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Epilogue

May 2024
5min read


The foregoing may be accepted as Colonel House’s final testimony. It is incomplete but obviously honest; it provides a rational basis upon which the historian may rest his own opinion. As an ex parte statement it demands critical examination. But it is clear that Colonel House had not lost the objectivity that had always been a major aspect of his character; his memory was as photographic as ever in its quality; and his capacity to rise above petty issues was unchanged. From first to last he steadfastly refused to throw on the shoulders of Woodrow Wilson an atom of blame for any responsibility in the ending of the friendship. If personal factors were accountable for the break, then in House’s opinion, the charge should be laid at the door of those who for one reason or another resented his influence with the President.

It is clear that House had come to recognize the unfriendliness of Mrs. Wilson. Her hostility was never openly evinced during his lifetime; he died before the publication of her autobiography, My Memoir , in which her feelings are freely expressed. But he was well aware of the critical view she took of his advice to the President during the Peace Conference; and he believed, not without reason, that it was primarily her influence that closed the doors of the White House to him during the months of the President’s illness and prevented the resumption of all personal contacts. Even earlier, during the months that followed the President’s second marriage, it is undeniable that the affectionate intimacy of Wilson and House had begun to cool. The status of the latter was inevitably altered by the President’s enchantment with his second wife, who provided him with all the personal sympathy he had been used to look for and find in House. Her own memoirs offer clear evidence of her unreadiness to play the role assumed by the first Mrs. Wilson, who had eagerly fostered the House-Wilson relationship. She was not inclined to bridge the gap that began to open at Paris and which was widened permanently by the illness that kept them apart in the autumn.

At the Peace Conference, as signs multiplied that the Colonel’s influence was on the wane, criticisms of House began to be spread about, but as yet sotto voce . Wilson’s top advisers in economic and financial affairs were not intimate with House; their relations were not based upon warm personal friendship; so much is to be gathered from the diaries and memoirs of Vance McCormick, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and chairman of the War Trade Board, and Bernard Baruch, among other sources. Ray Stannard Baker, who was in charge of press relations and who had been originally selected by the Colonel for the post, repeatedly stressed the tendency of House to compromise, comparing it with Wilson’s adamant idealism. He may have carried his criticism to the President, as well as the suggestion of the impropriety of House’s intimate relations with the French and British prime ministers. But there was never anything like a hostile clique that attempted to injure his standing with the President.

How much of such gossip and similar back-corridor talk was brought to the President’s ear is a matter of speculation. We know that Mrs. Wilson passed on to him stories of House’s eagerness, through compromise, to win pleasant relations with Clemenceau and Lloyd George, during the President’s absence in the United States. Her own characterization of House as a “perfect jellyfish” Wilson accepted with good-natured tolerance. “Well,” he responded, “God made jellyfish.” And he added, “I would as soon doubt your loyalty as his.” When in April he became seriously ill, he continued to use House as his chief negotiator. Nor in the crises of debate with the British, French, and Italians did he turn for support or advice to any other of the American delegates as he still did to the Colonel.

Not the least important item in House’s testimony lies in his insistence that from first to last there was no open quarrel with Wilson, indeed, no single incident that would explain the break in personal relations. On this point his evidence is definite and conclusive. Nor in the twenty-five years since Colonel House’s death has any historian found an explanation. Careful analysis of all the different episodes that have been cited as accountable for the break shows each of them to be void of significance.

Thus the compromises which House negotiated in April, chiefly regarding reparations, the Saar, and the Rhine, were often adduced as a major cause of the break. Yet these compromises were not only authorized by Wilson himself but, on his Paris sickbed, he was kept in immediate touch with every step in the discussion. Indeed in certain instances he approved concessions which House advised against yielding. As a matter of fact it was not entirely inconvenient that House should be at hand to shoulder whatever blame might attach to the compromises. The Fiume crisis also deserves careful scrutiny before it is accepted as a primary factor in the rupture of the friendship. The President specifically authorized House to carry on prolonged negotiations in search of a compromise between Italians and Yugoslavs. He was informed of every proposition put forward by House. When he disagreed the President gave no sign of irritation: “You are doing such fine patient work that it is very hard not to go the full length with you.”

Ray Stannard Baker was chiefly responsible for the story of House’s surrender to the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, who was accused of fostering a plan for the sidetracking of the League of Nations during Wilson’s absence in Washington. The allegation of such an “intrigue,” to use Baker’s phrase, amounted virtually to charging House with disloyalty to the President. The charge rested upon complete misunderstanding of the facts; it has been repeatedly disproved by all the historical documents published since and by all reputable historians. There is no scrap of evidence that Wilson gave the slightest credence to any suggestions of disloyalty on the part of House.

In the absence of all indications of any incident adequate to account for the rupture of the friendship, the only explanation left to the historian, as it was finally to House, is the series of circumstances that developed at the Peace Conference, which neither of the two men completely appreciated at the time. Later the Colonel came to realize how in changing circumstances the relationship changed. He is on sound ground in stressing the difference in his own position that resulted from his diplomatic triumph at the Armistice negotiations. It was also a fact, and he came to recognize it, that in his attitude at Paris there appeared a certain air of authority which derived from his own relations with the European prime ministers and not, as in former days, merely from the support of the President. Wilson must have sensed the change, and it would have been difficult for him not to experience, at least unconsciously, a certain resentment.

This alteration of the personal relationship was accompanied by an increasing difference in political method, not so sharp in meeting problems of the Conference but threatening definite cleavage with the approaching struggle for ratification. Although no single act of compromise with the European statesmen led to disagreement between the two men, the increasing difference in their attitude is not difficult for the historian to trace. For House it was vital to assure the larger fundamentals of the settlement, notably the League of Nations, and to establish the new international order without delay. He would sacrifice details without compunction. Above all things, speedy stabilization seemed to him vital.

For Wilson, however, certain aspects of the proposed settlement, details as they appeared to many of his critics, were sacrosanct. Above all, the Covenant of the League of Nations as projected must be preserved uncrippled. When it came to such aspects of the peace he would not negotiate; he would fight. The final words exchanged by the two friends as they parted in Paris after the signing of the Versailles Treaty on June 28, 1919, are completely revealing. “I urged him,” wrote House in his diary, “to meet the Senate in a conciliatory spirit; if he treated them with the same consideration he had used with his foreign colleagues all would be well. In reply he said, ‘House, I have found one can never get anything in this life that is worthwhile, without fighting for it.’”

On this note the two men parted, never to meet again. In the days of Wilson’s illness and invalidism that lay ahead, it would have required helping, sympathetic hands to heal the breach, even though it was narrow, and bring them together again. These were denied.

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