Primary Documents - William Howard Taft on America's Decision to go to War, 13 June 1917

William Howard Taft Reproduced below is a speech given by former U.S. President William Howard Taft at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., on 13 June 1917, some two months following America's entry into World War I.

Taft's speech served as a rallying call for Americans to support the war effort and the reasons by which the U.S. determined to go to war.  He concluded by noting that significant sacrifices would likely be required before the war was won, citing recent British losses as an example; but that in bringing America into the war Germany had committed its greatest blunder.

William Howard Taft on America's Entry into the War; an Address at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., 13 June 1917

Was there any other alternative for us than to declare war?

I would like to begin with the fundamentals.  That depends upon what in fact and in law the act of Germany was.

What was the law?  It is what is called international law; that is, a rule of conduct adopted by the acquiescence of all nations, of one nation toward another, both in peace and in war.

The branch of international law in which we are concerned here is perhaps the most definitely fixed of any branch of that jurisprudence, which in some respects is indefinite.  It is the branch that governs the capture of commercial vessels at sea.

For a hundred years there has been very little doubt about the rules that control that field of jurisprudence.  During the Napoleonic wars a great many commercial vessels were captured and in the procedure instituted they had to be brought into the domestic courts of prize where these rules were laid down.

At the same time on our own side of the ocean our Supreme Court settled many of the cases.  In our civil war, in the war between trance and Germany, similar conditions were made.  So that when we speak of that law we are speaking of a law that has some similitude to our domestic law.

In the first place, a belligerent - one of those engaged in war upon the high seas - may seize a commercial vessel of its enemy, may confiscate the vessel and its cargo, and, if necessity requires, may sink or burn it.

The second is that a neutral vessel may be seized by a belligerent vessel upon the high seas and examined to see whether that neutral vessel is carrying contraband to the enemy of the captor, and if so, the contraband may be confiscated.

Third, a belligerent vessel may blockade a port of its enemy.  It must blockade it with visible vessels and a knowledge to the world that a blockade exists.  Even if a neutral vessel enter this blockade it may be seized by the belligerent and the cargo confiscated.

These are the three rules that cover the whole field of capture of commercial vessels.  But accompanying these rules is the limitation that in taking a commercial vessel which makes no response when hailed, which does not attempt to escape under the circumstances I have described, it is the bounden duty of the captor to see to it that the officers, the crew, and the passengers, all of the ship's company, shall be put in a safe place.

The captor may, as I say, sink or burn, the vessel at the time or it may take it into port and have it adjudged a prize, but in either case the captor is bound to secure the lives of those who are upon that commercial vessel.

Germany has violated that rule.  It has deliberately caused the death of men, women and children on the high seas, under the American flag, and where they had a right to be.  Killing against the law with deliberation is murder, and Germany has been guilty of murder of 200 of our fellow citizens, innocent of any offence, national or international.

Now, what is our duty under these circumstances?  The Constitution of the United States is interpreted by the Supreme Court to say the duty of the citizens of the United States is to render allegiance, to do service, to pay taxes, and support the Government, and the corresponding duty of the United States as a Government is to protect the rights of citizens of the United States at home and abroad.

Because one citizen of the United States puts himself under the lawful jurisdiction of another country, the absolute right of protection is qualified by his voluntary submission to another jurisdiction.  The necessity for protection is not entirely taken away, but it is qualified.  When a man is on an American deck and under the American flag, a citizen of the United States, he is as much entitled to protection from the unlawful invasion of a foreign power as if he stood on the soil of the United States.

In view, therefore, of the murder of these 200 citizens and of the announcement of a policy to continue these murders, what alternative was there left open other than a declaration of war to the United States?

Suppose this had been Guatemala which had sunk one of our vessels and had sent ten of our sailors to the bottom?  How many hours do you think it would be before the President and the Secretary of the Navy would send a battleship down to Guatemala and be thundering at the ports of that republic and demanding restitution, demanding a promise of conduct hereafter, demanding damages for what had been done, and on failure to answer promptly, to begin a bombardment?  Even pacifists would have justified that.

Now, what is the difference between that situation and this?  None?  Yes.  A very great difference.

The nation that has done this is the greatest military nation in the world.  It is a nation with which, if we engage, we are likely to lose, it may be, a million men, and all that to resent the sacrifice of only 200 souls.  That, it is said, is a trivial discrepancy.

Is it?  It is if you look at it from a grossly material and mathematical standpoint, but it is not if you understand what it means to consent to the murder of 200 of our citizens because there is a powerful nation you have to meet and overcome in order to vindicate the rights of our citizens.

It means submission to the domination of another power; it means giving up the independence for which we fought in 1776 and which we made sacrifices to maintain in 1861.

There was great criticism of the Administration because we did not immediately act as we now have acted. I am not going into the pros and cons of that discussion.  It suffices to say that the self-restraint, the deliberation, the tolerance, if you choose, which characterized that policy, has had this great and good effect.  It has shown to the world, and it has shown to our people that in entering this war we have done it with the utmost reluctance, and in entering the war we are entirely void of offence.

It has shown that we have been forced in and that the situation has been such that no self-respecting nation, no nation which appreciates what a government is formed for, could avoid doing what we are doing when the rights of our citizens, the preservation of which is the chief object of government, have been defiantly violated by a power that rests for its right upon might.

That is why we are in.  There are many of us who think, "for my country, right or wrong; may she always be right, but always for my country."  I do not care to discuss that philosophy, but I do think it important we should realize and take it home to our souls we do not need that kind of philosophy in fighting out the fight we are to fight now.

