Presidential advisor: Edward M. House


B. Houston, Tex., July 26, 1858; Educ. Hopkins Grammar Sch., New Haven, Conn., 1877; Cornell U., 1881; active in Dem. councils, state and national, but never a candidate for office. Personal representative of President Wilson to the European governments in 1914, 1915, and 1916; apptd. by the President, Sept., 1917, to gather and organize data necessary at the eventual peace conference; commd. as the special rep. of Govt. of U. S. at the Inter-Allied Conference of Premiers and Foreign Ministers, held in Paris, Nov. 29, 1917, to effect a more complete coordination of the activities of the Entente cobelligerents for the prosecution of the war; designated by the President to represent the U. S. in the Supreme War Council at Versailles, Dec. 1, 1917; Oct. 17, 1918; designated by the President to act for the U. S. in the negotiation of the Armistice with the Central Powers; mem. Am. Commn. to Negotiate Peace, 1918-19. . . . 89


THE nature of Colonel Edward M. House was fully revealed by a story of his youth, which he told me at Paris in the concluding moments of the Peace Conference. He was elated and confident. The compromises in which he delighted had been made. The gifts had all been bestowed--of territory which men will have to fight for to keep, of reparations which will never be paid, of alliances which will never be carried out, of a League of Nations which the Colonel's own Nation will never enter.

Looking the work over with that blindness with which men are struck who are under the dominion of another and stronger man's mind, his gentle soul was flooded with happiness. He was as near boasting as one of his modest habits could be, as his mind turned to the wisdom of his youth which had brought forth this excellent fruit.

"I got my first real sight of politics," he said, "when I was a boy in Cornell University. My great chum there was young Morton, a son of the Republican war governor of Indiana. The Hayes-Tilden contest over the Presidency was being decided. Morton and I used to run away from Ithaca to Washington during that absorbing fight. By reason of his father's position in the Democratic party, he could get in behind the scenes as few young men could; and he took me with him. I saw the whole amazing thing. I made up my mind then and there that only three or four men in this country counted, and that there was little chance of rising to be one of those three or four by the ordinary methods."

He was, when he said this, at the apex of his career, behind the scenes of the greatest World Congress ever held, following the greatest War the world had ever known. And he had been behind the scenes as had no other man, in Europe as a privileged onlooker with both belligerents, and in America as the confidant of tremendous events.

He was there, as in his college days, at the Hayes-Tilden contest, by grace of a friend whose influence had been sufficient to secure him his opportunities. The parallel was in his mind, and he regarded it with self-approval. He had chosen his course and chosen it wisely. It had led him to the greatest peace-making in history.

There was a little more self-revelation. He and Morton had prepared for college with Yale in view. But Morton had flunked his entrance examinations at Yale and afterward succeeded in passing the Cornell tests. House had gone to Cornell to be with his friend, an early indication of a capacity for self-effacement, for attachment to the nearest great man at hand who could take him behind the scenes.

The mystery of Colonel House is that he has been possessed all his life, almost passionately, with that instinct which makes boys run to fires. His fastening upon the favorably placed, whether it was Morton in his youth, or Wilson in his maturity, was not ordinary self-seeking, not having for its object riches or power or influence. It was merely desire to see for the pure love of seeing.

His is a boundless curiosity about both men and events. His eyes are the clue to his character. Boardman Robinson, with the caricaturist's gift for catching that feature which exhibits character, said to me one day during the War, "I just passed Colonel House on the street. The most wonderful seeing eyes I ever saw!"

Nature had made Colonel House all eyes--trivial in figure, undistinguished, slightly ludicrous, almost shambling, shrinking under observation so that he gained a reputation for mystery, with only one feature to catch your attention, a most amazingly fine pair of eyes. It was as if nature had concentrated on those eyes, treating all the puny rest of him with careless indifference. They are eyes that delight in seeing, eyes to seek a place in the first row of the grand stand of world events, eyes that turn steadily outward upon objective reality. Not the eyes of a visionary--House got his visions of the brotherhood of man and the rest of it at second-hand from Wilson--eyes that glow not with the internal fires of a great soul, but with the intoxication of the spectacle.

And with the eyes nature had given House an unerring instinct for getting where, with his small figure, he could see. The ego of the passionate spectator is as peculiar as that of the book collector or the curiosity hunter. Given a shoulder tall enough the diminutive House perches upon it, like a small boy watching a circus parade from his father's broad back, whether the shoulder be Morton's in his youth, or Wilson's in his maturity.

Some have tried to explain House by saying that he had the vanity of loving familiarity with the great; but I doubt if House cared for kings, as kings, any more than a bibliomaniac cares for jade. He wanted to see; and kings were merely tall objects on which to perch and regard the spectacle.

He remained simple and unaffected by his contacts with Europe, did none of the vulgar aping of the toady, coming away from the Peace Conference an unconscious provincial, who said "Eye-talian" in the comic-paper way, and Fiume pronouncing the first syllable as if he were exclaiming "Fie! for shame!"--an unspoiled Texan who must have cared as little what kings and potentates thought of him as a newsboy watching a baseball game cares for the accidental company of a bank president.

