3: Request for a Grant of Power
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Message to the Congress
February 26, 1917
Gentlemen of the Congress:
I have again asked the privilege of addressing you because we are
moving through critical times, during which it seems to me to be my
duty to keep in close touch with the Houses of Congress so that
neither counsel nor action shall run at cross-purposes between us.
On the 3d of February I officially informed you of the sudden and
unexpected action of the Imperial German Government in declaring its
intention to disregard the promises it had made to this Government in
April last and undertake immediate submarine operations against all
commerce, whether of belligerents or of. neutrals, that should seek
to approach Great Britain and Ireland, the Atlantic coasts of Europe,
or the harbors of the eastern Mediterranean, and to conduct those
operations without regard to the established restrictions of
international practice, without regard to any considerations of
humanity, even, which might interfere with their object.
American Commerce Suffers, But Other Neutrals Fare Worse
That policy was forthwith put into practice. It has now been in active
exhibition for nearly four weeks. Its practical results are not fully
disclosed. The commerce of other neutral nations is suffering
severely, but not, perhaps, very much more severely than it was
already suffering before the 1st of February, when the new policy of
the Imperial Government was put into operation.
We have asked the co-operation of the other neutral Governments to
prevent these depredations, but I fear none of them has thought it
wise to join us in any common course of action. Our own commerce has
suffered, is suffering, rather in apprehension than in fact, rather
because so many of our ships are timidly keeping to their home ports
than because American ships have been sunk.
Two American vessels have been sunk, the Housatonic and the Lyman M. Law.
The case of the Housatonic, which was carrying foodstuffs consigned
to a London firm, was essentially like the case of the Frye, in which,
it will be recalled, the German Government admitted its liability for
damages, and the lives of the crew, as in the case of the Frye, were
safeguarded with reasonable care.
The Ruthless Sinking of Schooner Lyman M. Law
The case of the Law, which was carrying lemon-box staves to Palermo,
disclosed a ruthlessness of method which deserves grave condemnation,
but was accompanied by no circumstances which might not have been
expected at any time in connection with the use of the submarine
against merchant men as the German Government has used it.
In sum, therefore, the situation we find ourselves in with regard to
the actual conduct of the German submarine warfare against commerce
and its effects upon our own ships and people is substantially the
same that it was when I addressed you on the 3d of February, except
for the tying up of our shipping in our own ports because of the
unwillingness of our ship-owners to risk their vessels at sea without
insurance or adequate protection, and the very serious congestion of
our commerce which has resulted, a congestion which is growing rapidly
more and more serious every day.
This in itself might presently accomplish, in effect, what the new
German submarine orders were meant to accomplish, so far as we are
concerned. We can only say, therefore, that the overt act which I
have ventured to hope the German commanders would in fact avoid has
Spared By Circumstances Not By Instructions
But while this is happily true, it must be admitted that there have
been certain additional indications and expressions of purpose on the
part of the German press and the German authorities which have
increased rather than lessened the impression that if our ships and
our people are spared it will be because of fortunate circumstances or
because the commanders of the German submarines which they may happen
to encounter exercise an unexpected discretion and restraint, rather
than because of the instructions under which those commanders are
It would be foolish to deny that the situation is fraught with the
gravest possibilities and dangers. No thoughtful man can fail to see
that the necessity for definite action may come at any time, if we are
in fact, and not in word merely, to defend our elementary rights as a
neutral nation. It would be most imprudent to be unprepared.
I cannot in such circumstances be unmindful of the fact that the
expiration of the term of the present Congress is immediately at hand
by constitutional limitation, and that it would in all likelihood
require an unusual length of time to assemble and organize the Congress
which is to succeed it.
May Need The Authority To Act Any Moment
I feel that I ought, in view of that fact, to obtain from you full and
immediate assurance of the authority which I may need at any moment to
exercise. No doubt I already possess that authority without special
warrant of law by the plain implication of my constitutional duties
and powers, but I prefer in the present circumstances not to act upon
general implication. I wish to feel that the authority and the power
of the Congress are behind me in whatever it may become necessary for
me to do. We are jointly the servants of the people and must act
together and in their spirit, so far as we can divine and interpret it.
No one doubts what it is our duty to do. We must defend our commerce
and the lives of our people in the midst of the present trying
circumstances with discretion, but with clear and steadfast purpose.
Only the method and the extent remain to be chosen upon the occasion,
if occasion should indeed arise.
Since it has unhappily proved impossible to safeguard our neutral
rights by diplomatic means against the unwarranted infringements they
are suffering at the hands of Germany, there may be no recourse but to
armed neutrality, which we shall know how to maintain and for which
there is abundant American precedent.
Not Contemplating War, But Wants To Be Ready
It is devoutly to be hoped that it will not be necessary to put armed
forces anywhere into action. The American people do not desire it,
and our desire is not different from theirs. I am sure that they will
understand the spirit in which I am now acting, the purpose I hold
nearest my heart, and would wish to exhibit in everything I do. I am
anxious that the people of the nations at war also should understand
and not mistrust us.
I hope that I need give no further proofs and assurances than I have
already given throughout nearly three years of anxious patience that
I am the friend of peace, and mean to preserve it for America so long
as I am able.
I am not now proposing or contemplating war, or any steps that lead to
it. I merely request that you will accord me by your own vote and
definite bestowal the means and the authority to safeguard in practice
the right of a great people, who are at peace and who are desirous of
exercising none but the rights of peace, to follow the pursuit of
peace in quietness and good-will—rights recognized time out of mind
by all the civilized nations of the world.
No course of my choosing or of theirs will lead to war. War can come
only by the wilful acts and aggressions of others.
Asks Power To Arm Ships And To Use Other Means
You will understand why I can make no definite proposals or forecasts
of action now, and must ask for your supporting authority in the most
general terms. The form in which action may become necessary cannot
yet be foreseen. I believe that the people will be willing to trust
me to act with restraint, with prudence, and in the true spirit of amity
and good faith that they have themselves displayed throughout these
trying months; and it is in that belief that I request that you will
authorize me to supply our merchant-ships with defensive arms should
that become necessary, and with the means of using them, and to employ
any other instrumentalities or methods that may be necessary and
adequate to protect our ships and our people in their legitimate and
peaceful pursuits of the seas.
I request also that you will grant me at the same time, along with
the powers I ask, a sufficient credit to enable me to provide adequate
means of protection where they are lacking, including adequate
insurance against the present war risks.
I have spoken of our commerce and of the legitimate errands of our
people on the seas, but you will not be misled as to my main thought,
the thought that lies beneath these phrases and gives them dignity and
Civilization At Stake In Attack On Human Rights
It is not of material interest merely that we are thinking. It is,
rather, of fundamental human rights, chief of all the right of life
itself. I am thinking not only of the rights of Americans to go and
come about their proper business by way of the sea, but also of
something much deeper, much more fundamental than that. I am thinking
of those rights of humanity without which there is no civilization.
My theme is of those great principles of compassion and of protection
which mankind has sought to throw about human lives—the lives of non-
combatants, the lives of men who are peacefully at work keeping the
industrial processes of the world quick and vital, the lives of women
and children, and of those who supply the labor which ministers to
We are speaking of no selfish material rights, but of rights which our
hearts support, and whose foundation is that righteous passion for
justice upon which all law, all structures alike of family, of state,
and of mankind must rest, and upon the ultimate base of our existence
and our liberty. I cannot imagine any man with American principles at
his heart hesitating to defend these things.
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