In 1776 we were fighting for our own independence and the development of our future.  In 1861 we tried to eliminate that living lie in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that "all men are born free and equal."  It took us four years of a terrible struggle to demonstrate to the world what had been doubted.

We demonstrated to the world that we could make sacrifices of lives and treasure for the maintenance of a moral principle and the integrity of the nation.  We showed in the words of Lincoln, that "the rule of the people should not perish from the earth."

And then we went on and increased from 30,000,000 to 100,000,000 people, and we created a material expansion which has given us greater wealth than any other country.  We have had comfort and luxury.  Now the question was when this issue came on whether in that change from 30,000,000 to 100,000,000, from comparative wealth to great wealth, we had lost the moral spirit we had before shown, we had become so enervated by our success that we felt it was not wise to risk the lives of those dear to us, to risk the destruction that war must bring in order to assert our rights.

Now we have stepped to the forefront of nations, and they look to us.

Before we came into this fight Russia had become a democracy, and we find ourselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with the democracies of the world.  We find arrayed against us the military dynasties of the world, Germany, Austria, and Turkey.

Of course, people say England has a King; so has Italy and other countries that are fighting on our side.  A democracy is a country ruled by the people.  The King of England and the King of Italy haven't any more influence over the policies of their country than an ex-President.

The issue at present is drawn between the democracies of the world and the military dynasties, and people like to characterize that as the issue.  It is and it isn't.  What I mean by that is: The United States is not a knight-errant country going about to independent people and saying, "We do not like your form of government, we have tried our own popular government and we think it is better for you to take it, and you have got to take it."

That is a very unreasonable position, in so far as that form of government deals with only their domestic pursuits and their domestic happiness.  If they like to have a Tsar, if they prefer it, why, it isn't for us to take away their freedom of will.  Otherwise we shall go back to the logic of the Inquisition, when they burned people in this world so that they might not burn in the next.

But when their form of government involves a policy which does not confine its opinions to the people who make the government or support it, but becomes a visible policy against the welfare and happiness of the rest of the world family, we have a right and a duty, standing with other nations as we do, to see to it that such a foreign policy is stopped and stamped out forever.

I will not minimize or confuse.  Germany is not exhausted.  That machine which it has been creating for fifty years is a wonderful machine.... It did not interfere with Austria until Austria showed some signs of coming into a conference, and then it said to Austria, "This is the time to strike."  It had been creating this force for fifty years, and now seemed the time to make it most effective...

This militarism is a cancer which must be cut out by a surgical operation.  It shows its malignant character in the utter disregard of the rules of war.  It shows itself in the violation of Belgium, in the policy of frightfulness in order to subjugate Belgium; in the violation of The Hague treaties, which forbid the dropping of explosives out of aerial craft, the planting of mines, the use of asphyxiating gases and flames, all spread out in The Hague treaties, and all violated promptly by this German military machine.

It is therefore a cancer which would absorb the wholesome life of the world unless it is cut out, and necessitates suffering and pain in ridding the world of it.

There are other evidences of divine plan.  Think of the battle of the Marne, where this matchless machine began to find France and England unprepared, and they turned at the Marne when the German hosts with their guns were heard in Paris, and by mere moral force they turned these German legions back.

Think of the blindness of this absorption of gross materialism as brought into the intellect of the Germans.

They cannot understand other people.  They cannot recognize a moral force that binds people together in a cause.  They said England will not stand by Belgium; it has trouble with Ireland; they said France is torn with Socialism and it is a decadent nation.

In both cases they made blunders.

They said as regards Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, England has no control over them by force; they are far removed from it and will follow the path of materialism and gain; they will follow where profit determines; they will not be held.

And yet, nothing has been grander than this light bond which unites England with these independent dependencies, and they have rallied to the support of the mother country, responded out of gratitude for the liberty that it had conferred upon them, and they have made sacrifices which call for our profound admiration.

Think of it.  Canada has furnished upward of 400,000 men.  Nearly every home in English Canada is mourning-their best and most beloved.  If we furnish as many men as they have for this war our armies will reach 6,500,000 men.

If our contributions to the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., and other voluntary individual contributions, in addition to taxes, reach the figures which they have in Canada, we shall contribute $14 to $15 per capita.

My friends, those are the mistakes or blunders that Germany has made, self-imposed or imposed by a definite rule that when you subject yourself to grossly material considerations you lose the higher mental and spiritual forces which enable you to conquer in the end.

Now, the last blunder of all.  In its determination to depend upon the devilish ingenuity of science in the development of war, the Germans said: "We can starve England out with this submarine."

When it saw us it said, "There is a tango-loving nation, too fat to fight, too lazy to go into the trenches," and they have deliberately forced us into the ranks of their enemies.

Think of it.  They have been fighting for nearly three years.  The exhaustion that has come to them has had no comparison in history.  The war must be determined by the weight of wealth and resources and the courageous men which can be gathered together to fight it out and be sure of a victorious battle in the end.

And yet, in the face of that fact, we should impress on them that they deliberately forced into the ranks of their enemies the nation which can furnish more wealth, more resources, more equipment, and more men than any other nation in the world.

My friends, we are going to make these sacrifices.  We do not know what they are yet, and we shall not know until we see the bulletins.   The English people watched the bulletins for May and saw a loss of 114,000 in the British Army; 26,000 privates killed and 16,000 officers killed in action; 76,000 privates wounded, and 3,600 officers wounded and 7,000 missing.

When we watch a report like this, then it will come home to us in our souls and we shall understand the sacrifice we have to make.

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

A howitzer is any short cannon that delivers its shells in a high trajectory. The word is derived from an old German word for "catapult".

- Did you know?

Primary Docs