Modern history


First Impressions

THE AFTERNOON of his arrival in Paris, Wilson had a reunion with his most trusted adviser. Colonel Edward House did not look like the rich Texan he was. Small, pale, self-effacing and frail, he often sat with a blanket over his knees because he could not bear the cold. Just as the Peace Conference was starting, he came down with flu and nearly died. House spoke in a soft, gentle voice, working his small delicate hands, said an observer, as though he were holding some object in them. He invariably sounded calm, reasonable and cheerful.1 People often thought of one of the great French cardinals of the past, of Mazarin perhaps.

He was not really a colonel; that was only an honorary title. He had never fought in a war but he knew much about conflict: the Texas of his childhood was a world where men brought out their guns at the first hint of an insult. House was riding and shooting by the time he was three. One brother had half his face shot off in a childish gunfight; another died falling off a trapeze. Then House too had an accident when he fell from a rope and hit his head. He never fully recovered. Since he could no longer dominate others physically, he learned to do so psychologically. “I used to like to set boys at each other,” he told a biographer, “to see what they would do, and then try to bring them around again.” 2

He became a master at understanding men. Almost everyone who met him found him immediately sympathetic and friendly. “An intimate man,” said the son of one of his enemies, “even when he was cutting your throat.” House loved power and politics, especially when he could operate behind the scenes. In Paris, Baker called him, only half in admiration, “the small knot hole through which must pass many great events.” He rarely gave interviews and almost never took official appointments. This, of course, made him the object of intense speculation. He merely wanted, he often said, to be useful. In his diary, though, House himself carefully noted the powerful and importunate who lined up to see him. He also faithfully recorded every compliment, no matter how fulsome.3

He was a Democrat, like most Southerners of his race, but on the liberal, progressive side of the party. When Wilson moved into politics, House, already a figure in Texas politics, recognized someone he could work with. The two men met for the first time in 1911, as Wilson was preparing to run for president. “Almost from the first our association was intimate,” House remembered years later, when the friendship had broken down irrevocably, “almost from the first, our minds vibrated in unison.” He gave Wilson the unstinting affection and loyalty he required, and Wilson gave him power. When his first wife died, Wilson became even more dependent on House. “You are the only person in the world with whom I can discuss everything,” he wrote in 1915. “There are some I can tell one thing and others another, but you are the only one to whom I can make an entire clearance of mind.” When the second Mrs. Wilson appeared on the scene, she watched House carefully, her eyes sharpened with jealousy.4

When the war broke out, Wilson sent House off to the capitals of Europe in fruitless attempts to stop the fighting; as the war came to an end, he hastily dispatched him to Paris to negotiate the armistice terms. “I have not given you any instructions,” Wilson told him, “because I feel that you will know what to do.” House agreed with all his heart that Wilson’s new diplomacy was the best hope for the world. He thought the League of Nations a wonderful idea. He also thought he could do better than Wilson in achieving their common goals. Where the president was too idealistic, too dogmatic, he, House, was a fixer, with a nod here, a shrug there, a slight change of emphasis, a promise first to this one and then that, smoothing over differences and making things work. He had not really wanted Wilson to come to the Peace Conference. In his diary, during the next months, the loyal lieutenant was to list Wilson’s mistakes methodically: his outbursts of temper, his inconsistencies, his clumsiness in negotiations and his “one-track” mind.5

Clemenceau liked House enormously, partly because he was amused by him, but also because he seemed to understand France’s concerns so well. “I can get on with you,” Clemenceau told him, “you are practical. I understand you but talking to Wilson is something like talking to Jesus Christ!” Lloyd George was cooler: House “saw more clearly than most men—or even women—to the bottom of the shallow waters which are to be found here and there in the greatest of oceans and of men.” A charming man, in Lloyd George’s opinion, but rather limited—“essentially a salesman and not a producer.” House would have been a good ambassador, but never a foreign minister. “It is perhaps to his credit,” Lloyd George concluded kindly, “that he was not nearly as cunning as he thought he was.” House could not bear Lloyd George, “a mischief maker who changes his mind like a weather-cock. He has no profound knowledge of any of the questions with which he is dealing.” But Lloyd George knew how to keep his eye on the ends. House, who thought every disagreement could be worked out, did not. “He is a marvellous conciliator,” was Baker’s opinion, “but with the faults of his virtue for he conciliates over . . . minor disagreements into the solid flesh of principle.” House had already done this during the armistice discussions.6

