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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
Colonel House in his diplomatic way talked with the representatives of France, Italy, and other nations in a manner that pleased them much better than President Wilson’s talks with them; and Colonel House’s procedure seemed to many Americans in Paris to be more practical and to the point than President Wilson’s methods. In this way there slowly grew up a situation with perilous possibilities for the relationship of the two men. Colonel House began to see himself in a new role—no longer the subordinate adviser of the President, but the great conciliator of the Allies. He would say things that pleased them. For instance: I was told that when the Fiume case ∗ became acute, Orlando, at a dinner which Colonel House attended, was depressed and despondent and said: “My country is so distressed over your President’s attitude in the Fiume matter”; and the Colonel smiled and said to him: “Don’t let that worry you; it will come out all right; just let matters simmer awhile.” Orlando looked at the Colonel with astonishment and said: “Do you mean that your President is bluffing?” The Colonel responded with a smile: “Don’t worry; I will see that it turns out all right for Italy.” It was just this sort of thing that made the President’s course more difficult.
∗ At the Peace Conference, both Yugoslavia and Italy demanded the former Austro-Hungarian port of Fiume, at the head of the Adriatic. President Wilson opposed the Italian claim so firmly that at one point the Italian negotiators left the Conference.
The confusion that Colonel House was causing by his compromising attitude was reflected in a remark made by Mr. Lloyd George at a dinner which I attended in the British Premier’s apartment on June 9, 1919. A letter from Orlando was handed to Lloyd George at the table. He read it, and said that there could be no settlement of the Adriatic question. Turning to me, he said: “Don’t you want to communicate that to President Wilson?” I told him: “No, there is nothing to do about it tonight. I will give it to him the first thing in the morning.” Mr. Lloyd George then raised his finger declaring to the others at the table: “Ah, there is the doctor. He does not want to interrupt his charge’s sleep with bad news.” And then turning to me he said: “I think you are right. I agree with you.” He then added: “This decision, or lack of decision, on the part of the Italians is very serious, very serious indeed. I think your friend Colonel House made a grave mistake by offering too much of a compromise. His action gave the Italians the idea that we were wobbling. It encouraged them to resist and made them ‘cocky.’ Now I think it means that we shall have to proceed without them, and we should use every effort to have an early peace with Germany. Italy is out of it from now on. However, since America, England, and France stand together, we can keep the world from going to pieces.”
There is another illustration of Colonel House’s unauthorized conciliatory tone about vital matters in the episode of the George Washington . As the weeks proceeded and matters stagnated, the President issued orders to have the George Washington sent to Brest to take him back to the United States. This was a sensational incident at the time, but anyone who really knew President Wilson was aware how characteristic this sort of action on his part was: if he could accomplish nothing by remaining in France he would go back home. It was not a gesture; it was not a bluff; it was the natural procedure of a strong man of action. But again Colonel House constituted himself the interpreter of the incident in terms contrary to the President’s real intentions. He had not heard of the order until the newspapermen asked him what it signified. He said: “The President does not mean anything by that. He cannot go home. Orders are issued often not for the purpose of putting them into execution.” Mr. Wilson himself told me that the Colonel made this remark. I do not know who told him.
The President, who had a shrewd power of observation himself, noted an indefinable change in Colonel House in Paris. He made no comment but merely mentioned it in passing.
There was an old saying in Washington that some men who come there grow, and others swell. There was an enormous amount of swelling in Paris. The ego which had been dormant in many men expanded rapidly under the influences of the international situation. It was disappointing to many of us who had known Colonel House in earlier years to observe how his ego was manifesting itself. He still went about quietly, but it required no special perception to see that the taste for power was growing upon him. Doubtless this was only human and natural, and yet somehow we had not expected it from Colonel House. He was a private citizen holding no office except membership in the American Peace Commission, and yet there was no man in Paris who was more sought after than he. He was more accessible than President Wilson, for the President was in almost continuous conference with the premiers of England, France, and Italy. And so it was inevitable that big men and middle-sized men and little men should flock to the Hotel Grillon where they could get the ear of Colonel House.
The Colonel pleased his visitors by his affable manner and his apparent sympathy with their various and varying points of view; he was obviously relishing the sense of power. He began to boast (and boasting was a new attitude for him) that he could work his will upon men in power. Instead of shunning newspapermen as before, the Colonel began to warm up to them. His name was constantly in print, and it was obvious that he had no objections to the display.