The world has been good to Colonel House, according to his standards. He has realized his ambition to the fullest. Life has given him all he wanted, the privilege of seeing, more abundantly than to any other in his generation, perhaps in all time; for he is history's greatest spectator.

He is glad. His heart is full. He wishes to give in return. He is the kindest-hearted man who has ever had empires at his disposal. He wants to give, give, give. He wants to make happy. He was the fairy godmother of Europe, the diplomatic Carnegie, who thought it a disgrace to die diplomatically rich.

For many months I saw him almost daily at Paris. His was a heart of gold, whether in personal or international relations; but a heart of gold does not make a great negotiator. Perverse and nationalistic races of men, incredulous of the millennium, keep their hearts of gold at home when they go out to deal with their neighbors.

It was difficult for Colonel House to say no. He might go so far as to utter the first letter of that indispensable monosyllable; but before he accomplished the vowel, his mind would turn to some happy "formula" passing midway between no and yes. He was fertile in these expedients. Daily he would talk of some new "formula," for Fiume, for Dantzig, for the Saar Valley, for the occupation of the Rhine, for Shantung, always happily, always hopefully. The amiable William Allen White hit off his disposition perfectly when he said House's daily prayer was, "Give us this day our daily compromise."

When he split a hair between the south and southwest side, it was not for logistic pleasure; it was to divide it with splendid justice and send each of two rival claimants away happy in the possession of exactly half of the slender filament, so that neither would be empty handed. I never saw a man so overjoyed as he was one day late in April or early in May when M. Clemenceau had left his rooms in the Hotel Crillon with the promise of Franco-American defensive alliance.

"The old man," he said, "is very happy. He has got what he has been after. I can't tell you just now what it is. But he has got it at last."

He had been the donor, for Mr. Wilson, of the exact southwest side of a hair, the promise to submit, without recommendations, an alliance to the United States Senate, which had little prospect of ever being accepted by this country. The sight of the French Premier's happiness made him radiant.

It was not merely because representatives of foreign governments found Colonel House easy to see when they could not gain access to President Wilson that kept a throng running to his quarters in the Crillon; it was because there they found the line of least resistance. There was the readiest sympathy. There was the greatest desire to accommodate. He sought always for a formula that would satisfy the claims of all.

A man so ready to compromise is actuated by no guiding principle. Mr. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, said when President Wilson was in England; "Yes, Lloyd George is honestly for the League of Nations. But that won't prevent him from doing things at Paris which will be utterly inconsistent with the principle of such a league. It isn't intellectual dishonesty; but Lloyd George hasn't a logical mind. He doesn't understand the implications of his own position."

Neither did Colonel House at Paris. The League of Nations was an emotion with him, not a principle. It was a tremendous emotion. He spoke of it in a voice that almost broke. I remember his glowing eyes and the little catch in his throat as he said, at Paris, "The politicians don't like the League of Nations. And if they really knew what it would do to them, they would like it still less."

But, for all that naive faith in the wonders it would do, Colonel House had not thought out the League of Nations, and was quite incapable of thinking it out, for he is not a man of analytical mind; and what mental power he had was inhibited by the glow of his feelings. His temperature was above the thinking point. Thus, like Mr. Lloyd George, he could make compromises that played ducks and drakes with his general position, since he had no real understanding of the League, which was not an intellectual conviction with him, arduously arrived at, but which possessed his soul as by an act of grace, like an old-fashioned religious conversion.

He was loyal at heart to Mr. Wilson and to everything that was Mr. Wilson's, his mind being absorbed into Mr. Wilson's, and having no independent existence. There are natures which demand an utter and unquestioning loyalty in those to whom they yield their confidence, and Mr. Wilson's was of that sort, as a remark of his about Secretary Colby will indicate.

When Mr. Lansing was removed from office, the country was astounded to learn that he was to be succeeded by Bainbridge Colby. The President communicated his decision first to one of the few who then had access to his sick room. This adviser ventured to expostulate.

"Mr. Colby," he said, "is brilliant, but he is uncertain. His whole career has lacked stability. He is not known to have the qualities which the Nation has been taught to expect in a Secretary of State."

"At any rate," replied the President sharply, "he is loyal."

At any rate, Colonel House was loyal.

The ego of Mr. Wilson demanded and received utter loyalty from him, a loyalty that forbade thinking, forbade criticism, forbade independence of any sort. Moreover, Colonel House was in contact with a mind much stronger than his, with a personality much more powerful than his. He was caught into the Wilson orbit. He revolved about Mr. Wilson. He got his light from Mr. Wilson, who had that power, which Colonel Roosevelt had, of irradiating minor personalities. Colonel House was nothing until he gravitated to Mr. Wilson. He is going back to be nothing to-day, nothing but a kind, lovable man, a gentle soul rather unfitted for the world, with an extraordinary capacity for friendship and sympathy, and that fine pair of eyes.

I remember at Paris the affecting evidences of the little man's loyalty to his great friend, of whom he could not speak without emotion. He was never tired of dilating upon the wonder of President Wilson's mind.

