If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

1917 speech by Senator George Norris in opposition to American entry

While I am most emphatically and sincerely opposed to taking any step that will force our country into the useless and senseless war now being waged in Europe, yet, if this resolution passes, I shall not permit my feeling of opposition to its passage to interfere in any way with my duty either as a senator or as a citizen in bringing success and victory to American arms. I am bitterly opposed to my country entering the war, but if, notwithstanding my opposition, we do enter it, all of my energy and all of my power will be behind our flag in carrying it on to victory.
The resolution now before the Senate is a declaration of war. Before taking this momentous step, and while standing on the brink of this terrible vortex, we ought to pause and calmly and judiciously consider the terrible consequences of the step we are about to take. We ought to consider likewise the route we have recently traveled and ascertain whether we have reached our present position in a way that is compatible with the neutral position which we claimed to occupy at the beginning and through the various stages of this unholy and unrighteous war.
No close student of recent history will deny that both Great Britain and Germany have, on numerous occasions since the beginning of the war, flagrantly violated in the most serious manner the rights of neutral vessels and neutral nations under existing international law, as recognized up to the beginning of this war by the civilized world.
The reason given by the President in asking Congress to declare war against Germany is that the German government has declared certain war zones, within which, by the use of submarines, she sinks, without notice, American ships and destroys American lives. . . . The first war zone was declared by Great Britain. She gave us and the world notice of it on, the 4th day of November, 1914. The zone became effective Nov. 5, 1914. . . . This zone so declared by Great Britain covered the whole of the North Sea. . . . The first German war zone was declared on the 4th day of February, 1915, just three months after the British war zone was declared. Germany gave fifteen days' notice of the establishment of her zone, which became effective on the 18th day of February, 1915. The German war zone covered the English Channel and the high seawaters around the British Isles. . . .
It is unnecessary to cite authority to show that both of these orders declaring military zones were illegal and contrary to international law. It is sufficient to say that our government has officially declared both of them to be illegal and has officially protested against both of them. The only difference is that in the case of Germany we have persisted in our protest, while in the case of England we have submitted.
What was our duty as a government and what were our rights when we were confronted with these extraordinary orders declaring these military zones? First, we could have defied both of them and could have gone to war against both of these nations for this violation of international law and interference with our neutral rights. Second, we had the technical right to defy one and to acquiesce in the other. Third, we could, while denouncing them both as illegal, have acquiesced in them both and thus remained neutral with both sides, although not agreeing with either as to the righteousness of their respective orders. We could have said to American shipowners that, while these orders are both contrary to international law and are both unjust, we do not believe that the provocation is sufficient to cause us to go to war for the defense of our rights as a neutral nation, and, therefore, American ships and American citizens will go into these zones at their own peril and risk.
Fourth, we might have declared an embargo against the shipping from American ports of any merchandise to either one of these governments that persisted in maintaining its military zone. We might have refused to permit the sailing of any ship from any American port to either of these military zones. In my judgment, if we had pursued this course, the zones would have been of short duration. England would have been compelled to take her mines out of the North Sea in order to get any supplies from our country. When her mines were taken out of the North Sea then the German ports upon the North Sea would have been accessible to American shipping and Germany would have been compelled to cease her submarine warfare in order to get any supplies from our nation into German North Sea ports.
There are a great many American citizens who feel 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.
I have no quarrel to find with the man who does not desire our country to remain neutral. While many such people are moved by selfish motives and hopes of gain, I have no doubt but that in a great many instances, through what I believe to be a misunderstanding of the real condition, there are many honest, patriotic citizens who think we ought to engage in this war and who are behind the President in his demand that we should declare war against Germany. I think such people err in judgment and to a great extent have been misled as to the real history and the true facts by the almost unanimous demand of the great combination of wealth that has a direct financial interest in our participation in the war.
We have loaned many hundreds of millions of dollars to the Allies in this controversy. While such action was legal and countenanced by international law, there is no doubt in my mind but the enormous amount of money loaned to the Allies in this country has been instrumental in bringing about a public sentiment in favor of our country taking a course that would make every bond worth a hundred cents on the dollar and making the payment of every debt certain and sure. Through this instrumentality and also through the instrumentality of others who have not only made millions out of the war in the manufacture of munitions, etc., and who would expect to make millions more if our country can be drawn into the catastrophe, a large number of the great newspapers and news agencies of the country have been controlled and enlisted in the greatest propaganda that the world has ever known to manufacture sentiment in favor of war.
