The Colonel’s Folly And The President’s Distress

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Among the newspapermen whom he most cultivated, or whom he allowed to cultivate him, was Mr. H. Wickham Steed, then writing for the London Times and the Philadelphia Public Ledger . Mr. Steed was never required to cool his heels in the hallway, but was admitted to Colonel House’s room at the Grillon whenever he called. And the Colonel, in turn, asserted that he was able to get Mr. Steed to write anything he wanted written.

It had been Colonel House’s habit to call on Mrs. Wilson every morning and to confide in her the current gossip of the Conference. He repeatedly told her that he had no interest of his own in his work but was only looking out for the President. Later Mrs. Wilson came into possession of an article by Mr. Steed ,extremely commendatory of Colonel House and detrimental to the President, and indicating that during President Wilson’s absence in America Colonel House “brought matters rapidly forward.” Included in the article was a statement that “any real improvement in the prospects of the conference” could be attributed to the “practical statesmanship of Colonel House, who, in view of President Wilson’s indisposition, has once again placed his savoir faire and conciliatory temperament at the disposal of the topmost peacemakers.” There was also an attack on “the secret manipulations” of these men at the top.

The Steed article stated that “the delay [in the proceedings of the conference] that has occurred since the return of Mr. Wilson [from America whither he had gone the latter part of February, 1919, to be present at the closing of the session of Congress] and Mr. Lloyd George has been due chiefly to the upsetting of the good work done during their absence and to the abandonment of the sound methods in favor of ‘genial improvisions.’…”

One morning during their interview, when House was telling Mrs. Wilson what he was doing for the President and that he wanted nothing for himself, she suddenly asked him in her direct manner, who was Mr. Steed? The Colonel promptly said: “He takes orders from me; he is one of the finest men in the newspaper business I have ever come in contact with. He is very strong for the President, and I can just by the turn of my hand [motioning with his hand] tell him what to write and he does it.” Then Mrs. Wilson picked up the Public Ledger containing the article by Mr. Steed and said: “I wish you would read this article and explain it. You have just been telling me, as you always tell me, about your unselfishness and that your whole object is to help Woodrow. If you have so much influence upon Mr. Steed, I wish you would please explain this article.” The Colonel took the paper and said: “I will let you know about it tomorrow.” That was in April. We left Paris on June 28, and the Colonel never came back for a morning conference with Mrs. Wilson and never offered any explanation of the Steed article. This may be regarded as a crisis in the relationship of President Wilson and Colonel House, for Mrs. Wilson showed the article to the President and gave him an account of her interview with Colonel House.

It was upon Mr. Wilson’s return to France that he found to his amazement that Colonel House had consented to a plan for the separation of the Peace Treaty from the covenant of the League of Nations. He had assented to Premier Clemenceau’s wishes and suggestions about this matter. He had also agreed to the establishment of a Rhenish republic that would act as a buffer state between Germany and France, the creation of which would have been in absolute contradiction to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. So President Wilson had no sooner arrived in France than he found it necessary to repudiate practically everything that had been done during his absence. On March 15, 1919, he gave out a strong newspaper statement to the effect that he would never assent to splitting the League from the Peace Treaty.

From that time on, the relationship between the President and the Colonel ceased to be close and confidential. Here we find the congenital difference between two men: Colonel House, willing to compromise, and President Wilson, with the iron will, refusing to make any compromise whatsoever. It was the difference between a pacifier and a man with a single purpose and the power of a dynamo behind it—the difference between a man with a receding chin and a man with a fixed and prominent jaw.

In negotiating the terms of the Peace Treaty, the President showed that he knew how to compromise what he considered lesser things in order to achieve the greater. He has been taken to task for this. He has been criticized both going and coming. His enemies have said in one breath that he was unyielding and unreasonable, and in the next have accused him of playing into the hands of the cunning politicians who represented the Allied powers. If we will find the key to his disposition and his methods of procedure, we must seek it in his concentration on the main purpose, namely, the achievement of the League of Nations. Years before he went to Paris, the President had seen a vision of a new civilization built on the co-operation of nations on a basis of equality; it meant an end to the old methods of secret diplomacy and careful balances of power. He believed that the Great War had shown not only the horror but the futility of war, and that the time was ripe for the substitution of a new order in place of the old.