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[Detail] Vinyl recording of President Wilson.

Collection Overview

American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election contains fifty-nine sound recordings of speeches by American leaders. The speeches focus on issues and events surrounding World War I and the presidential election of 1920. Recordings include the seldom heard voices of Calvin Coolidge, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Samuel Gompers, and others.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

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To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Subject or Speaker.

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U.S. History

The American Leaders Speak collection of fifty-nine sound recordings captures the voices and opinions of prominent Americans. The recordings contain selections from speeches on World War One and the election of 1920. The recordings were recreated under studio conditions, and are excerpts of the actual speeches. Almost every speaker is passionate, and appeals to the listener's emotions as well as intellect.

1) Fifteen of the recordings focus on World War One, and were recorded in 1918. All express support for the United States' participation in the war, yet the recordings present a variety of perspectives and reasons for supporting the war.

a) Some of the speeches reflect American idealism about the war. For example, idealistic views are present in Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo's speech "American Rights" and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise's speech "What Are We Fighting For?" The speech "America's Choice and Opportunity," by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, also strikes an idealistic cord.

Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 29.2 sec.; 315 KB

Search on war, idealism for speeches such as:
"America's Choice and Opportunity" by Newton D. Baker, which includes the text;

So that when we entered this war, we entered it in order that we and our children's children might fabricate a new and better civilization, under better conditions, enjoying liberty of person liberty of belief, freedom of speech, and freedom as to our political institutions. We entered this war to remove from ourselves, our children, and our children's children, the menace which threatens to deny us that right.

b) The speeches cover well-known reasons for American entry into the War, including the sinking of the Lusitania, the Rape of Belgium, American security interests, and a desire to make the world safe for democracy.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 27.6 sec.; 298 KB

Search on Lusitania, Belgium, security,and democracy. For example, search on Lusitania for the speech:

"The Nation in Arms" by Franklin K. Lane, which includes the text; We are fighting Germany because she sought to terrorize us and then to fool us. We could not believe that Germany would do what she said she would do upon the seas. Yet, we still hear the piteous cries of children coming out, out of the sea where the Lusitania went down, and Germany has never asked forgiveness of the world.


c) The war time speeches champion national unity.

Listen to the excerpt:
William G. McAdoo Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 19.5 sec.; 211 KB

William G. McAdoo Listen to the excerpt:

WAV format; 19.5 sec.; 211 KB

Search on unity and national. For example, search on unity for speeches such as:
"American Rights" by Secretary of Treasury William G. McAdoo, which includes the text;

We are by nature a peaceful people, but we are a fighting people where the rights of America and of humanity are concerned. It is unfortunate for the German military despot who precipitated this war, that he did not realize beforehand that America has fighting spirit and national unity.

d) Loyalty and patriotism are often cited as reasons to support the war. More extreme and vitriolic views reflect wartime distrust of German-Americans.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 25 sec.; 270 KB

Search on war and loyalty, patriotism, or German-American. For example, search on loyalty, war for speeches such as:
"Loyalty" by Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard, which includes the text;

And if there are any German-Americans here who are so ungrateful for all the benefits they have received that they are still for the Kaiser, there is only one thing to do with them. And that is to hog-tie them, give them back the wooden shoes and the rags they landed in, and ship them back to the Fatherland.

e) Labor is represented through many speeches, including speeches that touch on the need for factories to support the soldiers of World War I. Samuel Gompers' speech "Labor's Service to Freedom" deals directly with labor's stake in the war.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 35.8 sec.; 386 KB

Search on labor and factory. For example, search on labor for speeches such as:
"Labor's Service to Freedom" by Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which includes the text;

This war is a people's war -- labor's war. The final outcome will be determined in the factories, the mills, the shops, the mines, the farms, the industries, and the transportation agencies of the various countries. That group of countries which can most successfully organize its agencies ofproduction and transportation, and which can furnish the most adequate and effective agencies with which to conduct the war, will win.

f) Many of the speeches refer to war bonds and the necessity for sacrifice by all Americans in the great national cause.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 27 sec.; 292 KB

Search on bonds and sacrifice. For example, search on bonds for speeches such as:
"One Hundred Million Soldiers" by Frank A. Vanderlip, which includes the text; Then mark your service by foregoing unnecessary things and bringing, buying with the money you save bonds of the United States, big bonds if you can, baby bonds in any event. Buying war saving stamps means equipping the army, means saving the lives of American soldiers, means whipping the Huns, and redeeming the world for civilization.


