Bob Schmuhl on America, the War & Ireland’s cause

Author: Tessa Bangs

Originally published on RTE.

As Woodrow Wilson campaigned for re-election to the White House in 1916, he tried – as best he could – to keep foreign controversies and conflicts far removed from the concerns of American voters. On 4 August 1914 – the same day Great Britain declared war on Germany – Wilson proclaimed US neutrality in the Great War, and that presidential commitment two years later became the basis for the slogan – ‘He kept us out of war’ – Democrats constantly repeated to support their party’s standard bearer for a second term.

On Election Day Wilson narrowly defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, with just 23 Electoral College votes separating the two candidates. However, by Inauguration Day (4 March 1917), American neutrality was very much in doubt.

When Germany announced that unrestricted submarine warfare would resume on 1 February, Wilson severed diplomatic ties with the Kaiser’s government. A month later, word of a possible military alliance between Germany and Mexico became known, enflaming US public opinion, especially in Southwestern states.

Wilson decided he had to act. On 2 April, he went before Congress, seeking a declaration of war. Four days afterwards, both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to oppose ‘the Imperial German Government’ on the battlefield.

Once war was declared, Irish America rallied behind Wilson, burying for the time being some serious criticism that he hadn’t done enough on behalf of the cause of independence for Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising and the executions of the leaders in May of that year and of Roger Casement on 3 August. Scrutiny of Wilson’s papers and biographies or memoirs about him reveal that he tried to avoid any direct statements about the Irish Question.

The president understood that Irish Americans were a loyal constituency of his Democratic Party; however, he viewed the situation in Ireland as an internal matter to be resolved by the government of the United Kingdom. Bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, Wilson hoped he wouldn’t alienate any segment of Irish America. His political ducking and dodging worked to his advantage for just so long.

Perhaps the most representative and significant illustration of solidarity within Irish America during World War I was the rapid growth and fierce camaraderie of the 69th Infantry Regiment of the US Army. Known as the ‘Fighting 69th’ or, more colloquially, as the ‘Fighting Irish’, this military unit prides itself on its Irish roots and traditions. Headquartered in New York City, this Celtic-connected battalion has been active from the mid-19th century to today.

For World War I, the 69th landed in France in late autumn of 1917, engaging in its first combat mission a few months later. A succession of bloody engagements followed in the fields and forests north of Paris until the Armistice on 11 November 1918.

Father Francis Patrick Duffy served as chaplain of the regiment and subsequently wrote a popular memoir, Father Duffy’s Story (1919). The highly decorated priest realised that some soldiers in his unit came from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, but those circumstances didn’t bother him. According to Father Duffy, the non-Irish in his ranks were ‘Irish by adoption, Irish by association, or Irish by conviction’.

A prominent member of the 69th in France was the poet and journalist Joyce Kilmer, who proudly stated he was Irish without any evidence of that claim from his familial background. In 1916, he wrote poems (‘Easter Week’ and ‘Apology’) as well as articles for the Sunday magazine of The New York Times defending the rebels of the Easter Rising.

When Wilson declared war and despite being the father of five children, Kilmer enlisted in the military to fight for freedom, the cause he’d championed for Ireland. Interestingly, even as a soldier, Kilmer kept writing, including such well-regarded poems as ‘Rouge Bouquet’, ‘Prayer of a Soldier in France’, and ‘When the Sixty-Ninth Comes Back’. He also drafted a moving account of his experience with his unit abroad. Its title is simply ‘Holy Ireland’.

A sniper’s bullet killed Kilmer during a reconnaissance mission to locate the Germans’ position near the village of Seringes-et-Nesles on 30 July 1918. His death was front-page news in the US, and the British Ministry of Information honoured him with a tribute that described him as ‘one of America’s best-loved poets, a devout Christian gentleman, a loyal patriot, and a sincere craftsman’. Kilmer’s love of everything Irish and his defense of participants in the Easter Rising are never mentioned in the formal statement, which The New York Times published on 27 October.

Following the Armistice, Wilson once again faced the appeals of Irish-Americans to recognise Ireland as one of what he had called the ‘small states’ that deserved ‘self-determination’. Indeed, in a pre-Armistice address to a joint session of Congress on 11 February 1918, the president had proclaimed, ‘National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.’

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which ultimately produced the Treaty of Versailles and created the League of Nations, Wilson refused to allow the subject of an Ireland divorced from the United Kingdom to enter the formal post-war deliberations and discussions. Despite persistent efforts by the American Commission on Irish Independence to get the president to realise how his numerous calls for ‘self-determination’ had rallied the Irish and Irish-Americans throughout the Great War, the obstinate Wilson remained steadfast in his opposition to raising the fate of Ireland.

Savage war and his idealistic rhetoric wouldn’t change Woodrow Wilson’s mind or alter his thinking on what could be done to answer the Irish Question. Just before he left the White House in 1921, he told an interviewer that the Irish in America were responsible for the US rejection of the Versailles Treaty and the League. At the end, Wilson needed a culprit to blame – and by then advocates of an independent Ireland knew he’d never be their ally, let alone their friend.