Injuries, Indignities, and Outrage

On the first day of June 1812, President James Madison delivered an address to Congress apprising them of the “injuries and indignities” affecting the nation. American citizens had been “torn away from their country and from everything dear to them” by a nation who had not declared war on the United States, but who was determined to use U.S. citizens as the “melancholy instruments” of war. [1] Nine days later, Congress authorized a declaration of war and Madison asked the nation to be “vigilant and zealous in discharging the duties” which would be asked of them during the perilous years of conflict. Furthermore he asked that they support “all measures which [might] be adopted by the constituted authorities for obtaining a speedy, a just, and an honorable peace.” [2] Drawn into an international conflict, the United States set out to defeat its adversaries and prove that while it was still only a fledgling power, it would not tolerate abuses to its citizens and national interests.

Entangling alliances and international rivalries ignited another war in 1914. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson hoped to avoid being drawn into the chaotic vortex of European war, but like Madison, he recognized that the actions of others might make war inevitable. Certainly the United States could not sit idly by while the safety of its citizens was threatened.

In a conversation with Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels in 1916, Wilson stated, “I can’t keep the country out of war . . . any little German lieutenant can put us into the war at any time by some calculated outrage.”[3] Wilson, despite running his 1916 presidential campaign on the slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War,” understood the precipice upon which the United States stood.[4]

Earlier in the year, the Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa had attacked and set ablaze the New Mexican town of Columbus. This attack on U.S. sovereignty, on its own, might not have been the indignity that set the nation on a path to war, but when the Zimmerman Telegram was made public in January 1917, it became clear that Germany planned to utilize the animosity between the United States and Mexico as a tool to weaken the ability of the United States to aid Great Britain and France. Wilson could no longer avoid war and plunged off the precipice. While the sinking of the Lusitania had upset many in the United States, the notion that Germany was plotting with Mexico to seize parts of the Southwest outraged the public. The telegram would be the “outrage” that would propel the nation into war.

A policy of neutrality during a time of European conflict had once again failed to keep the United States out of European warfare. The United States could only ignore a limited amount of national injury, indignity, and outrage before it would strike back.

 

 

Endnotes:

[1] James Madison, “Special Message to Congress on the Foreign Policy Crisis – War Message” (June 1, 1812), Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (accessed January 21, 2014), http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3614.

[2] James Madison, “Proclamation of a State of War with Great Britain” (June 19, 1812), Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (accessed September 19, 2014), http://millercenter.org/president/madison/speeches/speech-3615.

[3] C. H. Cramer, Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1961), 86.

[4] “1916 Election,” The President Woodrow Wilson House, n.d., (accessed September 18, 2014), http://www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org/1916-election.

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