WWI: U.S. Declares War on Germany
President Thomas Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 pledging to keep America out of World War I, which had been raging since 1914. However, Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917, and the publication of the “Zimmerman telegram” revealing a German plot to have Mexico and Japan declare war on the U.S., changed America’s position. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson delivered a powerful speech asking Congress to declare that a state of war existed with Germany, a request Congress—and the general public—embraced. American neutrality ended when Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
The debate in the House of Representatives over the war resolution was prolonged, passionate, and respectful. Newspaper headlines such as the one below emphasized that Jeannette Pickering Rankin voted against the war resolution. A suffragist and pacifist, she earned the distinction of becoming the first female member of Congress when she was elected to represent Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 7, 1916. She was not alone in opposing the war, however; 50 representatives voted against America’s entry into the war, the pacifist effort led by House majority leader Representative Claude Kitchin, a Democrat from North Carolina.
This article about the war declaration was published by the Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington) on the front page of its April 6, 1917, issue:
Resolution Declaring State of War Passed by House, 373 to 50
Roll Call Completed at 3 O’clock This Morning after an Eventful Night Session; President Wilson Will Sign Resolution as Soon as Vice-President Marshall Has Attached His Signature in Senate; All Amendments Rejected
Miss Rankin Fails to Vote
Washington, D.C., April 6.—The resolution declaring that a state of war exists between the United States and Germany, already passed by the Senate, passed the House shortly after 3 o’clock this morning by a vote of 373 to 50.
President Wilson will sign the resolution as soon as Vice-President Marshall has attached his signature in the Senate. It formally accepts the state of belligerency forced by German aggressions and authorizes and directs the president to employ the military and naval forces and all the resources of the nation to bring war against Germany to a successful termination.
Without roll calls the House rejected all amendments, including proposals to prohibit the sending of any troops overseas without congressional authority.
Seventeen Hours’ Debate
Passage of the resolution followed seventeen hours of debate. There was no attempt to filibuster, but the pacifist group, under the leadership of Democratic Leader Kitchin, prolonged the discussion with impassioned speeches declaring conscience would not permit him to support the president’s recommendation that a state of war be declared.
Miss Rankin of Montana, the only woman member of Congress, sat through the first roll call with bowed head, failing to answer to her name twice called by the clerk.
On the second roll call she rose and said in a sobbing voice: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”
For a moment then she remained standing, supporting herself against a desk, and as cries of “vote, vote” came from several parts of the House, she sank back into her seat without voting, audibly. She was recorded in the negative.
…Cheers greeted the announcement of the result. A few minutes later Speaker Clark signed the resolution and the House then adjourned, to meet again Monday to take up the administration’s recommendations for war legislation.
The House debated the war resolution all of today and far into the night. For the most part the discussion proceeded with an air of unemotional acquiescence, scores of members making brief speeches to put themselves on record as reluctantly accepting war as the only course of honor.
During the day the debate revealed an unexpected strength in the minority opposing the resolution. Confident predictions of not more than a dozen votes against it gave place tonight to reports that the opposition might muster upwards of a hundred on the final roll call, and supporters of the resolution conceded that the number to vote in the negative probably would be more than fifty.
This surprising accession to the minority ranks was attributed to the efforts of Democratic Leader Kitchin, who took the floor and in a dramatic speech announced that he could not, with a clear conscience, vote for war. Supporters of the president’s course were not concerned over the defection, however. Sure of a great majority, they permitted the roll call to be delayed only so that everyone might be heard.
Mr. Kitchin’s opposition drew an immediate following from among the group who have opposed preparedness and armed neutrality, and tonight many of them who had sat silent and glum in the rear of the chamber throughout the day moved down in front and spoke against the resolution. One of the most earnest speeches in behalf of the president’s course came from Republican Leader Mann, who declared Germany had deliberately affronted this country and that only war could save the national honor.
Administration leaders until today had paid little attention to reports that Representative Kitchin would oppose the resolution. Rather looking to him as the man who would have to lead the fight for revenue, they talked with him freely of the financial phase of the situation. Aroused by reports of his attitude Democratic leaders hastened to his office today to find that he had prepared in part a speech opposing the resolution.
Fellow members of the House and senators pleaded vainly with him to abandon his plan. Possible loss of the House leadership and his forced exit from public life as well as the demands of patriotism were pointed out to him.
Finally, shortly before 3 o’clock, after almost continuous conferences for six hours, Representative Kitchin announced publicly that he would speak against the resolution. His entrance into the chamber shortly afterward caused a quickening of lagging interest.
Representative Hensley of Missouri, who on Tuesday said he would vote for the resolution, hastily announced that he had decided it was his duty to oppose it. Others who had deserted the pacifist camp said they were thinking seriously and probably would vote in the negative.
Obviously wearied by the day’s events, Mr. Kitchin spoke without his usual fire.
“In view of the many assumptions of loyalty and patriotism,” he said, “on the part of some of those who favor the resolution and insinuations by them of cowardice and disloyalty on the part of those who oppose it, offshoots doubtless of the passionate moment, let me at once remind the House that it takes neither moral nor physical courage to declare a war for others to fight. It is evidence of neither loyalty nor patriotism for one to urge others to get into war when he knows that he himself is going to keep out.
“The depth of my horror, the intensity of my distress in contemplating the measureless steps proposed, God only knows. Too grave is the responsibility for anyone to permit another to stand sponsor for my conscience. My conscience and judgment, after mature thought and fervent prayer for rightful guidance, has pointed out clearly the path of my duty, and I have made up my mind to walk in it, if I go barefooted and alone.”
Mr. Kitchin was heartily applauded from all sides as he concluded.
As the night wore on there were loud calls for “vote” from members anxious to get away. Representative Hulbert tried ineffectually to secure agreement that if a vote were not had by midnight which would encroach, he said, on “Good Friday,” the House adjourn over until Saturday.
Representative Rainey of Illinois told the House “we war not against the people, we war against the Hohenzollerns.”
Representative Moore, Pennsylvania; Small, North Carolina, and others urged a united front for defense of American rights.
Representative Sims of Tennessee angrily protested that time was being frittered away in speeches and wanted immediate action.
Republican Leader Mann counseled patience.
“We’ll gain nothing more,” he said, “by a vote at midnight than by a vote at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning, and it’s too important a matter not to have debate.”
The House rejected an amendment by Representative McCulloch providing that none of the United States military forces may be transported for service in any European country except on express approval by Congress.
Representative Britten’s amendment prohibiting use of any part of the American military forces in Europe, Africa or Asia, except those troops who specifically volunteer for such service, was also rejected.
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