The Great War had begun with a series of mistakes and it ended in confusion. The Allies (and let us include their Associate the United States in the term) were not expecting victory when it came. Austria-Hungary was visibly collapsing in the summer of 1918, but Germany still looked strong. Allied leaders planned for at least another year of war. By the end of October, however, Germany’s allies were falling away and suing for armistices, the German army was streaming back toward its own borders and Germany itself was shaking with revolutionary outbursts. The armistice with Germany, the most important and ultimately the most controversial of all, was made in a three-cornered negotiation between the new German government in Berlin, the Allied Supreme War Council in Paris and Wilson in Washington. House, as Wilson’s personal representative, was the key link among them. The Germans, calculating that their best chance for moderate peace terms was to throw themselves on Wilson’s mercy, asked for an armistice based on the Fourteen Points. Wilson, who was eager to push his somewhat reluctant European allies to accept his principles, agreed in a series of public notes.

The Europeans found this irritating. Furthermore, they had never been prepared to accept the Fourteen Points without modification. The French wanted to make sure that they received compensation for the enormous damage done to their country by the German invasion. The British could not agree to the point about freedom of the seas, for that would prevent them from using the naval blockade as a weapon against their enemies. In a final series of discussions in Paris, House agreed to the Allied reservations, and so the Fourteen Points were modified to allow for what later came to be called reparations from Germany and for discussions on freedom of the seas at the Peace Conference itself. In addition, the military terms of the armistice, which called for not just the evacuation of French and Belgian territory but also the withdrawal of German troops from the western edge of Germany itself, went a long way toward disarming Germany, something the French devoutly wished. 7

The way the armistice was made left much room for later recrimination. The Germans were able to say that they had only accepted it on the basis of the original Fourteen Points and that the subsequent peace terms were therefore largely illegitimate. And Wilson and his supporters were able to blame the wily Europeans for diluting the pure intentions of the new diplomacy.

When House and Wilson had their first conversation in Paris on the afternoon of December 14, 1918, they were already suspicious of European intentions. Although the Peace Conference was not to start officially for another few weeks, the maneuvering had begun. Clemenceau had already suggested to the British that they come up with a general agreement on the peace terms, and the Europeans, including the Italians, had met in London at the beginning of the month. Wisely, Clemenceau took out insurance. He visited House on his sickbed to assure him that the London meetings had no importance whatsoever. He himself was only going over because it might help Lloyd George in his forthcoming general election. As it turned out, between disagreements over Italy’s territorial demands in the Adriatic and squabbling between Britain and France over the disposition of the Ottoman empire, the meetings failed to produce a common European approach. All three European powers also hesitated, not wishing to give Wilson the impression that they were trying to settle things before he arrived.8

House, who shared Wilson’s view that the United States was going to be the arbiter of the peace, believed, without much evidence, that Clemenceau was likely to be more reasonable than Lloyd George. Conveniently, Wilson met Clemenceau first. The wily old statesman listened quietly as Wilson did most of the talking, intervening only to express approval of the League of Nations. Wilson was favorably impressed, and House, who hoped that France and the United States would make a common front against Britain, was delighted. The Wilsons spent Christmas Day with General John Pershing at American headquarters outside Paris and then left for London.9

In Britain, Wilson was again greeted by large and adoring crowds, but his private talks with British leaders did not initially go well. The president was inclined to be stiff, offended that Lloyd George and senior British ministers had not rushed over to France to welcome him and annoyed that the British general election meant the start of the Peace Conference would have to be delayed. Wilson was, like many Americans, torn in his attitude to Great Britain, at once conscious of the United States’ debt to its great liberal traditions but also wary and envious of its power. “If England insisted on maintaining naval dominance after the war,” Wilson told André Tardieu, Clemenceau’s close colleague, “the United States could and would show her how to build a navy!” At a gala reception at Bucking-ham Palace, Wilson spoke bluntly to a British official (who at once passed on the remarks to his superiors): “You must not speak of us who come over here as cousins, still less as brothers; we are neither.” It was misleading, he went on, to talk of an Anglo-Saxon world, when so many Americans were from other cultures; foolish, also, to make too much of the fact that both nations spoke English. “No, there are only two things which can establish and maintain closer relations between your country and mine: they are community of ideals and of interests.” The British were further taken aback when Wilson failed to reply to a toast from the king to American forces with a similar compliment to the British. “There was no glow of friendship,” Lloyd George commented, “or of gladness at meeting men who had been partners in a common enterprise and had so narrowly escaped a common danger.”10

