Very few people dared stand on principle and refuse to go along with the effusive and pretentious
display of "patriotism" Wilson and his cronies demanded. The day that the Senate Foreign Relations
committee introduced a resolution declaring war on Germany, Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette
stood and stated: "I object to the request for unanimous consideration!" This action postponed the
vote for at least a full day. The next day, at around 4 p.m. Senator La Follette rose on the senate
floor to explain why he opposed war with Germany. Two hours and forty five minutes later La
Follette stopped speaking and wiped the tears from his cheeks. Only five other senators supported
the senator from Wisconsin. In the House of Representatives, only fifty congressman, including nine
from Wisconsin, voted against the war resolution. LaFollette was subsequently vilified for the
duration of the war and beyond.
Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo, President Wilson's son-in-law, called La Follette a traitor, and
Secretary of State Lansing denied the American government knew the Lusitania was carrying
ammunition. The Senate announced it would hold hearings on the senator's possible expulsion in
December. When La Follette defended himself on the floor of the Senate, Arkansas senator Joseph
Robinson bolted down the aisle and screamed insults at La Follette, telling him to go serve in the
Reichstag instead. La Follette was refused access to files that would prove his claim about the
Lusitania carrying ammunition. Next, a group of writers called the "Vigilantes" attacked him and
wrote articles in major newspapers claiming that La Follette had undermined the loyalty of
Wisconsin. A number of scathing cartoons showed La Follette as a German stooge. Back home in
Wisconsin, La Follete was expelled from clubs and organizations and became the object of brutal
ridicule and wild accusations. The Wisconsin state legislature passed a joint resolution accusing him
On September 20, 1917, when LaFollette addressed the Non-Partisan League convention in Saint
Paul, Minnesota, to discuss war taxation, he said that the Lusitania had been carrying guns and
ammunition for the British army with the prior knowledge of the American government. Despite the
existence of three stenographic reports of the address, an AP reporter filed an erroneous story
claiming the senator had said: "We [America] had no grievance against Germany" and that the sinking
of the Lusitania was justified. The New York Times headlines ran: "LaFollette defends Lusitania
sinking!" Theodore Roosevelt accused him of being "the worst enemy of democracy alive".
Columbia University's president Nicholas Murray Butler complained that allowing freedom of speech
to La Follette was akin to putting poison in the food on troopships going to France. The very next
day, Secretary of State Robert Lansing released to the media the purported text of an intercepted
German message from Germany's ambassador asking Berlin for $50,000 to influence Congress,
thereby implying that La Follette was being financed by Germany. The secretary of state later
admitted he had no "hard evidence" connecting anyone specific with Germany's spies.
The faculty of the University of Wisconsin voted almost unanimously condemned him. His portrait
was removed from all university buildings. His family suffered threats, insults and jeers. The
pseudo-patriotic "American Defense Society" submitted a brief drawn up by New York lawyers to
the senate supporting La Follette's expulsion.
In his message of April 2, the President said:
We have no quarrel with the German people—it was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this
war; it was not with their previous knowledge or approval.
Again he says:
We are, let me say again, sincere friends of the German people and shall desire nothing so much as the early re-
establishment of intimate relations of mutual advantage between us. At least, the German people, then, are not outlaws.
What is the thing the President asks us to do to these German people of whom he speaks so highly and whose sincere
friends he declares us to be? Here is what he declares we shall do in this war. We shall undertake, he says—
The utmost practicable cooperation in council and action with the governments now at war with Germany, and as an
incident to that, the extension to those governments of the most liberal financial credits in order that our resources may so
far as possible, be added to theirs.
“Practicable cooperation!” Practicable cooperation with England and her allies in starving to death the old men and
women, the children, the sick and the maimed of Germany. The thing we are asked to do is the thing I have stated. It is
idle to talk of a war upon a government only. We are leagued in this war, or it is the President’s proposition that we shall
be so leagued, with the hereditary enemies of Germany. Any war with Germany, or any other country for that matter,
would be bad enough, but there are not words strong enough to voice my protest against the proposed combination with
the Entente Allies.
When we cooperate with those governments we endorse their methods; we endorse the violations of international law by
Great Britain; we endorse the shameful methods of warfare against which we have again and again protested in this war;
we endorse her purpose to wreak upon the German people the animosities which for years her people have been taught
to cherish against Germany; finally, when the end comes, whatever it may be, we find ourselves in cooperation with our
ally, Great Britain and if we cannot resist now the pressure she is exerting to carry us into the war, how can we hope to
resist, then, the thousand fold greater pressure she will exert to bend us to her purposes and compel compliance with her
We do not know what they are. We do not know what is in the minds of those who have made the compact, but we are
to subscribe to it. We are irrevocably, by our votes here, to marry ourselves to a non-divorceable proposition veiled from
us now. Once enlisted, once in the copartnership, we will be carried through with the purposes, whatever they may be, of
which we now know nothing.
