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The Memorandum: January 5, 1938

July 2024
13min read

Today I had lunch with Colonel House at his apartment on 68th Street. I arrived at 12:15 to find him dressed and lying on the sola in the little front sitting room (not the side study). He looked like a wax effigy, motionless except for the hand he raised to greet me, the face that of an Eastern philosopher who has discovered the answer to the riddle of life, no emotional disturbance at any time touching his voice or the lines around his eyes and mouth.

He began at once: “I wrote you last week that if you had anything to ask me more about the Wilson administration or the [F. D.] Roosevelt period not to wait too long. I don’t expect to stay here long. The doctors tell me that there is nothing wrong with me organically. I can live for ten years, they say, if I adjust my manner of life to a certain level. It means no exertion. I know that just the little extra exertion will carry me across the river. I decided to live over Christmas and the New Year. I wanted to see the grandchildren, and I had work I wanted to finish. But now that is done, and I don’t think I will stay. I think I will go out sometime in the late spring. It’s not worthwhile living in the way I have to. I can adjust myself, but it’s not worthwhile. I can’t read. I’m too weak. I get tired of the radio. I get tired having the women fuss over me. Miss Fanny ought to have the chance to travel and she can’t do it while I am here. 1 I have had an interesting life. I have fulfilled my aspirations. I did just what I wanted to do in the Wilson period, although our plans were spoiled by the catastrophe that followed the Peace Conference. During these last fifteen years I have been close to the center of things, although few people suspect it. No important foreigner has come to America without talking to me. I was close to the movement that nominated Roosevelt. He has been very nice to me, although it was not worth my while advising him. But he has been so little interested in foreign affairs that he has given me tree hand in advising [Cordell] Hull. All the ambassadors have reported to me frequently. My hand has been on things. But now I am too weak to go on with this. And it’s not worthwhile living as a vegetable. So f think I will cross the river shortly.”

1 Miss Frances B. Denton was the personal secretary of Colonel House from the beginning of the century until his death. The daughter of a Texas friend of his earliest days, she was virtually a member of the House family. To her he dictated regularly his diary from the first meeting with Wilson in 1911 until the death of the latter and afterward. She accompanied him on all his diplomatic travels and in true Texas style protected his papers en route with a small revolver that she carried with her in her reticule. To her devotion the historian is indebted for the preservation and care of the enormous mass of his correspondence and political papers.

This was said in a low, even tone, without emphasis. It was almost incredible—a man facing death and thinking out loud, and with as much objectivity as though considering the pros and cons of a trip abroad; the perfect example of undramatic stoicism. He went on to talk of minor things, of Ray Stannard Baker’s Life of Wilson and his curious lack of understanding of Wilson, his perversion of facts, his omission of passages from the Wilson letters that would interfere with Baker’s interpretation; of Shotwell’s curious error in placing the responsibility for the break with Wilson on the shoulders of Mezes. 2 As he talked his eyes lit up and his ironic amusement expressed itself in the characteristic high-pitched chuckle. Because of weakness his voice was husky and his enunciation thick, but his alert sense of humor and his memory of details were keen.

2 James T. Shot well was professor of history at Columbia and chief of the inquiry division of history at the Paris Peace Conference, 1918-19. Sidney E. Mezes, brother-in-law of House, president of the College of the City of New York, was director of the inquiry which House organized to collect material for the use of Mr. Wilson at the Peace Conference. His relations with the President were distant but invariably cordial.

He digressed to the causes of the break with Wilson: “I have no more absolute knowledge than when I gave you the letter regarding the break which you published at the end of the Intimate Papers . But I have had time to piece together various small bits of knowledge, to discuss them with others close to us, and to reach what in my own mind is absolute conviction.

“The main underlying cause was, of course, the second Mrs. Wilson. From the time of his second marriage there was inevitably a slight change in Wilson’s attitude toward me. He no longer depended upon me as during the months following the first Mrs. Wilson’s death. 3 He was enchanted by the second Mrs. Wilson and became constantly more dependent upon her. Her attitude toward me in 1915 and 1916 was beyond reproach—friendly, almost affectionate. I was conscious of a certain jealousy among those who wished to be close to Wilson. In the case of Grayson 4 I had never thought of it until the beginning of 1918, when I felt that he and Mrs. Wilson might be resenting my influence.

