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Colonel House and Mr. Wilson

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

The Intimate Papers of Colonel House. Arranged as a Narrative by Charles Seymour, Sterling Professor of History, Yale University. Two volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $10.00.

The Intimate Papers of Colonel House” is one of the most important of all the works published about the period of the Great War, and it is unrivalled in respect of America’s relation to that struggle. Of the multitude of books on the beginning of the war and its causes a few so far stand out: some of the collections of documents published in one way or another from the Russian archives, especially the correspondence of Izvolski, ambassador to France—which has appeared in the so-called “Livre Noir” (1922-3) and in the German edition of Stieve (1924); the various collections of documents relating to the outbreak of the war published by the German government, the Bavarian authorities, and the Austrian government, to which shortly there will be further introduction in the last volumes of the “Grosse Politik”—the archives of Berlin from 1871 to 1914; the recollections of Conrad von Hoetzen-dorff, once chief of staff in Austria-Hungary—“Aus Meiner Dienstzeit” (1922-5); Viscount Grey’s “Twenty-Five Years” (1925); “The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page” (1922-5); and the House Papers, of which the first two volumes now appear.

Among English-speaking readers these last three have had and should have widest possible interest and attention. The Page Letters, with their passionate and moving advocacy of the cause of Great Britain and her allies, and their pathetic but magnificent picture of Great Britain in war time, have already had hosts of admirers and enemies all over the world. The simple, straightforward narrative by him who guided England’s foreign policy during the period of the “Entente Cordiale” and when the Great War came is a classic of its kind. Most interesting, however, to most readers in the United States, will be the work of Colonel House, for it reveals more of the inner history of numerous recent great events in this country perhaps than any book ever published here.

Not often can there be such a book, for few writers can make such revelations. There have been many accounts by statesmen and generals of things in which they had part. Generally their narratives for the most part concern some one country or a particular department of affairs. But here is an account almost such as might have come from William III—long the leader against Louis XIV, immersed in English and Dutch affairs, and closely connected with the diplomacy of other European countries, had he been able to publish about 1714 an account of the Revolution of 1688, the Partition Treaties, and the War of the Spanish Succession.

Colonel House once wrote of his life as more interesting than any romance. In student days he neglected required studies as much as he could for politics and events at first hand, and later he delighted in intercourse with people and knowledge of public affairs. After his marriage, he devoted the intervals of a successful business career to study of politics and cultivation of numerous friendships. His residence in Austin was a center of entertainment, with guests from all over the world, and he made one governor of the state after another. “Your success has been without a parallel in Texas politics,” wrote one whom he had supported. Meanwhile he gave much of his time to reading and study. He was a progressive about politics and social questions, and his interest in national and international affairs became wider and wider. By 1900 he was wishing for part in great matters. Ten years later he went to New York determined to help find the proper leader for the Democratic Party. How much choice of Wilson was owing to him, and how the nomination in 1912 came from careful work that he did is told in these Papers for the first time. Apparently the reelection of Wilson in 1916 was owing in great part to admirable strategy and organization directed by House, who had mastered the art long before in Texas.

Meanwhile Wilson and he, on the basis of instinctive liking and trust, had developed a very close friendship. “Mr. House is my second personality,” said the president. “His thoughts and mine are one.” He was soon known as the “Silent Partner.” “You are the only person in the world with whom I can discuss everything,” Wilson told him in 1915. The president had desired House to enter the cabinet, but the colonel, who had always shunned publicity and office, refused. “Had I gone into the cabinet,” he remarked, “I could not have lasted eight weeks.” Outside of office, constantly able to give counsel, never obtruding advice or opinions, it was generally understood that he was the president’s closest confidant—almost his only confidant, and in many ways the most influential man in the United States. “You will have to ask either the President-elect or Colonel House,” the political leaders said in 1913. One of them wrote: “Making the suggestion through you is the only way I know of handling the matter.” House had great influence in shaping Wilson’s cabinet. He was largely responsible for the choosing of diplomats and officials. He had much to do with sending Page to England.

In 1914 he began to devote his attention to foreign affairs. Already he had established close relations with various foreign representatives in Washington and with some of the leaders abroad. Now he began to act as Wilson’s principal and most confidential intermediary with foreign governments, going to Europe on a special mission that year and on other occasions later on. In 1914 he attempted to remove the suspicion and dread that stood between the German government and the government of Great Britain. Afterwards through him Wilson strove to persuade the belligerents to begin peace negotiations. It would appear to have been due to him even more than to Page that relations with Great Britain never reached the breaking-point. Bern-storff, who had often conferred with him and taken his advice, when leaving the United States, wrote: “Give him my love and tell him he is the best friend I have in America.” In 1917 House noted in his diary: “the State Department communicates with me practically every day.”

