We must meet its
force with our own and regard the Central Powers as but one. The war can be
successfully conducted in no other way.

The same logic would lead also to a declaration of war against Turkey and
Bulgaria. They also are the tools of Germany, but they are mere tools and
do not yet stand in the direct path of our necessary action. We shall go
wherever the necessities of this war carry us, but it seems to me that we
should go only where immediate and practical considerations lead us, and
not heed any others.

The financial and military measures which must be adopted will suggest
themselves as the war and its undertakings develop, but I will take the
liberty of proposing to you certain other acts of legislation which seem to
me to be needed for the support of the war and for the release of our whole
force and energy.

It will be necessary to extend in certain particulars the legislation of
the last session with regard to alien enemies, and also necessary, I
believe, to create a very definite and particular control over the entrance
and departure of all persons into and from the United States.

Legislation should be enacted defining as a criminal offense every wilful
violation of the presidential proclamation relating to alien enemies
promulgated under section 4o67 of the revised statutes and providing
appropriate punishments; and women, as well as men, should be included
under the terms of the acts placing restraints upon alien enemies.

It is likely that as time goes on many alien enemies will be willing to be
fed and housed at the expense of the Government in the detention camps, and
it would be the purpose of the legislation I have suggested to confine
offenders among them in the penitentiaries and other similar institutions
where they could be made to work as other criminals do.

Recent experience has convinced me that the Congress must go further in
authorizing the Government to set limits to prices. The law of supply and
demand, I am sorry to say, has been replaced by the law of unrestrained
selfishness. While we have eliminated profiteering in several branches of
industry, it still runs impudently rampant in others. The farmers for
example, complain with a great deal of justice that, while the regulation
of food prices restricts their incomes, no restraints are placed upon the
prices of most of the things they must themselves purchase; and similar
inequities obtain on all sides.

It is imperatively necessary that the consideration of the full use of the
water power of the country, and also of the consideration of the systematic
and yet economical development of such of the natural resources of the
country as are still under the control of the Federal Government should be
immediately resumed and affirmatively and constructively dealt with at the
earliest possible moment. The pressing need of such legislation is daily
becoming more obvious.

The legislation proposed at the last session with regard to regulated
combinations among our exporters in order to provide for our foreign trade
a more effective organization and method of co-operation ought by all means
to be completed at this session.

And I beg that the members of the House of Representatives will permit me
to express the opinion that it will be impossible to deal in any but a very
wasteful and extravagant fashion with the enormous appropriations of the
public moneys which must continue to be made if the war is to be properly
sustained, unless the House will consent to return to its former practice
of initiating and preparing all appropriation bills through a single
committee, in order that responsibility may be centered, expenditures
standardized and made uniform, and waste and duplication as much as
possible avoided.

Additional legislation may also become necessary before the present
Congress again adjourns in order to effect the most efficient co-ordination
and operation of the railways and other transportation systems of the
country; but to that I shall, if circumstances should demand, call the
attention of Congress upon another occasion.

If I have overlooked anything that ought to be done for the more effective
conduct of the war, your own counsels will supply the omission. What I am
perfectly clear about is that in the present session of the Congress our
whole attention and energy should be concentrated on the vigorous, rapid
and successful prosecution of the great task of winning the war.

We can do this with all the greater zeal and enthusiasm because we know
that for us this is a war of high principle, debased by no selfish ambition
of conquest or spoliation; because we know, and all the world knows, that
we have been forced into it to save the very institutions we five under
from corruption and destruction. The purpose of the Central Powers strikes
straight at the very heart of everything we believe in; their methods of
warfare outrage every principle of humanity and of knightly honor; their
intrigue has corrupted the very thought and spirit of many of our people;
their sinister and secret diplomacy has sought to take our very territory
away from us and disrupt the union of the states. Our safety would be at an
end, our honor forever sullied and brought into contempt, were we to permit
their triumph. They are striking at the very existence of democracy and
liberty.

It is because it is for us a war of high, disinterested purpose, in which
all the free peoples of the world are banded together for the vindication
of right, a war for the preservation of our nation, of all that it has held
dear, of principle and of purpose, that we feel ourselves doubly
constrained to propose for its outcome only that which is righteous and of
irreproachable intention, for our foes as well as for our friends. The
cause being just and holy, the settlement must be of like motive and
equality. For this we can fight, but for nothing less noble or less worthy
of our traditions. For this cause we entered the war and for this cause
will we battle until the last gun is fired.

I have spoken plainly because this seems to me the time when it is most
necessary to speak plainly, in order that all the world may know that, even
in the heat and ardor of the struggle and when our whole thought is of
carrying the war through to its end, we have not forgotten any ideal or
principle for which the name of America has been held in honor among the
nations and for which it has been our glory to contend in the great
generations that went before us. A supreme moment of history has come. The
eyes of the people have been opened and they see. The hand of God is laid
upon the nations. He will show them favor, I devoutly believe, only if they
rise to the clear heights of His own justice and mercy.

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