3 Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of the President, died on August 6, 1914. On December 18, 1915, Mr. Wilson married Mrs. Edith Boiling Galt.

4 Admiral Clary T. C.rayson was personal physician to the President. The latter developed for him a warm and confiding affection. Mrs. Grayson and the second Mrs. Wilson were intimate friends.

“I believe the first beginning of a rift occurred immediately after the Armistice. I had gone abroad with carte blanche from Wilson to settle armistice terms on the basis of the Fourteen Points. This I had done, meeting great difficulties on the part of the Allies. I had received extravagant praise for this diplomatic triumph. But I observed a certain unaccustomed lack of warmth in Wilson’s cables to me. I had also reached ihe conclusion that it would be a mistake for Wilson to come to the Peace Conference. This, you must believe me, was not because of vanity on my part, and it was totally opposed to convictions I had previously impressed on Wilson when I had pictured him as presiding over a world conference to organize institutions for the protection of peace. I changed my mind as a result of the Armistice conferences. I had discovered a great advantage diplomatically in appearing as an agent who had behind him a distant patron. I could deal in a friendly but a firm way with the Allied chiefs just because I could refer back to my own chief; and I could threaten politely, f could say to them: ‘Your attitude may be right, but I cannot concur because my chief will not agree. If you insist, I know that he will withdraw American co-operation.’ No personal pressure on their part could weaken my position because that position depended upon a distant chief in Washington who could not be touched by personal pressure. But if Wilson came to Paris, he would at once have abandoned the strong position inherent in isolation, put himself on a level with Clemenceau and Lloyd George, and subjected himself to constant and intense personal pressure. Hence I urged Wilson not to come to the Peace Conference.

“The President was not pleased. He had, largely at my suggestion, made up his mind to come to the Peace Conference and he wanted to preside over it. I am told by those who were in Washington that Mrs. Wilson was determined to come to the Peace Conference. I have also been told that she made plain that she thought I was trying to steal the President’s thunder abroad and pose as the director of American foreign policy. Whether she said this to the President I do not know, but it seems probable. At all events, Wilson replied to my cables insisting on his determination to come to Paris and warning me against the reactionary influences that wanted to keep him away. I made no further protest. How could I insist that American principles would be better supported with me doing the supporting in Paris and Wilson merely backing me up in Washington? But I was right, as the sequel proved.

“This was ihe first flat and vital dillerence ol opinion between Wilson and myself. He probably unconsciously suspected me of hoping to emphasize my own importance. Whether Mrs. Wilson encouraged Iiim or not in this suspicion, it is not likely she allayed the subconscious wound to his own sense of importance.

“Wilson was also offended by my advice as to the personnel of the American peace commission. I had urged the appointment of Republicans and senators—Taft, Root, and someone like Senator McCumbcr or Senator Xelson—who would have the confidence of the country. This advice he disregarded, and he knew that I disapproved his own selection of peace commissioners. 5

5 House emphasized the desirability of peace commissioners who would carry weight with the Senate when it came to ratification of the treaty. Wilson held that if “justice” prevailed in the treaty, popular pressure would compel lhe Senate to ratify. In addition to Wilson and House, the U.S. peace commission appointed by the President consisted of Secretary of State Robert I.ansing, General Tasker Bliss, and Henry White, a veteran diplomat.

“Nevertheless the rift was slight, was not apparent to my consciousness and probably not to his, and it would have closed immediately but for the peculiar circumstances of the Peace Conference. It happened that I was ill at the time of Wilson’s arrival in France. I could not go to meet him at Krest [where Wilson landed on December 13, 191 H]. We seemed to be on terms of |)erfect understanding, but were separated by half of Paris and did not see each other so constantly as had been our custom. I could not accompany him to England or to Italy, and I was seriously ill at the moment the Peace Conference opened. I had my own very complete organization at the Peace Conference. Wilson lived with Mrs. Wilson in the Parc Monceau. There was no coolness, merely less intense intimacy. When Wilson left for America on February 14 there seemed to me a complete understanding. During the first fonnight of February we had worked in complete harmony on the Covenant of the League. As he left he announced that he left the representation of American views in my hands. During his absence I reported frequently Io him by telegram and attributed his silence to the pressure of. affairs.

