Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
THESE two volumes[i] tell Colonel House's story of his association with Woodrow Wilson through the period of American neutrality. They end with a scene at the White House after the delivery of the war message; the President, his family and the Colonel are alone together.
The two friends had spent the day doing nothing except kill time until the President was called to the Capitol. House set down in his diary that he could see signs of nervousness beneath the President's apparent calm. "In the morning he told me he was determined not to speak after three o'clock, believing it would make a bad impression -- an impression that he was unduly pressing matters. I thought differently and persuaded him that he should hold himself ready to address Congress whenever that body indicated their readiness to hear him. It turned out that he began to speak at twenty minutes to nine and finished in about thirty-two minutes. I timed him carefully." . . . It was like the two men, the one in such an agony of doubt over the awful responsibility of the decision into which he had been pushed that he snatched at a pretext that might allow him to delay; the other imperturbable and aware of the immediate requirements of the occasion even to setting down in his diary that he had timed the President carefully and that he spoke about thirty-two minutes. Colonel House did not put down in his diary that night how he felt about the entry of the United States into a great European war, except to say that it seemed to him that "Wilson did not have a true conception of the path he was blazing." It was House's business to be calm and so he simply wrote that they had dined early, at half past six, and that they talked of everything except the matter in hand, that when they returned from the Capitol the family gathered in the Oval Room, where House showed Wilson a clipping from some paper, and said to Wilson he was like Mazzini. "I could see the President was relieved that the tension was over and the die cast. I knew this would happen."
Even if the two men had not had such different temperaments, they would have felt differently on that fateful day. To Wilson the declaration of war was the tragic failure of his own hopes; to House it was a step to which he was thoroughly adjusted for he had long regarded war as probable, as necessary, and as a great opportunity. Wilson hated the decision with all his soul; for about two weeks he fought the matter out in his own mind, absolutely alone. As late as the day before he went to Congress he told Frank Cobb of his horror and cried out to him: " If there is any alternative, for God's sake, let's take it." House, on the other hand, was not beset by these doubts. He remained in New York during Wilson's agony, and did not go to Washington till the decision was made. He found when Wilson showed him the text of the message that "no address he has yet made pleases me more than this one."
Although they were associated so closely, it is evident that these two men felt very differently about the war. Wilson, in spite of the complexity of his character and his mind, was moved by the old American feeling that America is a new land which must not be entangled with Europe. The sympathy of his mind was pro-Allies though chastened by a certain irony about their moral pretensions, a suspicion of their motives, and a conviction that unfortunately they too were mad; in this period his heart was always neutral and non-European. His real judgment he expressed several times, to the horror not only of the Allied spokesmen but of Colonel House; it was that the war arose out of obscure causes that were hatched in a sinister system and a tortuous diplomacy. Wilson never accepted the official propaganda even when it blew the hottest; he never respected it, and could hardly bear to listen to it. What he wanted above all things was to keep out of the hideous mess. House on the other hand was much too practical a politician to permit himself to stray into such a wilderness of unusable truth, even if he had not really wanted the Allies to win. House wanted those very things to which Wilson ultimately gave his official consent and about half his soul's desire. He did not share Wilson's reluctance and foreboding, and he appears in these volumes, perhaps a little more consistently than he was in fact, as the protagonist of what might be called the British liberal imperialist view as against the instinctive American isolationist view of Woodrow Wilson.
Unfortunately this record does not contain Wilson's side of the correspondence with House, nor of course any account of Wilson's feelings about their relationship. It is like listening to one side of a broken conversation on the telephone, and not quite even that, for the record we have is what House put down and Mr. Seymour selected. It is plain to me, however, from House's letters that he did not press very hard on their differences, and that their association was friendly but careful. There are hints occasionally which lead one to think that Wilson would not have tolerated urgency from House or from anyone else. Thus in these papers Mr. Seymour gives great weight to a letter written by House to Wilson on July 19, 1915, in which he says: "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." But there is no evidence that House ever made an issue of this crucial matter, nor that he gave it the emphasis at the time which Mr. Seymour gives it by quoting the sentence at the head of Chapter I of the second volume.
