Two events in April 1917 foreshadow the superpower alignment of the remainder of the Twentieth Century: the United States enters the Great War, meaning to make the world safe for democracy, and Lenin returns to Russia, intent on leading a Bolshevik revolution.  In Washington, the President’s request for a declaration of war is the first order of business for the newly elected 65th Congress.  War is declared, the Navy is mobilized, German ships in American ports are seized, and suspected German spies are detained.  Congress authorizes a $7 billion war loan, most of the proceeds marked for the nations already fighting Germany.  The president issues a proclamation to the American people, telling them they must “speak, act and serve together” in support of the war effort.  British and French emissaries visit the United States to participate in an International War Council.  Both houses of Congress enact draft legislation.  On the Western Front, an Anglo-French offensive is launched under the command of General Robert Nivelle, the new Commander-in-Chief of the French Army.  The Canadians capture Vimy Ridge, but the offensive as a whole is a costly failure, ending with mutinies in the French Army and the replacement of Nivelle by General Philippe Petain.  In a journey facilitated by the German government, Lenin travels from Zurich to Petrograd’s Finland Station.  Upon arrival, in what would become known as the April Theses, he calls for the overthrow of Russia’s new Provisional Government.

President Wilson Asks Congress to Declare War Against Germany

Shortly after 8:30 p.m. on April 2, President Woodrow Wilson strode into the chamber of the House of Representatives and addressed a joint session of the newly elected Congress.  The President had asked for the special session almost two weeks earlier and Congress had convened that morning, but the narrowly divided House of Representatives (215 Republicans, 213 Democrats, three Progressives and one Socialist) had taken all day to organize itself, finally electing the Democratic Leader, Champ Clark of Missouri, to another term as speaker.

The President, after reviewing the history of Germany’s submarine warfare and its recent removal of restrictions on submarine attacks on passenger and merchant shipping, accused the German government of “throwing to the wind all scruples of humanity [and] of respect for the understandings that were supposed to underlie the intercourse of the world.”  He said he was thinking not of the destruction of property, “immense and serious as that is,” but of “the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate.”  For that reason, he said, “[t]he present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.”  Therefore, “there is one choice we cannot make.  We will not choose the path of submission . . .”  At this point, as reported by the New York Times, Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward White, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, “with an expression of joy and thankfulness on his face, dropped the big soft hat he had been holding, raised his hands high in the air, and brought them together with a heartfelt bang; and House, Senate and galleries followed him with a roar like a storm.”  The President then continued: “. . . and suffer the most sacred rights of our people to be ignored.”

Declaring that “armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable,” President Wilson asked Congress to declare war: “With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States . . . ”  Again the Chief Justice was on his feet vigorously bringing his hands together over his head.  Behind him, the cheers were led by the President’s fellow Democrats, including Kentucky Senator Ollie James, who last year roused the Democratic Convention to comparable heights of passion with his speech praising President Wilson for keeping the country out of war (see the June 1916 installment of this blog).  When the cheering subsided, the President continued: “. . . that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it; and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense, but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.”

The President then turned to the practical necessities of the nation’s new belligerent status.  It “will involve the utmost practicable co-operation in counsel and action with the Governments now at war with Germany” and “the extension to those Governments of the most liberal financial credits.”  And more than financial support would be required: he called for “the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States . . . of at least 500,000 men [to] be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service” as well as “adequate credits” to be sustained by “well conceived taxation.”

Emphasizing that “we have no quarrel with the German people,” the President sought to place the nation’s entry into the war upon grounds of humanity and high principle:

“We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German people included; for the rights of nations, great and small, and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience.

“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.”

The address ended with a stirring plea for unity:

“It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you.  There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us.  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 that we have always held 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.”

Senator Hitchcock

The Senate went first.  Senator William Stone of Missouri is Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, but because he opposed the war resolution the Committee entrusted its management on the Senate floor to the second ranking Democrat, Senator Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska.  Senator Hitchcock is a recent and reluctant convert to the pro-war position.  He was considered a pacifist until recently when he decided, near the end of the last Congress, to support the President’s armed neutrality legislation.