Lloyd George, who recognized the supreme importance of a good relationship with the United States, set out to charm Wilson. Their first private conversation began the thaw. Lloyd George reported with relief to his colleagues that Wilson seemed open to compromise on the issues the British considered important, such as freedom of the seas and the fate of Germany’s colonies. Wilson had given the impression that his main concern was the League of Nations, which he wanted to discuss as soon as the Peace Conference opened. Lloyd George had agreed. It would, he said, make dealing with the other matters much easier. The two leaders had also talked about how they should proceed at the Peace Conference. Presumably, they would follow the customary practice and sit down with Germany and the other defeated nations to draw up treaties.11

Past practice offered little guidance, though, for the new order that Wilson wanted. The rights of conquest and victory were woven deeply into European history, and previous wars—the Napoleonic, for example— had ended with the victors helping themselves to what they wanted, whether land or art treasures. Moreover, the defeated had been expected to pay an indemnity for the costs of the war and sometimes reparations for damages as well. But had they not all turned their backs on that in the recent war? Both sides had talked of a just peace without annexations. Both had appealed to the rights of peoples to choose their own rulers, the Allies more loudly and persuasively than the Central Powers. And even before the United States had come into the war, terms such as “democracy” and “justice” had peppered Allied war aims. Wilson had taken hold of the Allied agenda and made it into a firm set of promises for a better world. True, he had allowed for some recompense for the victors: France to get its lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, or Germany to make good the damage it had caused Belgium. The French wanted more, though: land from Germany possibly, guarantees of security against attack certainly. The British wanted certain German colonies. The Italians demanded part of the Balkans, and the Japanese part of China. Could that be justified in terms of the new diplomacy? Then there were all the nations, some already formed but some still embryonic, in the center of Europe, who demanded to be heard. And the colonial peoples, the campaigners for women’s rights, the labor representatives, the American blacks, the religious leaders, the humanitarians. The Congress of Vienna had been simple by comparison.

In their first discussions with Wilson, both Clemenceau and Lloyd George pointed out the need for the Allies to sort out their own position on the peace, in a preliminary conference. Wilson was unhelpful. If they settled all the peace terms in advance, then the general peace conference would be a sham. On the other hand, he was prepared to have informal conversations to work out a common Allied position. “It really came to the same thing,” Lloyd George reported to his colleagues, “but the President insisted definitely on his point of view.” It was agreed that they would meet in Paris, have their preliminary discussions—a few weeks at the most—and then sit down with the enemy. Wilson, or so he thought, would probably go back to the United States at that point.12

After these first encounters with the men who were going to become his closest colleagues in Paris, Wilson continued on to Italy, to more ecstatic welcomes. But the cheers, the state receptions, the private audiences, could not conceal that time was passing. He began to wonder whether this was not deliberate. The people, he thought, wanted peace; their rulers seemed to be dragging their feet, for who knew what sinister motives. The French government tried to arrange a tour of the battlefields for him. He refused angrily. “They were trying to force him to go to see the devastated regions,” he told his small circle of intimates, “so that he might see red and play into the hands of the governments of England, France and Italy.” He would not be manipulated like this; the peace must be made calmly and without emotion. “Even if France had been entirely made a shell hole it would not change the final settlement.”13 The French resented his refusal bitterly and were not appeased when he finally paid a fleeting visit in March.

Wilson was coming to the conclusion that he and the French were not as close in their views as House had encouraged him to believe. The French government had drawn up an elaborate agenda which placed the League of Nations well down the list of important issues to be decided. Paul Cambon, the immensely experienced French ambassador in London, told a British diplomat, “The business of the Peace Conference was to bring to a close the war with Germany.” The League was something that could easily be postponed. Many in the French official establishment thought of a league that would be a continuation of the wartime alliance and whose main role would be to enforce the peace terms. No matter, said an internal memorandum, that much of the French public thought in more idealistic terms: “that can help us.” Clemenceau was publicly skeptical. The day after Wilson had made a speech in London reiterating his faith that a League of Nations was the best way to provide security for its members, Clemenceau had spoken in the Chamber of Deputies. To loud cheers he asserted: “There is an old system of alliances called the Balance of Power—this system of alliances, which I do not renounce, will be my guiding thought at the Peace Conference.” Wickedly, he had referred to Wilson’s noble candeur, a word that can mean either candor or pathetic naïveté. (The official record transformed it into grandeur. ) The American delegation saw Clemenceau’s speech as a challenge. 14