I am inclined to believe, therefore, that although this was the closest political friendship of Woodrow Wilson's life, it was a friendship at some distance and always of a certain fragility. Wilson told House more than he told his Cabinet, and certainly no other adviser in this period had so much of his confidence. But there were reservations, and there does not seem ever to have been the intimacy of two friends who can say anything to each other without misunderstanding. The letters are friendly, but they are the letters of one statesman to another. They leave me feeling that House had to consider carefully how he would approach Wilson.
House had a more coherent, even if it was a simpler view of the war and of the part he wished Wilson to play; he was not tormented by Wilson's hatred of war, by his dreadful sense that victory is a snare, by his desire to wrench himself free from the encompassing of a tragic fate. House was business-like about the business at hand, and did not look long into the bottomless pit; thought and feeling and the action he recommended were worldly and of a piece. But in Wilson there was an unworldliness of pity and doubt and high contempt that prevented him from agreeing wholly with much that circumstances forced him to do. The figure of Wilson is dim in these pages, but here and there we catch a glimpse of him as he struggles very much alone against the advancing chaos. Now and then the real future is illuminated for him by a flash of insight. But these prophecies only cause him anguish, for they show him how different is the path he is compelled to take from that which he thinks he ought to take.
Colonel House served the President in many different rôles, as friend, adviser, scout, observer, secret agent, political manipulator, negotiator, and sifter of information and opinion. But his main task was to accommodate the personal attitude of Wilson to the exigencies of the war. For Wilson stood aloof not only from its detail but from the official premises and official criteria of his time. He wished to keep the country out of the war. For that reason he wished to end the war. He did not wish to fight in order merely to vindicate that part of our neutral rights which Germany was violating. If he had to fight, he wished to justify war by some objective which was greater than the war aims of the Allies. The aloofness of Wilson from the pressure of those who usually surround the head of a state helped him to his uncanny understanding of what the mass of American people really believed about the war. It is no wonder they reëlected him in 1916 in the belief that he had kept the country out of the war in Europe, nor that they elected the Republicans in 1920 because they promised to keep the country out of Europe and another war in Europe. In the period of neutrality Wilson saw more clearly than any living man what the country really wanted. He was in sympathy with the country. He was very much alone, and yet his intuitions were those of the mass of unseen and non-vocal Americans, once you looked below the views which were acquired and imposed by German frightfulness and Allied propaganda and the personal and social connections of the upper classes on the Eastern seaboard.
Colonel House, too, had a certain initial American suspicion of Europe but he was a much more sociable man than Wilson, and he was at once more trustful of, and more sensitive to, the upper officialized opinion. He became in a sense the honest broker between Wilson, who longed for peace without entanglement, and the people on both sides of the Atlantic who had set themselves to draw the United States into the war. The formula which House evolved first during his negotiations with Grey in London early in 1916 became later the Wilson policy of a war to found a League of Nations; it was at bottom a compromise formula to satisfy both Wilson's instincts and the demands of the pro-Allies. House proposed to buy the assent of the Allies to a conference to end the war by offering to enter the war on the side of the Allies if Germany refused the conference or insisted upon a victorious peace. As I read the record, Wilson never fully agreed to this proposal insofar as it involved a promise to enter the war. But he did take from it the principle that American influence should be used as a makeweight against aggression and a stabilizer of peace. Thus it came about that when he entered the war, he did not think of himself as primarily engaged in a war against Germany on the side of the Allies. He thought he was using the force of the United States to tame Germany and to restrain the Allies in order that there might be established a permanent conference to prevent war.
In these volumes we see the origins of what came to be known as the Wilson policy. We can see how the President began to formulate an ideal future as the pressure of events forced him into a course of action which he detested. And in it all Colonel House appears as the man who suggested to Wilson how he could do, in a way which nearly satisfied his conscience, what immeasurably great events were compelling him against his will to do. A psychologist might say that House supplied Wilson with the rationalizations by means of which Wilson was able to bow to a destiny that was overbearing him, and even ultimately to sow the seed of a triumph that may make him immortal.
