HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XXIX - The Great Declaration
by Tumulty, Joseph P.

In October, 1916, during the Presidential campaign, while the President was at Shadow Lawn, New Jersey, Ambassador Gerard, at the President's invitation, paid a visit to him and reported in detail the general situation in Germany as to the submarine warfare. He said that the restrictions as to submarines imposed by Germany's acceptance of the President's ultimatum after the Sussex affair, were growing burdensome and intolerable to the military and naval masters of Germany and that they were bringing all kinds of pressure to bear upon the leaders of the Civil Government, notably Von Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Minister Von Jagow, to repudiate the undertaking. From the critical situation in Germany, arising out of the controversy over the question of unrestricted submarine warfare, which Ambassador Gerard laid before him, the President was convinced that we were now approaching a real crisis in our relations with Germany and that unless peace could be quickly obtained, the European struggle would soon enter upon a phase more terrible than any in the preceding two years, with consequences highly dangerous to the interests of our country. The passionate wish and deep desire of the President from the beginning was that we could keep aloof and by conserving our energies and remaining neutral, hold ourselves in reserve as the only mediating influence for peace; but with each passing week some untoward event brought about by the ruthlessness of Germany made the prospect for the interposition of America's influence daily more unlikely.

The following memorandum prepared by me on January 4, 1916, of a conversation between the President and myself, shortly after the sinking of the Persia by a submarine, imperfectly sets forth his idea with reference to war with Germany:
About ten minutes to ten o'clock this morning I had a very interesting conversation with the President at the White House, my purpose being to bring to him the atmosphere of Washington and the country as far as I could ascertain with reference to the sinking of the Persia by a submarine. The other purpose of my visit was to warn him that Senator Stone might induce him to make some admission with reference to his attitude which might embarrass the President in the future.

The President looked very well after his trip and seemed to be in a fine mood, although it was plainly evident that the Persia affair rested heavily upon him. My attitude toward this matter was for action, and action all along the line. This did not seem to meet with a very hearty response from the President. He informed me that it would not be the thing for us to take action against any government without our government being in possession of all the facts. I replied that that was my attitude, but I thought there should be action and vigorous action as soon as all the facts were ascertained. He agreed with me in this. When I began to tell him about the attitude of the country and the feeling in the country that there was a lack of leadership, he stiffened up in his chair and said: "Tumulty, you may as well understand my position right now. If my rejection as President depends upon my getting into war, I don't want to be President. I have been away, and I have had lots of time to think about this war and the effect of our country getting into it, and I have made up my mind that I am more interested in the opinion that the country will have of me ten years from now than the opinion it may be willing to express to- day. Of course, I understand that the country wants action, and I intend to stand by the record I have made in all these cases, and take whatever action may be necessary, but I will not be rushed into war, no matter if every last Congressman and Senator stands up on his hind legs and proclaims me a coward." He continued, speaking of the severance of diplomatic relations,--"You must know that when I consider this matter, I can only consider it as the forerunner of war. I believe that the sober-minded people of this country will applaud any efforts I may make without the loss of our honour to keep this country out of war." He said that if we took any precipitate action right now, it might prevent Austria from coming across in generous fashion.
The President, ten months later, was re-elected, on the slogan, "He kept us out of War." If it was possible to continue at peace on terms that would protect and conserve our national honour, he was determined to do so. I recall how passionately he laid before Senator Tillman of South Carolina, chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs, his desire to keep the nation out of war. At the conclusion of the talk with the Senator, he said: "But, Senator, it rests with Germany to say whether we shall remain at peace." Turning to the President, Senator Tillman said: "You are right, Mr. President, we must not go around with a chip on our shoulder. I am for peace, but I am not for peace at any damn price." This was really expressive of the President's attitude. He earnestly desired peace, but he was not willing to remain at peace at the price of the nation's honour.

Early in May, 1916, the President and I had conferred regarding the European situation and had discussed the possibility of our suggesting to both sides that they consider the United States as a mediating influence to bring about a settlement. Early in May, 1916, I had addressed the following letter to the President with reference to the matter:

May 16, 1916.


As I have discussed with you on frequent occasions, it seems to me that the time is now at hand for you to act in the matter of Peace. The mere process of peace negotiations may extend over a period of months. Why should we wait until the moment of exhaustion before ever beginning a discussion? Everybody admits that the resources of the nations involved cannot last through another year without suffering of an untold character. It is now May. Let us assume that everybody accepts your offer. It would be physically impossible to get commissioners from various parts of the world, including Japan, in less than two months. Then the discussion would perhaps last until the fall, no matter what conclusion might be reached. Therefore, allowing for the time that might be consumed in persuading all the parties that the time is now ripe, the whole business will require almost a year in itself, during which time the hostilities would be continuing and certainly the chance of getting a truce would be better after the discussion had been in progress for some time. Similarly, as the time for the winter campaign approached, the inducement to agree on a truce on any terms would become more powerful each day.

Let us look at it from the point of view of postponement. If we waited until the fall and the negotiations stretched out through the winter, the temptation for making new drives in the spring, with the preparations made throughout the winter, would incline the militaristic element in the various countries involved to block peace negotiations. It seems, therefore, that the time to act is now when these drives are spending their force.