After the President’s address, many senators were eager to vote immediately to show Congress’s unhesitating support for the President’s action, but to do so would have required a suspension of Senate rules by unanimous consent.  Senator LaFollette objected, requiring that debate on the resolution be postponed twenty-four hours.  The Democratic leadership then moved to adjourn until 10:00 a.m. April 4 and announced that when it reconvened the Senate would remain in session and consider no other business until the war resolution was voted on.  The debate that began the morning of April 4 lasted into the evening and occasionally turned rancorous (Senator George Norris of Nebraska charged that the war was being fought to protect bankers and millionaires and that “we are about to put the dollar sign on the American flag”; Senator James Reed of Missouri replied that Norris’s comments were “almost treason”), but at 11:11 p.m. the Senate finally passed the war resolution by a vote of 82 to 6.  The six no votes were cast by three Republicans (Senators LaFollette and Norris and Senator Asle Gronna of North Dakota) and three Democrats (Senator Stone and Senators James Vardaman of Mississippi and Harry Lane of Oregon), all six of whom were members of the “little group of willful men” denounced last month by President Wilson.

Representative Rankin

The House of Representatives began debate on the war resolution at 10:00 a.m. Thursday, April 5.  Again debate continued all day and into the night.  The roll call began at 2:45 Friday morning and concluded at 3:12.  The resolution passed by a vote of 373-50.  There was never any doubt about the outcome; the only drama was provided by Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana and the first woman ever to sit in Congress.  Miss Rankin was elected last fall as one of two representatives from her state, which gave women the right to vote in 1914.  When President Wilson addressed Congress on April 2, therefore, the moment was historic for two reasons: Congress was asked to join the World War, and it was the first meeting of Congress ever to include a woman (the President nevertheless addressed his audience as the “Gentlemen of the Congress”).  The first time the roll was called for a vote on the war resolution, Miss Rankin remained silent.  After the roll call ended, her name was called again and after a pause she stood and responded “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.  I vote no.”

President Wilson Signing the War Proclamation

On the morning of Friday, April 6, the resolution declaring war on Germany was returned to the Senate with the approval of the House of Representatives.  The Senate reconvened at noon, and Vice-president Marshall signed the war resolution as President of the Senate at 12:14.  It was taken directly to the White House, where the President was having lunch with Mrs. Wilson and his cousin Miss Helen Woodrow Bones.  They interrupted their lunch and went to the usher’s room where President Wilson sat at a small table and signed the declaration at 1:18 pm.  Immediately afterward, he signed a Proclamation, prepared in advance and signed by Secretary of State Lansing, notifying the nation and the world that the United States was at war with Germany.  Rudolph Forster, the executive clerk to the President, then went to the executive offices where he announced the signing to the waiting reporters.  The message was flashed by semaphore to the Navy Department across the street and from there by wireless to Naval stations and ships around the world.  At the same time, the War Department notified Army post commanders in the United States and insular possessions by telegraph.  German ships in American harbors have been seized and suspected German spies placed under arrest.  A seven billion dollar war loan has been authorized by Congress, about five billion dollars of which will go to the Entente nations that have been at war with Germany for years and are in immediate need of financial support.  Following the President’s advice to rely as much as possible on taxation rather than borrowing, House and Senate leaders have tentatively agreed to raise fifty percent of the war’s expenses in the new fiscal year beginning July 1 by imposing new taxes and increasing existing ones.  To address the nation’s vastly increased manpower needs, an Army Bill supported by the White House was introduced on April 9 that included a provision imposing the first compulsory military service since the Civil War.

The compulsory service provision met initial resistance in Congress.  On April 10, the day after the Army Bill was introduced, former President Theodore Roosevelt called on President Wilson at the White House, offering to lend his support to the Army Bill and requesting that he be authorized to recruit and lead a division of volunteers.  Later that day he made the same case in meetings with Secretary Baker and the chairmen of the House and Senate Military Affairs Committees.  On April 13 Baker responded in a letter in which he declined Roosevelt’s offer, saying he could not consent to sending American troops to Europe without “the most thorough training” under “the most professional and experienced officers available.”  Whatever “sentimental value would attach” to his presence in France, Baker thought there were “doubtless other ways in which that value could be contributed apart from a military expedition.”

