The man who helped shape Wilson’s foreign policy
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.’’