Woodrow Wilson’s Appeal to the People for Assistance in Maintaining Neutrality During the Onset of WWI, 1914

Woodrow Wilson’s Message on Neutrality, 19 August 1914

For a month following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian government debated what course of action it should take; once they opted to declare war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, a local war very quickly became a European and then a world war. Within a week, Serbia was allied with Russia, Britain, and France against Austria-Hungary and Germany. President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress on 19 August 1914 to call for American neutrality in the conflict—a position that would be challenging for many Americans to maintain, given the fact that so many Americans came from the European countries that were at war, as well as the broad international reach of American commercial and economic interests at the time. Wilson stressed that rational Americans would place their loyalty to the United States first and be “impartial in thought as well as in action.”

Wilson’s speeches are fantastic for asking students to do close readings and analysis of rhetorical strategies. For example, I often ask students to find examples in Wilson’s speeches of how he shuts down opportunities for people do disagree with him. In this neutrality message, I also ask students to think about what’s going on domestically in the United States that makes Wilson say what he does; in particular, his efforts to get people to abandon any vestiges of loyalty to European countries reflects his interest in 100% Americanism, and his repeated assertions that the “thoughtful Americans” he is speaking to are male demonstrates his lack of support for the women’s suffrage movement.

Wilson’s rhetoric is very powerful, and it certainly has great patriotic appeal. I think it’s crucial to make sure that Wilson’s speeches are studied alongside his actual policies and actions, since there is often a pretty big gap between what he says and what he does. On the specific issue of neutrality, his policies did not really line up with the strictly neutral course he lays out in this speech; rather, his policies favored the Allies. This lends itself well to a discussion of why presidents and other policymakers often have those gaps between words and actions? How compatible is national security with democracy and transparent policymaking?

Students might also be asked to compare and contrast Wilson’s neutrality message with George Washington’s from 1793. What were the two presidents’ motivations for declaring neutrality? Were they equally justified in doing so? What interests were they trying to protect, and were those interests the same in 1793 as they were in 1914? – N. M. Phelps, University of Vermont


Patrick Devlin. Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gary Gerstle. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Daniel Malloy Smith. The Great Departure: The United States and World War I, 1914-1920. New York: J. Wiley, 1965.

Robert W. Tucker. Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914-1917. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.