Today, the USA goes to the polls to decide who will be president for the next four years. In 1916, another Democrat was seeking re-election in a tight race for the White House: Woodrow Wilson.
President Wilson ran with the slogan ‘He kept us out of the war’, suggesting that his opponent Charles Evans Hughes would take the nation to war against Mexico and Germany. He was not completely pacifist, though, saying in his acceptance speech to the party that further provocation in the taking of American lives could lead the USA into the Great War: “The nation that violates these essential rights must expect to be checked and called to account by direct challenge and resistance. It at once makes the quarrel in part our own.” Wilson went on to beat Hughes in a tight race that was decided by the result in California.
Wilson’s views had not always been as forthright as in 1916, though. When American lives were lost on the Lusitania in 1915, he told an audience that:
The example of America must be a special example. The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.
Despite its resonance with British criticism of Germany’s supposed ‘might is right’ ideology, Wilson’s speech and the phrase ‘too proud to fight’ wer not particularly well received in the UK.
Alfred Leete (of ‘Kitchener Wants You’ poster fame) created for the newspaper London Opinion this image of Wilson, too proud to fight a taunting Kaiser Wilhelm:
The verse is a parody of an ‘unofficial anthem’ of the USA, ‘Hail Columbia’:
‘Too proud to fight, too right to right a wrong;
Too wise to walk with wisdom, too mighty to be strong;
In the end, of course, the 1917 submarine campaign did lead this Democrat president to take his nation to war. Like Barack Obama, Wilson made much of being against involvement in wars. But, also like Obama, he was willing to use force if he thought it was necessary.