“Upon his return to Paris in March I saw at once that there was a change. I was told that unfriendly persons had carried to Mrs. Wilson the story that I was arrogating to myself actual control of American policy; that during the Presidents absence I had yielded to unwise suggestions of compromise. At the lime I suspected with some reason that immediately upon his return the President had been told that I was disloyal. Later I learned that he resented the rather arrogant attitude of members of my stall who were reported to have intimated that the Conference went more ellectively and smoothly during the President’s absence. 6 Wilson may have resented the fact that Clemenceau and the English came to see me instead of negotiating directly with him. I know that Mrs. Wilson resented the praise I received from the press. I met he: one day in her house with a newspaper in her hand, with a eulogistic article by Wickham Steed. 7 I said, ‘Is it pleasant?” She replied: ‘Pleasant lor you but not for Woodrow.’ Nevertheless when WiI son fell ill during the fateful conferences on reparations and the Saar and the Rhinelands in April, he asked me to take his place in the Council of Four. The notes he passed to me during the larger meetings were intimate and affectionate as ever; I merely had a consciousness of hostility on the part of those around him. He and I had no opportunity for long intimate talks as in the old days. When he was free he was naturally captured for automobile rides by Mrs. Wilson. I had the sense that she did not Avant me in the intimate family atmosphere.

6 Colonel House doubtless had in mind especially bis son-in-law. Gordon Auchincloss, bis executive secretary, who was apt to express bis personal convictions in forthright and not invariably diplomatic terms.

7 Correspondent for The Times and a close friend of House. Mrs. Wilson evidently believed that Steed’s article, which was critical of resident Wilson, had been inspired by House.

“It has been said many times that the Fiume crisis led to a personal break. This is (|uite untrue. We discussed the Adriatic problem frequently but did not disagree. He commissioned me to investigate every possible avenue of compromise; after my talks with the Italians he would discuss them with me, refusing all the Italian suggestions as inadequate. I would have gone further than he did to meet them along some lines, not so far along others. Hut there was no basic dillerence between us. Hc never mentioned the letter of the experts on Fiume, and I do not remember that I knew of it. 8 It has been said that Dr. Mezes caused a break. I cannot see how. Wilson never mentioned Mezes except in friendly terms.

8 On April 4, five advisers on territorial problems (including the present writer) addressed a teller Io Wilson strongly protesting any compromise thai would assign Fiume to Italy. I be letter was cordially received by Wilson. But as it was sent without consultation with House it is believed by certain historians in have offended him deeply. There is no evidence that the letter in question alfected the relations of Wilson and House.

“As the Peace Conference closed there was no coolness between us: merely a slackening in intimacy. Ihn saying good-b\, I was again aware of an attitude approaching hostility on Mrs. Wilson’s part. And for the first time Kernard Karuch, who had constantly come to see more of both Wilson and Mrs. Wilson, spoke to me in a tone that indicated that he felt that he had taken my place as Wilson’s confidant. Certainly we [i.e., the President and House] had no chance in Paris for long, intimate talks on personal topics. But in the conduct of diplomacy he seemed to open his heart to me, and he entrusted me with the plan he was chiefly interested in; that is, the development of the mandates plan for the League of Nations. In fact, when he sailed at the end of the Peace Conference he left me in Europe to carry forward this plan. That day I said good-by in Paris [June 28, 1919] was the last time I ever saw him. I had a friendly, affectionate letter from him in the summer, as well as official messages. Later Wiseman told me that at the White House Wilson spoke of me in affectionate terms and said that I was a man ‘to be trusted.’ 9 But I fell ill, and coming home in the early fall, I had to be carried off the boat on a stretcher 10 and taken directly to a sickbed, where I lay for weeks. This was just when Wilson was stricken by the illness that caught him on his western trip. If I had been well I should have gone at once to see him. I could not move for weeks. I dictated two letters to him, but received no direct answer. Mrs. House had a letter from Mrs. Wilson. I think I had one from her intimating that the President did not even know I was back from Europe. I do not know whether he was ever given my letters.

