Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles.
Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its people, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.
We have seen the last of neutrality in such circumstances. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.
* * * *
The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.
---Woodrow Wilson's War Message to Congress, April 2, 1917
The pretext for the Declaration of War was German submarine warfare against the neutral shipping of the United States. The U.S. was profiting from trade with the belligerents, especially with Britain, and no doubt, submarine warfare raised the thorny question of whether, at a time when the Allies were blockading Germany and Germany was trying to do the same to Great Britain, intervention in the War was wiser than keeping our merchant ships out of harm's way.
Here's Robert LaFollette, answering the pious fraud Wilson's rhetoric about democracy:
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?
Here's Sen. George Norris on neutrality:
There are a great many American citizens who fee that we owe it as a duty to humanity to take part in this war. Many instances of cruelty and inhumanity can be found on both sides. Men are often biased in their judgment on account of their sympathy and their interests. To my mind, what we ought to have maintained from the beginning was the strictest neutrality. If we had done this I do not believe we would have been on the verge of war at the present time. We had a right as a nation, if we desired, to cease at any time to be neutral. We had a technical right to respect the English war zone and to disregard the German war zone, but we could not do that and be neutral.
The war, far from making the world "safe for democracy" opened a Pandora's box, whence emerged vices whose effects remain to this day.
World War I was the end of Western optimism and the dream of Western progress, and the beginning of an era of unparalleled violence and destruction. In this country it unleashed centralized government and unparalled attacks on freedom of speech.
Although these are new times, doctrines and rhetoric that stem from Wilson and his eara should be subjected to the strictest scrutiny.