Colonel House

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Colonel House (Edward Mandell House, July 26, 1858 – March 28, 1938) was an American diplomat, politician and presidential advisor. Commonly known by the honorific title of Colonel House, he had enormous personal influence with President Woodrow Wilson as his chief foreign policy advisor and negotiator regarding World War I from 1913 until Wilson removed him in 1919. Historians conclude House was naive and easily misled by others, and in turn misled Wilson and exceeded his authority.

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Early career

Born to a wealthy Texas family with sugar and cotton plantations, House was educated in New England prep schools and went on to study at Cornell University in 1877, but was forced to drop out when his father died. Returning to Texas, House ran his family's business. He eventually sold the plantations, and invested in banking. In 1892 he had charge of the successful gubernatorial campaign of James Hogg, who rewarded him as "colonel" of the Texas militia. (House never saw military service.) House plunged into Texas politics as a Bourbon Democrat who favored conservative business and banking interests. He was a supporter of all the governors from 1894 to 1906 but moved to New York City about 1902. In 1912 House published anonymously a novel Philip Dru: Administrator, in which the title character leads the democratic western U.S. in a civil war against the plutocratic East, and becomes the dictator of America. Dru as dictator imposes a series of reforms that resemble the Bull Moose platform of 1912; the novel displays contempt for democratic processes, a taste for violence, and admiration for benevolent authoritarianism. No one suspected House was the author, but in his secret diary House repeatedly related the day's events to passages in the novel.[1]

House had used his family fortune to develop political contacts in Texas. During the 1890s, House became a tough political advisor for the state Democratic Party; by 1910 he was a friend of William Jennings Bryan. House enjoyed manipulating people and events, but he soon tired of provincial Texas politics and sought out the national level. House was a late-nineteenth-century American gentleman, reticent, disciplined, with a strong sense of duty. Blessed with wealth, a happy family life, and many friends, he had a secure emotional base from which to pursue his ambitions.

Wilson Years, 1912-19

House won the confidence and trust of New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson in 1911. He became an intimate of Wilson without holding any official role and helped him set up his presidential administration.[2] House was even provided living quarters within the White House. After Wilson's first wife died in 1914 the President was even closer to House. However, Wilson's second wife from late 1915 disliked House and his position weakened.

House and Wilson agreed that Bryan, who was incompetent in diplomacy, was so powerful he had to be Secretary of State, but House would be the chief advisor, despite his own lack of diplomatic experience. House threw himself into world affairs, promoting Wilson's goal of brokering a peace to end World War I. On his six missions to Europe he was the president's personal representative, sending back vivid, detailed letters full of impressions of key leaders and replete with details on every phase of the war. Wilson in turn enthused about the "thrill of deep pleasure" that House's reports gave him. House was enthusiastic and articulate but lacked diplomatic finesse or deep insight into European affairs and was easily misled by European diplomats. Before the war in 1913 and more so during the war he forged a close relationship with the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey. House misled Grey about Wilson's plans regarding Mexico. In turn Grey dazzled and manipulated the eager but naive House to benefit Britain, especially in 1916 when British interceptions of American shipping risked bad relations with Wilson. [3]

After the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, tension escalated with Germany and U.S. neutrality was precarious. House decided the war was an epic battle between democracy and autocracy; he argued the United States ought to help Britain and France win a limited Allied victory. However, Wilson still insisted on neutrality. Neu argues that by 1915, House had come to view himself as the indispensable man in both foreign and domestic affairs. "The more power he achieved," Neu concludes, "the more his fantasies expanded and his sense of reality weakened."[4] In early 1916 Wilson sent House to Europe seeking peace. The proposal was when the Allies were ready, Wilson would invite all the belligerents to a peace conference. Wilson approved the plan but told House not to get involved in territorial issues; House exceeded his instructions and began to examine French and Russian territorial demands with the British leaders. The British had broken the simple code House used to send dispatches to Wilson from London, Paris and Berlin, and cleverly manipulated the American into agreeing to the secret House-Grey Memorandum (22 Feb 1916) that indicated that if the Allies all attended and the Germans refused, the U.S. "would probably enter the war against Germany." Wilson endorsed the scheme, but both London and Berlin thought they could win, and neither side agreed to a conference.[5]

Wilson and his closest advisors, House and Secretary of State Robert Lansing increasingly realized that Germany threatened both the idealistic and materialistic interests of the nation. By 1917 they viewed Germany as the incarnation of militarism and believed Prussian autocracy needed to be eliminated to make democracy and peace possible. They also viewed Germany as a threat to American commerce on the high seas and to America's internal security through its propaganda and espionage activities in Mexico.

