Blogs > Cliopatria > John Milton Cooper: Review of Godfrey Hodgson's Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Col. Edward M. House

Oct 3, 2006 3:28 pm

John Milton Cooper: Review of Godfrey Hodgson's Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Col. Edward M. House

[ohn Milton Cooper, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, is the author, most recently, of Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations.]

Does Karl Rove keep a diary? Probably not, but think what it might mean if he did. Rove is one of President Bush's two or three closest advisors, in on the biggest decisions about policy and action. What is more, Rove got where he is by playing a vital role in making Bush president--so vital a role that one Texas journalist entitled a book about him Bush's Brain. Think what revelations about this president and his time in office might come out if such a person kept a diary.

Has such a thing ever happened? Yes. It happened between 1912 and 1919, when Edward M. House-- coincidentally also a Texan, who held the strictly honorary rank of colonel in the state militia--kept a diary of several thousand pages about the man who won the 1912 election and then served two terms in the White House.

Many times over House earned the sobriquet that Godfrey Hodgson uses to entitle his new biography of him: Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand. This Texan did not do a lot toward making Wilson president, although Hodgson tries to argue that he did. His real influence began right after the election, when Wilson drew on House's connections within the Democratic Party to help fill his cabinet and other high-level posts. A deep emotional bond sprang up between the two men almost at once, and House later helped Wilson through his agony of grief following the death of his first wife in August 1914, at the same time as the outbreak of World War I. Early in the Wilson administration, House carved out foreign affairs as his special bailiwick. With Wilson's backing, he went on missions to Europe in efforts first to forestall the war, and then to mediate it.

After America entered the war, in 1917, Wilson used House as his most important negotiator with the Allies, especially during the tortuous, tense dealings that led to the Armistice, and he followed House's suggestion to gather a group of experts, called The Inquiry, to plan for the postwar settlement. Wilson appointed House to the delegation to the peace conference at Paris, where for a time he was, almost literally, the president's "right hand." As Hodgson points out, House foreshadowed the role that Henry Kissinger would play during Richard Nixon's first term, including overshadowing the secretary of state. A joke at the time went: "How do you spell Lansing [the name of the secretary]?" "H-O-U-S-E."

Like Kissinger and Rove after him, House was somebody whom almost nobody felt neutral about: People either loved him or hated him, admired him or denigrated him. His purported influence inspired not only jokes but also attacks by Wilson's opponent in the 1916 election (Charles Evans Hughes, himself a future secretary of state). House's negotiating prowess earned him the admiring nickname of the "Texas Talleyrand," and Harold Nicolson called him "the best diplomatic brain that America has yet produced." Yet several members of Wilson's cabinet detested him. Jonathan Daniels, the son of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, later voiced his father's views when he wrote, "Colonel House was an intimate man. He could be intimate even when cutting a throat." Privately, he once congratulated me for "continuing the unmasking of that devious son of a bitch, Colonel House," and called him "an elegant chamber pot, full of s--t."

As might be expected of someone who incited such violently conflicting estimates during his lifetime, House has drawn equally discordant interpretations from historians and biographers. Even before the principal actors died, fierce arguments broke out about the colonel's influence on the president. Partly in response to unflattering depictions of himself by Wilson's official biographer, Ray Stannard Baker, House commissioned the Yale historian Charles Seymour to edit and publish his diary and selected letters in four volumes entitled The Intimate Papers of Colonel House. House deposited the diary and his other papers at Yale and encouraged others to follow suit. Seymour, who later served as president of Yale, kept the flame of House's reputation bright and cultivated one Wilson biographer, Arthur Walworth, as his protégé.

More recently, such writers as Phyllis Lee Levin in her book on Wilson and his second wife, Edith and Woodrow, and now Hodgson, have hewed to a strongly pro-House line. The essence of this school of interpretation is that House played Sancho Panza to Wilson, whom John Maynard Keynes once called "a blind and deaf Don Quixote"--except that here the worldly realist emerges as the better, more constructive, character. Hodgson contrasts them at the peace conference this way: "House's instinct was to seek the highest common denominator. Wilson's was to take his stand even if he had to pull the temple down around his head."