The machinery by which Colonel House kept in touch with the war was so simple that it might be called primitive. He had direct contact with Grey at the British Foreign Office and with Bernstorff. He had only a casual contact with the French Government or with the Italian or the Russian. He had access, of course, to what the State Department could learn about the war, but that was admittedly not much from the point of view of high politics. He had a useful and illuminating correspondence with Gerard at Berlin, and much less illuminating correspondence with other American Ambassadors. He went to England, Germany and France several times and had interviews with the leading statesmen. But when all is said and done, it was with the British alone, and then only with a certain section of the British, and with this section not in fullest confidence, that he had a continuous discussion.
With Grey at the British Foreign Office he used a secret code; he had the closest personal contact with the head of the British Secret Service in America, and by this means a channel of communication was opened which passed by the British Embassy in Washington, the State Department, and the American Embassy in London. He had no comparable relations with any of the other Allies, and with the Germans he had only a friendly but cautious contact with Bernstorff, who was himself considerably an outsider in the conduct of foreign policy. His friendships in Britain were with men like Grey, Bryce, Plunkett, and to a certain extent Balfour, but there is no evidence that they told him all they knew, or all that he had under the circumstances perhaps a fair right to know. And it is plain that the imperial statesmen like Curzon, and Lloyd George himself, and Milner, and the permanent but dominating Foreign Office, were outside the orbit of House, and quite content to leave the persuasion of Wilson and House to those British liberals who most nearly talked the language that Americans understand.
The objective proof of this is to be found in the fact that although House negotiated with Grey in 1916, making a tentative offer to enter the war on the side of the Allies, Grey never explained to House that the Allies were bound to each other by a series of secret treaties that made acceptance of Wilson's conditions impossible. Grey's letter to House explaining his moral scruples about considering the offer is one of the least informing documents that anyone could have written under the circumstances. There is no doubt that the negotiations of 1916 were conducted in the dark and that neither Wilson nor House seems to have known fully the inner diplomatic history of those days. Mr. Seymour in a footnote (Vol. 1, p. 443) states that Mr. Balfour explained the details of the Italian Treaty to President Wilson on April 30, 1917. That was rather late in the day. Nobody explained that treaty or any other to House when he was in London discussing so important a matter as the entrance of the United States into the war. It is impossible, therefore, to feel that even so able a man as House, with so great a gift as his for friendships, is even a partially adequate substitute for an effective diplomatic service.
The secret negotiations of February, 1916, were the most important diplomatic effort that House undertook in the period covered by these volumes. The conclusions of a conference on February 14 were embodied in a memorandum written by Sir Edward Grey which is dated February 22. The substance of the proposal as made by House is as follows:
Colonel House told me that President Wilson was ready, on hearing from France and England that the moment was opportune, to propose that a conference should be summoned to put an end to the war. Should the Allies accept this proposal and should Germany refuse it, the United States would enter the war against Germany.
Colonel House expressed the opinion that, if such a conference met, it would secure peace on terms not unfavorable to the Allies; and if it failed to secure peace, the United States would leave the conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies, if Germany was unreasonable. . . .
That is the way the proposal read when House left London. On March 6, he arrived in Washington and went over the memorandum with President Wilson. Two days later, on March 8, Wilson wrote a telegram to Grey for House to sign which read as follows:
I reported to the President the general conclusions of our conference of the 14th of February, and in the light of those conclusions he authorizes me to say that, so far as he can speak for the future actions of the United States, he agrees to the memorandum with which you have furnished me, with only this correction: that the word "probably" be added after the word "would" and before the word "leave" in line number nine.
Thus, after Wilson had amended it, the proposal read that "the United States would probably enter the war against Germany", and not that "the United States would enter the war against Germany"; that "the United States would probably leave the conference as a belligerent" and not that "the United States would leave it as a belligerent." In a footnote to the account of this incident (Vol. II, p. 201) Mr. Seymour says that
"the value of the offer was in no way lessened by the use of the word 'probably', which was a conventional covering expression common in diplomatic documents. Since the power to declare war resides in Congress and since the President shares with the Senate the control of foreign policy, it would have been impossible for Wilson to give a categorical guaranty of the future actions of the United States. As a matter of practice, however, the President can determine the question of peace and war, and the expression of his intention appears here in the strongest permissible form."