As to the Procedure:

It seems that no belligerent should be put in the position by your note of weakening or of suing for peace, for we must keep in mind the pride and sensibilities of all. The initiative must be ours--to all nations, on equal terms. One way to do this would be to send a note, saying that from the German note and from statesmen representing the Entente powers the Government of the United States assumes that the belligerent powers are willing at least to discus suggestions for peace, each only reserving to itself liberty of action. The United States can, therefore, announce that it is willing to meet at The Hague a commission sent by the respective governments to discuss means for making peace, and for establishing a world court or international tribunal to safeguard the peace of the world after the close of the war.

In the latter, namely, world peace, the United States has a direct interest. The United States can in the note assume that commissioners will meet with it and hopes to be advised if there is any feeling to the contrary.

My idea is to go ahead with the plan on the theory that all the belligerents are in accord with the idea, so that in answering our note they will not have accepted anything but our proposals to discuss, first, the suggestion of peace, and, secondly, the idea of a world court.

The President should say, in order to elicit the sympathy of the world and mankind in general, that the note of the United States suggesting a meeting between the powers will be made public within a few days and after its receipt by the respective powers. This will give each government not only its own public opinion to reckon with, but the public opinion of the civilized world. The nation that objects to a discussion of peace will by no means be in an enviable position.

I hope you will read the article I am sending you by Mr. Strunsky, "Post Impressions," especially that part I have indicated in the margin. It is from this article that I got the idea of suggesting the alternative proposition of a world court. Your note setting forth your position in this matter should be an appeal to the heart and to the conscience of the world.

Evidently the President seriously had been considering this very matter as was shown by the following reply to my note:


Thank you for the memorandum about peace suggestions. I have read it very carefully and find my own thoughts travelling very much the same route. You may be sure I am doing a great deal of serious thinking about it all.

W. W.
The President, through the State Department and various instrumentalities to which he had access for information, was keeping in touch with the German situation and understood from the beginning what the German game was with reference to peace, and to the various offers which he was making. He knew that the German peace offers were merely an attempt on the part of the civil government of Germany to avert a resumption of ruthlessness at sea; that they were mere gestures on the part of the German Government made to bolster up the morale of the German people and that these German offers did not indicate the real desire for peace on equitable terms, as subsequent events showed, but that they were the terms of peace of a nation which thought itself the victor, and, therefore, in a position ruthlessly to dictate a final settlement.

Many of the advisers of the President suggested that he should ignore these offers. But the President was wiser than those around him in accepting the German bid at its face value, and he finally called upon Germany to state the practical terms upon which she was willing to consider a settlement for peace. There was another reason for the President's patience. Foreseeing an inevitable crisis with Germany over the frequent sinking of our ships, he was fully conscious that he could not draw the whole country with him in aggressive action if before he took the step leading to war he had not tried out every means of peace. While his enemies denounced his meekness and apparent subservience to German diplomacy, and while some went so far as to characterize his conduct as cowardly, he serenely moved on and forced Germany to a show-down. He not only asked Germany to state her terms, but he frankly asked the Allies to give to the world their statement of what they considered the basis of peace.

One of the phrases in his note to the Allies which caused great irritation was that "neither side had stated the object for which the war had been started." While he was criticized for this at the time, it did just what he intended it to do. It forced Germany openly to avow what she believed to be the basis of peace, and gave the Allies their chance, as if they were being forced to do it by the American President, to say what they thought would be a just settlement.

In the latter part of January Germany announced to the United States that she was going to begin, on February first, unrestricted submarine warfare in the zone around the British Isles, and undertook to specify the route which a restricted number of American ships might take through this zone.

I vividly recall the day the Associated Press bulletin reached the White House. I took it immediately to the President who was at his desk in his private office. As I entered, he looked up from his writing, casual inquiry in his eyes. Without comment I laid the fateful slip of paper on his desk, and silently watched him as he read and then re-read it. I seemed to read his mind in the expressions that raced across his strong features: first, blank amazement; then incredulity that even Germany could be guilty of such perfidy; then gravity and sternness, a sudden grayness of colour, a compression of the lips and the familiar locking of the jaw which always characterized him in moments of supreme resolution. Handing the paper back to me, he said in quiet tones: "This means war. The break that we have tried so hard to prevent now seems inevitable."

On February 4th, he addressed Congress, announcing the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany, and stating his hope that Germany would pause before it was too late. On February 26th, the steamship. Aneona, with Americans on board, was sunk, and on the next day the President addressed Congress, suggesting the proclamation of armed neutrality as a final effort to apply pressure to the Government of Germany, to show that the United States was in earnest and would protect its rights against lawless attacks at sea; but these measures failed. Germany seemed bent upon a break with us, and on April 6, 1917, in response to a memorable address delivered by the President on April second, the Congress of the United States declared solemnly that a state of war existed between the United States and the Imperial German Government.

In concluding his war message, the President said:
It is a fearful thing to lead this great, peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the 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. God helping her, she can do no other.
I accompanied the President to Capitol Hill on the day of the delivery of his war message, and on that fateful day I rode with him from the Capitol back to the White House, the echo of applause still ringing in my ears.