2) The forty-four recordings about the election of 1920 present an interesting record of one of the great elections. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson, the sitting President and a Democrat, suffered a stroke after exhausting himself with campaigns on behalf of the League of Nations. The 1920 election pitted Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge against Democrats James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt. Harding won by a landslide.

a) The election speeches cover a multitude of issues of the day.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 30.5 sec.; 329 KB

Search on foreign policy, taxes, child labor, government regulation, and domestic unrest. For example, search on domestic, unrest for speeches such as:
"Confidence in Government" by Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox, which includes the text;

There is unrest in the country. Our people have passed through a trying experience. The European war, before it engulfed us, aroused every racial throb in a nation of composite citizenship. The conflict in which we participated carried anxieties into every community, and thousands upon thousands of homes were touched by tragedy. The inconveniences incident to the war have been disquieting.

b) Warren Harding's victory in the 1920 election has been credited, in part, to his mellow, alliterative speaking style. Harding campaigned for a "return to normalcy" following the hardships of World War I.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 27.7 sec.; 299 KB

Search on Harding for speeches such as:
"Readjustment" by Senator Warren G. Harding, which includes the text;

America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.


c) America's participation in The League of Nations was a hotly debated election topic. Wilson campaigned for it, then Cox and Roosevelt took up the banner for the Democrats. Harding and the Republicans campaigned against America's participation in the League, and were strongly opposed to the international security commitments America would have to make as part of the League.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 22.3 sec.; 241 KB

Search on league and League of Nations for speeches such as:
"Achievements of the Democratic Party" by Homer S. Cummings, Chairman, Democratic National Committee, which includes the text:

All who love America and peace and liberty will take a solemn pride in supporting the President in his efforts to secure a treaty of peace based upon a stabilizing league so that war may not recur and the standards of justice may be applied to all nations alike.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 19.2 sec.; 208 KB

Search on Harding and League of Nations for speeches such as "His call for reservations to the League of Nations" by Senator Warren G. Harding, which includes the text;

Can any red-blooded American be content now, when we have come to understand its priceless value -- to merge our nationality into internationality, merely because brotherhood and fraternity and fellowship and peace are soothing and appealing terms?

d) The election speeches are full of campaign rhetoric. Some of the speechescover Progressive reform measures and the New Nationalism.

Listen to the excerpt:
Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 23.3 sec.; 251 KB

Search on Democrats, Wilson, Cox, Roosevelt; Republicans, Harding, Coolidge; progressive, and nationalism. For example, search on progressive for speeches such as:
"Democracy's Achievement" by Senator Robert L. Owen, which includes the text;

It [the Democratic Party] has passed fifty great progressive acts, such as the Federal Reserve Act, the Farm Loan Act, the Good Roads Act, the Agricultural Extension Act, Vocational Instruction. It has organized the Department of Labor, the Federal Trade Commission, the Tariff Commission, and showed itself, by the overwhelming evidence of concrete acts, the one great, liberal, progressive, and truly democratic party of the nation.


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking

The war and election speeches do not present a significant temporal sequence. However, students can use the speeches to distinguish past events from contemporary ones, construct time lines, and place events in proper temporal order.

For example, several speakers refer to the conduct of Germany as a major factor forcing the United States into the war.

Listen to the excerpt:
WAV format; 49.6 sec.; 534 KB

Students can study the speeches and other sources to identify and construct a time line of German actions that led to America's entry into the war.

Search on Germany, Prussia, Kaiser, enemy. For example, search on Prussia for speeches such as:
"Call of America" by Senator James Hamilton Lewis, which includes the text;

Now sirs, true to the course of history, these United States must meet the assault from without. It comes from Prussia. Prussia -- whose people were ever received in friendship by our people, and whose children were made our children. Yet in return for our generosity, Prussian military masses, defiant to the peace loving people of Germany, and unmindful of the friendship of America, cruelly assails the United States, drowning her commerce and murdering her citizens.

Historical Comprehension

The recordings offer opportunities for students to develop and improve historical comprehension skills. To modern day students, the message of the speakers may seem vague. Students can use other sources to help illuminate the meaning of each speech.

1) Students can read and listen to General Pershing's speech "From the Battlefields of France." The content may seem mild to students -- a typical 'support our soldiers' kind of speech. Yet, in 1918, this speech had a sensational impact on the American people. Using other sources, students can look for evidence of the effect "From the Battlefields of France" had on the American public and the war effort.

Search on Pershing.

2) Before hearing the speeches, students can use outside sources to research the World War One era. After they have listened to the speeches, students can select a speech and study the issues covered. Students can prepare a brief biography for each speaker, a historical snapshot of the time period, and an analysis of the issue presented in the speech.


Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Approximately two-thirds of the speakers are partisan politicians. The remaining speakers represent business, the clergy, intellectuals, labor, and the military. While all the figures support U.S. involvement in World War One, they do so for a variety of reasons and justifications. This variety allows students to study the perspectives, objectivity, and persuasiveness of the speakers.

1) Teachers can print out the texts of a several speeches. Before copying and distributing them to students, teachers can remove the names the titles from the speeches. Using the texts alone, students can answer the following questions;

  • What is the speech about?
  • What is the speaker's point of view about the topic covered?
  • Which political party or interest group does the speaker represent?
  • Does the speaker make a convincing argument? Why or why not?