It is hard for me to believe that the British Foreign Office in 1916 interpreted the insertion of the word "probably" as Mr. Seymour interprets it in 1925. Assuming that British statesmen understood the subtleties of our constitutional system, it seems to me that they must nevertheless have regarded the President's use of the word "probably" as a reservation on the President's own action as well as on that of Congress. The President did not say categorically: "I will recommend to Congress that the United States enter the war," as he might have done if that was what he was intending to do. The use of the word "probably" reserved liberty of action for Wilson, and so the Allies must have understood it. It must be remembered that at the very time these secret negotiations were in progress, the President was being reviled in the pro-Allied press of America and Europe as pro-German, pacifist and spineless; and that just before House talked to Grey, the State Department accepted publicly, though temporarily, the German position on the arming of merchant vessels. I do not see how it is possible to suppose that the Allies took the word "probably" as a "conventional covering expression," and not as a weasel word which radically altered the sense of the House proposal.
Once you reject Mr. Seymour's explanation and take the Wilson amendment as meaning what it appears to say, you arrive at this result: House proposed a conference which would either obtain moderate terms for the Allies or American assistance in the war; Wilson, on the other hand, proposed a conference to end the war with no commitment even of himself to try to enter the war if the conference failed. I don't believe that House and Wilson clearly understood each other here, and that in this incident we can see that in spite of their apparent agreement they started from different premises about the war, and that their minds worked differently as to the American objective. It is necessary to add that there is every reason to think that the Allies had a truer realization of Wilson's attitude than House who, in the stress of working for a great plan, did not distinguish sharply between what he hoped would happen and what President Wilson wished to have happen.
If Mr. Seymour's interpretation were correct the incident would be a crucial one in the history of the war and in the history of American politics. As yet we have only two versions, that of Colonel House, and the gracious but highly officialized account in Lord Grey's "Twenty-Five Years." (Vol. II, p. 126 et seq.) We do not know Wilson's version, and we do not know what the Allied statesmen thought of it all. We do know enough to be wary of Mr. Seymour's definite verdict that "House had shown them how, by merely raising a beckoning hand, they might have the assurance either of a peace of justice or a victory won with American assistance." (Vol. II, p. 203.) The implied charge against the Allied statesmen is a very grave one, and no doubt in the course of time they will answer it.
If Mr. Seymour were right, the matter would be no less grave from the point of view of America. For he insists that a President of the United States offered in secret to commit this country to enter a war in order to achieve a certain diplomatic settlement in Europe. For myself I do not believe that there is any evidence that Woodrow Wilson did anything of the kind, and I am personally convinced that the incident is much simpler to interpret than Mr. Seymour's version implies. I give my own interpretation for what it is worth, recalling again that we do not know the whole story. I think Wilson wished above all to avoid war. I think he would have been willing to have almost any peace in Europe if he could keep America out of war. I think he saw that if once he could induce the belligerents to begin talking that they never could resume fighting. He was willing to try any device, including the House negotiations, that might bring on a conference, provided it did not commit him to entering the war. And I think that is exactly the sense in which the Allies understood it, and that is exactly why they ignored it. They had no promise from Wilson that really counted. And in a conference at that time their divergence of aim would have come to the surface, the secret treaties would have seriously damaged their moral standing, and the coalition might have broken up. Finally and above all they knew that if they maintained their blockade, Germany would either starve or resume submarine warfare. If Germany starved, Wilson's restraining influence would be avoided in the peace conference; if Germany resumed warfare, Wilson would be driven to enter the war without conditions.
