President Wilson's Address to Both Houses of Congress in Joint Session, February 3, 1917

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WWI Document Archive > 1916 Documents > Official Communications and Speeches Relating to Peace Proposals 1916-1917 > President Wilson's Address to Both Houses of Congress in Joint Session, February 3, 1917

President Wilson's Address to Both Houses of Congress in Joint Session, February 3, 19171

     GENTLEMEN OF THE CONGRESS: The Imperial German Govern-
ment on the thirty-first of January announced to this Government
and to the governments of the other neutral nations that on and after
the first day of February, the present month, it would adopt a policy
with regard to the use of submarines against all shipping seeking to
pass through certain designated areas of the high seas to which it is
clearly my duty to call your attention.
     Let me remind the Congress that on the eighteenth of April last,
in view of the sinking on the twenty-fourth of March of the cross-
channel passenger steamer Sussex by a German submarine with-
out summons or warning, and the consequent loss of the lives of
several citizens of the United States who were passengers aboard
her, this Government addressed a note to the Imperial German Gov-
ernment in which it made the following declaration:
     “If it is still the purpose of the Imperial Government to prose-
cute relentless and indiscriminate warfare against vessels of com-
merce by the use of submarines without regard to what the Gov-
ernment of the United States must consider the sacred and indisput-
able rules of international law and the universally recognized dic-
tates of humanity, the Government of the United States is at last
forced to the conclusion that there is but one course it can pursue.
Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare
and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine war-
fare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government
of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic rela-
tions with the German Empire altogether."
     In reply to this declaration the Imperial German Government gave
this Government the following assurance:
     "The German Government is prepared to do its utmost to con-
fine the operations of war for the rest of its duration to the fighting
forces of the belligerents, thereby also insuring the freedom of the
seas, a .principle upon which the German Government believes, now
as before, to be in agreement with the Government of the United
     "The German Government, guided by this idea, notifies the Gov-
ernment of the United States that the German naval forces have re-
ceived the following orders : In accordance with the general prin-
ciples of visit and search and destruction of merchant vessels recog-
nized by international law% such vessels, both within and without the
area declared as naval war zone, shall not be sunk without warning
and without saving human lives, unless these ships attempt to es-
cape or offer resistance.
     "But," it added, "neutrals can not expect that Germany, forced
to fight for her existence, shall, for the sake of neutral interest, 're-
strict the use of an effective weapon if her enemy is permitted to con-
tinue to apply at will methods of warfare violating the rules of in-
ternational law. Such a demand would be incompatible with the
character of neutrality, and the German Government is convinced
that the Government of the United States does not think of making
such a demand, knowing that the Government of the United States
has repeatedly declared that it is determined to restore the principle
of the freedom of the seas, from whatever quarter it has been violated."
To this the Government of the United States replied on the eighth
of May, accepting, of course, the assurances given, but adding,
"The Government of the United States feels it necessary to state
that it takes it for granted that the Imperial German Government
does not intend to imply that the maintenance of its newly announced
policy is in any way contingent upon the course or result of diplomatic
negotiations between the Government of the United States and any
other belligerent Government, notwithstanding the fact that certain
passages in the Imperial Government's note of the 4th instant might
appear to be susceptible of that construction. In order, however, to
avoid any possible misunderstanding, the Government of the United
States notifies the Imperial Government that it can not for a moment
entertain, much less discuss, a suggestion that respect by German
naval authorities for the rights of citizens of the United States upon
the high seas should in any way or in the slightest degree be made
contingent upon the conduct of any other Government affecting the
rights of neutrals and non-combatants. Responsibility in such mat-
ters is single, not joint; absolute, not relative."
To this note of the eighth of May the Imperial German Govern-
ment made no reply.
     On the thirty-first of January, the Wednesday of the present week,
the German Ambassador handed to the Secretary of State, along
with a formal note, a memorandum which contains the following
     "The Imperial Government, therefore, does not doubt that the
Government of the United States will understand the situation thus
forced upon Germany by the Entente Allies' brutal methods of war
and by their determination to destroy the Central Powers, and that
the Government of the United States will further realize that the
now openly disclosed intentions of the Entente Allies give back to
Germany the freedom of action which she reserved in her note ad-
dressed to the Government of the United States on May 4, 1916."
     "Under these circumstances Germany will meet the illegal meas-
ures of her enemies by forcibly preventing after February 1, 1917,
in a zone around Great Britain, France, Italy, and in the Eastern
Mediterranean all navigation, that of neutrals included, from and
to England and from and to France, etc., etc. All ships met within
the zone will be sunk."
     I think that you will agree with me that, in view of this declara-
tion, which suddenly and without prior intimation of any kind delib-
erately withdraws the solemn assurance given in the Imperial Gov-
ernment's note of the fourth of May, 1916, this Government has no
alternative consistent with the dignity and honour of the United
States but to take the course which, in its note of the eighteenth of
April, 1916, it announced that it would take in the event that the
German Government did not declare and effect an abandonment of
the methods of submarine warfare which it was then employing
and to which it now purposes again to resort.
     I have, therefore, directed the Secretary of State to announce
to His Excellency the German Ambassador that all diplomatic rela-
tions between the United States and the German Empire are severed,
and that the American Ambassador at Berlin will inmmediately be
withdrawn ; and, in accordance with this decision, to hand to His
Excellency his passports.
     Notwithstanding this unexpected action of the German Govern-
ment, this sudden and deeply deplorable renunciation of its assur-
ances, given this Government at one of the most critical moments
of tension in the relations of the two governments, I refuse to be-
lieve that it is the intention of the German authorities to do in fact
what they have warned us they feel at liberty to do. I can not bring
myself to believe that they will indeed pay no regard to the ancient
friendship between their people and our own or to the solemn obli-
gations which have been exchanged between them and destroy Amer-
ican ships and take the lives of American citizens in the wilful prose-
cution of the ruthless naval programme they have announced their
intention to adopt. Only actual overt acts on their part can make me
believe it even now.
     If this inveterate confidence on my part in the sobriety and pru-
dent foresight of their purpose should unhappily prove unfounded ;
if American ships and American lives should in fact be sacrificed by
their naval commanders in heedless contravention of the just and
reasonable understandings of international law and the obvious dic-
tates of humanity, I shall take the liberty of coming again before
the Congress, to ask that authority be given me to use any means that
may be necessary for the protection of our seamen and our people in
the prosecution of their peaceful and legitimate errands on the high
seas. I can do nothing less. I take it for granted that all neutral
governments will take the same course.
     We do not desire any hostile conflict with the Imperial German
Government. We are the sincere friends of the German people and
earnestly desire to remain at peace with the Government which speaks
for them. We shall not believe that they are hostile to us unless and
until we are obliged to believe it ; and we purpose nothing more than
the reasonable defense of the undoubted rights of our people. We
wish to serve no selfish ends We seek merely to stand true alike in
thought and in action to the immemorial principles of our people
which I sought to express in my address to the Senate only two weeks
ago. — seek merely to vindicate our right to liberty and justice and
an unmolested life. These are the bases of peace, not war. God
grant we may not be challenged to defend them by acts of wilful in-
justice on the part of the Government of Germany!

1Congressional Record, February 3 1917, p. 1917.