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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
We have seen from an examination of Colonel House’s book that the Colonel had sympathized with this new idea from the outset; had, indeed, so absorbed the President’s conceptions that he had come to think of himself, or at least to represent himself, as the parent of the idea. Yet when he agreed with the President’s adversaries to support a divorcement of the League from the Treaty, he must have known that he was violating the President’s dearest wish. Colonel House was too shrewd a man not to be aware that this separation endangered the whole plan. Even men in the street and women around the afternoon tea table knew that if the Peace Treaty alone was signed, the commissioners from the various countries would go back home and that it was doubtful whether they could ever again be reassembled to consider the League of Nations.
To create that situation was to betray President Wilson, and as a result the latter now felt that he could no longer rely on his old friend and adviser for the assistance which he needed in the accomplishment of his grand design. He had lost the old faith in him.
It is not my purpose to inquire into or to criticize _ Colonel House’s motives. I speak merely of facts, and those facts are damaging to Colonel House as the chief political friend and confidant of the President. It is reported that Colonel House has repeatedly said that he never knew of any cause for a breach between the President and himself. As a matter of fact, there was no open break. The President was too proud to complain, and too noble-minded to criticize Colonel House publicly. What he thought he for the most part kept to himself. Once, however, when he was ill in bed in Paris with the “flu,” the President said to me without any preliminary remarks: “When you take a man like House and put him in a place the like of which no other man ever occupied in the world, take him into your innermost confidence, unbosom your very soul to him, and then this man is seduced by the flattery of others and goes back on you in a crisis—what a blow it is! It is harder than death. I am a Christian and but for my faith in God it would be hard for me to bear it.”
I cannot help contrasting this sickbed observation with another sickbed scene which had occurred back in America a number of years previously. It was in 1917, shortly after the appearance of the book entitled The Real Colonel House , when the Colonel was a visitor in the White House, and after he had been there a day or two the President remarked to me one day after lunch: “Have you ever seen anything to equal House’s depression? What do you suppose could be the cause of it?” That night the President retired about ten o’clock, and I went back to visit the Colonel, who occupied the room at the northeast corner of the White House, opposite the Treasury Building. I sat by the bed and we got into a conversation on various subjects. He produced from a bunch of papers which he had in a small portfolio a clipping from the Philadelphia Public Ledger criticizing the book. He said: “I consented to the publication of this book against my better judgment, and I told them so when they persuaded me to do it. I would give anything if I had stood firm and not consented. I just wish they would leave me out of things. I would give anything if I could never see my name in print again. When the Governor [the title by which he always addressed the President] reads this book I fear it will be the cause of the undoing of all the things that I am trying to accomplish for him, and it will make him lose faith and confidence in me. You and I can remember one thing, and that is this, when we separate from the President we shall be forgotten and lost. We shall amount to nothing. Just remember that.”
The next morning I went into the President’s study while he was busily engaged in writing at his desk. He looked up with an expression of inquiry in his eyes. I said: “Mr. President, I think I know the cause of Colonel House’s trouble, and no doctor in the world can cure him but you.” “What on earth do you mean?” he exclaimed. I answered: “It is in your power to remove the cause,” and then I told him how the Colonel was stirred over this book and the criticism of it in the Philadelphia paper, and how he feared that this was going to be the cause of his losing the President’s friendship. Said I: “If you can go to the Colonel’s room and disabuse his mind of this he will soon be all right.”