August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
Forty-odd years ago, just after the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, political circles in the United States—indeed all over the world—were shocked by the report that the fabled partnership of President Wilson and his intimate adviser, Edward M. House, had been liquidated. Ii was not the first time the story had percolated through Washington corridors into the gossip columns of newspapers; but until now these had always been dissipated in the clear light of House’s continued personal intimacy and political influence. On this occasion, however, as the winter and spring of 1920 passed, there was evident and solid ground for accepting the credibility of a break. The comradeship of the preceding eight years had lapsed. It died as abruptly as it had flowered.
The unprecedented influence of House as presidential adviser rested primarily upon the mutual fondness and understanding which developed between him and Wilson immediately after their first meeting in 1911. House, a promineni Texas Democrat, threw his influence behind the ellorts to secure the presidential nominal ion lor Wilson and assisted in lining up William Jennings Bryan behind (he Wilson candidacy. Within a lew weeks of Wilson’s entry into the White House, Washington correspondents began to refer to the Colonel as the “silent partner” ol the new administration. Wilson himself declared to a politician who asked whether this unofficial adviser was authori/ed to speak lor the President on a certain matter: “Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughs and mine are one.”
Such personal intimacy was matched by the political confidence which, step by step, the President came to place in his new friend. The latter’s range of conncctions in local as well as in national politics was farflung. It served to facilitate the success of Wilson’s program of reform legislation. House’s interest in foreign affairs was even moic vivid. With the outbreak of the war in Kurope he was (ailed upon to serve as a sort of ambassador-at-largc. In Wilson’s name he carried on secret parleys with representatives of the belligerents designed to liquidate peacefully the crises that arose from Allied interference with U.S. commerce and from German submarine attacks on unarmed merchant vessels. Hc also proceeded to explore the possibility of negotiations that might lead to a compromise peace.
Following the active intervention of the United States in the European war and on the basis of his experience in foreign relations, House was naturally selected lor important posts involving great responsibility. He was placed in general charge of negotiations with the nation’s war associates designed to organize American potentials to meet their demands for assistance. In this capacity he became chief of the American delegation at the Inter-Allied Conference of December, 1917. To him the President turned for counsel on his exposition of American policy in his war speeches, and more specifically on preparations for the Peace Conference and the setting up of a League of Nations. When in the autumn of 1918 Germany finally sued for peace, accepting the principles laid down by President Wilson, the latter named House as his personal representative in the Allied conference called to define the terms upon which an armistice might be granted to the defeated Germans. In persuading the European Allies to accept Wilson’s Fourteen Points as the basis of the settlement, House achieved a diplomatic success which seemed to bring assurance of a Wilsonian peace.
At the Peace Conference it was natural that the role of House would be overshadowed by the dominating figure of Woodrow Wilson. But his activity in all aspects of the negotiations was pervasive. The President chose House to serve with him on the commission that drafted the Covenant of the League and put him in charge of plans for the organizing of mandates— the two aspects of the settlement about which Wilson cared most. Uj) to the moment of the President’s departure from Paris—homeward bound to present the Covenant to his own people for approval—House was still universally regarded as the number two man of the American commission. In September of 1919, Wilson collapsed from strain and fatigue on a speaking tour; but when, in the early winter, the story spread that House had received his congee, it was taken to be fantastic gossip. It was only in the following spring, with Wilson partially recovered and House still excluded from the accustomed intimacy, that assertions of the rupture came to be accepted as fact.
Explanations of the break were numerous; none was satisfactory. Four years later, in February of 1924, President Wilson died, without any public reference to the friendship or its end. In 1928, with the publication of The Intimate Papers of Colonel House , the Colonel himself averred his own inability to identify any incident in the whole course of the friendship that would explain the last phase. “My separation from Woodrow Wilson,” he wrote in response to a question put by the compiler of his papers, “was and is for me a tragic mystery, a mystery that can now never be dispelled, for its explanation lies buried with him. Theories I have and theories they must remain with circumstantial evidence as their warrant.” But during the ten years that followed, the Colonel mulled over these theories, back and forth, until finally they hardened into convictions which, to him, at least seemed credible. At the very close of his life he was willing to sum the matter up.
Over the years from 1920 on, House granted to the present writer the privilege of intimate conversations dealing with his career. They took place in the small study of the Colonel’s New York apartment; the final conversation of any length was held on January 5, 1938, some two and a half months before his death. Seventy-nine years old, he was failing rapidly, but his thoughts returned constantly to the break with Wilson. Although the memorandum which incorporated his remarks of that afternoon was drafted on the spot, House approved its publication—but not until twentyfive years after his death. Those years now have passed. The memorandum can be opened to historians’ scrutiny. It forms the occasion and the core of what follows.