Sir, if we are to enter upon this war in the manner the President demands, let us throw pretense to the winds, let us be
honest, let us admit that this is a ruthless war against not only Germany’s Army and her Navy but against her civilian
population as well, and frankly state that the purpose of Germany’s hereditary European enemies has become our
Again, the President says “we are about to accept the gage of battle with this natural foe of liberty and shall, if necessary,
spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power.” That much, at least, is clear; that
program is definite. The whole force and power of this nation, if necessary, is to be used to bring victory to the Entente
Allies, and to us as their ally in this war. Remember, that not yet has the “whole force” of one of the warring nations been
Countless millions are suffering from want and privation; countless other millions are dead and rotting on foreign
battlefields; countless other millions are crippled and maimed, blinded, and dismembered; upon all and upon their children’
s children for generations to come has been laid a burden of debt which must be worked out in poverty and suffering, but
the “whole force” of no one of the warring nations has yet been expended; but our “whole force” shall be expended, so
says the President. We are pledged by the President, so far as he can pledge us, to make this fair, free, and happy land of
ours the same shambles and bottomless pit of horror that we see in Europe today.
Just a word of comment more upon one of the points in the President’s address. He says that this is a war “for the things
which we have always carried nearest to our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to
have a voice in their own government.” In many places throughout the address is this exalted sentiment given expression.
It is a sentiment peculiarly calculated to appeal to American hearts and, when accompanied by acts consistent with it, is
certain to receive our support; but in this same connection, and strangely enough, the President says that we have become
convinced that the German government as it now exists—“Prussian autocracy” he calls it—can never again maintain
friendly relations with us. His expression is that “Prussian autocracy was not and could never be our friend,” and
repeatedly throughout the address the suggestion is made that if the German people would overturn their government, it
would probably be the way to peace. So true is this that the dispatches from London all hailed the message of the
President as sounding the death knell of Germany’s government.
But the President proposes alliance with Great Britain, which, however liberty-loving its people, is a hereditary monarchy,
with a hereditary ruler, with a hereditary House of Lords, with a hereditary landed system, with a limited and restricted
suffrage for one class and a multiplied suffrage power for another, and with grinding industrial conditions for all the wage
workers. The President has not suggested that we make our support of Great Britain conditional to her granting home rule
to Ireland, or Egypt, or India. We rejoice in the establishment of a democracy in Russia, but it will hardly be contended
that if Russia was still an autocratic government, we would not be asked to enter this alliance with her just the same.
Italy and the lesser powers of Europe, Japan in the Orient; in fact, all the countries with whom we are to enter into
alliance, except France and newly revolutionized Russia, are still of the old order—and it will be generally conceded that
no one of them has done as much for its people in the solution of municipal problems and in securing social and industrial
reforms as Germany.
Is it not a remarkable democracy which leagues itself with allies already far overmatching in strength the German nation
and holds out to such beleaguered nation the hope of peace only at the price of giving up their government? I am not
talking now of the merits or demerits of any government, but I am speaking of a profession of democracy that is linked in
action with the most brutal and domineering use of autocratic power. Are the people of this country being so well-
represented in this war movement that we need to go abroad to give other people control of their governments?
Will the President and the supporters of this war bill submit it to a vote of the people before the declaration of war goes
into effect? Until we are willing to do that, it becomes us to offer as an excuse for our entry into the war the unsupported
claim that this war was forced upon the German people by their government “without their previous knowledge or
Who has registered the knowledge or approval of the American people of the course this Congress is called upon to take
in declaring war upon Germany? Submit the question to the people, you who support it. You who support it dare not do
it, for you know that by a vote of more than ten to one the American people as a body would register their declaration
In the sense that this war is being forced upon our people without their knowing why and without their approval, and that
wars are usually forced upon all peoples in the same way, there is some truth in the statement; but I venture to say that the
response which the German people have made to the demands of this war shows that it has a degree of popular support
which the war upon which we are entering has not and never will have among our people. The espionage bills, the
conscription bills, and other forcible military measures which we understand are being ground out of the war machine in
this country is the complete proof that those responsible for this war fear that it has no popular support and that armies
sufficient to satisfy the demand of the Entente Allies cannot be recruited by voluntary enlistments. . . .
Now, I want to repeat: It was our absolutely right as a neutral to ship food to the people of Germany. That is a position
that we have fought for through all of our history. The correspondence of every secretary of state in the history of our
government who has been called upon to deal with the rights of our neutral commerce as to foodstuffs is the position
stated by Lord Salisbury. . . .
In the first days of the war with Germany, Great Britain set aside, so far as her own conduct was concerned, all these
rules of civilized naval warfare.
According to the Declaration of London, well as the rules of international law, there could have been no interference in
trade between the United States and Holland or Scandinavia and other countries, except in the case of ships which could
be proven to carry absolute contraband, like arms and ammunition, with ultimate German destination. There could have
been no interference with the importation into Germany of any goods on the free list, such as cotton, rubber, and hides.