If this interpretation is correct, the negotiations were a failure not because the Allies were too stupid to seize a great opportunity, as Mr. Seymour suggests, or too high-minded, as Lord Grey suggests. The negotiations failed because Wilson had nothing to negotiate with: he would promise nothing and he would threaten nothing. He would not promise to go to war with Germany and he would not threaten to enforce American rights against the Allies. The offer inspired neither hope nor fear. And when empires are at war it is not possible to deflect them with insubstantial proposals.
And yet out of these same negotiations grew that advocacy of a League of Nations which may yet cause Woodrow Wilson to be numbered among the great benefactors of mankind. As Wilson understood the House-Grey negotiations they were an attempt to provoke a conference, end the war, and thus extricate the United States from an otherwise insoluble difficulty. The failure of these negotiations seems to have made clear to Wilson that the United States was caught in circumstances which allowed it no escape from the fate of the rest of the world. During the spring which followed the winter's failure he seems finally to have concluded that neutrality was untenable for the United States in a great war, and that the philosophy of isolation would have to be revised. He still fought against the practical consequences and hoped that he might avoid participation in this war. But he realized that as the world grew more and more interdependent no succeeding President would be able to maintain neutrality even as long as he had.
It was with a foreboding that even he might not be able to escape that he publicly espoused the idea of a League of Nations in his great speech of May 27, 1916. He had then come to the conclusion that if he was forced into the war all he could hope to obtain as compensation for such immeasurable evil was an organized peace. Wilson was determined not to fight a war merely for American neutral rights as against the submarine. For he realized that those rights could not be vindicated by war, and the event has fully borne him out. The treaty of peace does not in any way mention the rights of neutrals against submarines and the submarine today is exactly the same instrument of frightfulness as it was in 1917. When the victory was won and peace was made, the victorious Allies did not trouble even to pass a resolution against submarines. Wilson felt that to enter the war merely for the sake of our rights would not be worth the suffering and the cost.
He set himself, therefore, the noble task of establishing some permanent benefit as the objective in case the United States were forced into the war. It was in that way, if I read the record rightly, that he turned to the League of Nations. Other men before him had advocated the idea. The greatness of Wilson lay in his prophetic understanding that this was the one good he might be able to promote and defend in the face of the oncoming disaster. It was the one compensation, it was the one reasonable ideal, it was the one moral justification, it was the one balm to his conscience for the plunging of a great people into the red madness of Europe.
If Wilson had prepared for the ordeal of war in practice as he prepared for it in principle, his claim to supreme greatness among statesmen would not be open to dispute. But the record of these memoirs shows that he and House up to 1917 were dependent for their knowledge of the war largely upon what belligerent statesmen chose to tell them. They had no secret service and no diplomatic service which could inform them either as to the secret engagements or the secret purposes of the European governments. And they never learned before the declaration of war that there were in existence solemn and binding agreements which were bound in large measure to prevent the making of such a just and conciliatory settlement as they needed for the foundation of a successful League of Nations. Therefore, they missed the golden opportunity of exacting pledges from the Allies for an American peace. The Allies had to buy the help of Rumania and of Italy. But they got American help for nothing, and by that disastrous oversight the whole grand purpose of Wilson was almost wrecked at Paris.
The fame of House will depend of course upon the fame of Wilson, just as Wilson's fame will depend upon the success of the League of Nations. House, it seems to me, is bound to share in whatever fame Wilson finally achieves, for it is evident even from the scanty records available that he helped more than any other man, and that he helped decisively, to commit Wilson to the cause of the League. It seems to me of slight consequence whether or not the fulsome judgments of his biographer are accepted by posterity. Even the claims of the biographer which are bound to embarrass the Colonel's friends are of little permanent importance.
Time, and a sense of reality, and a fuller knowledge, will change the perspective in which these letters and diaries are set, and there will emerge, I feel sure, in place of the picture of a man who directed destiny, the picture of a man who stood faithfully at Wilson's side against a destiny that overwhelmed them both, but in that vain and often blind resistance did help to kindle a light for the generations to come.
[i] "The Intimate Papers of Colonel House." Arranged as a narrative by Charles Seymour. Vol. I. Behind the Political Curtain, 1912-1915. Vol. II. From Neutrality to War, 1915-1917. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926.