Wilson had House assemble the "Inquiry" — a team of academic experts to devise efficient postwar solutions to all the world's problems and told House to prepare a charter for a League of Nations. In October 1918, when Germany petitioned for peace based on the Fourteen Points, Wilson charged House with working out details of an armistice with the Allies. Nelson (1969) contends that House inadvertently compromised Wilson's position at the coming peace conference. The problem lay with House's inability to grasp the full implications and ramifications of Allied military demands for an armistice settlement. The Allies made demands on Germany as to the disposition of her army and navy and as to territorial occupation by Allied forces. While the Allies based these demands on military considerations, they were in fact tantamount to a political settlement. In accepting these military arrangements, House recognized the validity of Allied political ends.[6]

House played a major role as the chief American negotiator and Wilson's chief advisor at the Paris peace conference in 1919. He adopted much of the French hard-line anti-German position.[7] During and after the war House misled the Italian premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, by accepting the borders established for Italy in the secret 1915 Treaty of London, which the United States had not signed. Without mentioning his meeting with Orlando, House assured Wilson that nothing would embarrass the president or compromise his principles for peace. When an agreement seemed reachable at the Paris, Wilson, urged by the American delegates who denounced the "immorality" of the Italian demands, withdrew his support for House's plans. House thus exhibited indifference, ignorance, distrust, and miscommunication that worsened relations with Italy and, ultimately leading to the Fiume crisis at the peace conference.[8]

When Wilson returned home in February 1919, House took his place on the Council of Ten where he negotiated deals unacceptable to Wilson. Even worse were personality conflicts, as House became too independent and was less and less the spokesman for Wilson. Wilson himself became much more intolerant and systematically broke with one after another of his closest advisors, perhaps as a result of his medical condition (Wilson suffered several small strokes before his major one in Sept. 1919). In mid-March, Wilson returned to Paris and lost confidence in House, and never saw him again.

House's integrity

Historians agree that House manipulated Wilson, and provided misleading information; they debate whether House was disloyal to the president because, contrary to Wilson's explicit instructions, he had tentatively approved French demands for the separation of the Rhineland from Germany, and the separation of the League of Nations from the peace treaty with Germany.[9] Until the end Wilson seems to have been uncritical of House, and unaware of how House misled everyone else and was himself misled by the British. To explain the relationship scholars have turned to psychology, but that approach has been controversial among traditional historians.[10]

Esposito (1988) comes to a harsh conclusion:

"His sycophancy, pseudo-fascist fiction, glad-handing, self-delusions, and daydreams of blood and revenge, although truly peculiar, do not seem to have visibly damaged American diplomacy, as House never had as much power and prestige as he imagined. However, the misleading, misquoted, and mistaken reports that he gave Wilson jeopardized Wilson's credibility with foreign leaders and undermined the President's initiatives."

In the 1920s House strongly supported U.S. membership in the League of Nations and the World Court, the Permanent Court of International Justice. In 1932 he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt without joining the inner circle. He became disillusioned with the New Deal but did so privately.

Bibliography

  • Bailey, Thomas A. Wilson and the Peacemakers: Combining Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace and Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal. 1947. online edition
  • Esposito, David M. Imagined Power: The Secret Life of Colonel House. The Historian. (1988) 60#4 pp 741+. online edition, a strongly negative psychological appraisal
  • Floto, Inga. Colonel House in Paris: A Study of American Policy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. (1973). 374 pp
  • George, Alexander L. and Juliette L. George. Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (1964) a controversial psychological study excerpt and text search
  • Hodgson, Godfrey. Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House (2006), 335pp; a popular biography; credits House for Wilson's political and diplomatic success and largely blames the president and his second wife for the break in their friendship
  • Lasch, Christopher. The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (1965)
  • Neu, Charles E. "House, Edward Mandell"; American National Biography 2000. online; Neu's scholarly biography has not yet been published
  • Neu, Charles E. "Bryan and House: Political Leaders of the Progressive Era," Reviews in American History 2006 34(4): 491-498. ISSN: 0048-7511 Fulltext: at Project Muse
  • Neu, Charles E. "Wilson and His Foreign Policy Advisers," in Artists of Power: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Their Enduring Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. William N. Tilchin and Charles E. Neu (2006)
  • Neu, Charles E. "Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: The Early Years, 1911-1915" in The Wilson Era: Essays in Honor of Arthur S. Link, ed. John Milton Cooper Jr. and Charles E. Neu (1991).
  • Richardson, Rupert Norval. Colonel Edward M. House: The Texas Years, 1858–1912 (1964)
  • Walworth, Arthur. Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 (1986)
  • Williams, Joyce Grigsby. Colonel House and Sir Edward Grey: A Study in Anglo-American Diplomacy. 1984. 174 pp.

Primary sources

notes

  1. Lash pp 230-35; Esposito (1988)
  2. House claimed he had delicate health and could not stand the Washington summers, and so was unable to hold office there.
  3. Williams (1984)
  4. Neu (1991) pp 261-62.
  5. House told Wilson the British supported the plan but British Prime Minister Asquith told his colleagues that the House plan was "humbug and a mere manoeuvre of American politics," in preparation for Wilson's 1916 reelection campaign. Steven Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets, (1970) vol. 1 p. 247.
  6. Keith L. Nelson, "What Colonel House Overlooked in the Armistice." Mid-America 1969 51(2): 75-91. Issn: 0026-2927
  7. Floto (1973)
  8. Daniela Rossini, "'For Sheer Deviltry': Colonel House and Italian-American Relations During World War I.' Annales du Monde Anglophone 1999 (2): 175-203. Issn: 1259-5098
  9. Floto (1973) and Arthur Link conclude there was disloyalty, a charge rejected by Arthur Walworth, "Considerations on Woodrow Wilson and Edward M. House," Presidential Studies Quarterly 1994 24(1): 79-86. Issn: 0360-4918
  10. George and George (1964); Esposito (1988)
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