In 1917, voices were raised outside Congress on both sides of the issue of American involvement in the European war. Shortly before President Woodrow Wilson’s call for war on April 2, 1917, the editors of a conservative magazine, the North American Review, laid out the basic arguments for U.S. participation. Fundamentally, they saw the war as a struggle between democracy and barbarism. Similar statements and speeches—as well as more coercive measures—gradually captured the public discourse. Fairly quickly, those who rejected the rationales for United States participation in the war found themselves increasingly isolated. Liberals, intellectuals, and even many socialists soon lined up behind American intervention.
Just as Thomas Jefferson experienced difficulty in compressing a multitude of complaints against a German king of Britain into a modest “Declaration of Independence,” so will President Wilson, when the time comes, find himself overwhelmed by a sense of the grievances which this country has endured at the will of the madman of Prussia. We shall await with grimmest zest his recital of treaties broken, of wrongs to be done, of lies told, of treacheries bared, of insults borne, of murders committed, of all the most shameful shocking, mean and low practices against civilization, humanity and common decency recorded even in the history of barbarism, in the face of forbearance for the sake of peace unprecedented in the chronicles of governing Powers. . . .
The issue is in doubt no longer. We know now, if we have not known before, what this war is. It is the last of the great battles for Freedom and Democracy. America fought the first a century and forty years ago. France followed through seas of blood and tears. But lately the Great Charter has passed in its entirety from the barons to the people of England. Japan has ceased to be a monarchy except in name. China as a Republic defies the power of might. Portugal, freed by a bloodless revolution stands with the Allies. Personal government has disappeared forever from every part of the Western hemisphere. And now Russia, autocracy of autocracies, casts off the yoke and takes her place in the sun of civilization. Can anyone doubt that the beginning of the end of absolutism is at hand; that the thrones of Hapsburgs and Mahomeds are crumbling; that the whole clan Hohenzollern, no less of Greece and Bulgaria than of Prussia, is doomed beyond recall; that liberty for the patient German people is as certain as freedom for downtrodden Hungary, for despoiled Serbia and for bleeding Armenia?
So mighty a change cannot be wrought in a month or likely in a year—and not at all unless and until the rulers of Central Europe shall yield to a world of freemen. Wholly aside, then, from the injuries and insults which America had endured at the hands of the War Lord and which she is expected to advance as technical grounds for action, does not America’s higher duty, her greater opportunity, lie along the path of the shot heard 'round the world? Are we to permit others to finish the glorious work which we began, according to even the infidel Allen, in the name of Almighty God? Shall we renounce our own professed ideals so completely that, at the end of the war, we may not deny as a matter of fitness and right, the transshipment of Liberty Enlightening the World from the harbor of New York to that of Hong Kong or Vladivostock? Must even China be allowed to forge ahead of America in defense of democracy?
We are for war; of course, we are; and for reasons good and plenty, to wit:
1. Because we have reached and passed the limit of forbearance in trying to maintain amicable relations with a barbaric brute who has presumed so far upon our good intent as to treat our most conciliatory and helpful suggestions with glaring contempt, who has incited all manner of treasonable activities and damnable outrages within our borders, has gloated over his avowed assassination of our innocent and harmless citizens of both sexes and all ages upon the high seas and has missed no opportunity to deceive, to sneer at and to lie to our constituted authorities; because to conserve our own self-respect we are driven finally to the point where we must fight or forfeit the decent opinion of all mankind; because we cannot even seem to condone the breaking of treaties, the burning of villages to no purpose except to deprive the poor and helpless of shelter essential to mere existence, the enslavement of men who alone could save their families from destitution and death from starvation, the violating of women and young girls, the bayoneting of little children, the approved indiscriminate slaughter by the unspeakable Turks of thousands of helpless Christians in Armenia, and God only knows what else and what more that has stamped the Hun for more than one generation to come as the sublimated hero of the shambles of humanity; because, in a word, we cannot acknowledge the supremacy of might and frightfulness over right and righteousness without denying our faith in the living God.
2. Because we owe it to our forefathers who founded the Republic and to our fathers who saved the Union to prove ourselves not merely worthy of the happiness which flows from prosperity but eager and fearless in support of free life and full liberty the world over, to the end that the noble example set by them may not be degraded in gluttonous realization by us; because as a practical matter if spies and traitors infest our land now is the time to smoke them out; if a few scattering undersea waifs can break down our defenses and damage our cities, let them do their utmost that we may discover what might be anticipated from a fleet and prepare accordingly; if our navy is lopsided and deficient, our provision for a defensive army unfulfilled and unrealizable, our stores of ammunition insufficient, our air-machines and submarines but samples, today when only negligible harm can come to us is the day to acquaint ourselves with the facts; and if, as we are told, so many of us are pro-this or pro-that and so many more are putting self above patriotism and so many more should be feeding off our own fat instead of mulcting lean Chautauquans, then what we need is a test—a test of body, of mind and of spirit—a trying-out by fire while yet there is time to make America fit for any real emergency; yes, and able, through universal service; because simply and finally, in such a case, war is curative, not destructive, a blessing not a curse.
3. Because our going into the great conflict at this psychological moment would not only complete the ring of democracies around the doomed autocracy and so render the ultimate result certain to the dullest and the blindest, but also from that very fact would infect all Germany, all Austria and all Hungary without the new spirit of Russia, and so by surely shortening and perhaps quickly ending the war would save millions of precious finer perceptions as a being altogether worthy of our worshipful lives, certain else to be sacrificed to no purpose other than impoverishment of the human race for centuries to come.
Source: "For Freedom and Democracy," North American Review 206 (March 30, 1917): 482–488.
See Also:The Zimmerman Telegram: Bringing America Closer to War
The War and the Intellectuals: Randolph Bourne Vents His Animus Against War
"I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier": Singing Against the War
Making the World "Safe for Democracy": Woodrow Wilson Asks for War
"It Has No Popular Support": Robert M. La Follette Votes Against a Declaration of War