9 Sir William Wiseman was chief of the British Intelligence in the United States from December, 1916, until the end of the Peace Conference. He and House were on terms of affectionate intimacy, and Wilson had for Wiseman a personal fondness that extended to very few foreign representatives. The comment referred to by Wiseman was made at an intimate luncheon in late August of 1919, shortly before Wilson started on his crusade in the western states on behalf of the League of Nations. The present writer remembers Wiseman reporting to House the gist of his conversation with Wilson: ” ‘Colonel House,’ I remarked to the President, ‘is trusted by all the statesmen in Europe.’ ‘And rightly said the President, ‘for he is trustworthy.’ ”

10 Apparently Colonel House’s memory on this minor detail was faulty. As the photograph on page 8 shows, he walked down the gangplank. The New York Times of October 13, 1919, reported: “Colonel House said he could walk down with assistance, and descended slowly supported by Dr. Lamb and an army officer …”

“I was well enough to go to Washington in December [1919]. I may have been hurt by the fact that no message had come to me from him. At all events I did not write to see if I could see him. No one outside the sickroom knew just how sick he was. I simply called and left my card with my Washington address. I expected a message, but none came. I felt, justly or otherwise, that Mrs. Wilson and Grayson did not want me to see him. Perhaps Baruch did not want me around. They were the three that absolutely controlled Wilson on his sickbed. I know from my later talks with Edward Grey and William Tyrrell 11 that it was Baruch who prevented Grey from having a talk with Wilson in January, at a time when such a talk might have led to compromise on the League and the framing of conditions that would have brought the United States into the League. This was because of Baruch’s feud with Craufurd Stuart, who was in Grey’s suite. 12

11 Sir Edward Grey was temporarily ambassador to the U.S. in connection with the peace settlement. Sir William George Tyrrell (later Lord Tyrrell) was his private secretary, and later, 1919-25, was Assistant Under Secretary of State for foreign affairs.

12 Mr. Baruch’s “feud” with Craufurd Stuart stemmed from the making of dictograph records by the latter in his capacity as a British intelligence officer. The conversations recorded were taken in the apartment of a connection of Baruch, who regarded them as unfairly reflecting upon his personal integrity. He demanded that they be destroyed. When Lord Grey came to Washington as special envoy in the winter of 1919 he brought Craufurd Stuart as a member of his staff. Baruch demanded that he be dismissed. Grey refused unless cause could be shown. When it became obvious to Grey that he would not be accorded an interview with Wilson, he left.

“At all events I left Washington without seeing Wilson. When I went abroad in the spring I wrote him and had a note. I wrote again in the fall, around election time, and received a rather perfunctory answer. I do not think he could have had hard feelings against me. Why should he? I think he was just too worn out to make the effort to pick up relations again, especially as he was surrounded by people who were hostile to me. I think he defended me. Edward Bok [until 1919, editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal ] told me in 1921 that he had been talking with Wilson and Mrs. Wilson and had mentioned that I had spoken recently of Wilson with affection and admiration. Wilson turned to Mrs. Wilson and said: “There, I told you so, Edith.” Bok said it seemed as if they had been discussing me, and Wilson had been defending me from imputations of disloyalty. Gregory [Thomas W. Gregory, Attorney General, 1914-19] later told me that in a conversation with Wilson the latter spoke kindly of me. But he didn’t have the force to break through the ring and resume relations. I would have gone down to the sick man’s room at the slightest signal.

“At the time of Wilson’s death I was all prepared to go down to Washington and expected to be at the funeral. I talked to Baruch on the telephone and asked if I was expected there. He called up later to say that I was not expected, there was no place for me at the service, and it might save embarrassment if I did not come down; he intimated he had been talking to Mrs. Wilson. So I attended the service in Madison Square. Later I was told by Breck Long [an Assistant Secretary of State under Wilson] that I had been expected, that a seat had been saved for me in the cathedral in with the Cabinet, and that he could not see what Baruch meant by suggesting I do not come. Well! Well! Well!

“My separation from Wilson was not a break. It was caused by the illness of each of us, that drove in a wedge between us. When the rift was opened it was kept open by those who did not wish us to come together. Margaret Wilson [the President’s eldest daughter] knows something of this. My love and admiration for Woodrow Wilson have never faltered or lessened.”

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