The man who helped shape Wil­son’s for­eign pol­icy

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Pres­i­dent Bush’s fo­cus on spread­ing democ­racy through­out the world has reawak­ened in­ter­est in the legacy of Woodrow Wil­son, one of the first chief ex­ec­u­tives to make that prin­ci­ple a cor­ner­stone of his for­eign pol­icy. A key ar­chi­tect and ex­ecu­tor of Wil­son’s diplo­matic ef­forts was his con­fi­dant and al­ter ego, Col. Ed­ward M. House, one of his­tory’s most in­flu­en­tial non­elected pub­lic ser­vants.

House is reg­u­larly dis­cussed in books about Wil­son and in diplo­matic as­sess­ments of the World War I era. He has not, how­ever, been the sub­ject of a bi­og­ra­phy since the 1960s. God­frey Hodg­son’s “Woodrow Wil­son’s Right Hand: The Life Of Colonel Ed­ward M. House” is a timely con­tri­bu­tion to our un­der­stand­ing of key pub­lic and be­hind-the-scenes events of the early 20th cen­tury.

Mr. Hodg­son, a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and his­tory, com­bines prodi­gious re­search with a lively writ­ing style to pro­duce a spir­ited, though not un­crit­i­cal, de­fense of his sub­ject.

House, whose mil­i­tary ti­tle was hon­orific, at first han­dled mun­dane po­lit­i­cal tasks for Wil­son. Once hav­ing proven his ef­fec­tive­ness, the pres­i­dent gave him vastly in­creased re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

His diplo­matic ca­reer, how­ever, started omi­nously. House worked hard, though ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­fully, to bro­ker a diplo­matic so­lu­tion that might have avoided the out­break of war.

The au­thor chides House and his al­lies for ex­ag­ger­at­ing his ef­forts in this area. “He dreamed of be­ing a peace­maker, and he also knew that if he could make Wil­son the man who saved Europe from its own fu­ries, he would earn the grat­i­tude not only of the pres­i­dent, but also of an Amer­i­can peo­ple al­ways keen to show them­selves wiser and more vir­tu­ous than the stuffed shirts and cocked hats of Europe,’’ Mr. Hodg­son writes.

In some ways House, who never held an of­fi­cial po­si­tion in the Wil­son ad­min­is­tra­tion, was an un­usual choice to be a ma­jor diplo­mat. He was a wealthy king­maker and fixer in his na­tive Texas and won the con­fi­dence of Wil­son by at­tend­ing to many of the day-to­day tasks of the 1912 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. He then helped Wil­son chose Cabi­net and staff mem­bers.

The two men of quite dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ments be­came so close that in 1916, Wil­son re­ferred to his friend as “my sec­ond per­son­al­ity. He is my in­de­pen­dent self, His thoughts and mine are one.’’

That re­la­tion­ship, cou­pled with Wil­son’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence in for­eign pol­icy and mis­trust of the State De­part­ment, would have widerang­ing im­pli­ca­tions for both Amer­i­can and global pol­i­tics.

Much of this book fo­cuses on House’s ex­ten­sive ef­forts at help­ing ne­go­ti­ate the treaty that ended World War I and draft­ing the char­ter of the League of Na­tions. Mr. Hodg­son rightly con­tends that House and Wil­son made key mis­steps, in­clud­ing mis­in­ter­pret­ing the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion and not do­ing enough to mol­lify the United States’ al­lies when draft­ing the prin­ci­ples of peace.

“From an Al­lied point of view, the Amer­i­can ne­go­ti­a­tion on the ba­sis of the Four­teen Points looked like un­com­radely be­hav­ior. For many Amer­i­cans too, it came to look as though a set­tle­ment re­sult­ing from de­ci­sive vic­tory had been sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of Woodrow Wil­son’s naive be­lief in such fa­vorite slo­gans as ‘open diplo­macy,’’’ Mr. Hodg­son writes.

House not only rep­re­sented the United States dur­ing many of the key ne­go­ti­a­tions but also drafted the char­ter for the League of Na­tions. But he and his boss were not al­ways on the same page. House had doubts about Wil­son’s po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­at­ing skills and felt the pres­i­dent did not fight hard enough for a treaty that would be less harsh on Ger­many and more po­lit­i­cally palat­able at home. The pres­i­dent felt his friend was too ea­ger to com­pro­mise­and cave on im­por­tant prin­ci­ples.

The ul­ti­mate in­abil­ity of Wil­son, House, et al to per­suade Congress to rat­ify the Treaty of Ver­sailles not only rep­re­sented their largest pro­fes­sional fail­ure, but it also es­ca­lated the demise of their friend­ship. The in­creas­ing in­flu­ence of the pres­i­dent’s sec­ond wife, Edith, whose re­la­tions with House were frosty, was also helped kill the re­la­tion­ship. Aides to Wil­son in­formed House that he was not wel­come to at­tend the pres­i­dent’s funeral.

Af­ter that, House was mostly a po­lit­i­cal by­s­tander, though he en­joyed some promi­nence as one of Franklin Roo­sevelt’s cam­paign ad­vis­ers in 1932. In his hey­day, how­ever, House worked at the high­est lev­els of pol­i­tics and diplo­macy in a man­ner not equaled by many oth­ers who never held an of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment po­si­tion.

Mr. Hodg­son’s book gives his sub­ject a thor­ough and nu­anced ex­am­i­na­tion. By read­ing it, cur­rent pol­icy mak­ers can per­haps learn that while spread­ing democ­racy is a noble cause, even those with su­pe­rior po­lit­i­cal skills can’t al­ways make it hap­pen.

Claude R. Marx writes a po­lit­i­cal col­umn for the Ea­gle-Tri­bune in North An­dover, Mass. He is the au­thor of a chap­ter on the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of Howard Dean that ap­pears in the book “The Di­vided States of Amer­ica.’’

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