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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
One of the most interesting and, on occasion, bitter disputes in modern American history concerns the sudden end, in 1919, of the remarkable friendship between President Woodrow Wilson and the adviser lie called his “second personality,” Colonel Edward M. House. Operating behind tlie scenes, self-effacing, tlie quiet Texan nevertheless nursed dreams of power; once, anonymously, lie wrote a novel about a man very like himself who becomes a hind of benevolent American dictator ( AMERICAN HERITAGE , February, 1959). As to what separated him from his chief. House seemed to think it was his and Wilson’s illnesses at a crucial time—as well as jealousies in the inner circle. His deathbed reflections on the subject, taken down by the late President diaries Seymour of Yale find kept secret for twenty-five years, were published in our August, 1963, issue, just before Mr. Seymour himself died.
The four volumes of The Intimate Papers of Colonel House , edited by Mr. Seymour, began to appear in 1926. two years alter Wilson died. They stirred the embers of controversy and led Admiral Cary Travers Grayson to write the important paper that begins at right. The Virginia-born Admiral was a young naval surgeon when he was chosen to become personal physician to Theodore Roosevelt. After T. R. (who over-exercised), Dr. Grayson took over the care of William Howard Taft (who overate) and finally of Woodrow Wilson (who overworked). The Admiral’s relations with the war President were deep and abiding, and lasted until Wilson died in 1924. He went everywhere with him, and he saw the unique relationship with House as it flourished, and as it finally withered. In a sense his article is a direct refutation of what House told Seymour, although, of course, the Colonel never saw it, for this is a debate, in both cases, from beyond the grave: both House and Grayson died in 1938. The Admiral, an old-fashioned gentleman of tad and restraint—he was later a great chairman of the American Red Cross—decided it was too early to publish his article. Aow, however, that death has removed almost all the actors from the scene, the Admiral’s three sons have concluded that it should be printed.
In 1912, or ’14, or ’16, or ’17, probably any intimate associate of Mr. Wilson’s would have thought and said that if Colonel E. M. House should ever publish a book about Woodrow Wilson it would be a eulogium. When The Intimate Papers of Colonel House were published in 1926 a great many people were shocked, not because of the picture presented of Mr. Wilson but by the picture presented of Colonel House. The self-exploitation in that book amazed many, for it seemed entirely contrary to the nature of the man.
Comparatively early in the Wilson administration Colonel House had remarked that he had just one object and purpose in life, and that was to present Woodrow Wilson to the world as he really was in all his greatness, and yet when The Intimate Papers appeared they represented Colonel House as the inspiration, the originator, and almost the dictator of many of the most important Wilsonian policies. Il is a curious study in psychology. Was Colonel House always self-deceived, and did he consciously or unconsciously deceive Mr. Wilson as to the manner of man he was, or did he subtly change as the years progressed?
The general opinion about Colonel House’s book is unfavorable, but there are many people who, not knowing of the relationship of the two men, are perplexed and who ask if after all Colonel House really was the dominating spirit in shaping the most imortant Wilsonian policies. It is because I have heard that sort of question asked that I feel called upon to set down my impressions and recollections of Colonel House as I saw him in his contacts with President Wilson during the changing years.
In trying to explain Colonel House and his curious book I find myself going back to days prior to his association with Mr. Wilson—to the time when he figured in the politics of the state of Texas. Politics there is a very personal thing. Men more than measures engage the attention of the people, and Colonel House developed in Texas the personal approach to politics and politicians. He seems never to have craved office for himself, but he had a strong ambition to be influential in the selection of other men for office. He worked behind clic scenes. His methods were never corrupt, but they were adroit and diplomatic. He was more or less the agent in the selection of more than one governor of Texas, and it pleased his imagination to look upon himself as a sort of kingmaker, to exert power without incurring responsibility, to put other men on (he high road to office. I am not bringing into question his sincerity when I say that for him politics was a game, it delighted him to move the pieces on the board.
When Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey came to be regarded as a likely candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, the politicians in Texas were immensely interested. It has been said that Colonel House did not at first regard the Wilson candidacy very seriously or very favorably; that he was more inclined toward” Governor Harmon ∗ as a tried and seasoned politician of the recognized type. However that may be, in time Colonel House became a cordial supporter of Governor Wilson and had more or less influence in getting the Texas delegation to the Baltimore convention committed to his candidacy, though Colonel House himself did not attend the convention. After Mr. Wilson had been nominated and elected, he got to know the Colonel personally and acquired a high regard for his sagacity—his ability to estimate men and forecast measures. Gradually, before Mr. Wilson was inaugurated, he came to consult more and more with this quiet, shrewd Texan about the men whom he should select for his Cabinet and for other important offices.
