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Shirly Mayer

Professor Ben Henderson

CAS 137H

Contextual Analysis of Woodrow Wilsons War Message

On April of 1917, Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States at the
time, delivered his speech war message to congress and the American people. This
famous address expresses the urgency of the situation overseas and the United
States role in it. This speech is also seen as a response to the attacks on American
ships and lives overseas. In his speech Wilson overcomes the isolationist constraints
of the country by portraying the war as one for self- defense and human rights,
while successfully appealing to peoples emotions.
The sentiment of the people during the time of World War I was that of
isolationism, which had been put in the minds of many by George Washington in his
farewell address. Congress, and the people of the United States, did not want to get
involved in a war of foreign affairs that did not seem to impact the well being of the
United States in any way. However, by the time that President Woodrow Wilson
delivered his speech to congress in 1917, two major events had changed the
attitudes of many Americans. These events included the sinking of neutral American
ships and the Zimmerman telegram that urged Mexico to join the war against the
United States. This wide change in opinion throughout the United States led to a
much more sympathetic audience for President Wilson to deliver his speech, which
in turn changed the tools used by Wilson to persuade in his speech to congress.
Wilson begins his speech by reiterating the decisions to go to war, by
explaining the circumstances that surrounded the country at the time. In his
defense, Wilson stated When I addressed the Congress on the twenty- sixth of
February last I thought that it would suffice to assert our neutral rights with arms,
our right to use the seas against unlawful interference, our right to keep our people
safe against unlawful violence. He continues by assuring congress and his audience
that at the time that was the best option for the country, however as the situation in
the war changed, so should the position of the United States of America. In the new
speech, kairos can be seen as he is persuading against neutrality and towards the
United States entering the war. Major turns in the war offered new opportunities to
discuss the position of the United States. This new audience, more willing to hear
about war due to the attacks against the United States, gave way for easier
conversation about the issue. President Wilson uses this kairos as a way of bringing
up the new topic and persuading his audience to change their view on neutrality and
more on joining the war. The new events that created for kairos, also created a new
sense of urgency to join the war that is effectively used by President Wilson.
War is commonly portrayed as violent and wrong. Wilson directs his speech
to illustrate the war differently. He uses rhetoric to clearly deliver his message to
congress and to the people, while being persistent and persuasive in his words. He
chooses the order of certain words to clearly express himself, his phrases, and his
ideas in a way that will sway people to think differently of the war. Wilson states,
Our motive will not be revenge or victorious assertion of the physical might of the
nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a
single champion. Wilson says this in an attempt to portray the war as a selfless act
that should be defended by the United States for the benefit of the country rather
than for individuals. By changing the meaning of the war, he changes a plethora of
peoples negative attitudes towards the war and ultimately gains more supporters
to his cause. He further continues his point of selflessness by persistently stating
There is one choice we cannot make, we are incapable of making: we will not
choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and
our people to be ignored or violated. By using this statement, he shows that he
stands strong behind his beliefs, while still using the defense for democracy as his
reasoning. This not only successfully persuades his audience, but ultimately gains
the support of his audience.
Wilson utilizes emotional strategies to connect with his audience. He uses
Aristotles appeals to create a sense of need and sympathy for those being directly
affected by the war. By doing this, he can successfully bring the tragedy of the war
that is so far away to the peoples home and hearts. He emotionally ties the war to
the people by stating the atrocities that are happening to others overseas. He states,
I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved, immense and serious as that
is, but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of non- combatants,
men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the
darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate. Property
can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people cannot be, in which he
clearly defines the urgency of the situation by linking the deaths of many with the
need for the United States to get involved. Once his audience is emotionally attached
to the situation, it is much easier to persuade them to support the war. This very
specific use of rhetoric is very effective at attaching a certain situation to the
audience. In an essence it captures their interest for the topic and violates their
sympathy towards others. Wilson effectively used pathos to change the minds of
those listening, and successfully achieved his goal.
To further gain the support of his audience, Wilson uses examples of fallen
states to clearly define his reason for joining the war. This use of logos from
Aristotles appeals is exceptionally effective in clearly defining his opinions and
reasons to his audience. He uses the example of the Prussian autocracy to make the
people fear and defend anything opposite to the Prussian autocracy. He insinuates
that spies and criminal intrigues existed in the country, and implies that the correct
way to fight this evil is by joining the war. Lastly, he questions the assurance of the
people to live in a world full of peace and persuades them to think that by
supporting the war to end all wars that assurance can be kept, this emphasizes
peoples need to feel safe in their own homes. This use of logic and reason as
rhetoric is persuasive in changing minds and creating propositions.
This now famous speech spoken by President Woodrow Wilson changed the
direction of the United States in 1917. With an attempt to gain support for the war
for democracy, he used several rhetorical skills that successfully influenced the
audience in his favor. His strong character, persistent tone, and emotional ties to the
situation led to a clearly thought out speech that fit the rhetorical situation of the
time. This speech led to many changes in the United States and in the world, it is a
very clear example of how correctly used rhetoric can affect change in the world and
change the minds of many at a time.