President Wilson, in presence of distinguished gathering, asks Congress to declare war — Presented by Speaker Clark — A fighter without hate — "The world must be made safe for democracy" — "The right more precious than peace" — "God helping her, she can do no other"
"It is not an army that we must shape and train for war; it is a nation." — Wilson
"It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming in the balance," declared Woodrow Wilson toward the close of his war message of April 2, 1917. These words correctly described his feelings. It was "a fearful thing," but he was upheld by the thought next presented: "But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts."
The setting was fitting. The most distinguished gathering in the life of America looked down upon him, as President Wilson entered the House of Representatives that evening. Every member of both houses of Congress was in his seat. The Supreme Court, headed by the venerable and patriotic Chief Justice, occupied seats near the Speaker's desk. Diplomats from every nation, in official robes, looked down from their positions of p278 vantage. The press gallery was crowded, great editors present with their regular correspondents. Army and navy officers in their uniforms suggested the coming of war. Mrs. Wilson and wives of Cabinet officers, flanked by hundreds of wives of legislators and diplomats, lent distinction and color to the scene.
There was an air of expectancy and consecration. The tense feeling left no place for trivialities. The applause that greeted President Wilson as he entered the chamber was rather giving vent to suppressed emotion than to personal compliment. It was an occasion too sacred for plaudits to any man. There were mothers there with blanched cheeks, already feeling the pangs of the supreme sacrifice their sons must make. Light and color and glory shone on the surface. Consecration, sacrifice, grim duty reigned in their hearts.
"The President of the United States," said Speaker Clark as the echo of the gavel died away. The grim Speaker had contested with the President for the high honor. Both were walking through Gethsemane. The high call made them comrades.
Any stranger would have chosen Wilson as the Leader if he had looked down upon that gathering of the great. Erect, with a sense of stern responsibility, face drawn with determination, eyes giving cheer and confidence, there was a gravity and distinction about his bearing that marked him for what the world soon hailed him: The Voice and Inspiration of Crusade for Righteousness and Peace. But before the goal of victory was the conflict of battle.
He stood there every inch the fighter. The days of debate and forbearance were adjourned. It was to be war "without rancor and without selfish object," and p279 without revenge. The spirit of the Covenanter was upon him as with firm and solemn voice he made clear "there is one choice we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated."
The chamber breathed its approval and dedication. In clear tones rang out the shibboleth and aim: "The world must be made safe for democracy." This challenge lifted the Cause to the heights. The "force to the utmost" must not be for conquest. Why must we fight? "For democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."
As this noble conception was unfolded, the hearts of men and women went out to the leader who had phrased for them the high purposes of their own souls. There was the hush of accord and gratitude that no hint of hate marred the solemn declaration. It seemed that the benediction of the God of Right and Justice rested on that assemblage where no small or unholy thoughts could live. It was as if there had been a rush of wings and the voice of angels stilling and strengthening for the days ahead.
Would Americans be equal to the challenge for such a blessing for mankind? The Leader lifted his voice. It was the voice of faith and devotion — his own and that of all the people. Every ear was strained to catch the closing words and their significance.
"To such a task," rang out the final note that p280 summoned to whole-hearted espousal, "we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured."
And then came the prayer that was upon every tongue in the crucial days:
"God helping her, she can do no other."
The die had been cast. The echo of the cavalry on Pennsylvania Avenue, as the Commander-in‑chief was escorted to the White House, broke the silence. It was the reverberation of what was to become a familiar sound in the months ahead.
War was on.
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Life of Wilson
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