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President Woodrow Wilson to the Officers of the Atlantic Fleet



The President, to the Officers of the Atlantic Fleet1

11 August 1917.

Admiral Mayo2 and Gentlemen:-

     I have not come here with malice prepense to make a speech, but I have come here to have a look at you and to say some things that perhaps may be intimately said and, even though the company is large, said in confidence. Of course, the whole circumstance of the modern time is extraordinary and I feel that just because the circumstances are extraordinary there is an opportunity to see to it that the action is extraordinary. One of the deprivations which any man in authority experiences is that he cannot come into constant and intimate touch with the men with whom he is necessarily associated in action.

     Most of my life has been spent in contact with young men and, though I would not admit it to them at the time, I have learned a great deal more from them than they ever learned from me.3 I have had most of my thinking stimulated by questions being put to me which I could not answer, and I have had a great many of my preconceived conceptions absolutely destroyed by men who had not given half the study to the subject that I myself had given. The fact of the matter is that almost every profession is pushed forward by the men who do not belong to it and know nothing about it, because they ask the ignorant questions which it would not occur to the professional man to ask at all; he supposes that they have been answered, whereas it may be that most of them had not been answered at all. The naiveté of the point of view, the whole approach of the mind that has had nothing to do with the question, creates an entirely different atmosphere. There is many a question asked you about the Navy which seems to you so simpleminded when you hear it that you laugh, and then you find you cannot answer it. It never occurred to you that anybody could ask that question before, it is so simple.

     Now, the point that is constantly in my mind, gentlemen, is this: This is an unprecedented war and therefore it is a war in one sense for amateurs. Nobody ever before conducted a war like this and therefore nobody can pretend to be a professional in a war like this. Here are two great navies, not to speak of the others associated with us, our own and the British, outnumbering by a very great margin the navy to which we are opposed and yet casting about for a way in which to use our superiority and our strength, because of the novelty of the instruments used, because of the unprecedented character of the war, because, as I said just now, nobody ever before fought a war like this, in the way that this is being fought at sea, or on land either for that matter. The experienced soldier-experienced in previous wars,-is a back number so far as his experience is concerned; not so far as his intelligence is concerned. His experience does not count, because he never fought a war as this is being fought, and therefore he is an amateur along with the rest of us. Now, somebody has got to think this war out. Somebody has got to think out the way not only to fight the submarine, but to do something different from what we are doing.

     We are hunting hornets all over the farm and letting the nest alone. None of us knows how to go to the nest and crush it, and yet I despair of hunting for hornets all over the sea when I know where the nest is and know that the nest is breeding hornets as fast as I can find them. I am willing for my part, and I know you are willing because I know the stuff you are made of,- I am willing to sacrifice half the navy Great Britain and we together have to crush that nest, because if we crush it, the war is won. I have come here to say that I do not care where it comes from, I do not care whether it comes from the youngest officer or the oldest, but I want the officers of this Navy to have the distinction of saying how this war is going to be won. The Secretary of the Navy4 and I have just been talking over plans for putting the planning machinery of the Navy at the disposal of the brains of the Navy and not stopping to ask what rank that brains has, because, as I have said before and want to repeat, so far a experience in this kind of war is concerned we are all of the same rank. I am not saying that I do not expect the Admirals to tell us what to do, but I am saying that I want the youngest and most modest youngster in the service to tell us what we ought to do if he knows what it is. Now, I am willing to make any sacrifice for that. I mean any sacrifice of time or anything else. I am ready to put myself at the disposal of any officer in the Navy who thinks he knows how to run this war. I will not undertake to tell you whether he does or not, because I know that I do not, but I will undertake to put him in communication with those who can find out whether his idea will work or not. I have the authority to do that and I will do it with the greatest pleasure.

     So that the idea that is in my mind all the time is that we are comrades in this thing. I was talking the other day with some commercial men about certain questions which seemed to affect their material interest in this war, and I said, “I can’t imagine a man thinking about those things. If we don’t win this war,your material interest won’t make any difference. The prices you are charging are a matter of indifference with regard to the results of this war because if we don’t win it, you will not have the chance to charge any prices, and I can’t imagine a man in the present circumstances of the world sitting down and thinking about his own interest or the interest of anybody personally associated with him as compared with the interest of the world.” I cannot say it too often to any audience, we are fighting a thing, not a people. The most extraordinary circumstance of modern history is the way in which the German people have been subordinated to the German system of authority, and how they have accepted their thinking from authority as well as their action from authority. Now, we do not intend to let that method of action and of thinking be imposed upon the rest of the world, Knowing as some of us do the fine quality of the German people, we are sorry that it was ever imposed upon them and we are anxious to see that they have their glad emancipation, but we intend to see to it that no other people suffers a like limitation and subordination. We went into this war because this system touched us. These people that stopped at nothing paid no attention to our rights, destroyed the lives of our people, invaded the dignity of our sovereiganty, tried to make interest against us in the minds of our own people, and the thing was intolerable. We had to strike, but thank God we were striking not only for ourselves but for everybody that loves liberty under God’s heaven, and therefore we are in some peculiar sense trustees of liberty.