"I never saw," he would say, "so quick a mind, with such a capacity for instant understanding.

The President can go to the bottom of the most difficult question as no one else in the world can."

House's endless "formulae" always bore the self-effacing condition, "if Mr. Wilson approves." "If Mr. Wilson approves" was the D.V. of Colonel House's religion. Too much awe of another mind is not good for your own, or carries with it certain implications about your own.

Colonel House's loyalty to Mr. Wilson did not, however, make him hate the men at Paris who stood across the President's path. The personal representative's heart was too catholic for that.


Liked what e're he looked on And his looks went everywhere.

He had a kindly feeling for the "old man," Clemenceau. He was a warm friend of Orlando, with whom Mr. Wilson had his quarrel over Fiume. He though well of Lloyd George, whom Mr. Wilson went abroad hating.

The Peace Conference was to him a personal problem. Peace was peace between Wilson and Clemenceau and Lloyd Geroge and Orlando. Compromises were an accommodation among friends.

I never saw a man so utterly distressed as he was when President Wilson threatened to break up the Peace Conference and sent for the George Washington to take him home from Brest. It was as if his own dearest friends had become involved in a violent quarrel. He did not see the incident in terms of the principles involved, but only as the painful interruption of kindly personal relations. Men speak of him sometimes as the one of our commissioners who knew Europe; and Europeans, appreciating his sympathy, have fostered this idea by referring to his understanding of European problems.

But the Europe Colonel House knew was a personal Europe. The countries on his map were Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando. The problems of his Europe were Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando. He knew what Lloyd George wanted. He knew what Clemenceau wanted. He knew what Orlando wanted. That was enough.

His kindness of heart, his desire for pleasant personal relations, his incapacity to think in terms of principles, whether of the League of Nations or not, betrayed him in the matter of Shantung. Whether the Peace Conference should return Shantung to China, or leave it to Japan to return to China was to him, he often said, "only a question of method. There is no principle involved." The Japanese were a sensitive people, why should a kind heart question the excellence of their intentions with respect to China? Shantung would of course be returned. It was only a question of how.

The simple heart of Colonel House did not save him, either as a diplomat or as a friend. The failures at Paris plunged Mr. Wilson into depression in which he went as far down into the valley as he had been up on the heights during his vision of a world made better by his hand. In his darker moments he saw nothing but enmity and disloyalty about him-even, a little later, "usurpation" in the case of the timorous and circumspect Mr. Lansing.

Colonel House says that he does not yet know what caused the breach between the President and himself. Relations stopped; that was all.

This is what occurred: Shortly after Colonel House had convinced the President that the disposal of Shantung was only a question of method he disappeared from Paris "to take a rest"; and it became known that after all he was not to sit in the Council of the League of Nations representing America, as Mr. Wilson had originally intended.

At this time, a close friend of President Wilson and one of his most intimate advisers, said to me, "The most insidious influence here is the social influence."

British entertainment of members of the House family had been marked and assiduous, and the flattery had had its effect, though not probably upon the Colonel, who remained unspoiled by social contacts to the last. Nevertheless, a member of Mr.Wilson's family had called the President's attention to the social forces that the British were bringing to bear. The President by this time was in a mood to be made angry and suspicious. Doubt was lodged in his mind. And when he found this country critical of the Shantung settlement, that doubt become a conviction; the British through social attentions, had wheedled House into a position favorable to their allies, the Japanese. The loyal House was convicted of the one unforgivable offense, disloyalty.

When the casting off of House became, later, in this country unmistakable, I inquired regarding it of the friend and adviser of the President whom I have just mentioned, and he repeated to me, forgetting that he used them before, the exact words he had said at Paris, "The most insidious influence at the Peace Conference was the social influence."

The most insidious influence with Colonel House was the kindness of his own heart. He had too many friends. His view of international relations was too personal. Principles will make a man hard, cold, and unyielding, and Colonel House had no principles, or had them only parrot-like from Mr. Wilson. He was the human side of the President, who for those contacts which his office demanded had found a human side necessary and accordingly annexed the amiable Texan.

Wilson's human side had offended him, and he cut it off, accordingly to the scriptural injunction against the offending right hand. The act was cruel, but it was just, as just as the dismissal of Mr. Lansing; for House failed Wilson at Paris, being one of Wilson's greatest sources of weakness there. His excessive optimism, his kindheartedness, his credulity, his lack of independence of mind, his surrender of his imagination to a stronger imagination, his conception of politics not as morals but as the adjustment of personal differences, left Wilson without a capable critical adviser at the Conference.

When House talked to Wilson, it was a weaker Wilson talking to the real Wilson. Colonel House in retirement and since the breach, is still Colonel House, kindhearted and unobtrusive. He has seen, and he is satisfied. He has a fine and perhaps half-unconscious loyalty to the great man from whose shoulders he surveyed the world. His is an ego that brushes itself off readily after a fall and asks for no alms of sympathy.

He does not, like Mr. Lansing, fill five hundred octavo pages with "I told you so," and you can not conceive of his using that form of self justification.

I hope to see him some day playing Santa Claus in a children's Christmas celebration at a village church!

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