Former President Taft on America’s Entry into the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

William Howard Taft’s presidency ended in 1913, the year before war in Europe broke out, and he subsequently returned to a career in legal studies. Though he advocated for peace and worked to establish an international conflict-resolution body, Taft also supported the draft and believed that if the United States was going to be involved in the war, it should use overwhelming force to end the conflict quickly. Taft gave this speech just three months after the United States had declared war on Germany; in it, he concludes both on legal and moral grounds that Germany was in the wrong and that many sacrifices must be made before the conflict was over. Taft delivered this speech during the graduation ceremonies of Union College in Schenectady, New York, and so he was addressing young men who were likely to enlist or be drafted.

Summary Overview

William Howard Taft’s presidency ended in 1913, the year before war in Europe broke out, and he subsequently returned to a career in legal studies. Though he advocated for peace and worked to establish an international conflict-resolution body, Taft also supported the draft and believed that if the United States was going to be involved in the war, it should use overwhelming force to end the conflict quickly. Taft gave this speech just three months after the United States had declared war on Germany; in it, he concludes both on legal and moral grounds that Germany was in the wrong and that many sacrifices must be made before the conflict was over. Taft delivered this speech during the graduation ceremonies of Union College in Schenectady, New York, and so he was addressing young men who were likely to enlist or be drafted.

Defining Moment

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war against Germany. Throughout the first months of 1917, relations between the two nations had become increasingly strained. The Germans announced that unrestricted submarine warfare, which had already been responsible for more than two hundred American civilian casualties, would resume. In addition, with the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram by British intelligence, there was proof that Germany had entered into secret talks with Mexico. The United States had long been dedicated to a policy of neutrality and embraced an isolationist doctrine, but President Woodrow Wilson ultimately responded to the continued German aggression with military force.

Immediately upon the declaration of war, the government began a large-scale mobilization of troops. The government employed many strategies to influence public opinion in favor of a war that had recently been decried as irrelevant to American interests. The government drew on respected leaders in every profession to publicly support the war. Labor leaders, film stars, railroad tycoons, and politicians made speeches throughout the country in support of the war. Though there was significant dissent, the press was supportive of the war effort overall and assisted in the propagation of the pro-war message. Though not a wildly popular president, Taft was a respected public figure, powerful speaker, and sharp legal mind.

When war in Europe broke out, Taft founded the League to Enforce Peace, a group of Americans who worked to establish an international conflict-resolution body to respond to military aggression. They assumed, as did many, that the conflict that began in 1914 would be over quickly and, once those hostilities had ended, a body should be in place to ensure the preservation of peace. In February 1917, however, Taft was featured in an article on the front page of the New York Times, warning Germany that its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare “may stir the giant” and draw the United States into the war. Taft believed that an American declaration of war would be justified in response to Germany’s military aggression and asserted his support.

Author Biography

William Howard Taft was born to a politically connected family near Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 15, 1857. His father, Alphonso Taft, had served as both the US secretary of war and attorney general under President Ulysses S. Grant. Taft attended Yale University and Cincinnati Law School, graduating in 1880 and later passing the bar. Taft held various regional political positions in Ohio until in 1890, when, at the age of thirty-two, he became the youngest solicitor general in the history of the United States. He was later made governor-general of the Philippines in 1901 and the US secretary of war in 1904. In 1908, he was elected president of the United States by a wide margin and served from 1909 until 1913, when he was defeated by Wilson. After his presidency, Taft returned to his true vocation–the study of law–and was given a professorship at Yale. He also became the president of the American Bar Association and worked during the war to found an international body to resolve international conflicts without violence. Taft was named chief justice of the United States in 1921, and he was widely praised for his thoughtful and intelligent study of law. Taft died in Washington, DC, on March 8, 1930.

Document Analysis

In this speech, given before the Union College graduating class of 1917, Taft poses the question of whether there had been alternatives to declaring war against Germany, which the US Congress had approved just three months earlier. Taft cites several legal and moral reasons to argue that there was no other choice and that Germany had forced the United States into war.

Taft begins with the legal question of whether Germany was in violation of international law. In particular, Taft asks if Germany has violated the laws of naval engagement that govern “the capture of commercial vessels at sea.” Taft reviews three established rules. In short, ships may seize a commercial vessel belonging to their enemy, may search neutral vessels and seize contraband intended for the enemy, and may blockade an enemy port. In all of these cases, however, “the captor is bound to secure the lives of those who are upon that commercial vessel.” Germany’s violation of international law was clear and criminal. German attacks on commercial vessels had killed more than two hundred American civilians in violation of international law, and that, in Taft’s opinion, made the Germans “guilty of murder.” If Germany is allowed to murder US citizens with impunity, Taft argues, then the contract between US citizens and their government, which has a duty “to protect the rights of citizens of the United States at home and abroad,” is broken. It was, therefore, unequivocally necessary for the United States to declare war on legal grounds.

Taft also asks what would have been done if the nation responsible for the deaths of two hundred Americans had been a small country, such as Guatemala. Taft argues that such a small country would have been immediately called to answer for its actions and to pay restitution. Taft asks rhetorically why it should matter whether the country in question is weak or powerful–the issue at hand is the same. The only difference, he replies, is that Germany is the strongest military power in the world, and in punishing Germany for the murder of two hundred Americans, it is likely that one million American soldiers will be lost. Despite this discrepancy, if the United States does not protect its citizens, it has given up its independence and abandoned its responsibilities. “It means submission to the domination of another power,” Taft argues. Taft also answers the criticism that the US government had been too slow to act. Not so, he argues. Time and care were needed to determine that war was the only option and that the United States was clearly in the right for declaring it.

Taft then establishes the moral reasons that war was inevitable. In addition to defending the country in accordance with international law, the United States has also “demonstrated to the world that we could make sacrifices of lives and treasure for the maintenance of a moral principle and the integrity of the nation.” Taft draws a definitive line between “the democracies of the world” and “the military dynasties.” Though other Allied nations were monarchies, they had some form of representative government or, at least in the case of Russia, did not impose their system of government on the rest of the world. Taft describes Germany’s militarism as a “cancer which would absorb the wholesome life of the world unless it is cut out.” What was at stake, in Taft’s opinion, was civilization itself.

Taft then calls on Americans to make even a fraction of the sacrifices made by Commonwealth countries in support of the war, citing Canada as an excellent example of duty and sacrifice in the war effort. Taft concludes that Germany has done itself a great disservice by forcing the United States into the war and by underestimating how much the United States was willing to sacrifice. Finally, Taft attempts to bolster the morale of his listeners, many of whom would soon enlist or be drafted into the war effort, by emphasizing the United States’ military power and mocking Germany for forcing “into the ranks of their enemies the nation which can furnish more wealth, more resources, more equipment, and more men than another nation in the world.”

Essential Themes

The theme of this speech is the moral and legal basis for the United States’ entry into World War I. It was important to the American people, particularly young men, such as the graduates of Union College, to feel that the effort and sacrifice that was required of them was morally justified and the absolute last resort. In his speech, Taft lays out the reasons why Germany left the United States no choice but to declare war–the defense of its citizens was a moral and legal obligation of the United States in accordance with the Constitution. Furthermore, the deaths of more than two hundred American civilians as a result of unrestricted German submarine warfare had to be answered, and Taft argues that if the United States did nothing, it would have failed to live up to its principles as an independent, sovereign nation.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Anderson, Judith. William Howard Taft: An Intimate History. New York: Norton, 1981. Print.
  • “Taft Says Germany May Stir the Giant; Ex-President, in Washington Speech, Declares That America Is behind the Administration.” New York Times. New York Times, 2 Feb. 1917. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
  • Vivian, James F. William Howard Taft: Collected Editorials, 1917–1921. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1990. Print.
  • Zimmerman, W. F. A Brief Biography of William Howard Taft, Twenty-Seventh President of the United States. New York: A. J. Cornell, 2013. Print.
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