For a while he sat silent and pale in the Cabinet Room. At last he said: "Think what it was they were applauding" [he was speaking of the people who were lined along the streets on his way to the Capitol]. "My message to-day was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that."

That simple remark is one key to an understanding of Woodrow Wilson. All politicians pretend to hate and to dread war, but Woodrow Wilson really hates and dreads it in all the fibres of his human soul; hates it and dreads it because he has an imagination and a heart; an imagination which shows his sensitive perception the anguish and the dying which war entails; a heart which yearns and aches over every dying soldier and bleeds afresh with each new-made wound.

I shall never forget that scene in the Cabinet Room between the President and myself. He appeared like a man who had thrown off old burdens only to add new ones.

It was apparent in his talk with me that he felt deeply wounded at the criticism that for months had been heaped upon him for his seeming unwillingness to go to war with Germany. As he discussed the step he had just taken, it was evident to me that he keenly felt the full solemnity and tragedy of it all. Turning to me, he said: "Tumulty, from the very beginning I saw the end of this horrible thing; but I could not move faster than the great mass of our people would permit. Very few understood the difficult and trying position I have been placed in during the years through which we have just passed. In the policy of patience and forbearance I pursued I tried to make every part of America and the varied elements of our population understand that we were willing to go any length rather than resort to war with Germany. As I told you months ago, it would have been foolish for us to have been rushed off our feet and to have gone to war over an isolated affair like the Lusitania. But now we are certain that there will be no regrets or looking back on the part of our people. There is but one course now left open to us. Our consciences are clear, and we must prepare for the inevitable--a fight to the end. Germany must be made to understand that we have rights that she must respect. There were few who understood this policy of patience. I do not mean to say this in a spirit of criticism. Indeed, many of the leading journals of the country were unmindful of the complexities of the situation which confronted us."

The President then took out of his pocket an old and worn newspaper clipping, saying: "I wish to read you an analysis of my position and my policy by a special writer for the Manchester Guardian, who seemed, without consulting me or ever conferring with me, to know just what I am driving at."

This special writer, commenting upon the Wilson policy, had said:
Mr. Wilson's patience, now derided and criticized, will inevitably be the means by which he will lead his people by easy stages to the side of the Allies. By his methods of patience and apparent subservience to Germany, he will convince the whole American people that no other course save war is possible. This policy of Wilson's, now determined on, will work a complete transformation in his people. It will not evidence itself quickly or overnight. The moral preachment of Wilson before and after war will be the cause that will finally bring his people to the side of the Allies.
Again turning to me, the President said: "Our course from this time on is clear. The whole business of war that we are now engaged upon is fraught with the gravest difficulties. There will be great enthusiasm in the country from this day. I trust it will not slacken or weaken as the horrors of the war and its tragedies are disclosed. Of course our motives will be misconstrued, our purposes misunderstood; some of our best friends will misinterpret what we seek to do. In carrying on the war we will be obliged to do certain unusual things, things that will interfere with the lives and habits of our people, which will bring down upon us a storm of criticism and ridicule. Our life, therefore, until this thing is over, and God only knows when it will be over, will be full of tragedy and heartaches."

As he spoke, he was no longer Woodrow Wilson, the protagonist of peace, but Woodrow Wilson, the stern warrior, now grimly determined to pursue the great cause of America to the end.

The President continued talking to me. He said: "It has not been easy to carry these burdens in these trying times. From the beginning I saw the utter futility of neutrality, the disappointment and heartaches that would flow from its announcement, but we had to stand by our traditional policy of steering clear of European embroilments. While I have appeared to be indifferent to the criticism which has been my portion during these critical days, a few have tried to understand my purpose and have sympathized throughout with what I sought to do."

Then, as he lowered his voice, he said: "There is a fine chap in Springfield, Massachusetts, editor of a great paper there, who understood my position from the beginning and who has sympathized with me throughout this whole business." For a moment he, paused, and then went on: "I want to read you the letter I received from this fine man." As he read, the emotion he felt at the tender sympathy which the words conveyed gripped him. The letter is as follows:
Springfield, Massachusetts,
March 28, 1917.


In acknowledging your very kind and appreciative note of March 22nd, I must say at once that the note has given me the greatest possible pleasure. I prize this word from you all the more because after the political experience and conflicts of the past few years, I am conscious of a very real yet peculiar feeling of having summered and wintered with you, in spite of the immeasurable and rather awful distance that separates our respective places in the life and work of our time. Your note, for the moment, suddenly annihilates the distance and brings to me what I recognize as a very human touch.

There is summering and wintering to come,--with more wintering perhaps than we shall enjoy;--even so, I shall hope to be of timely service, as opportunity favours me.

I have the honour to be your admirer and friend.

Most sincerely,
(Signed) WALDO L. COOK.
"That man understood me and sympathized." As he said this, the President drew his handkerchief from his pocket, wiped away great tears that stood in his eyes, and then laying his head on the Cabinet table, sobbed as if he had been a child.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works