T HE disorder in Mexico was distressing to America, it was disastrous to the Mexicans themselves. But the effect on America as a whole was slight, while the world at large felt it scarcely at all.
In August, 1914, while the Mexican trouble was still grave, the Great War broke out in Europe. This, strange to say, was to prove a far greater menace to the peace of the United States than the war and bloodshed in the turbulent republic on her borders.
In the days of the French Revolution, when France was warring with a sea of foes, Washington had declared the United States to be neutral. He had refused to draw sword even in aid of the friend who only a few years before had helped Americans so generously in their struggle for freedom. He was wise. For in those days America was weak. She was the youngest of the world's great nations, she had hardly "found herself." Had she mixed herself in the European quarrel she would have suffered greatly, perhaps might even have lost her new-found freedom.
All this Washington knew. Gratitude was due to France, but not useless sacrifice, which would merely bring ruin on America, and help France not at all. So Washington declared for neutrality, and maintained it.
Thirty years later Monroe announced his famous Doctrine. That
Doctrine in the words of Henry Jefferson was, "First, never to
entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe;
second, never to suffer
Europe to intermeddle with cis-Atlantic affairs." To that doctrine
America has remained faithful. But in the ninety years which have
passed since it was first announced many changes have taken place.
America is no longer weak, but grown to giant's strength, great
among the great. The trade of Europe and the trade of America have
become interlocked, discoveries and inventions, the wonders of steam
and electricity, have made light of the broad Atlantic.
By a thousand ties of commerce and of brotherhood the old world is bound to the new. So the war cloud which darkened Europe cast its shadow also over America, even although at first there was no thought that America would be drawn into the war. Was it possible, men asked, while Europe was at death grips, for America still to keep her "splendid isolation," was it not time for her to take a place, "In the Parliament of man, in the Federation of the world?"
The ties which bind America to Europe bind her to no one country, but to all; bind her equally, it would seem, to France, Britain and Germany. The first founders of the Republic were of British stock, but with the passing years millions of Germans have found a home within her hospitable borders, together with natives of every nation at war. How then could America take sides? No matter which side she took it seemed almost certain to lead to civil war at home. So on the 11th of August, 1914, Mr. Wilson proclaimed the neutrality of the United States.
To the great bulk of the nation this seemed wise, for the nation as a whole loves and desires peace, and realises the madness and uselessness of war. Indeed America more than the nations of the Old World has come to see the war is an old-fashioned, worn-out way of settling quarrels.
But although the United States might proclaim her neutrality she was none the less entangled in the war. Germany declared a blockade of Britain, Britain declared a blockade of Germany, and these Orders in Council had a far greater effect on American trade than the Berlin Decrees and the Orders in Council in the day of Napoleon. Difficulties arose with both countries. But the difficulties which arose with Britain were such as wise statesmanship might allay. They were concerned with such things as the censoring of mails, and other irritating delays, which interfered with and caused loss of trade. With Germany the difficulties were of a far more serious order, and soon all sane and freedom loving men found it difficult, if not impossible, to remain neutral in spirit.
The German cause had never been a good one. No danger threatened the country. No European nation desired to make war upon them. They went to war wantonly, and without just cause. Soon it became plain that they meant to wage war with a ruthlessness and inhumanity the world had never known. They threw to the winds all the laws of "fair play." Treaties became for them mere "scraps of paper," to be torn if necessity demanded. They marched through Belgium murdering and torturing the people, wantonly destroying the splendid buildings which had been the country's glory and pride. Zeppelins attacked watering places and fishing villages, ruining peaceful homes, slaying women and children, without reason or profit. Submarines waged ruthless war on the seas, attacking alike traders, passenger vessels or hospital ships, belligerent or neutral, without distinction.
As outrage followed outrage the whole world was filled with horror, and one by one Germany's friends turned from her, estranged by her deeds of violence. These were days, as Mr. Wilson said, "to try men's souls," and the burden of guiding the ship of state through the sea of difficulties lay heavy upon him.
At home and abroad his critics were many. Some praised him because he kept the nation steadfastly on the difficult path of peace, others blamed him because it seemed to them he did not sufficiently uphold American honour, and submitted to German insults rather than draw the sword. No great man in a difficult hour can escape criticism. Few, if any, can escape mistakes.
Amid the clash of opinions one thing was clear, that Mr. Wilson was a patriot. And when in 1916 the time came to choose a President he was re-elected for a second term of four years.
In March, 1917, the President entered upon his new term of office well aware that a hard road lay before him and his country. As he took the oath he opened and kissed the Bible at the passage "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." His address was imbued with a sense of the dread solemnity of the times.
"I stand here, and have taken the high solemn oath," he said, "because the people of the United States have chosen me, and by their gracious judgement have named me their leader in affairs. I know now what the task means.
"I pray God that I be given wisdom and prudence to do my duty in the true spirit of this great people. I am their servant, and can succeed only as they sustain and guide me by their confidence, and their counsel. . .
"The shadows that now lie dark upon our path will soon be dispelled. We shall walk with light all about us if we be but true to ourselves—to ourselves as we have wished to be known in the counsels of the world, in the thought of all those who love liberty, justice, and right exalted."
We cannot here follow in detail all the steps by which Germany forced America at length to declare war. It was in a spirit of service that Mr. Wilson took up his office for a second time, of service not only to his own country but to the world. In the cause of that service he saw himself forced to lead his country into war.
Germany had filled America with spies, plotting constantly against her peace and her honour. She had run amuck upon the seas, and by her submarine warfare endangered the lives and welfare of all mankind. She had become a menace to the world's freedom. The President loves peace even as the soul of America loves peace. But both President and people became at length convinced that the only way to restore peace to the world was to defeat the authors of the war.
Having arrived at this grave conclusion there was no turning back, and on the 2nd April, 1917, Mr. Wilson announced his decision at a joint session of the two houses of Congress.
It was not lightly undertaken.
"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 to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—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 a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations, and make the world itself at last free.
"To such a task 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. God helping her she can do no other."
In these noble words the President of the United States threw down the gauge of battle. There was in his heart no rancour against the German people, but only a righteous wrath against her criminal rulers who for their own selfish ends had plunged the world in misery. Never in the world's history has a great nation gone to war in so chivalrous a spirit, for so unselfish ends.
"We have no selfish ends to serve," said the President. "We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them."
The voice was the voice of the President, but he spoke from the
heart of the people. Brought together from the ends of the earth,
speaking many tongues, worshipping God in many ways, diverse in
character and in custom, the nation which stands behind the President
Who can say what days of terror and splendour the future may hold? As I write it lies before us a blacker sea of darkness and adventure than that Columbus crossed. But it would seem that for the great Republic it can hold no diviner hour than this. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
There could be found no more splendid close to a splendid story.
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
. . . . . . .
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make me free,
While God is marching on."