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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
The enthusiasm for President Wilson on his first appearance in Europe was for a man they thought was going to gratify the various national aspirations and see to it that German militarism was severely punished for bringing on and conducting the war. What few understood was that President Wilson was not the advocate of any particular nation, but that he was the apostle of the new idea in the relationship of nations, that he wanted to unify all national interests in a common purpose to prevent a repetition of the catastrophe that had overwhelmed Europe. The Italians looked upon him as the savior of Italy and the French looked upon him as the savior of France, but President Wilson did not consider himself the “savior” of any individual nation. And, above all things, he was not interested in a peace of vengeance but in a peace of reconstruction and unification. If he was the special advocate of anybody it was of the small nations of central Europe. It was his firm intention to establish an association of nations in which universal justice should be the leading principle rather than the gratification of the separate ambitions of France or Italy or any other contending nation. It was also his purpose to get established a peace which would be so just that its righteousness would be recognized by all nations. He was as convinced as anybody else of the iniquities of the German methods of war, but he believed that to impose upon Germany and the other central powers rigorous and revengeful terms of peace would ultimately breed new wars in the future.
Now in carrying out his principles in a large and constructive way he met with opposition not only from European leaders like Clemenceau and Orlando and Lloyd George, but also from a great many Americans who had been actively engaged in France in carrying on war work, who had become extreme partisans of France, and who wished to see Germany crushed. But the President, in effect, was saying: Let these fellows have their way and in time the sympathies of the world will be turned to Germany just as they have been with France in this present war. It is a mistake to suppose that the enormous sympathy for France in this conflict is primarily with France as a nation. It is due ultimately to a feeling that France was grievously wronged by Germany. Mere punishment of Germany will not lead to anything permanent. It would be easy enough to impose severe terms upon Germany and the other Central Powers, but it is part of our business to reconstruct civilization founded on justice, and not on anger. These people, including many of our own fellow citizens, are impatient with me because I will not hurry to view with my own eyes the devastated region. They want me to see “red,” but I cannot afford to see red. Justice is stern and equable—not fierce and revengeful.
It was this dispassionate attitude which many Americans in Paris could not understand, and which some strongly resented. They wanted to see Mr. Wilson acting as a partisan, and this Mr. Wilson consistently refused to do. In other words, back of all the negotiations was a psychological situation, and in psychology President Wilson was several decades in advance of his associates.
As far back as August, 1914, Mr. Wilson had sketched the idea of the League of Nations and his faith in the principle grew stronger with the continuance of the war. It was not long after his return to Washington from the funeral of the first Mrs. Wilson that he was working at his desk one August morning while the brother of the first Mrs. Wilson—Dr. Stockton Axson—was reading in another part of the room. Doctor Axson recalls the scene and the conversation quite vividly. The President completed whatever work he was doing, carefully wiped his gold pen with a piece of chamois skin, straightened the articles on his desk, walked around from behind the desk, and stood in front of the grate, in which no fire was burning. He opened his remarks by saying: “I am troubled about this war. I am afraid something may happen on the high seas that may make it difficult to restrain our people, and I am convinced that at present America’s neutrality would be best for the world. I have been thinking much about the saying of Napoleon Bonaparte that nothing was ever permanently settled by force. The readjustment of the world will have to come at the Peace Conference after the fighting is ended. It is clear to my mind that four things must be different from the way they have been.
“One: There must never again be a foot of ground acquired by conquest.
“Two: It must be recognized in fact that the small nations are on an equality of rights with the great nations.
“Three: Ammunition must be manufactured by governments and not by private individuals.
“Four: There must be some sort of an association of nations wherein all shall guarantee the territorial integrity of each.”
In subsequent conversations President Wilson enlarged on these ideas, but it is an interesting fact that the germ of the great plan was in his mind before the war was thirty days old. That he and Colonel House talked over this same matter together seems pretty clear from the thoughts and phraseology used in the opening pages of Chapter 11, Volume I, of the Intimate Papers .