Woodrow Wilson’s speech asking Congress to declare war against imperial Germany and bring the United States into World War One is, in many ways, a remarkable document. I’ve taken several classes of freshman composition students through a rhetorical analysis of the speech, and though at times it’s a slog, I find it a very generative enterprise.
Among the interesting elements of the speech: Wilson’s very obvious and broad move from the consideration of specific, particular reasons to go to war (the sinking of defenseless merchant and passenger ships, German spies in America, violation of treaty) to broad, universal reasons (democracy vs. autocracy, the rights of small nations, the international community; Wilson’s slick, almost shameless grafting of the League of Nations concept onto the immediate issue of war with Germany and the Central Powers; the care he takes in courting German support and German voters; and the humor in a sitting American president praising the Bolshevik revolution. I would suggest that anyone who’s interested in arguments and their power should consider how carefully he modulates the emotion and passion of the speech, careful not to sustain a fevered pitch for too long, or to let the speech remain listless and boring for long. He (and his speechwriters) do a masterful job of creating an emotional rhythm.
This passage can certainly be read cynically, and I do. Another interesting aspect of this speech is how much has stayed the same in the rhetoric of war. Wilson’s insistence that we must wage war to get to peace is by now cliched boilerplate. Note, too, the hypocrisy (the United States certainly conducting espionage of its own within the borders of Germany), as well as the inconsistent application of freedom and the right to self-determine. The annexation of Hawaii, for example, was only 20 years old at the time of this speech. Somehow, this annexation, undertaken against the will of much of the native population of Hawaii, did not amount to the imposition of the will of the strong against the weak. Note too that the United States’s allies in World War One, such as France and Great Britain, remained in possession of vast imperial holdings.
What’s really remarkable to me, though, is this paragraph:
What this will involve is clear. It will involve the utmost practicable cooperation in counsel and action with the governments now at war with Germany, and, as incident to that, the extension to those governments of the most liberal financial credits, in order that our resources may so far as possible be added to theirs. It will involve the organization and mobilization of all the material resources of the country to supply the materials of war and serve the incidental needs of the nation in the most abundant and yet the most economical and efficient way possible. It will involve the immediate full equipment of the Navy in all respects but particularly in supplying it with the best means of dealing with the enemy’s submarines. It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law in case of war at least 500,000 men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service, and also the authorization of subsequent additional increments of equal force so soon as they may be needed and can be handled in training. It will involve also, of course, the granting of adequate credits to the Government, sustained, I hope, so far as they can equitably be sustained by the present generation, by well conceived taxation….
Think about this paragraph, for a moment. It’s necessary to consider the United States at a time when isolation was a far more politically popular stance than it is now. Here, Wilson unveils his demands of Congress: we’ve got to lend tons of money to foreign governments; we’ve got to start rationing essential goods that Americans rely on; we’ve got to spend a ton of money on a navy; we’ve got to take at least 500,000 men from their homes and families and send them to war, through the draft no less; oh, and by the way, we’ve got to rack up huge debts to do it. Imagine being a member of Congress and having to sell this to potentially unsympathetic constituents, all with future elections on your mind.
It might seem like a mistake to lay out all the bad news like this. I would instead argue that this is a major part of the speech’s strength.
I tell my students this all the time: rip off the Band-Aid. As I’m interested in helping students learn to write for their own practical benefit, I always encourage them to make arguments where there are stakes at hand. And any argument that involves real stakes involves trade-offs, compromises, and unfortunate necessities. Any position worth arguing will inevitably have its downsides. A mistake students often make is to avoid being direct or open about those downsides. Frequently, they’ll try to spread the bad news around, hiding it in bits and pieces, always including several bits of good news for every bit of bad news. This doesn’t fool anybody; bad news is bad news. It can’t be avoided, and the attempt makes the arguer look worse for his or her efforts. What’s more, by spreading the downsides around, in little drips and drops, students can actually make them appear more substantial than they really are. Worse of all is the tendency of students to downplay costs and consequences to the point of dishonesty. Nothing signals weakness to an audience more quickly than an arguer who won’t express the honest consequences of his or her proposal.
No, Wilson had it right: be straightforward, be honest, be clear, and be concise. When it comes time to ask for what you want, express the costs openly, in a way that indicates you know your audience can handle them. That doesn’t mean you accentuate the negative, and you’ve got to prepare your audience by making the strengths and necessity of your plan clear. In rhetoric, we talk often of kairos, the ancient Greek term for the opportune moment. Wilson embeds his frank discussion of the costs of going to war in a long argument that builds on his credibility, the passion and emotion of the moment, and facts of the situation at hand. As Yeats said about writing, “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”
Ultimately, Wilson succeeded, and the United States was pulled into a horrifically bloody war of choice, an inter-imperial struggle for power and influence. The aftermath of that conflict created the conditions that made Nazism and World War Two inevitable. Rhetoric need not be wise to be successful. As for the international community and the League of Nations, Wilson dealt with the consequences of that philosophy for the rest of his presidency. In many ways, we are dealing with them still.
Update: A commenter points outs that the date of this speech precludes the possibility that Wilson was speaking about the Bolshevik revolution. Wilson was referring to the February revolution. I was lazy and didn’t check my dates. I apologize for that.