There could have properly been no interference with our export to Germany of anything on the conditional contraband list,
like flour, grain, and provisions, unless it could be proven by England that such shipments were intended for the use of the
German Army. There could be no lawful interference with foodstuffs intended for the civilian population of Germany, and
if those foodstuffs were shipped to other countries to be reshipped to Germany no question could be raised that they were
not intended for the use of the civilian population.
It is well to recall at this point our rights as declared by the Declaration of London and as declared without the Declaration
of London by settled principles of international law, for we have during the present war become so used to having Great
Britain utterly disregard our rights on the high seas that we have really forgotten that we have any, as far as Great Britain
and her allies are concerned.
Great Britain, by what she called her modifications of the Declaration of London, shifted goods from the free list to the
conditional contraband and contraband lists, reversed the presumption of destination for civilian population, and abolished
the principle that a blockade to exist at all must be effective.
It is not my purpose to go into detail into the violations of our neutrality by any of the belligerents. While Germany has
again and again yielded to our protests, I do not recall a single instance in which a protest we have made to Great Britain
has won for us the slightest consideration, except for a short time in the case of cotton. I will not stop to dwell upon the
multitude of minor violations of our neutral rights, such as seizing our mails, violations of the neutral flag, seizing and
appropriating our goods without the least warrant or authority in law, and impressing, seizing, and taking possession of our
vessels and putting them into her own service.
I have constituents, American citizens, who organized a company and invested large sums of money in the purchase of
ships to engage in foreign carrying. Several of their vessels plying between the United States and South America were
captured almost in our own territorial waters, taken possession of by the British Government, practically confiscated, and
put into her service or the service of her Admiralty. They are there today, and that company is helpless. When they
appealed to our Department of State, they were advised that they might “file” their papers; and were given the further
suggestion that they could hire an attorney and prosecute their case in the English Prize Court. The company did hire an
attorney and sent him to England, and he is there now, and has been there for almost a year, trying to get some redress,
some relief, some adjustment of those rights.
But those are individual cases. There are many others. All these violations have come from Great Britain and her allies,
and are in perfect harmony with Briton’s traditional policy as absolute master of the seas. . . .
The only reason why we have not suffered the sacrifice of just as many ships and just as many lives from the violation of
our rights by the war zone and the submarine mines of Great Britain as we have through the unlawful acts of Germany in
making her war zone in violation of our neutral rights is simply because we have submitted to Great Britain’s dictation. If
our ships had been sent into her forbidden high-sea war zone as they have into the proscribed area Germany marked out
on the high seas as a war zone, we would have had the same loss of life and property in the one case as in the other; but
because we avoided doing that, in the case of England, and acquiesced in her violation of law, we have not only a legal
but a moral responsibility for the position in which Germany has been placed by our collusion and cooperation with Great
Britain. By suspending the rule with respect to neutral rights in Great Britain’s case, we have been actively aiding her in
starving the civil population of Germany. We have helped to drive Germany into a corner, her back to the wall, to fight
with what weapons she can lay her hands on to prevent the starving of her women and children, her old men and babes.
The flimsy claim which has sometimes been put forth that possibly the havoc in the North Sea was caused by German
mines is too absurd for consideration. . . .
I am talking now about principles. You cannot distinguish between the principles which allowed England to mine a large
area of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea in order to shut in Germany, and the principle on which Germany by her
submarines seeks to destroy all shipping which enters the war zone which she has laid out around the British Isles.
The English mines are intended to destroy without warning every ship that enters the war zone she has proscribed, killing
or drowning every passenger that cannot find some means of escape. It is neither more nor less than that which Germany
tries to do with her submarines in her war zone. We acquiesced in England’s action without protest. It is proposed that
we now go to war with Germany for identically the same action upon her part. . . .
I say again that when two nations are at war any neutral nation, in order to preserve its character as a neutral nation, must
exact the same conduct from both warring nations; both must equally obey the principles of international law. If a neutral
nation fails in that, then its rights upon the high seas—to adopt the President’s phrase—are relative and not absolute.
There can be no greater violation of our neutrality than the requirement that one of two belligerents shall adhere to the
settled principles of law and that the other shall have the advantage of not doing so. The respect that German naval
authorities were required to pay to the rights of our people upon the high seas would depend upon the question whether
we had exacted the same rights from German’s enemies. If we had not done so, we lost our character as a neutral nation
and our people unfortunately had lost the protection that belongs to neutrals. Our responsibility was joint in the sense that
we must exact the same conduct from both belligerents.
The failure to treat the belligerent nations of Europe alike, the failure to reject the unlawful “war zones” of both Germany
and Great Britain is wholly accountable for our present dilemma. We should not seek to hide our blunder behind the
smoke of battle to inflame the mind of our people by half truths into the frenzy of war in order that they may never
appreciate the real cause of it until it is too late. I do not believe that our national honor is served by such a course. The
right way is the honorable way.
|A portion of La Follette's speech opposing the US entry into the war: