President Woodrow Wilson: “Do Your Bit For America” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked the United States Congress to declare war on Germany. War was declared in a joint session of Congress on April 6, and the United States began a large-scale, rapid mobilization. At the outbreak of war, the United States had a small standing army, and its military budget was a fraction of what would be needed to wage war successfully. President Wilson needed to convince the American people to invest in the war effort, financially and emotionally. In this widely distributed communication with the American people, the president returns repeatedly to the idea that the war was to be fought by all Americans and that service to the cause reached all sectors of society and into every industry.

Summary Overview

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked the United States Congress to declare war on Germany. War was declared in a joint session of Congress on April 6, and the United States began a large-scale, rapid mobilization. At the outbreak of war, the United States had a small standing army, and its military budget was a fraction of what would be needed to wage war successfully. President Wilson needed to convince the American people to invest in the war effort, financially and emotionally. In this widely distributed communication with the American people, the president returns repeatedly to the idea that the war was to be fought by all Americans and that service to the cause reached all sectors of society and into every industry.

Defining Moment

Relations between the United States and Germany, which had deteriorated badly since the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania in 1915, had taken a downward turn again in the first months of 1917, when Germany openly violated its pledge to halt unrestricted submarine warfare and was caught in a secret attempt to bring Mexico into the war on the German side. Several days after Wilson’s request, war was declared by both houses of Congress.

Wilson turned his attention immediately to the massive effort needed to mobilize the nation. Before its entry into the war, not only did the United States have only a very small standing army, but its railroad system was an inefficient patchwork of private companies; furthermore, food production was inadequate to feed the military and supply allied nations, and a strong anti-war sentiment existed among the American people. After struggling to maintain neutrality for nearly three years while Europe was engulfed in conflict, Wilson needed to make the case to the nation that its participation was now justified and necessary. Wilson put responsibility for successful execution of the war on every American, from the frugal housewife to the battlefield soldier, a strategy that allowed him to mobilize widespread support.

The Wilson administration took a two-fold approach to establishing support for the war effort: widely distribute the pro-war message, and suppress dissent. Americans were made to feel that, no matter what their role, they were part of the war effort. The “Do Your Bit” speech was widely communicated to the American public through newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets. It was read in communities throughout the country, and the “Do Your Bit” phrase was set to music and became a catchphrase on posters and in films. Conservation and volunteer efforts were not just a way to galvanize support for the war, however. Agricultural and industrial production increased dramatically, and exports rose in the months following Wilson’s speech. The message of sacrifice and service was reinforced through every available medium. Even a draft, which had caused rioting and bloodshed during the Civil War, was passed and implemented with minimal opposition.

There was no room for dissent in this time of universal participation and service. In fact, the government moved quickly to quash open opposition to war. The Espionage Act of 1917 contained provisions that could lead to the prosecution and imprisonment of those who openly opposed the war effort. Thousands of anti-war activists were prosecuted because of this. The Sedition Act of 1918 was even more restrictive and made anti-war speech a criminal offense. Some activists were drafted directly into the Army and then court-martialed, resulting in harsh sentences. Some were accused of being spies. Many anti-war activists were deported or lost their citizenship.

Most Americans, however, took pride in the investment of all of their countrymen in a war effort that seemed to be morally right. German atrocities had been widely publicized, and by the time of the declaration of war, most Americans were sympathetic to the Allied cause. In addition, by 1917, Wilson had convinced the nation that the United States was the world’s champion of freedom and democracy and had an obligation to protect the rights of other nations with similar ideals.

Author Biography

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, born on December 28, 1856, was the twenty-eighth president of the United States. He served two terms in office, from 1913 to 1921. Wilson was dedicated to a strict policy of neutrality during the first years of World War I and won his re-election in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Wilson spent much of his first term in office navigating the perilous course of US neutrality, which was challenged on all sides. He did finally lead the United States into war on the side of the Allies (Britain, France, and Russia, among others) in 1917. At the close of the war, Wilson worked with European nations to establish the League of Nations, a body he hoped would prevent another war of such scale from occurring. Despite his advocacy, Congress rejected US membership in the League. Woodrow Wilson died in Washington, DC, on February 3, 1924.

Document Analysis

President Wilson begins his message to the American people by emphasizing the nation’s responsibility to protect “democracy and human rights.” He also immediately addresses one of the chief objections to the war, the charge that it was being foisted on an unsuspecting public by banks and businessmen whose financial interests in Europe were being threatened by the Allies’ recent losses. This argument had been delivered in anti-war speeches just days earlier on the House and Senate floors. Wilson declares that “there is not a single selfish element… in the cause we are fighting for.” Rather than “profit” and “material advantage,” Americans from all walks of life should be focused on “service and self-sacrifice.” Later in his address, Wilson assures the nation that profiteering will not be tolerated. He states to those handling government contracts that the “eyes of the country will be especially upon you.”

Wilson makes the work of raising and equipping an army a secondary concern to mobilizing the home front. While creating a “great army” is simple, there are a “thousand needs for victory.” Feeding, clothing, and supplying the great Army and Navy is the crucial work of every American. Those not in active service are responsible for feeding not only the US Armed Forces, but also those of the Allies, whose resources were depleted by years of war. Greater productivity would be achieved as a result of greater cooperation and efficiency. Wilson recognizes that women are crucial in this effort and assures them that their efforts on the home front will fight the war “just as effectively as the men on the battlefield or in the trenches.”

Wilson draws no distinction between fighting the war on the battlefield and supplying the war effort on the home front. Industry, which includes agriculture, will become a “great international, service army.” Wilson addresses key workers individually. First, the farmers need to ramp up food production. Without adequate food, the whole enterprise will “break down and fail.” Wilson is gravely concerned about the state of the national food supply, as America’s farmers will need to feed most of Europe as well. Those working in mining, particularly coal, and in manufacturing are also called to task. Wilson exempts no one from their service to the war effort, and he makes their contributions a moral issue. Those who do not conserve resources for the greater national good commit the “unpardonable fault of wastefulness and extravagance.”

Wilson ends his speech with a directive to publishers, printers, advertisers, and the clergy to spread his message as widely as possible. He relies on the media, particularly print and film, as well as community networks, to convince the American people to “speak, act, and serve together.”

Essential Themes

Although it would seem, on first reading, that the primary theme of this piece is the need for service to the nation in a time of war, there is another, subtler message. If all Americans are soldiers in a great army of service, then anyone opposed to the war is a traitor or a deserter. Wilson’s use of the metaphor of military service for the nation is a powerful rhetorical device that succeeded in convincing most Americans to join the war effort enthusiastically. Those who did not were quickly and severely dealt with.

Critical to the war effort was a universal belief in the rightness of the cause of the war, and Wilson took great pains to point out America’s role in the defense of the world’s freedom and democracy. The war could only be won when there was universal support for the principles of service and self-sacrifice asked of all Americans.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Freidel, Frank, and Hugh Sidey. “Woodrow Wilson.” The Presidents of the United States of America. White House Historical Association, 2006. Whitehouse.gov. US Government, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.
  • Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995. Print.
  • “Milestones: 1914–1920: American Entry into World War I, 1917.” Office of the Historian. US Dept. of State, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.
  • Wilson, Woodrow. “Do Your Bit for America.” National Geographic 15 Apr. 1917: 289–93. Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.
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