It is now demanded that the American citizens shall be used as insurance policies to guarantee the safe delivery of munitions of war to belligerent nations. The enormous profits of munition manufacturers, stockbrokers, and bond dealers must be still further increased by our entrance into the war. This has brought us to the present moment, when Congress, urged by the President and backed by the artificial sentiment, is about to declare war and engulf our country in the greatest holocaust that the world has ever known.
In showing the position of the bondholder and the stockbroker, I desire to read an extract from a letter written by a member of the New York Stock Exchange to his customers. This writer says:
Regarding the war as inevitable, Wall Street believes that it would be preferable to this uncertainty about the actual date of its commencement. Canada and Japan are at war and are more prosperous than ever before. The popular view is that stocks would have a quick, clear, sharp reaction immediately upon outbreak of hostilities, and that then they would enjoy an old-fashioned bull market such as followed the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898. The advent of peace would force a readjustment of commodity prices and would probably mean a postponement of new enterprises. As peace negotiations would be long drawn out, the period of waiting and uncertainty for business would be long. If the United States does not go to war, it is nevertheless good opinion that the preparedness program will compensate in good measure for the loss of the stimulus of actual war.
Here we have the Wall Street view. Here we have the man representing the class of people who will be made prosperous should we become entangled in the present war, who have already made millions of dollars, and who will make many hundreds of millions more if we get into the war. Here we have the cold-blooded proposition that war brings prosperity to that class of people who are within the viewpoint of this writer.
He expresses the view, undoubtedly, of Wall Street, and of thousands of men elsewhere who see only dollars coming to them through the handling of stocks and bonds that will be necessary in case of war. "Canada and Japan,," he says, "are at war, and are more prosperous than ever before."
To whom does war bring prosperity? Not to the soldier who for the munificent compensation of $16 per month shoulders his musket and goes into the trench, there to shed his blood and to die if necessary; not to the brokenhearted widow who waits for the return of the mangled body of her husband; not to the mother who weeps at the death of her brave boy; not to the little children who shiver with cold; not to the babe who suffers from hunger; nor to the millions of mothers and daughters who carry broken hearts to their graves. War brings no prosperity to the great mass of common and patriotic citizens. It increases the cost of living of those who toil and those who already must strain every effort to keep soul and body together. War brings prosperity to the stock gambler on Wall Street--to those who are already in possession of more wealth than can be realized or enjoyed.
Again this writer says that if we cannot get war, "it is nevertheless good opinion that the preparedness program will compensate in good measure for the loss of the stimulus of actual war." That is, if we cannot get war, let us go as far in that direction as possible. If we cannot get war, let us cry for additional ships, additional guns, additional munitions, and everything else that will have a tendency to bring us as near as possible to the verge of war. And if war comes, do such men as these shoulder the musket and go into the trenches?
Their object in having war and in preparing for war is to make money. Human suffering and the sacrifice of human life are necessary, but Wall Street considers only the dollars and the cents. The men who do the fighting, the people who make the sacrifices are the ones who will not be counted in the measure of this great prosperity that he depicts. The stockbrokers would not, of course, go to war because the very object they have in bringing on the war is profit, and therefore they must remain in their Wall Street offices in order to share in that great prosperity which they say war will bring. The volunteer officer, even the drafting officer, will not find them. They will be concealed in their palatial offices on Wall Street, sitting behind mahogany desks, covered up with clipped coupons--coupons soiled with the sweat of honest toil, coupons stained with mothers' tears, coupons dyed in the lifeblood of their fellowmen.
We are taking a step today that is fraught with untold danger. We are going into war upon the command of gold. We are going to run the risk of sacrificing millions of our countrymen's lives in order that other countrymen may coin their lifeblood into money. And even if we do not cross the Atlantic and go into the trenches, we are going to pile up a debt that the tolling masses that shall come many generations after us will have to pay. Unborn millions will bend their backs in toil in order to pay for the terrible step we are now about to take.
We are about to do the bidding of wealth's terrible mandate. By our act we will make millions of our countrymen suffer, and the consequences of it may well be that millions of our brethren must shed their lifeblood, millions of brokenhearted women must weep, millions of children must suffer with cold, and millions of babes must die from hunger, and all because we want to preserve the commercial right of American citizens to deliver munitions of war to belligerent nations.