These Papers contain so much of importance and so much of absorbing interest that a reviewer does best to commend them for complete reading. Among the most important things only a few can be mentioned. In May, 1914, following an idea of his own that was approved by the president, House went to Berlin and to London for the purpose of improving relations between Germany and England, to prevent a conflict which he feared was approaching. It was certainly an interesting venture. Colonel House apparently, the editor certainly, regards it as of very great importance. G. S. Viereck is quoted as reporting words of William Hohenzollern at Doom: “The visit of Colonel House . . . almost prevented the world war.” The reviewer judges only as an outsider and perhaps as one slightly informed, but he ventures the opinion that any such belief shows some naivete and lack of comprehension. When one recalls that in 1913 Germany and Great Britain, who then cooperated to prevent a great war, made a partial agreement, and that next year they settled most of their outstanding differences in friendly spirit, but that none the less a European struggle involving them both followed hard after, it might seem that such an undertaking by any American, noble as it may have been, was conceived largely in unsophistication and ignorance of the complex and very difficult situation in Europe. Germany and England might possibly have made such a settlement themselves. For an American suddenly to appear and attempt it—even after the preliminary arrangements which Colonel House tried to make—is perhaps not unrelated to the sending of the Ford Peace Ship and to utterances freely given forth in Congress.

Concerning the attempt of President Wilson to mediate between the belligerents, about which there was important revelation in Grey’s account, there is much fuller narrative here. House believed it not possible for the Allies to defeat Germany and her associates completely, and doubted whether such outcome was desirable, especially for Great Britain. Moreover, as the contest wore on, its cost seemed ruinous, perhaps fatal to the civilization of Europe. All efforts failed, however. The Germans were never really willing to state terms nor to negotiate except with understanding that they should have large gains from the conquests they had made at the start. The Allies always feared dissensions if they were drawn into mere general discussions; they always expected to defeat Germany completely later on; and they distrusted any promise that a powerful Germany would make. When in 1916 the American government secretly suggested to Great Britain the calling of a peace conference, with promise that a German refusal to make peace on specified terms—terms that Germany would have refused —would “probably” bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies, they considered the occasion not proper for a conference, believing that the aid of the United States could not certainly be expected, that she was not ready to give any assistance, and doubtless hoping to impose their own peace. Colonel House understood clearly, what the president seems not to have realized, that unless the United States was prepared for war she would not be heard with attention and could never intervene with effect. In 1915 he had written to Wilson: “If war comes with Germany, it will be because of our unpreparedness and her belief that we are more or less impotent to do her harm.”

At the present time it is a fashion to assert that Germany was not responsible for the war, that belief of her guilt resuits from Allied propaganda and the survival of war hysteria. Many who understand how false are such assertions will be interested to learn that House and Wilson and various officials thought otherwise from the first. In 1914 House wrote from Berlin: “The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad.” In August he noted in his diary: that the president “goes even further than I in his condemnation of Germany’s part in this war. . . . He was particularly scornful of Germany’s disregard of treaty obligations.” Despite all the irritation aroused by British interference with American trade, they always had fundamental sympathy for the cause of Britain and France. “It will not do for the United States to let the Allies go down and leave Germany the dominant military factor in the world,” House wrote to Counsellor Polk in October, 1915.

Of very great interest is the light thrown by this work on the character and activities of Wilson. In general it may be said that his reputation will be much diminished if the thesis running through the volumes is maintained—that a great part of all said and done by the president was first suggested by House and brought to pass by his arrangement. The reviewer understands there is already much questioning of this by others who worked with Wilson. Further, that some now living are astonished to find what they thought they conceived and elaborated here attributed to conceptions of the genial colonel. The reviewer believes that the general ascription in these volumes of important matters to House rests not so much upon his own papers —of which the books mostly consist—but on the numerous summaries and additions which the editor has interspersed. They themselves are so important that often the absence of further relevant confirmatory documentary evidence is a most unfortunate omission.

Among the numerous and repeated affectionate, laudatory opinions of Wilson by House, these also occur: “He ‘dodges trouble.’ Let me put something up to him that is disagreeable and I have great difficulty in getting him to meet it” (1915). “We both,” he wrote of Lansing and himself in 1916, “believe the President will be exceedingly reluctant to back up his own threats.” In January, 1917, Wilson told him: “There will be no war. This country does not intend to become involved in this war.” Shortly before, House had written in his diary: “We are on the verge of war, and not a move is being taken in the direction of immediate preparation . . . I am convinced that the President’s place in history is dependent to a large degree upon luck.” Almost to the end before he decided on war, Wilson remained uncertain.


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