May 17, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

The Capital Journal headline reads:

AMERICA WANTS ONLY HONORABLE PEACE IS PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE

Speaking in New York at a naval review, the paper reported the President’s comments:

“An interesting, and inspiring thing about America is that she asks nothing for her self except what she has a right to ask for humanity itself,” declared the president.

“We want no nation’s property. We question no nation’s honor. We stand for that for which every nation should wish to stand for.”

President Wilson’s speech was delivered following a land review of blue-jackets from the fleet, during which he stood in the rain while the thousands of men from the battle squadron passed by.

“When I think of the flag which these ships carry, the only touch color about them, the only thing that moves me as if it had a settled spirit in it, in their solid structure, it seems to me I see alternate strips of parchment upon which are written the rights and liberty and justice and strips of blood spilt to vindicate those rights, and then, in the corner, a prediction of the blue severe into which every nation may swim which stands for these great things.

The President then clearly and eloquently spoke to the assembled soldiers, sailors, Congressional members, and the American people, laying out the mission of the military (and which this reporter thinks has been forgotten today):

“The mission of America is the only thing that a sailor or soldier should think about: he has nothing to do with the formation of her policy; his is to support her policy, whatever it is – but he is to support her policy in the spirit of herself, and the strength of our polity is that we, who for the time being administer the affairs of this nation, do not originate her spirit; we attempt to embody it; we attempt to realize it in action; we are dominated by it, we do not dictate it.

We know in hindsight the value and the truth of these words. The vortex of war into which this country is slowly being drawn came about precisely because the helm of state and the direction of policy was not solely under the control of the civilian sector. The President’s spoke to the specific rôle of the military and the obligations of those who govern to embody the values of those who elect those who are to carry out public policy:

“And so with every man in arms who serves the nation – he stands and waits to do the thing which the nation desires. America sometimes seems perhaps to forget her programs, or, rather, I would say that sometimes those who represent her seem to forget her programs, but the people never forget them. It is as startling as it is touching to see how whenever you touch a principle you touch the hearts of the people of the United States. They listen to your debates of policy, they determine which party they prefer in power, they choose and prefer as ordinary men; but their real affection, their real force, their real irresistible momentum, is for the ideas which men embody.”

The President concluded with an observation, naïve and alien to the practice of politics in 2015:

“I never go on the streets of a great city without feeling that somehow I do not confer elsewhere than on the streets with the great spirit of the people themselves, going about their business, attending to the things which concern them, and yet carrying a measure at their hears all the while, ready to be stirred not only as individuals, but as members of a great union of hearts that constitutes a patriotic people.

“And so this sight in the river touches me merely as a symbol of that, and it quickens the pulse of every man who realizes these things to have anything to do with them. When a crisis occurs in this country, gentlemen, it is as if you put your hand on the pulse of a dynamo, it is as if the things which you were in connection with were spiritually bred. You had nothing to do with them except, if you listen truly, to speak the things that your hear. These things now brood over the river, this spirit now moves with the men who represent the nation in the navy, these things will move upon the waters in the maneuvers; no threat lifted against any man, against any nation, against any interest, but just a great, solemn evidence that the force of America is the force of moral principle, that there is not anything else that she loves and that there is not anything else for which she will contend.”

The Capital Journal also reported reaction to the President’s appeal for unity:

GERMANS WITH WILSON
“We Are Absolutely With Him,” Says Federation Head

Portland, Or., May 17. – Dr. F. H. Dammasch, president of the Confederation of German-speaking societies of Oregon, said last night that German-Americans of Portland and the state may be depended on absolutely to support President Wilson in his war policy.

“We are absolutely with him,” said Dr. Dammasch. “We will support the president of the United States first, last and all the time. We are all true American citizens and it is America before all others with us. That is the keynote of the feeling among the 5000 members of the confederation which I represent.”

In another article the paper reported the growing number of Germans seeking citizenship:

GERMANS ASK CITIZENSHIP

New York, May 17. – Since the sinking of the Lusitania, the number of Germans applying for naturalization in this city has increased nearly 300 percent, it was said today by Naturalization Commissioner Weiser, in the federal building. Mr. Weiser added that the greatest number of applications for sometime had come from Russians and that the Germans were at the foot of the list until recently. Now they are side by side with the Russians, he declared.

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About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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