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The Colonel’s Folly And The President’s Distress
In a paper written in 1926 but now first published here, Woodrow Wilson’s personal physician refutes other accounts of the break with Colonel House
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
With all my admiration for his tact and his deference to the President, I did sometimes think that a man in the Colonel’s unique position should be more assertive than he was. He occupied a position unlike any other in the history of our country. In the President’s esteem and confidence he was above all Cabinet officers. He knew the President’s political thoughts as probably no other man knew them. I sometimes thought that he ought to discuss matters more with the President, to be less acquiescent, to speak out his own mind and not merely answer Yea and Nay to the President’s affirmations and negations. If a man is going to be a superadviser he should sometimes advise, but I never heard Colonel House give any initiatory advice.
The Colonel had the quick and ready gift of catching the President’s point of view and of reflecting it in his conversations and letters with amplification and detail. He went about quietly but busily among public men, gathering opinions and setting them down as his own in his communications to President Wilson. When the two men first began to be intimately acquainted, Governor Wilson was still somewhat of a novice in the political game, while Colonel House had for many years been a professional. He was interested in patronage, and patronage was always more or less of a nuisance to Mr. Wilson. It was therefore quite natural that Mr. Wilson should rely upon the opinions of this practical politician, and thereby release his own mind for more important matters. If Colonel House had been contented to be and to continue to be what he appeared to me in the first years of our acquaintanceship—the supplier of practical information to the President—he would have retained a unique reputation in the history of American politics. The grievous damage which he has done himself by the publication of his book is in the representation of himself as the mastermind.
No one who knew the two men could credit the notion that Mr. Wilson looked to Colonel House for large, constructive political policies. One of Mr. Wilson’s manifest gifts was the genius for getting hold of the great underlying idea in a big proposition. Very ItMV men in the history of American politics have bee» able to think so clearly and with such concentration about formative principles. When he fixed his attention upon a great problem he could see deeper into it and further through it than anybody with whom he talked.
One of the things that most astonishes me about Colonel House’s book is the contrast between the picture there represented of his relationship to President Wilson in larger matters of diplomacy and my own observations of him in actual conversation with the President. I was not present at all the interviews between Mr. Wilson and the Colonel, but I did hear a great many of their discussions, enough to satisfy me of ihe general character of the relationship between the two men. Colonel House never offered original ideas but was a receptive listener. The book, on the other hand, represents the Colonel as taking the initiative in that which was Io become the leading purpose and ambition of President Wilson’s career, namely, the establishment of the League of Nations.
An interesting and a logical narrative in Colonel House’s book tells how dealings with the ABC powers, that is to say, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, led up to the idea of a Pan American pact in which the nations of South and Central America were to be not under the protection of the United States as provided for in the Monroe Doctrine, but were to be on an equality of agreement and responsibility. Colonel House, according to his book, became steadily more interested in the idea that this Pan American pact might be a model for a world compact between the nations, which would result in the establishment of an association of nations leading to the guarantee of the peace of the world and the preservation of national integrity.
Letters from House to the President, Ambassador Walter Hines Page in London, and others, as well as entries from the Colonel’s diaries, indicate that when Colonel House was in Europe in 1914 he foresaw European, if not world, disaster unless something were done to check the growing militarism in Europe. On page 2 ig of Volume I he writes to President Wilson under date of May 29, 1914: “The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless some one acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. Xo one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies.”
The impression which the book conveys is that Colonel House was the originating and moving spirit in all this matter, and that is directly contrary to every impression which I gleaned. I feel as a result that Colonel House has falsified the picture—that the dominating mind in all this was President Wilson himself, and that Colonel House was an apt pupil who took what he received from the President and handed it back to the President sometimes in conversations, occasionally in letters, and in his various interviews with representatives of foreign nations of both hemispheres. The very language which is used in Colonel House’s journal and correspondence is the language which I have heard the President repeatedly employ. Anybody who knew the President was aware that he was the instigator and not the borrower of phraseology. I resent the impression conveyed by Colonel House’s widely circulated book that the President went to school to Colonel House.