- Historic Sites
Herbert Hoover Describes The Ordeal Of Woodrow Wilson
The great tragedy of the twenty-eighth President as witnessed by his loyal lieutenant, the thirty-first
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
All through these efforts we were compelled to seek President Wilson’s advice and authority constantly, thereby adding further to the heavy load he bore. His concern over the blockade was profound, his prediction of its ugly results accurate. He never spared himself in his efforts to lift it.
In the sixty days of the President’s first visit to Europe, he had received stupendous acclaim from the European people. He had established the major principles of the League and had secured agreement for its inclusion in the Treaty with Germany by the unanimous vote of the Conference. He had formed the organization of Relief and Reconstruction, under American direction and on a nonpolitical basis, against the solid opposition of the Allies. He had defined American opposition to the tight blockade on Europe, with its economic degeneration, and had paved the way for some relaxation of it as to food. With the esteem of all Europe and warm good wishes for his return, it seemed at the time of his departure for New York that he had only to come back for a few weeks to this friendly atmosphere and complete a few remaining items to reach his final triumph.
One suggestion of the dissension to come marred the picture. Mrs. Wilson states that, before he left for the United States on February 14, Mr. Wilson had considered asking for Secretary of State Lansing’s resignation because of his lack of enthusiasm for the Leaeue. He did not do so but appointed Colonel House as the effective head of the American Delegation.
But while the President was in Washington, his troubles began. There were the Senate demands for amendments to the Covenant.
Even more disturbing, during his absence from Paris, the Allied Prime Ministers began to develop new attitudes about which the American Delegation in Paris kept him informed. By cable he was told of the French demands for the creation of an independent Republic of the Rhineland, their demands for Syria, the British demand for most of the other Arab States, and the Italian demands for all the possessions promised in the secret Pact of London. …
While returning to Europe on the George Washington the President anticipated what he would meet on arrival and formulated some ideas of what he would do about it. The Swem Papers contain his replies to questions from his associates aboard the ship. Swem was addicted to writing shorthand notes and quotes the President as saying: “I have just had a cable from Colonel House. Lloyd George and Clemenceau held a meeting the other day in London at which House was not able to be present … but I gather that these men have agreed on a definite programme. Apparently they are determined to get everything out of Germany they can, now that she is helpless. They are evidently planning to take what they can get frankly as a matter of spoils, regardless of either the ethics or the practical aspect of the proceeding. They have not attempted to determine among themselves what they think they are entitled to or what Germany may be able to pay, but they favor the naming of a commission to fix exactly what Germany has got today and the appointment of another commission to apportion this among the Allied Governments. Now, we are absolutely opposed to any such plan. A statement that I once made that this should be a ‘peace without victory’ I believe holds as strongly today in principle as it ever did. Because it is impossible in this day to make a peace based upon indemnities; it must be a peace of justice to the defeated nations or it will be fatal to all the nations in the end.
“If they insist upon this sort of programme, I shall be compelled to withdraw my commissioners and return home and in due course take up the details of a separate peace. But, of course, I don’t believe that that will come to pass. I think that once we get together, they will learn that the American delegates have not come to bargain, but will stand firmly by the principles that we have set forth; and once they learn that that is our purpose I believe we shall come to an early agreement.”
How did he expect M. Clemenceau to “line up” with him on the general issues of the peace, he was asked.
“I really do not know,” he replied. “I am told that Clemenceau once said that ‘General Pershing is the stubbornest man I know, and I am saying that knowing Mr. Wilson, the President of the United States.’ But I think we shall get along very well. …”
Colonel House met the President on the arrival of the George Washington at the port on March 13. Mrs. Wilson’s book may well be quoted: … My husband and Colonel House talked on while I waited in my adjoining stateroom. It was after midnight … when I heard my husband’s door open and the Colonel take his leave. I opened the door connecting our rooms. Woodrow was standing. The change in his appearance shocked me. He seemed to have aged ten years, and his jaw was set in that way it had when he was making superhuman effort to control himself. …
Mrs. Wilson asked: “What is the matter? What has happened?”
“House has given away everything I had won before we left Paris. He has compromised on every side, and so I have to start all over again and this time it will be harder. … His own explanation of his compromises is that, with a hostile press in the United States expressing disapproval of the League of Nations as a part of the Treaty, he thought it best to yield some other points lest the Conference withdraw its approval altogether. So he has yielded until there is nothing left.”
… he threw back his head. The light of battle was in his eyes. “Well,” he said, “thank God I can still fight, and I’ll win them back or never look these boys I sent over here in the face again. They lost battles—but won the War, bless them. …”