∗ Governor Judson Harmon of Ohio, before the 1912 Democratic convention, was considered a leading contender for the presidential nomination.
Colonel House used to visit Princeton occasionally to hold conferences with the President-elect, and it is said that he always made the impression of a very quiet, modest, unassuming, clearheaded man. That was the impression he made on me when I first met him—on the day of Mr. Wilson’s inauguration on March 4, 1913. It was characteristic of the Colonel House of those days that he kept well in the background. He did not attend the inauguration exercises, but was present at the luncheon which followed. He was an engaging sort of man to whom I felt myself drawn at the first introduction—a slender figure, with face unmarked and unseamed by heavy lines of thought, with a pleasant smile, a solt southern voice, a cordial handshake, a quiet humor. Dut one feature of his face was disappointing—a chin which was inclined to recede. We had many good talks together, he and I, sometimes about politics, sometimes about nothing in particular, each of us fond of anecdotes about the simple southern folk of Texas and Virginia.
Having great reverence myself for the President, I was pleased by Colonel House’s respectful attitude toward him. lie was the least aggressive of men. Not »nee in all the \ears did I ever hear him dill’er witIi (he President or argue a point or press a renversai !on too hard. I IeIt he had tact, that he knew how to spare the President’s tired nerves: at luncheon, lot instance, he was more ready to assist the conversation into light, jocose channels than Io bring up public business for discussion. I was fond of William Gibbs Mc Adoo,1 but I could see that Mr. McAdoo’s intense and restless energy sometimes wore upon the President. Wl]en the President sat down to a meal he wanted relaxation. 1 Ie did not want to discuss knotty public problems. Mr. McAdoo, who never thought of anything except public business, would insist on guiding the conversation into a serious vein that too frequently irritated the President. Colonel House was the opposite of this—tactful, restful, uncontrovcrsial.
† The then Secretary of the Treasury, who later married Wilson’s daughter Eleanor.
There was another side to Colonel House which I equally admired. He seemed to me to be a thoroughly disinterested man. He wanted no office himsell and his one desire, it seemed, was to be helpful to the President in the selection of men for appointments. Hc was good-natured, patient, a ready, willing go-between for the President with the office seekers. Hc seemed to have the capacity to take a broad view of the whole political field, and for this, among other reasons, was regarded by President Wilson as one of his best advisers.
He talked about men more than about measures. Thai is why it seems all the more grotesque that he should represent himself iu his book as the originator of the underlying thought ol the League of Nations, the I’cderal Reserve Ad. and other great constructive measures, national and international. Political philosopher he was not, but he knew people.
In the Intimate Papers , the Colonel naively portrays his methods of ingratiation in his account ol his first meeting with the Argentine ambassador on December 19, 1914. Arrangement was made over the telephone for a meeting at eleven ihirty in the morning, and, says the Colonel. “I hurriedly gathered together what data I could get concerning Argentina and iqxm Xaon himsell.” \\hen he met the ambassador, he says: “I began the conversation by complimenting Xaon upon the advanced thought in his country particularly in regard to penal reform. I considered the Argentine fifty or one hundred years ahead of Kurope and the United States in that direction. I marvelled at the statesmanship that saw as long ago as 1864, when they had their war with Uruguay, that a victorious nation had no moral right to despoil the territory of the vanquished. After I had made these few remarks, I had fertile soil upon which to sow the seeds of my argument.”
Priming oneself for an interview with a prominent man by a study of the encyclopaedia or other reference books is a proven political dodge, but it is precisely the sort of thing that President Wilson never could bring himself to do. The Colonel knew anil practiced the tricks which Mr. Wilson ignored.
With all my admiration for his tact and his deference to the President, I did sometimes think that a man in the Colonel’s unique position should be more assertive than he was. He occupied a position unlike any other in the history of our country. In the President’s esteem and confidence he was above all Cabinet officers. He knew the President’s political thoughts as probably no other man knew them. I sometimes thought that he ought to discuss matters more with the President, to be less acquiescent, to speak out his own mind and not merely answer Yea and Nay to the President’s affirmations and negations. If a man is going to be a superadviser he should sometimes advise, but I never heard Colonel House give any initiatory advice.
The Colonel had the quick and ready gift of catching the President’s point of view and of reflecting it in his conversations and letters with amplification and detail. He went about quietly but busily among public men, gathering opinions and setting them down as his own in his communications to President Wilson. When the two men first began to be intimately acquainted, Governor Wilson was still somewhat of a novice in the political game, while Colonel House had for many years been a professional. He was interested in patronage, and patronage was always more or less of a nuisance to Mr. Wilson. It was therefore quite natural that Mr. Wilson should rely upon the opinions of this practical politician, and thereby release his own mind for more important matters. If Colonel House had been contented to be and to continue to be what he appeared to me in the first years of our acquaintanceship—the supplier of practical information to the President—he would have retained a unique reputation in the history of American politics. The grievous damage which he has done himself by the publication of his book is in the representation of himself as the mastermind.