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user ifritz7
    Did all the things happen that Norris said would happen? Such as the big debt, years to pay it off, Wall Street getting very rich ect...
    (50 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Bob Greenwood
      What I find fascinating about Norris' speech is how he understood the nature of what motivates Wall Street to encourage our young men to go to war. The profit motive was as paramount then as it was in 1960 when Eisenhower warned our citizens of the power of the military industrial complex. The power elite continues to pull the strings of war.
      (80 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user Keith Oesterling
    Have truer words ever been spoken by a politician in history?
    (49 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user Maya
    I find that Senator Norris's speech sounds much more truthful than Wilson's message. If I interpret Norris's words properly, he confesses that America is sending aid and munition to Britain and her allies and states that they submitted to the war zone declared by Britain therefore America was never in fact neutral?

    Also if America had in fact been neutral from the start then this war would have ended much sooner?
    (43 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers tree style avatar for user Ashlin Martin
      "Also if America had in fact been neutral from the start then this war would have ended much sooner?"

      In one of the video's in this part of the series Sal mentions that Americans had a certain tie to Great Britain. Because of that tie I think it would have been impossible to stay neutral throughout world war I
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Deanetta Quednau
    Referencing Senator Norris's speech is this the first time the word "holocaust" was ever used?
    (18 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot hal style avatar for user scatophage
      The word is originally from the Greek ὁλόκαυστον which means "a wholly burnt thing" in reference to burnt offerings. While this was the original, literal meaning, it has also been used for hundreds of years more metaphorically to refer to any sacrifice on a grand scale. From the Greek it was borrowed into Late Latin (holocaustum), later appearing in Old French in the 12th century (holocauste). It was then from Old French that we can assume the word made its way into Middle English. The OED cites the first use of holocaust in English to be c1250 in a Bible translation ("Ysaac was leid ðat auter on, So men sulden holocaust don.").
      (10 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user alecpinkham
    Does anyone know the make-up of the Stock Exchange during this time period? I can believe that the profits for arms-related business could see a boost before and during the war, but what other parts of the market would benefit from this enough to determine that the US would be more prosperous (like Canada and Japan) in times of war?
    (9 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user しき
      The large banks would get a boost from the war, because the government has to borrow so much money from them in order to be able to spend it on the military, and later that money has to be paid back with interest.
      Of course, only a handful of bankers become "more prosperous" because of this, while most of the population has to pay back the debt in the form of taxes. The highest income tax rate in the US jumped from 15 percent in 1916 to 67 percent in 1917 to 77 percent in 1918.
      (38 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Teutonic30
    "The only difference is that in the case of Germany we have persisted in our protest, while in the case of England we have submitted."

    Wasn't this guy forgetting the significant difference that Germany had and was intending to sink/kill American ships/passengers? Did Great Britain ever do that?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Andris
      You seem to forget about time. Germany did not attack American ships until it was clear the United States is supporting the enemies of Germany. By the way, the United States did not take part in the arms race, she was not a great colonial power, why would Germany attack her? Even if it was a German intention to attack the United States some time in the future, it would have been stupid to draw her into the war, when Germany already had so many enemies.
      The case is simply that, it is a very profitable thing to give loans to a warring state, and with Great Britain and France the US could trade, and with Germany she couldn't. Senator Norries realised that, and thought that profit was not worth to sacrifice the neutrality of the United States, and the tens of thousands American lifes that war cost to the US.
      (23 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user grewaljatt77779
    What would be the economy of the world if there were no world wars?
    Would world be better then it is today or worse?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Jamie Nims
      The trajectory of the United States to becoming the worlds sole super power would have certainly been derailed, or at least severely delayed without WWII. First, the US had the opportunity to be the greatest supplier for the needs of Allied powers during the war, which developed a huge manufacturing base for the country. Then, the destruction and debt that dismantled the infrastructure of Europe allowed the United States the unique position of being the only industrialised nation in the world who was capable of producing the required materials for war reparations. The US quickly surpassed the Brits in steel production during the war. Rations stamps were also in place in the US, which kept consumers from spending their money. Their were strict limitations on what could be purchased and by who during the war years. This caused for significant savings in the average Americas bank account, mixed with the huge boom for the manufacturing economy-which triggered a boom in the service based economy-and there it is. The US rose to become the word`s sole super power in no time and has enjoyed this position since the post war years. (Not looking to good as far as holding onto it goes!)
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user jtlabs79
    What does he mean by "international Law? "
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Nolan Tremelling
    Was this speech given to the House of Representatives or the Senate?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Udai Gill
    Why did the Germans not down the British ships with their submarines in the north sea to end the blockade.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • mr pink green style avatar for user Simon Palmer
      The German Navy did attempt to break the Allied blockade a few times. In the Attack of Dogger Bank in 1915 the Royal Navy suprised German ships and caused quite some casualties. Germany decided to put it's focus into it's submarine fleet and to not try to fight the Allied ships and blockade ship-to-ship for over a year.

      In the Battle of Jutland in 1916 a large portion of the German surface fleet engaged the Royal Navy in the largest naval battle of the war. Although it's debateable who can be seen as the winner of the battle (both sides claimed victory) the Royal Navy's position of dominance hasn't changed much so Germany didn't put any more attempts to break the blockade.

      Though Bulgaria and other central powers and/or nations friendly towards the Central Powers did manage to support Germany and themselves with domestic agriculture. That's why it was really bad for germany once Bulgaria stepped out of the war as it helped Germany to survive the blockade (something about this was mentioned by sal in a video)
      (2 votes)