The other school of interpretation originated with Baker's biography and the memoirs of Edith Wilson. It later found its strongest champion in Arthur Link, who from his earliest work questioned both the importance of House's influence and the veracity of his version of events. This school likewise acquired an institutional base when Princeton became the home of the massive edition of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, published in 69 volumes, with Link as editor. Those volumes reproduced much of House's diary, including some entries that Seymour omitted and altered, and his correspondence with Wilson. Link also sponsored work by other historians critical of House, most notably Inga Floto's Colonel House at Paris, which questioned his reliability as a witness and fidelity to Wilson's aims at the peace conference.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was a close friend of Link and a member of the editorial advisory committee of the Wilson Papers. Two of my books have raised questions about House's behavior, and Hodgson takes me to task, albeit gently and politely, for speculating in one of them that the colonel may have lied about what he did in one incident. The essence of this school of interpretation is that House was a deceitful character who was frequently not straight with Wilson, manipulated and undermined others in order to enhance his own influence, and persistently magnified his importance in his diary.

Hodgson deserves credit for courage in venturing into the middle of this interpretative crossfire. His book is brisk and readable, and he is especially good at painting the broad picture of World War I and the non-American personalities with whom House dealt. If that sounds like faint praise, I am afraid it is. This book strikes me as falling short in its main task of portraying House and his relationship with Wilson. Despite my previous identification with the colonel's detractors, I do not think that this book's chief shortcoming is its favorable view of him--although I do think greater skepticism toward him would have helped. I can envision a rich, full biography that might, on balance, find House worthy and notable, but this would require a different kind of treatment from the one given here.

The main problem facing a would-be biographer of House is that he or she cannot deal with the colonel alone. Inasmuch as House's role in history depended almost entirely on Wilson, any biographer of the colonel has to know and understand the president as well. This is a big undertaking but, thanks to Link's edition of the Wilson Papers, one that is doable. Even a little immersion in those volumes quickly dispels notions of Wilson as a rigid messianic figure or a wooly-headed idealist--this man was no Don Quixote. This throws his Sancho Panza into a different light, but that light is hard to see because usually the sole source for the two men's relationships is House's diary. Only in 1919 at the peace conference, when others such as Baker and Wilson's physician, Cary Grayson, were also keeping diaries, can the colonel's version of events be checked against what others recorded.

Only once, so far as I know, did Wilson leave a written record of what he thought of House--which Hodgson does not quote. During the summer of 1915, the president characterized the colonel in a letter to his soon-to-be second wife, who had not yet met House but had reservations about him. Wilson called "dear House . . . capable of utter self-forgetfulness and loyalty and devotion." He called him "wise" and one who gave "prudent and far seeing counsel. . . . But you are right in thinking that he is not a great man. His mind is not of the first class. He is a counselor, not a statesman." Fond though Wilson was of House and credulous about his disinterestedness, he was no uncritical admirer. Whatever else the colonel may have been, he was not "Wilson's brain."

To do justice to this man and the great relationship of his life calls for a different kind of book than this one. Any such treatment would have to be much longer, and would have to delve into some of the more important episodes involving the two men. One example would be House's attempt to mediate the war in 1916. The documentary record shows that House represented this move one way to the British and French--as a pretext for American intervention on their side--and another way to Wilson--as a genuine effort to end the war. House also trusted British leaders, particularly the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, far more than he had any business doing, and he was not aware that the British had tapped the American embassy's cables, cracked its codes, and were reading his dispatches to Wilson. The great realist did not always come off as a shrewd operator.

As yet, there is no adequate treatment of House against which to measure this book. Therefore, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand can serve as a readable introduction to this fascinating figure. But the reader must remember that there are more things in Wilson and House--more breadth, depth, subtlety, mystery, and mischief--than are dreamt of in these pages.

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