No one who knew the two men could credit the notion that Mr. Wilson looked to Colonel House for large, constructive political policies. One of Mr. Wilson’s manifest gifts was the genius for getting hold of the great underlying idea in a big proposition. Very ItMV men in the history of American politics have bee» able to think so clearly and with such concentration about formative principles. When he fixed his attention upon a great problem he could see deeper into it and further through it than anybody with whom he talked.
One of the things that most astonishes me about Colonel House’s book is the contrast between the picture there represented of his relationship to President Wilson in larger matters of diplomacy and my own observations of him in actual conversation with the President. I was not present at all the interviews between Mr. Wilson and the Colonel, but I did hear a great many of their discussions, enough to satisfy me of ihe general character of the relationship between the two men. Colonel House never offered original ideas but was a receptive listener. The book, on the other hand, represents the Colonel as taking the initiative in that which was Io become the leading purpose and ambition of President Wilson’s career, namely, the establishment of the League of Nations.
An interesting and a logical narrative in Colonel House’s book tells how dealings with the ABC powers, that is to say, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, led up to the idea of a Pan American pact in which the nations of South and Central America were to be not under the protection of the United States as provided for in the Monroe Doctrine, but were to be on an equality of agreement and responsibility. Colonel House, according to his book, became steadily more interested in the idea that this Pan American pact might be a model for a world compact between the nations, which would result in the establishment of an association of nations leading to the guarantee of the peace of the world and the preservation of national integrity.
Letters from House to the President, Ambassador Walter Hines Page in London, and others, as well as entries from the Colonel’s diaries, indicate that when Colonel House was in Europe in 1914 he foresaw European, if not world, disaster unless something were done to check the growing militarism in Europe. On page 2 ig of Volume I he writes to President Wilson under date of May 29, 1914: “The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless some one acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. Xo one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies.”
The impression which the book conveys is that Colonel House was the originating and moving spirit in all this matter, and that is directly contrary to every impression which I gleaned. I feel as a result that Colonel House has falsified the picture—that the dominating mind in all this was President Wilson himself, and that Colonel House was an apt pupil who took what he received from the President and handed it back to the President sometimes in conversations, occasionally in letters, and in his various interviews with representatives of foreign nations of both hemispheres. The very language which is used in Colonel House’s journal and correspondence is the language which I have heard the President repeatedly employ. Anybody who knew the President was aware that he was the instigator and not the borrower of phraseology. I resent the impression conveyed by Colonel House’s widely circulated book that the President went to school to Colonel House.
There is a tablet which has been placed in Geneva honoring the founder of the League of Nations. If the story related by Colonel House were in accordance with the actualities, then the inscription on that tablet ought to be changed and the name of E. M. House should be substituted for the name of Woodrow Wilson. But I am giving my personal testimony that the inscription on the tablet is correct.
If Colonel House had been as dedicated to the idea of the League of Nations as he represents himself in his book he never could have consented in the spring of 1919 to the separation of the covenant of the League of Nations from the terms of the Treaty of Peace. He acted in that crisis as a politician rather than as a statesman. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, from the inception of the great idea up to the time of his death, acted as the apostle of the great idea. The rift between the two men came about primarily because Colonel House was willing to sacrifice, at least temporarily, that which Woodrow Wilson would not compromise. The sadness of the situation lies in the fact that Colonel House seems to have permitted a latent egotism to distort the story and give to the world a picture that is not true.
President Wilson himself, in his conference with the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate in the East Room of the White House in August, 1919, stated explicitly that in the final make-up of the covenant he had embodied ideas contained in a document presented by “a British committee, at the head of which was Mr. Phillimore,” and that he had “had the advantage of seeing a paper by General Smuts, of South Africa” which he had used in drawing up the final form of the document. In the same conference he stated that “Early in my administration, as I think many of the members know, I tried to get the American states, the states of Central and South America, to join with us in an arrangement in which a phrase like this [meaning Article Ten of the covenant] constituted the kernel, that we guaranteed to each other territorial integrity and political independence.” His only reference in this conference to Colonel House was an answer to the question, “How many Americans were on the commission which framed the covenant for the League of Nations?” and he replied, “Two—Colonel House and myself.” When asked by Senator Brandegee [of Connecticut], “Who was the author of Article Ten?” the President answered: “I suppose I was as much as anybody.”
