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The House Papers Again

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

The Intimate Papers of Colonel House. Vol. III: Into the World War; Vol. IV: The Ending of the War. Arranged as a Narrative by Charles Seymour. Boston,: Houghton Mifflin Company. $10.00.

The two first volumes of the House Papers appeared in 1926. They seemed to raise very interesting questions. It was evident that Colonel House had occupied a position in relation to President Wilson the importance of which had been recognized at the time, but not entirely realized then. There was no doubt that House had possessed the confidence of the president and of many European leaders and statesmen in highest degree, that he had known affairs of policy and state in various countries as rarely any man, that he had had part in great designs and in bringing large things to pass. So important was his work as revealed in these published papers that doubt was widely expressed whether it had not been unintentionally magnified and put in false proportion beside Wilson’s ideas and deeds. This might seem the more possible since the editor was not allowed to publish letters written by Wilson.

The reviewer feels that the concluding volumes go far to settle these doubts. Again and again, with increasing effect, the various papers show the work of Colonel House more important than anyone could have known then, and his services to Wilson more rather than less striking. It is evident that House was trusted by Wilson completely. He seems to have had the confidence, the respect, the affection of the principal men of his time. He rendered invaluable assistance to the president in preliminary investigations and by the information thus accumulated for Wilson’s use when need came. His unrivalled ability in conciliating divers opinions, in bringing various principals together, in affording swift channel of communication, made possible the rapid completion of business that might otherwise have been accomplished too late or not at all. Finally, he had part in originating or elaborating ideas that held the world’s attention in their time.

According to Lord Northcliffe, House always saw three months ahead. It was under his direction that the Inquiry collected information of which Wilson made so much use. He had much to do with drawing up and working out the Fourteen Points. He took large part in getting the Covenant of the League of Nations prepared, his assistance being indispensable, indeed. He favored an indemnity by the Germans with amount definitely stated in the treaty, within their capacity to pay. He strove for a moderate peace, but made compromises to secure a treaty before it was too late. He favored the best possible relations between the British Empire and the United States, but early perceived differences apt to increase unless certain questions were settled. He thought that England, France, and Japan should withdraw from China, and that later probably this would come from pressure of public opinion expressed through the League of Nations.

In July 1918 Wilson wrote: “I hail your letters with deep satisfaction and unspoken thanks go out to you for each one of them, whether I write or not, and the most affectionate appreciation for all that you do for me.” When House went to Europe in October to represent Wilson in the armistice conferences, the president said: “I have not given you any instructions because I feel you will know what to do.” House’s affection for his friend and his admiration were unbounded. He speaks of the president’s extraordinary courage and wisdom. “The more I see of him, the more firmly am I convinced that there is not a statesman in the world who is his equal.” When the armistice was signed, he cabled: “Long live democracy and its immortal leader.” He believed that Wilson would rank with the greatest orators of all time. The ending of this friendship remains a mystery. Colonel House has his theories, which are not given, but affirms that he does not know the reason and never can know. There was no open break and not an unkind or angry word either spoken or written. It is indicated that the friendship waned when at Paris Wilson and House actually worked together during a considerable period for the first time; but it withered only when the president was stricken with illness from which he did not recover.

Memorable years live over again in these volumes. There is vivid account of the despair of the Allies in 1917, of the imminent disaster seeming to threaten, of America’s efforts to assist them before it was too late, of the vast confusion and perplexity attending her efforts at first. The history of the drafting of the Fourteen Points appears in detail, and the gradual effects of Wilson’s speeches and of Allied propaganda on the Central Powers. The great disasters of the early part of 1918, the calls to America for succor, the huge reinforcements rushed in response. There is some very interesting information about the armistice, the efforts of House and Wilson to establish a League of Nations, the effort to bring about a moderate peace well within the Fourteen Points, the inevitable difficulties, the compromises that House favored and that Wilson was persuaded to accept. The treaty with Germany was not the treaty House had hoped for, but what was made was as good, he believes, as in the circumstances could have been secured, and he is not certain that a different treaty would better have avoided difficulties later on.

Interesting portions have to do with rivalry and disputes between the United States and Great Britain. During the earlier part of the War, House believed that interference with our ships by the British was leading to dangers that would never be removed until maritime law was altered and “freedom of the seas” established. This principle appears to have been taken over by President Wilson, who after conferences with House wrote it into his Fourteen Points. In October 1918 House believed that the United States and other countries would no more endure Britain’s complete domination of the seas than Germany’s domination of the land, and that the Americans if challenged would build a navy and maintain an army greater than theirs. Somewhat later Wilson authorized House to say that if the British would not accept freedom of the seas, America would build the strongest navy her resources would permit, “as our people have long desired.” Lloyd George declared that Britain would spend her last guinea to keep a navy superior to any other. In March 1919 House told George that if the British did not consent to sink the German fleet instead of dividing it, he expected a large naval program in America, and that in future England and the United States would be in the same relation as Germany and England in the past. Later George said that an agreement must be reached between Great Britain and the United States not to be rivals in naval building. From later discussions came the idea of the Washington Conference.

There are many interesting things about Wilson. It is clear that the secret treaties were revealed to him in 1917. In September of that year he confessed that he was “getting tired.” He described himself as “a democrat like Jefferson, with aristocratic tastes.” In intellect he was entirely democratic, which he thought unfortunate because his mind led him where his taste rebelled. In February 1919 House wrote in his diary: “The president often tells me that under no circumstances will he do a certain thing and, a few hours later, consents.”

These papers abound in curious and striking information. In June 1918 British authorities thought no military decision in the Allies’ favor could ever be expected from operations on the western front. About the end of October Field Marshal Haig did not consider the military situation of Germany to warrant her complete surrender. At that time Clemenceau declined to admit any danger of bolshevism in France, but George confessed that it was possible in England, and both agreed that in Italy anything might happen. House does not believe that if the United States had remained out of the war Germany could have conquered her later, though he believes that in all human probability there would have been a war and “we would have had a serious time.” In February 1919 there were grave signs of unrest in the French army.

Professor Seymour’s part has been admirably done. The use of Colonel House’s diary and papers in connection with reminiscences or reports of other personages concerned is a model of what such work ought to be. The editor remains aloof, but illuminating observations occur and some excellent criticism in respect of errors made by others.


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