Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Analyzing Wilson's Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Germany
John Kerr
US History
Time Frame:
• An hour of homework and 30 minutes of class discussion.
World War I

Grade Levels:
9, 10, 11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:

Students will be given a copy of Wilson speech to Congress in April, 1917, and asked to read it, looking specifically for words, phrases and statements that reflect Wilson’s character. A classroom discussion will follow the next day.

  • To help students understand that the speech is not simply a request for a declaration of war, but instead reflects in many ways the character and values of Wilson.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

  • UCLA National Historical Thinking Standard 2:  Students will appreciate historical perspective.
  • UCLA National Historical Thinking Standard 5:  Students engage in historical issue-analysis and decision making.

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Wilson’s speech to Congress in April, 1917, requesting a declaration of war against Germany,  available at www.ourdocuments.gov.

Full description of activity or assignment.

Introduction:  Woodrow Wilson has been described widely by historians as a moralist, a visionary and an idealist, as someone who was rigid and inflexible, and seldom saw the shades of gray—everything was either black or white.  He was a very religious man who believed in God given rights—supported by International Law—and that the United States was destined—through God’s will—to play an important role in the world, especially in the spring of 1917. 

The basic question this exercise explores is how are these Wilsonian characteristics reflected in Wilson’s speech to Congress in April, 1917?  During the in-class discussion of this document, the teacher will make certain that students identified  the following words, phrases and statements that answer, at least in part, that question.

In the second paragraph, Wilson reviews Germany’s use of submarines in WWI and reminds Congress that he shared this information with it a couple of months before.  He describes German submarine warfare as “cruel and unmanly,” vessels being “ruthlessly sent to the bottom,” and the German government’s  “reckless lack of compassion.”

In the same paragraph, Wilson points out that Germany, through its “unrestricted” use of submarines, is  violating international law, which he describes as “the humane practices of civilized nations.”

At the end of the same paragraph, Wilson says that unrestricted submarine warfare is a “warfare against mankind,” and in the next paragraph, he reiterates that point by proclaiming that “The challenge is to all mankind.”

In the third paragraph, Wilson explains our motive as being “not revenge . . . but vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single nation.”

Interestingly, in the fourth paragraph, Wilson admits that his policy of armed neutrality was “impracticable.”

In the same paragraph, Wilson again points out that Germany is violating the rights of neutral nations.

After asking Congress to declare war and outlining what Wilson believes the United States will have to do to win the war, Wilson—in the eighth paragraph—tells Congress that he will suggest specific ways to accomplish the objectives in the previous paragraphs and hopes that Congress will accept them.

In the next two paragraphs, Wilson very carefully distinguishes between the German government and the German people, making a point of saying, “We have no quarrel with the German people.”

In the next paragraph, Wilson foreshadows the creation of the League of Nations, saying, “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic states.” 

Beginning in the fifteenth paragraph and continuing on through the document, Wilson returns to the theme that this is not just another war.  That we are going to fight “for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its people,” that “the world must be made safe for democracy,”  that we “are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.”

In the 17th paragraph, Wilson maintains that German policy forced us into the war, “because there are no other means of defending our rights.” 

In the final paragraph, Wilson summarizes exactly what we’ll be fighting for by using the words “right” and “rights.” And finally invoking the deity, and suggesting that God is on our side.