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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
There is a tablet which has been placed in Geneva honoring the founder of the League of Nations. If the story related by Colonel House were in accordance with the actualities, then the inscription on that tablet ought to be changed and the name of E. M. House should be substituted for the name of Woodrow Wilson. But I am giving my personal testimony that the inscription on the tablet is correct.
If Colonel House had been as dedicated to the idea of the League of Nations as he represents himself in his book he never could have consented in the spring of 1919 to the separation of the covenant of the League of Nations from the terms of the Treaty of Peace. He acted in that crisis as a politician rather than as a statesman. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, from the inception of the great idea up to the time of his death, acted as the apostle of the great idea. The rift between the two men came about primarily because Colonel House was willing to sacrifice, at least temporarily, that which Woodrow Wilson would not compromise. The sadness of the situation lies in the fact that Colonel House seems to have permitted a latent egotism to distort the story and give to the world a picture that is not true.
President Wilson himself, in his conference with the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate in the East Room of the White House in August, 1919, stated explicitly that in the final make-up of the covenant he had embodied ideas contained in a document presented by “a British committee, at the head of which was Mr. Phillimore,” and that he had “had the advantage of seeing a paper by General Smuts, of South Africa” which he had used in drawing up the final form of the document. In the same conference he stated that “Early in my administration, as I think many of the members know, I tried to get the American states, the states of Central and South America, to join with us in an arrangement in which a phrase like this [meaning Article Ten of the covenant] constituted the kernel, that we guaranteed to each other territorial integrity and political independence.” His only reference in this conference to Colonel House was an answer to the question, “How many Americans were on the commission which framed the covenant for the League of Nations?” and he replied, “Two—Colonel House and myself.” When asked by Senator Brandegee [of Connecticut], “Who was the author of Article Ten?” the President answered: “I suppose I was as much as anybody.”
Back in the days when I was fondest of Colonel House and believed most in him I discerned one trait in him which was very unpleasant: he would agree with an unfavorable view of the President’s about someone for whom I knew he had elsewhere expressed admiration and even partisanship. Here was a suggestion of insincerity which did not accord with the impression which I otherwise had of him. I will give an example: He wanted Henry P. Davison appointed chairman of the American Red Cross. He told me that he wished me to help him get this appointment made; that it would mean much to him personally in New York; that it would strengthen his hand; and it would be of further assistance to the President with the group of people whom Mr. Davison represented. He said: “The President has a way of saying, concerning medical appointments: ‘Let me ask Grayson because he will give me the various angles and then I can easily make up my mind as to a choice.’ ” Colonel House continued: “As the Red Cross comes into the medical line it would be most appropriate for you to speak to the President about this. If you will do this for me, I will promise you that I will go tiger-hunting any time you call on me, and I shall never desert you.”
One day immediately after lunch at the White House I broached the matter. I said: “Mr. President, don’t you think it would be a fine non-partisan thing to make Henry P. Davison chairman of the Red Cross?” The President looked over at Colonel House and said: “Colonel, I think you agree with me that Davison is not the best person for me to appoint to this office.” To my amazement the Colonel nodded in the affirmative. It was easier for him to agree with the President’s disapproval than to express his own convictions. That was distinctly disloyal to Mr. Davison, between whom and Colonel House there existed a real friendship.
I recall another luncheon party at which there happened to be present one of the officers of the Red Cross, who spoke with a good deal of impetuous enthusiasm about Mr. Davison. Turning to Colonel House, he asked: “Don’t you feel about him very much the way I do?” The Colonel looked at the President, observed a slightly cynical smile on the President’s lips, and demurred. He seemed simply not to have the courage to come out and say what he believed. Mr. Davison belonged to the group in New York of whom President Wilson was most inclined to be suspicious—the rich, fashionable, Wall Street set. I am quite free to say that I think it was a limitation of Mr. Wilson’s to be unable to recognize the sterling qualities of people whose environment and point of view were so different from his own. But that was all the more reason why Colonel House should have dealt frankly with the President about a man like Mr. Davison.