This week is the 100th anniversary of American entry into WWI. President Wilson’s war declaration to Congress was on a drizzly Monday evening, April 2, 1917. The Senate ratified war on April 4, and the House of Representatives on April 6, Good Friday. These events unfolded during Holy Week.

As on nearly every Sunday, Wilson worshiped on that Easter at Central Presbyterian Church in Washington. The old sanctuary is now a community center in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. I walk by it often and think about Wilson, who as president had helped to dedicate the new church building before the war.

Wilson’s war speech, which even his arch nemesis Henry Cabot Lodge praised, was nearly universally hailed at the time. It is most famous for its phrase: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” But there are many distinctive assertions in this speech that illustrate how Americans then, before, and now view their nation, the world, and war.

“The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind,” Wilson solemnly observed. “Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.”

Wilson pledged:

There is one choice we can not make, we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.

The pledge against “submission” was interrupted by rapturous applause, led by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Wilson was also applauded for urging America to “exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.”

“Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles,” Wilson explained. “Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.”

Wilson urged a coalition of liberty-loving nations:

A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. It must be a league of honour, a partnership of opinion. Intrigue would eat its vitals away; the plottings of inner circles who could plan what they would and render account to no one would be a corruption seated at its very heart. Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honour steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.

America was not against the German people but its despotic rulers, Wilson stressed:

We are now about to accept gage of battle with this natural foe to liberty and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power. We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretence about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. 

And Wilson soaringly extolled democracy:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. 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.

While commending justice over peace:

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.

For Wilson, America’s wartime sacrifice was fidelity to its founding principles:

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.

Wilson’s final sentence, echoing Martin Luther, was the only direct mention of God, which is a little surprising for a President commonly derided as a religious crusader. Although it is debated whether his lifelong Presbyterianism was theologically modernist or orthodox, it undoubtedly was fervent. His wife later recounted that every night during the war he read the Bible aloud to her. Some weeks after the war declaration Wilson remarked about a visiting Presbyterian delegation:

It is a singular thing to draw a church into the support of a war, and yet I feel with you that this is a war which any great spiritual body can support…. If ever a nation purged its heart of improper motives in a war, this nation has.

Wilson’s largely popular declaration of war was effective because it deployed America’s intrinsically religious sense of itself as the paladin of democracy spiritually obligated to extol and even arbitrate justice in the world.

But the speech certainly was not entirely motivated by altruism. America as a seafaring trading power requiring open sea lanes could not abet Imperial Germany’s attacks on transatlantic commerce. Even more deeply, America could not prudently tolerate the domination of Europe and possibly Eurasia by a militaristic autarky that defined itself against Anglo-Saxon liberal parliamentary democracy. The Second Reich of course was not as murderous as the Third Reich, but it was malevolent enough, and dark antecedents of the later germinated in the former.

America’s long term security in 1917 demanded alliance with Britain and France. Then as now, and before, American foreign policy is guided by aspirational idealism, informed by its religious roots, and by its ongoing core interests. The one is inseparable from the other. America may not be able to reshape the world into democracies, but it must keep the world at least safe for those countries that are democratic.

Wilson for all his many foibles and oversights understood this duel vocation for America in the world. He also understood the tragedy. After his speech, alone at a table with his secretary, he wondered aloud why he had been cheered in declaring war, and then he wept.