Rhetorical Analysis of President Woodrow Wilsons War Message

Topics: Woodrow Wilson, United States, Theodore Roosevelt Pages: 6 (2460 words) Published: December 13, 2011
With the status of the country’s belligerency heavily in question, an apprehensive President Woodrow Wilson prepared to request from an unmotivated and unprepared country a declaration of war against Germany. After exerting every attempt possible to retain the peace and honor of the United States, the President was finally forced to choose between the two, in which he opted for the latter (Seymour 26). As he sat down to compose his congressional address proposing war, the uncertainty of his decision overwhelmed him. He confided to a member of his cabinet, Frank Cobb, that he had never been as unsure about anything in his life as the judgment he was making for the nation (Baker 506). Through a rhetorical analysis of Wilson’s points of argumentation and his style in the presentation to the war congress, we can gain a better understanding of the president’s purpose tonot only convince the Congress that American belligerency in the final stages of the war would indefinitely shorten it and provide him with the opportunity to organize the peace for Europe as well as the rest of the world (Ferrell 2), but to sway the American people’s opinion to one of non-isolationism, to warn Germany’s government that “America would ultimately wield a powerful sword to deny them victory” (Parsons 2), to compel German citizens to relinquish the submarine attacks and negotiate peace and his terms (Parsons 2), and to calm his own uncertainty about his decision. The need for Wilson’s speech and the current mindset of the American public were a direct result of a succession of antagonistic events in Europe that were rapidly effecting the United States. As the task of remaining neutral became increasingly unfeasible due to numerous insults by the British and German governments, Wilson was forced to shift his foreign policy into a more internationalist scope, a path which the majority of Americans failed to follow (Boyer 791). The same man who was reelected in 1916 on the platform “he kept us out of war”, who delivered the “peace without victory” speech, who urged his country to remain neutral “in action” as well as “in thought” was now asking Congress to approve American entry into the war. As President Wilson confronted the nation on the evening of April 2, 1917, he presented a case of past offenses coupled with present circumstances in hopes of providing a more effective case for leading America into war (Blakey, 2). He employed antecedent-consequence throughout the beginning of his address to warrant his call for belligerency. By recapitulating the events of German abomination as seen most profoundly in the sinking of United States vessels, Wilson let the record speak for itself. He appealed to the sense of compassion in his audience with the mention of “hospital ships as ships carrying aid to the stricken people of Belgium....have been sunk with the same reckless lack of concern or principle” (Baker 510) It was these “hard-hitting charges of outrage and insult by Germany” that stirred Wilson’s listeners (Baker 514). He continued to relate events of the past to his present standpoint by admitting that he was at first “unable to believe that such things could be done by any government” (Safire 110), but as American lives were unjustly taken he realized that the German government had disregarded all respect for international law and had declared war against mankind (Baker 510). This war “against mankind” Wilson defined as the intent of German submarines to take the lives of innocent, uninvolved citizens, whose activities, being supplying aid to bereaved nations or exporting goods on merchant ships, have always been deemed as inoffensive and legitimate pursuits, by no means worthy of assault (Safire 111). Wilson contrasted the British’s interference with neutral trade as slight compared to the immediate and intense conflict with Germany over submarine warfare, illustrated by the comment “Property can be paid for; the...
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