In that speech and the American reaction to it were sown the seeds of what grew into a lurid and enduring tableau, especially in the United States. On the one hand, the Galahad, pure in thought and deed, lighting the way to a golden future; on the other, the misshapen French troll, his heart black with rage and spite, thinking only of revenge. On the one side, peace; on the other, war. It makes a good story, and it is not fair to either man. Both were liberals with a conservative skepticism of rapid change. What divided them was temperament and their own experience. Wilson believed that human nature was fundamentally good. Clemenceau had his doubts. He, and Europe, had been through too much. “Please do not misunderstand me,” he once said to Wilson, “we too came into the world with the noble instincts and the lofty aspirations which you express so often and so eloquently. We have become what we are because we have been shaped by the rough hand of the world in which we have to live and we have survived only because we are a tough bunch.” Wilson had lived in a world where democracy was safe. “I have lived,” Clemenceau explained, “in a world where it was good form to shoot a democrat.” Where Wilson believed that the use of force ultimately failed, Clemenceau had seen it succeed too often. “I have come to the conclusion that force is right,” he said over lunch one day to Lloyd George’s mistress, Frances Stevenson. “Why is this chicken here? Because it was not strong enough to resist those who wanted to kill it. And a very good thing too!” Clemenceau was not opposed to the League; he simply did not put much trust in it. He would have liked to see greater international cooperation, but recent history had shown all too clearly the importance of keeping the powder dry and the guns primed just in case. In this he faithfully reflected French public opinion, which remained overwhelmingly suspicious of Germany. 15

By the second week of January Wilson was back in Paris, waiting for the preliminary conference to start. He was living in great state at the Hôtel Murat, a private house provided by the French government. (One of Wilson’s little jokes was that the Americans were paying indirectly through their loans to France.) The hotel was owned by descendants of the great soldier Joachim Murat, who had married one of Napoleon’s sisters, and lent by them to the French government. Later, when relations soured between France and the United States, the Princesse Murat asked for it back again. The presidential party, which included Wilson’s personal physician, Admiral Cary T. Grayson, and Mrs. Wilson’s social secretary, settled uneasily into the cold and gleaming rooms, filled with treasures from the past reflected back endlessly in huge mirrors. A British journalist who came to interview the president found him in a gray flannel suit sitting at a magnificent Empire desk with a great bronze eagle above his head.16

The rest of the American delegation was housed some distance away, also in considerable luxury, at the Hôtel Crillon. “I was assigned an enormous room,” wrote an American professor to his wife, “high ceiling, white paneling, fireplace, enormous bathroom, very comfortable bed, all done in rich old rose.” The Americans were delighted with the food, impressed by the meticulous service and amused by the slow old hydraulic elevators, which sometimes hung suspended between floors until enough water had moved from one tank to another. Because the hotel itself was small, their offices were scattered nearby, some in what had once been private dining rooms at Maxim’s and which still smelled of stale wine and food. Over the months, the Americans added their own touches to the Crillon: a barbershop, a network of private phone lines and a hearty American breakfast in place of the French one. And, of course, the guards at the doors, and the sentries who paced back and forth on the flat roof. “The whole place is like an American battleship,” said Harold Nicolson, the young British diplomat who left one of the most vivid descriptions of the Peace Conference, “and smells odd.” British visitors were also struck by how seriously the Americans took rank: unlike their own delegation, the important men never sat down to meals with their juniors.17

Lansing and his fellow plenipotentiaries White and Bliss had rooms on the second floor, but the true hub of power was on the floor above them, where House had his large suite of heavily guarded rooms—more, he smugly noticed, than anyone else. There he sat, as he loved to do, spinning his plans and drawing in the powerful. Prime ministers, generals, ambassadors, journalists: they almost all came by to see him. His most important relationship was always that with his president. The two men talked daily, either in person or on the direct private line the Army engineers had installed. Sometimes Wilson strolled down to the Crillon; he never stopped on the second floor, but always went directly upstairs.18

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