The Colonel’s Folly And The President’s Distress

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Colonel House a number of times visited Europe to get impressions to convey to the President. Mr. Wilson believed that the Colonel could and would give him a true picture, and he carried this faith so far that as late as the summer of 1918 the President said in conversation that he himself had no intention of attending the Peace Conference in person. Said he: “I will have House over there, and he will keep me in touch with affairs, and I can best act from Washington.” I do not know what caused the President to change his purpose but, as all the world knows, he did personally head the American delegation to the Peace Conference. As the events showed, it was well for his plans that he did go to Paris, because his ruling object of tying together the Peace Treaty and the covenant of the League of Nations would have been ruined had he not been in Paris to thwart the obstacles that were thrown in his way, not only by the representatives of the European powers but by Colonel House himself. Too many trips to Europe, too much association with the great folk of the world, too much delegated responsibility, and too many adulators, spoiled the Colonel House that I had known in the early years of the Wilson administration. Europe was too far away from Texas. The stage was too big, the pageantry too impressive, the praise too seductive, and, gradually, Colonel E. M. House, of Houston and Austin, Texas, of the Texas governor’s staff (whence he gained his title of Colonel), got his head turned.

There can be no question that his son-in-law, Gordon Auchincloss, had an evil influence upon the Colonel. Auchincloss never showed any loyalty toward the President, but made it his business to exalt Colonel House. When the chief representatives of the nations sought out Colonel House in his headquarters at the Grillon Hotel, young Auchincloss boasted that it was to Colonel House and not to President Wilson that everybody was turning for advice. Auchincloss said that “Kings, and Prime Ministers, and Plenipotentiaries come to the Colonel to get the dope and then we have to tell Woody what to say to them.” He came near getting into serious trouble on one occasion by this kind of talk when stalwart Vance McCormick ∗ threatened to punch him in the face if he spoke in that disrespectful manner of the President of the United States.

∗ McCormick, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, publisher, was chairman of the War Trade Board (1917–19) and a close adviser to Wilson.

It was an initial mistake for Colonel House to take Auchincloss to Europe. The Colonel lacked President Wilson’s sensitiveness about nepotism. He had his brother appointed postmaster of Houston, Texas, and when the time came to transport to Paris the Advisory Commission he took with him his brother-in-law, Doctor Sidney Mezes, and his son-in-law. Mr. Wilson remarked on the bad taste of the Colonel in always trying to push Auchincloss to the front. This was very different from Mr. Wilson’s conduct toward his own son-in-law, Frank Sayre, whom he personally prevented from going to Paris as a member of the personnel of the Peace Commission. Though Auchincloss was not intrinsically important in himself, he combined with other influences to give Colonel House a too-exalted opinion of himself and his function in Paris. Colonel House was not content to have his son-in-law merely as an attaché of the Advisory Commission but was anxious to have him as one of the inner circle. Several times he suggested to President Wilson that this member of his family be permitted to be present at the conferences of the Big Four to take notes on the proceedings. President Wilson was at first noncommittal on this matter, but finally, with some slight show of impatience, said: “House, when I want Auchincloss present, I will let you know. Please do not mention this again.”

There were in Paris many Americans who had more confidence in the abilities of Colonel House to steer negotiations than they had in President Wilson. Many men believed that Colonel House was more familiar than the President with foreign conditions; that he was, as they said, more “practical.” What they wanted was a quick treaty of peace that would bring the war to an end. The idea of the League of Nations was too far ahead of the ordinary thinking of the time for most Americans to be seriously interested in it. The League of Nations was more or less a dream of the future which might or might not have some importance. The temper of Europe was distinctly bad at the close of the war. The unity of purpose between the Allied nations had lessened.