OTD in History… August 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaims US will remain neutral in World War I

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OTD in History… August 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaims US will remain neutral in World War I

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history August 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signs a proclamation of American neutrality with the European countries which had just declared war days earlier on July 28. Wilson repeated that the US will remain “impartial in thought as well as in action” in his address to Congresson August 19. Americans supported Wilson’s “policy of neutrality” and keeping the country out of the European war. Neutrality, however, would become more difficult in February 1915 as Germany declared “unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships.” The US was destined to be affected by Germany’s assault by sea, as they traded the most with Great Britain and would continue to do during the so-called period of neutrality.

Germany increasingly attacked US ships trading with and traveling to Great Britain and those with American passengers aboard. In February 1915, Germany hit the William P. Frye, an American ship carrying grain to Britain. The most notable case, however, was the ship the Lusitania hit on May 7, 1915, off the coast Ireland, where 1,198 died including 128 Americans. The British owned ship was traveling with nearly two thousand passengers from New York to Liverpool. Germany claimed they were justified as the ship contained 173 tons of ammunition, but the outcry led to an apology and cessation of the submarine warfare.

Historian M. Ryan Floyd in his book Abandoning American Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson and the Beginning of the Great War, August 1914 — December 1915 argues neutrality was a “paradox created by Wilson’s idealistic aim to bring the belligerents to the peace table and his pragmatic goal of buttressing the US economy between August 1914 and December 1915. During this formative period, the quandary created by his effort to pursue both visionary and pragmatic objectives made his agenda untenable and convinced him to intentionally violate American neutrality.” (Floyd, 9)

Wilson won reelection in 1916, based on his neutrality policy of keeping America out of the war but that pledge did not last long. In 1917, Germany resumed submarine warfare sinking four American ships in March. Historian Robert w. Tucker notes in his book Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917 “America’s journey from neutrality to war to a failed peace is largely the story of Woodrow Wilson’s journey from neutrality to war to a failed peace.” (Tucker, 21)

Seeing negotiating peace was impossible, Wilson finally took a stand. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked in a Joint Address to Congress that they declare war deeming it his “constitutional duty” and they obliged, finally the US would enter the war on the side of the allies. Only with the infusion of soldiers and armaments would tip the balance in the allies favor against the Central Powers ending what the world believed then was the war to end all wars.

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Floyd, M R. Abandoning American Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson and the Beginning of the Great War, August 1914-December 1915. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Tucker, Robert W. Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

President Wilson’s Declaration of Neutrality

Woodrow Wilson, Message to Congress, 63rd Cong., 2d Sess., Senate Doc. No. 566 (Washington, 1914), pp. 3-4.


The effect of the war upon the United States will depend upon what American citizens say and do. Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned. The spirit of the nation in this critical matter will be determined largely by what individuals and society and those gathered in public meetings do and say, upon what newspapers and magazines contain, upon what ministers utter in their pulpits, and men proclaim as their opinions upon the street.

The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict. Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle. It will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it. Those responsible for exciting it will assume a heavy responsibility, responsibility for no less a thing than that the people of the United States, whose love of their country and whose loyalty to its government should unite them as Americans all, bound in honor and affection to think first of her and her interests, may be divided in camps of hostile opinion, hot against each other, involved in the war itself in impulse and opinion if not in action.

Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend.

I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides. The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.

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