Inevitably, this has become an issue in the Congressional consideration of the Army Bill.  On April 23, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio offered an amendment to the Senate Bill providing for the enlistment of four divisions of volunteers, with the stated intention of providing a means for Roosevelt to realize his ambition of leading American troops to Europe.  Hiram Johnson, newly elected to the Senate from California, made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor on April 28 in which he hailed Roosevelt as “the clarion voice that first demanded preparedness in this land” and implored Wilson to “send this man of dynamic force, of ability, of virility, and of red-blooded courage, typifying the American nation, over to France, there to bear aloft the American flag for world democracy.”  Harding’s amendment was included in the Senate version of the Army Bill, which will now be considered by a conference committee.

The United States is at war against Germany only.  In his address to Congress, President Wilson explained that he had “said nothing of the Governments allied with the Imperial Government of Germany because they have not made war upon us or challenged us to defend our right and our honor.”  On April 8, in response to the declaration of war against its ally, Austria-Hungary severed diplomatic relations with the United States.  The Ottoman Empire followed suit on April 20.

General Funston in San Francisco

Major General Frederick Funston, who made his reputation in the Philippine insurrection that followed the Spanish-American War and as commander of the Presidio at the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, was commanding officer of the Army’s Southern Department during the punitive expedition in Mexico that began last year and ended in January.  He was tentatively slated to lead the American Expeditionary Force to Europe if the United States entered the war, but in February he died suddenly of a heart attack in San Antonio.  It now appears that Major General John J. Pershing, Funston’s subordinate who led the punitive expedition, will get the assignment.

George Creel

Attorney General Gregory has drafted and submitted to Congress a proposed Espionage Bill, which among other things would impose censorship on the press.  The Bill has the strong support of President Wilson, but is meeting resistance in Congress, where members of both parties are criticizing the censorship provision as an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of the press.  In addition to blocking unfavorable publicity, the President is interested in promoting the government’s side of the news.  On April 13 he signed an executive order establishing the Committee on Public Information.  The order appointed George Creel, a journalist who assisted in the President’s 1916 reelection campaign, as the Committee’s civilian chairman and authorized the Secretaries of State, War and Navy to detail officers to work with the Committee.  On April 15 the President issued a statement telling Americans “the things we must do, and do well, besides fighting — the things without which mere fighting would be useless.”  Telling Americans they must “speak, act and serve together,” he urged increased production of everything from ships to backyard gardens.

In his war message to Congress, President Wilson spoke of “the millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live among us and share our life,” most of whom are “as true and loyal Americans as if they had never known any other fealty or allegiance.”  Nevertheless, “if there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression.”  On April 16 he issued a proclamation quoting the legal definition of treason and specifying acts that have been held to be treasonous.  The proclamation emphasizes that the laws against treason apply equally to citizens and resident aliens, and that any such person who has knowledge of the commission of treasonous activity and fails to report it is guilty of misprision of treason.  The President further “proclaims and warns” that all persons committing such acts will be “vigorously prosecuted.”

Balfour at Union Station, Greeted by Spring-Rice (left) and Lansing

High Commissioners from Great Britain and France have arrived in the United States to confer in an International War Council with American military and political leaders.  Arthur Balfour, a former British Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty, replaced Sir Edward Grey as Foreign Minister in December.  He arrived at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station shortly after 3:00 p.m. on April 22, where he was greeted  by Secretary of State Robert Lansing and British Ambassador Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice.  His journey took him from Great Britain by way of Canada; his route and itinerary were secret, but alert observers in New York had noticed an unscheduled train pass through the Pennsylvania Station at 8:45 that morning.  Despite the lack of publicity, his arrival in Washington was greeted by cheering throngs as his motor car carried him from Union Station along Massachusetts Avenue to Sixteenth Street and north to the Franklin MacVeagh residence where he and his delegation will reside while in Washington.

Joffre at the French Embassy

Two days later, a former passenger liner commanded by a French admiral and carrying the French High Commissioners arrived in the United States.  The liner was greeted off the East Coast by a flotilla of U.S Navy destroyers and escorted into Hampton Roads, where its passengers were transferred to the Presidential Yacht Mayflower for a journey up the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River to Washington.  The delegation was led by Rene Viviani, the former Premier and now Vice Premier and Minister of Justice, and Marshal Joseph Joffre, until recently the Commander in Chief of the French Armies.  The Mayflower arrived shortly after noon April 25 at the Washington Navy Yard, where the visitors were greeted by Secretary of State Lansing and the Marine Band.  As they left the Navy Yard and motored toward the French Embassy, they were cheered by crowds at least as enthusiastic as those that had greeted the arrival of the British delegation three days earlier.  Among the most visible greeters was the tall Mr. Balfour, who stood in his motor car on Sixteenth Street and exchanged bows and salutes with the French delegates as they passed by.

