Primary Documents - President Wilson's Speech to Congress Regarding Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare, 19 April 1916

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson Reproduced below is the text of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's speech to the U.S. Congress on 19 April 1916 regarding the German government's use of U-boats.

Wilson informed Congress of an ultimatum sent to the German government a day earlier, in which he condemned Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, which resulted in merchant vessels being sunk without warning should they be suspected of trading with the Allies.

Wilson warned that the U.S. would not tolerate the continuation of such a policy and demanded it be revoked by the German government.

Wilson had been spurred into action by the sinking of the British passenger ship Sussex while it was in the English Channel.  Several U.S. citizens were among those drowned.  Germany initially denied sinking the Sussex but subsequently admitted doing so.

Alarmed by the U.S. stance the German government - in the form of Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow - withdrew its policy, noting that in future a clear warning would be given before ships were torpedoed.  The Naval Minister, Alfred von Tirpitz, was furious, and later attributed Germany's wartime defeat to its weakness at this time in the face of U.S. opposition.

Germany's reintroduction of the policy in February 1917 led to the U.S. breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany.

President Wilson's Address to Congress, 19 April 1916

In pursuance of the policy of submarine warfare against the commerce of its adversaries, announced and entered upon by the Imperial German Government, despite the solemn protest of this Government, the commanders of German undersea vessels have attacked merchant ships with greater and greater activity, not only upon the high seas surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, but wherever they could encounter them, in a way that has grown more and more ruthless, more and more indiscriminate, as the months have gone by, less and less observant of restraints of any kind; and they have delivered their attacks without compunction against vessels of every nationality and bound upon every sort of errand.

Vessels of neutral ownership, even vessels of neutral ownership bound from neutral port to neutral port, have been destroyed along with vessels of belligerent ownership, in constantly increasing numbers.

Sometimes the merchantman attacked has been warned and summoned to surrender before being fired on or torpedoed; sometimes passengers or crews have been vouchsafed the poor security of being allowed to take to the ship's boats before she was sent to the bottom.

But again and again no warning has been given, no escape even to the ship's boats allowed to those on board.  What this Government foresaw must happen has happened.  Tragedy has followed tragedy on the seas in such fashion, with such attendant circumstances, as to make it grossly evident that warfare of such a sort, if warfare it be, cannot be carried on without the most palpable violation of the dictates alike of right and of humanity.

Whatever the disposition and intention of the Imperial German Government, it has manifestly proved impossible for it to keep such methods of attack upon the commerce of its enemies within the bounds set by either the reason or the heart of mankind...

I have deemed it my duty, therefore, to say to the Imperial German Government that if it is still its purpose to prosecute relentless and indiscriminate warfare against vessels of commerce by the use of submarines, notwithstanding the now demonstrated impossibility of conducting that warfare in accordance with what the Government of the United States must consider the sacred and indisputable rules of international law and the universally recognized dictates of humanity, the Government of the United States is at last forced to the conclusion that there is but one course it can pursue and that unless the Imperial German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, this Government can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the Government of the German Empire altogether.

This decision I have arrived at with the keenest regret; the possibility of the action contemplated I am sure all thoughtful Americans will look forward to with unaffected reluctance.  But we cannot forget that we are in some sort and by the force of circumstances the responsible spokesmen of the rights of humanity, and that we cannot remain silent while those rights seem in process of being swept utterly away in the maelstrom of this terrible war.

We owe it to a due regard for our own rights as a nation, to our sense of duty as a representative of the rights of neutrals the world over, and to a just conception of the rights of mankind to take this stand now with the utmost solemnity and firmness.

I have taken it, and taken it in the confidence that it will meet with your approval and support.  All sober-minded men must unite in hoping that the Imperial German Government, which has in other circumstances stood as the champion of all that we are now contending for in the interest of humanity, may recognize the justice of our demands and meet them in the spirit in which they are made.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A "Bangalore Torpedo" was an explosive tube used to clear a path through a wire entanglement.

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