     I wish that I could think and had the brains to think in terms of marine warfare, because I would feel then that I was figuring out the future history of the political freedom of mankind. I do not see how any man can look at the flag of the United States and fail having his mind crowded with reminiscences of the number of unselfish men, seeking no object of their own, the advantage of no dynasty, the advantage of no group of privileged people, but the advantage of his fellow-men, who have died under the folds of that beautiful emblem. I wonder if men who die under it realize the distinction they have. There is no comparison between dying in your bed in quiet times for nothing in particular and dying under that emblem of the might and destiny and pride of a great free people. There is distinction in the privilege and I for my part am sorry to play so peaceful a part in the business as I myself am obliged to play, and I conceive it a privilege to come and look at you men who have the other thing to do and ask you to come and tell me or tell anybody you want to tell how this thing can be better done; and we will thank God that we have got men of originative brains among us.

     We have got to throw tradition to the wind. As I have said, gentlemen, I take it for granted that nothing that I say here will be repeated and therefore I am going to say this: Every time we have suggested anything to the British Admiralty the reply has come back that virtually amounted to this, that it had never been done that way, and I felt like saying, “Well, nothing was ever done so systematically as nothing is being done now. Therefore, I should like to see something unusual happen, something that was never done before; and inasmuch as the things that are being done to you were never done before don’t you think it is worthwhile to try something that was never done before against those who are doing them to you.” There is no other way to win, and the whole principle of this war is the kind of thing that ought to hearten and stimulate America. America has always boasted that she could find men to do anything. She is the prize amateur nation of the world. Germany is the prize professional nation of the world. Now, when it comes to doing new things and doing them well, I will back the amateur against the professional every time, because the professional does it out of the book and the amateur does it with his eyes open upon a new world and with a new set of circumstances. He knows so little about it that he is fool enough to try the right thing. The men that do not know the danger are the rashest men, and I have several times ventured to make this suggestion to the men about me in both arms of the service: Please leave out of your vocabulary altogether the word “prudent”. Do not stop to think about what is prudent for a moment. Do the thing that is audacious to the utmost point of risk and daring, because that is exactly the thing that the other side does not understand, and you will win by the audacity of method when you cannot win by circumspection and prudence. I think that there are willing ears to hear this in the American Navy and the American Army because that is the kind of folks we are. We get tired of the old ways and covet the new ones.

     So, gentlemen, besides coming down here to give you my personal greeting and to say how absolutely I rely on you and believe in you, I have come down here to say also that I depend on you, depend on you for brains as well as training and courage and discipline. You are doing your job admirably, the job that you have been taught to do; now let us do something that we were never taught to do and do it just as well as we are doing the older and more habitual things, and do not let anybody ever put one thought of discouragement into your minds. I do not know what is the matter with the newspapers of the United States! I suppose they have to vary the tune from time to time just to relieve their minds, but every now and then a wave of the most absurd discouragement and pessimism goes through the country and we hear nothing except of the unusual advantages and equipment and sagacity and preparation and all the other wonderful things of the German Army and Navy. My comment is always the very familiar comment, “Rats!” They are working under infinite disadvantages. They not only have no more brains then we have, but they use a different and less serviceable kind of brains then we have, if we will use the brains we have got. I am not discouraged for a moment, particularly because we have no even begun and, without saying anything in disparagement of those with whom we are associated in the war, I do expect things to begin when we begin. If they do not, American history will have changed its course; the American Army and Navy will have changed their character. There will have to come a new tradition into a service which does not do new and audacious and successful things.

     I am very much obliged to you for having given me this opportunity to see you and I hope you will also give me the pleasure of shaking hands with each one of you. If you ever want me again for anything in particular-because I am a busy man and cannot come for anything that is not particular-send for me and I will come.5

THE END.           

<Woodrow Wilson>   

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.

Footnote 1: Wilson gave this address aboard Pennsylvania, flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, while it was in Norfolk, Virginia. Wilson and his family were on the Potomac for their annual vacation there, and he boarded the ship without public announcement. This way, he could speak frankly without anyone from the press reporting his blunt remarks about the British Admiralty. Scott Berg, Wilson (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013): 461.

Footnote 2: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 3: Wilson is referring to his past career as a professor of history and political science at Bryn Mawr College (Pennsylvania), Wesleyan University (Connecticut), and finally Princeton, where he later became the university’s president.

Footnote 4: Josephus Daniels.

Footnote 5: Daniels was with Wilson for this address and may have prompted him to give it in the first place. Whiel he only made passing mention of it in his diary entry for that day, he later called it “the most remarkable address of the war.” After making this speech, Wilson made it a point to shake hands with every single officer present; Daniels, Cabinet Diaries: 190; Berg, Wilson: 460-461.

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