General Nivelle

On the day America declared war, French President Raymond Poincare was meeting in his railroad car in the forest of Compiegne with Paul Painleve, the new Minister of War, and General Robert Nivelle, the new Commander in Chief of the French Armies who had replaced General (now Field Marshal) Joffre in December.  At the meeting, Nivelle insisted on final approval of a major offensive he had planned to drive the Germans from the Chemin des Dames.  As the offensive was being planned, German forces withdrew to shorter and better fortified lines and brought in reinforcements in anticipation of the attack.  For that reason and others, including the United States’ anticipated involvement in the war, Painleve argued that the offensive should be cancelled or postponed, but Nivelle insisted on going ahead and threatened to resign if his plan was not approved.  Nivelle’s resignation threatened to bring down the government, so President Poincare, who had the final decision, authorized Nivelle to proceed with the offensive.

The Western Front and the Battle of Arras

The offensive began three days later, on Easter Monday (April 9), with an attack by British forces on Arras, on the left of the Allied line, designed in part to draw German forces away from the forthcoming French attack on the Chemin des Dames.  After three days of hard fighting, the Canadian Corps succeeded in driving the Germans from Vimy Ridge, on the north end of the battle line.  The British units to the south succeeded in advancing only as far as the Hindenburg Line, newly occupied by the German Army after last month’s strategic withdrawal.

General Petain

On April 16, the French began their attack on the Chemin des Dames.  The plan required the French to attack from (sometimes across) the River Aisne and uphill through woods to high ground occupied by German forces dug into strong positions.  Most of the German fortifications were on the reverse slope, increasing the difficulty of both artillery and infantry attack. Three days later, no gains having been achieved, Painleve urged Nivelle to suspend further attacks.  Although Nivelle had promised to call off the offensive if a breakthrough was not achieved within forty-eight hours, he insisted on continuing.  Munitions were running low and the French Army’s morale was severely weakened, leading to the outbreak of mutinies.  Finally, President Poincare on April 25 ordered Nivelle to cease the attacks, and on April 28 he removed Nivelle as commander in chief.  His replacement is General Philippe Petain.

Lenin Addressing the Conference of Soviets

On April 9, having secured the German Government’s cooperation, Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin left Zurich, Switzerland on a train bound for the Baltic coast, where he boarded a ferry to Sweden.  After a journey across Sweden by rail, another ferry trip across the Gulf of Bothnia, and another rail journey across Finland, he arrived on April 16 at Petrograd’s Finland Station where he was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd.  The next day, in an address to the All-Russian Conference of Soviets, he called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the abolition of the police, army and bureaucracy, and an immediate end to the war.  Although their name suggests otherwise, the Bolsheviks actually account for a minority even of the Soviet, which in turn is a minority in the Provisional Government, most of which is made up of liberal members of the Duma.  Even among the Bolsheviks, moreover, Lenin appears to speak for only a few, and his April 17 speech to the Conference of Soviets was not well received.

The Provisional Government is not particularly concerned.  On April 19, in a speech to British and French workingmen in Petrograd, Foreign Minister Miliukov said Russia’s allies need have no fear that she will desert the alliance or weaken her resistance to their common enemies.  He asked them to “announce to your countrymen that free Russia has become doubly strong through democratization, and that she will overlook all sufferings which war entails; that despite the revolution . . . Russia will continue the crusade for annihilation of German militarism with the greatest intensity.”

In another development of potential importance to the ongoing Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky’s detention in Halifax ended on April 29 after Foreign Minister Miliukov requested that Canada release him.  Trotsky has resumed his journey across the Atlantic to Russia.

April 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:

American Review of Reviews, May and June 1917
New York Times, April 1917

Books and Articles:

Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I

The following is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War  blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at:

Dennis Cross is a retired lawyer and amateur historian of World War I. He is a U.S. Navy veteran and a 1962 graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He graduated from New York University Law School in 1969 and served as Assistant General Counsel of the Federal Trade Commission from 1977 to 1982. Since his retirement from the practice of law in 2007, he has been a volunteer at the National World War One Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO. Beginning in September 2011, he has written a monthly blog about the events of the month one hundred years ago.