Woodrow Wilson's Declaration of Neutrality

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Woodrow Wilson's Declaration of Neutrality

Delivered before the U.S. Senate
on August 19, 1914

Reprinted from the World War I Document Archive, available online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/1914/wilsonneut.html

"The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men's souls."

Woodrow Wilson

In early August 1914, the nations of Europe took up arms against one another in a war that came to be known as World War I. While tensions in Europe had been growing for many years, the armed conflict was triggered by a single event that occurred in a distant corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire. On June 28, 1914, Serbian-backed terrorists assassinated the crown prince of Austria in the provincial town of Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary and Serbia prepared to go to war. But treaty obligations between the major European powers soon made matters much worse: Germany promised its support to Austria-Hungary; Russia backed Serbia; and France backed Russia. What should have been a small war in the Balkans soon turned into a big war between the major European powers.

Americans watched the events unfolding in Europe with horror. They could not comprehend why so many people would rush into war for so little reason. Most Americans were quite happy that their country had a long tradition of avoiding European conflicts. They did not want to waste American lives on a war most considered pointless, and they did not want to disrupt their economy just to preserve a treaty. But

Americans also had strong ties to Europe. Many of them had parents or grandparents who had come from European countries, and many Americans still had close relatives living in Europe. Immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the various warring countries could not help but feel sympathy for "their" side. How would America handle itself in the face of these conflicting emotions? President Woodrow Wilson offered a plan.

Wilson knew that many Americans felt strongly about the war. After all, one-third of the American population was either foreign-born or had parents living in a foreign country. But Wilson had a vision of how the United States should behave during the war. He believed that if the United States could act impartially, not favoring one side or the other, it could actually benefit from the war. It could keep its economy strong by providing the European countries with food and supplies, and when the warring countries had had enough fighting, the United States could play the role of peacekeeper. Wilson spelled out this vision for the American people in a message he gave before Congress on August 19, 1914, just over two weeks after the war had started.

Things to remember while reading President Wilson's Declaration of Neutrality:

  • Presidential addresses before Congress are important documents of foreign policy. Such speeches announce the goals and programs of the government. Wilson's speech was not only read by ordinary American citizens in their daily newspapers, but also by the leaders of powerful foreign nations.
  • In 1914, when President Wilson gave this speech, there were no televisions or radios. Americans learned of presidential speeches in their newspapers, which were much more widely read than they are today.
  • One of President Wilson's main concerns was that Americans might fight among themselves over European politics. He knew that there were large communities of Americans with family roots in Germany, France, England, and other combatant countries. He wanted to make sure that these Americans would put aside their European loyalties and conform to a single American approach to the war.
  • Woodrow Wilson was well known as an orator, a skilled and eloquent public speaker. His speeches were carefully designed to persuade people to share his opinion, and they consisted of carefully constructed arguments. Note how Wilson uses certain techniques to emphasize his points, such as pairing similar words or using dramatic phrases in key sections of his speeches. Because Wilson was highly educated, he also used a variety of difficult and even old-fashioned words.

Declaration of Neutrality

My fellow countrymen: I suppose that every thoughtful man in America has asked himself, during these last troubled weeks, what influence the European war may exert upon the United States.…

The effect of the war upon the United States will depend upon what American citizens say and do. Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned. The spirit of the Nation in this critical matter will be determined largely by what individuals and society and those gathered in public meetings do and say, upon what newspapers and magazines contain, upon what ministers utter in their pulpits, and men proclaim as their opinions on the street.

The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict. Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle. It will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it. Those responsible for exciting it will assume a heavy responsibility, responsibility for no less a thing than that the people of the United States … may be divided in camps of hostile opinion, hot against each other, involved in the war itself in impulse and opinion if not in action.

Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend.

I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides. The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men's souls. We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.

My thought is of America. I am speaking, I feel sure, the earnest wish and purpose of every thoughtful American that this great country of ours […] should show herself in this time of peculiar trial a Nation fit beyond others to exhibit the fine poise of undisturbed judgment, the dignity of self-control, the efficiency of dispassionate action; a Nation that neither sits in judgment upon others nor is disturbed in her own counsels and which keeps herself fit and free to do what is honest and disinterested and truly serviceable for the peace of the world. …

What happened next …

America did stay officially neutral for nearly two and a half years, but it was not easy. From the very beginning, the United States was inclined to support the Allied cause. Most Americans sympathized with the Allies, and many provided monetary and moral support for relatives living in England and France. President Wilson and many of his advisors had close ties with British diplomats. As the war went on, American economic ties with the Allies, especially England, became even stronger. England relied more and more on goods from America as European economies went into decline, and the English blockade of German ports meant that it was much less profitable and more difficult to trade with Germany.

Remaining neutral toward Germany also became increasingly difficult. Americans' feelings toward the Germans had hardened during the first years of the war, when German submarine attacks damaged neutral shipping and when newspapers reported on German atrocities in neutral Belgium. In early 1917 Germany stepped up submarine attacks once more; at that point, the U.S. entrance into the war became almost inevitable.

Did you know …

  • The American economy boomed between 1914 and 1917. According to historian Daniel M. Smith, author of The Great Departure: The United States and World War I, 1914–1920, the value of American goods shipped overseas rose from $500 million in 1914 to $3.5 billion in 1917. America built a powerful weapons industry, and trade with the Allied countries nearly doubled from what it had been during peacetime.
  • Many Americans wanted to serve in the war even though the United States had declared its neutrality. Some, such as poet Alan Seeger, joined the French foreign legion, a branch of the French army that accepted foreigners. Others served as ambulance drivers or medics with the Red Cross, an international aid agency. Famous American authors Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Dos Passos all participated in some kind of alternative service in the war.

For More Information


Clare, John D., ed. First World War. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Esposito, David M. The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson: American War Aims in World War I. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

Jannen, William, Jr. Lions of July: How Men Who Wanted Peace Went to War in 1914. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1996.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kent, Zachary. World War I: "The War to End Wars." Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1994.

Link, Arthur Stanley. Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Arlington Heights, IL: AHM Publishing, 1979.

Osinski, Alice. Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-Eighth President of the United States. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.

Rogers, James T. Woodrow Wilson: Visionary for Peace. New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Ross, Stewart. Causes and Consequences of World War I. Austin, TX: Rain-tree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.

Smith, Daniel M. The Great Departure: The United States and World War I, 1914–1920. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965.


Wilson, Woodrow. Message to Congress, 63rd Cong., 2d sess., Senate Doc. 566. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914, pp. 3–4.

Web sites

"Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson, Appeal for Neutrality." [Online] http://www.iath.virginia.edu/seminar/unit10/wilson1.htm (accessed April 2001).

World War I Document Archive. [Online] http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/1914/wilsonneut.html (accessed February 2001).

Allay: Calm, or relieve the intensity of.

Speak the counsels of peace and accommodation: Wilson is offering to defend the cause of peace and reason when others can speak only of war.

Partisan: Strong supporter of one side of an argument or dispute.

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Woodrow Wilson's Declaration of Neutrality

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