Back in the days when I was fondest of Colonel House and believed most in him I discerned one trait in him which was very unpleasant: he would agree with an unfavorable view of the President’s about someone for whom I knew he had elsewhere expressed admiration and even partisanship. Here was a suggestion of insincerity which did not accord with the impression which I otherwise had of him. I will give an example: He wanted Henry P. Davison appointed chairman of the American Red Cross. He told me that he wished me to help him get this appointment made; that it would mean much to him personally in New York; that it would strengthen his hand; and it would be of further assistance to the President with the group of people whom Mr. Davison represented. He said: “The President has a way of saying, concerning medical appointments: ‘Let me ask Grayson because he will give me the various angles and then I can easily make up my mind as to a choice.’ ” Colonel House continued: “As the Red Cross comes into the medical line it would be most appropriate for you to speak to the President about this. If you will do this for me, I will promise you that I will go tiger-hunting any time you call on me, and I shall never desert you.”
One day immediately after lunch at the White House I broached the matter. I said: “Mr. President, don’t you think it would be a fine non-partisan thing to make Henry P. Davison chairman of the Red Cross?” The President looked over at Colonel House and said: “Colonel, I think you agree with me that Davison is not the best person for me to appoint to this office.” To my amazement the Colonel nodded in the affirmative. It was easier for him to agree with the President’s disapproval than to express his own convictions. That was distinctly disloyal to Mr. Davison, between whom and Colonel House there existed a real friendship.
I recall another luncheon party at which there happened to be present one of the officers of the Red Cross, who spoke with a good deal of impetuous enthusiasm about Mr. Davison. Turning to Colonel House, he asked: “Don’t you feel about him very much the way I do?” The Colonel looked at the President, observed a slightly cynical smile on the President’s lips, and demurred. He seemed simply not to have the courage to come out and say what he believed. Mr. Davison belonged to the group in New York of whom President Wilson was most inclined to be suspicious—the rich, fashionable, Wall Street set. I am quite free to say that I think it was a limitation of Mr. Wilson’s to be unable to recognize the sterling qualities of people whose environment and point of view were so different from his own. But that was all the more reason why Colonel House should have dealt frankly with the President about a man like Mr. Davison.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.”
A little thing indicated the President’s agitation and consideration for Colonel House. It was part of his methodical habits always to wipe the ink from his pen and lay it carefully in the rack before he rose from his desk, but this time he got up quickly, with the pen still in his hand, and said: “Come with me.” We went to the Colonel’s bedroom; the President sat down on the edge of the bed, took the Colonel by the hand affectionately, and said: “Grayson tells me, my dear fellow, that you are worrying about a book which has just been published called The Real Colonel House . I want to tell you that I have not read it and I do not intend to read it, and it will make no difference in my confidence and faith and affection for you. So please forget it.” The Colonel looked up at him with moist eyes and pressed his hand. At that juncture I stepped out of the room. In a few minutes the President returned to his study and resumed his work. That evening the Colonel had on his dinner coat, joined the President, Mrs. Wilson, and myself at dinner, and was in his usual good spirits and conversational mood. In sheer human kindness the President had removed a great burden from an overstrained mind and restored health and normality to his good friend.
Mr. Wilson had so much deep personal feeling that notwithstanding his subsequent silence about Colonel House I am inclined to think that the disappointment in his old friend had its part in impairing his health. But he bled internally. After he was stricken in America and lay again in a sickbed, someone said something to him about writing to Colonel House (I do not recall what the subject was), but Mr. Wilson simply turned and said: “Don’t mention House to me any more. The door is closed.” An open quarrel would have been easier to bear than a silent grief.
The last time the two men met was in Paris on Saturday, June 28, 1919, when the President was taking the train for Brest, whence he was to embark for home. Most of the principal officials of the various governments were on the platform. Mr. Lloyd George, ill and exhausted, had said good-by to President Wilson at the temporary White House in Paris, but Mr. Arthur Balfour [British foreign secretary], who was very fond of the President both personally and officially, was at the station. So was President Poincaré, so was Premier Clemenceau. Several members of the French Cabinet and of the American Peace Commission, Premier Venizelos of Greece, and many other prominent participants in the Conference were there, including General Pershing and a number of Americans. M. Clemenceau, with a tremble in his voice and moisture in his eyes, said to me: “In saying good-by to the President I feel that I am saying good-by to my best friend.” When the whistle of the train sounded, many crowded around the President for a final farewell. Among them was Colonel House, who had a guilty expression as though he had not played fair. The President turned his head toward him, and, with a stern look, said coldly: “Good-by, House.”
They never met again.