When students have answered these questions, teachers can reveal the identity of the speaker and the title of the speech. Then, students can use outside resources to research the speaker and the topic in order to defend or revise their answers to the questions.

2) Because the speakers are well-known, students can use the speeches as a spring board for biographical research. Students might use the Dictionary of American Biography, the New Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, or other sources to create a life history profile of one or more speakers.

3) Using the speeches, students can examine the use of hyperbole and rhetoric as persuasive speaking styles. For example,

a) The use of hyperbole in the World War One speeches can help students distinguish between historical fact and historical interpretation. Some speeches characterize Germany as a monster, a beast, and a threat to God. Some of the speeches are less pejorative, defending American strategic and commercial interests, defending U.S. allies, and promoting an end to the war in the interest of world peace. By studying the different approaches used in war speeches, students can compare historical views on the causes and effects of World War One.

b) The rhetoric of the speeches can help students study elections and politics. In 1920, membership in the League of Nations was a major election issue. A spectrum of views on the League controversy can be found in recordings that range from Franklin Roosevelt's strong defense of League membership to Lodge's denunciation of it.

c) The recordings provide evidence that the League was not the sole issue of the 1920 election. Students can find speeches in which the Democrats are attacked for high taxes, for government regulation, for inefficiency, and for corruption. Students also can find speeches that attack Republicans for endangering national security, trying to fool workers into believing wages depended on a high tariff, failing to reduce taxes, and trying to make the American war effort into a partisan issue. Using this material and other sources, students can discuss reasons for the Republican victory in 1920.


Historical Research Capabilities

These collections provide support for research on causes of U.S. entry into World War One and the nature of partisan debate and electioneering in 1920. For example,

1) Using other sources, students can research points of view not represented in the Nation's Forum Sound recordings. For example, students might study critics of World War One or critics of society such as Eugene Debs. Students might look for evidence of the opinions of Labor leaders (other than Gompers), or of intellectuals such as Dos Passos or W.E.B. Du Bois. Students can use the recordings to answer, "Why do you think these opinions were not included in the Nation's Forum Recordings?"

2) Students can conduct historical research using this collection and other American Memory collections. For example, students can;

Search across all American Memory collections on income tax. Students will find that income taxes have been an American political issue since the Confederation government of 1785.

Using cross collection searches and other resources, students can gain a sense of the evolution of political issues in American history over time.

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

1) Students can research American postwar elections throughout history. Students can make comparisons between the 1920 Nation's Forum recordings and other American postwar elections. Students might answer questions such as,

  • What recurring themes or issues do you find in American postwar elections?
  • How have the issues of American postwar elections changed over time?

Students can compare the effects of war and peacemaking on political power in this country.

2) Students can use other sources to study the League of Nations as a political issue. Students can write a retrospective analysis of the wisdom of U.S. decisions about the League. Within the collection, students can find a rich sense of nationalism, particularly in the speeches of Harding and Lodge. Fear of internationalism appears as well, both in sober speeches opposed to U.S. involvement in world conflicts and in vitriolic arguments against Bolsheviks.


Arts & Humanities

The speeches can be used to study persuasive speaking techniques including alliteration, imagery, exaggeration, metaphor, repetition, and rhythm. As part of their study, some students can practice delivering the speeches aloud. Others can use the speeches as models, and then write and deliver their own speeches based on the persuasive techniques studied.

Context Clues

The speakers assumed their audience knew of current events. Seventy-five years after the fact, students may need background information to aid their understanding. Teachers can work with students to set the stage for World War One and the election of 1920. Students can study the speeches and practice using context to decode passages of text, even when some of the vocabulary words and historical references are unfamiliar. Teachers can model the exploration of two or three documents, moving from an easy to understand speech to a more difficult one.

Creative Writing

  1. Students can imagine that they live in the early 1900s, and listen to the speeches as if they were hearing about present day events. Students can write a journal of their impressions of America's role in the War and the 1920 election as they listen to the recordings.
  2. Students can write "Letters to the Editor" to express their views on topics of the time such as the high cost of living during the war, the danger posed by sympathizers to Germany, or the need to end America's isolationist policies and join the League of Nations. Based on the recordings, students can write mock interviews with the speakers such as Lodge, Harding, Coolidge and Wilson.

Speaking and Listening Skills

Using the collection, students can hone their speaking and listening skills. Students can prepare and deliver their own debates, speeches, and interviews on issues presented in the recordings. Students can improve listening skills by listening to recordings, then scoring the speakers on persuasiveness and clarity. To test their retention and comprehension of the speaker's topic, students can write a mock news article about the speech after listening to it.


Significant themes can be highlighted by the real lives of the people recorded in this collection. The theme of "taking risks for ideals" can be found in Wilson's speeches and life story. "Individual responsibility to society" is a frequent theme in the speeches as soldiers are asked to go to the front, and citizens are asked to sacrifice on behalf of the war effort. Students can search the collection for common themes, and then prepare their own recorded speech or story that illuminates that theme.