Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House


by Godfrey Hodgson
Yale University Press, 2006
Jolie Velazquez, Reviewer



Edward House
This political biography is a great read for those interested in American international diplomacy during the era surrounding World War I. Mr. Hodgson falls into the camp of biographers who love their subject,, and while the reader would like to know much more about the personal relationship between the academic President Wilson and the wily backstage manager of his foreign policy, we do find out why Edward House was so admired by many of the leading figures in both American and European power circles.

House retired from business in middle age to take part in shaping social and political policies. He cut his teeth on rowdy Texas politics during the time of prairie populism and was instrumental in electing governors and senators, though he always refused to accept an appointment or run for office himself. When he decided to take on national issues, he found Woodrow Wilson to be the candidate he most wanted to work with since they already shared many of the same ideals. His initial help in getting Wilson elected led to a greater role on Wilson's team. How their political relationship rapidly developed into a warm friendship is still a mystery in this book and one of the reader's few disappointed expectations.

House was Wilson's primary civilian advisor on all politically touchy subjects, such as making cabinet appointments, and for all purposes he ran foreign affairs, the president's greatest weak spot. Even Secretary of State Robert Lansing deferred to House's judgment. Prior to the outbreak of the war, House engaged in a clandestine "shuttle diplomacy" mission to prevent hostilities. (The Kaiser later mentioned its near success.) Once the war began, House and Wilson turned their energies to creating their plan for peace, the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations. Lines are blurred as to who contributed more to this effort, but it was certainly a collaborative endeavor.

Hodgson saves his best narrative for the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris and the eventual breakup of the House/Wilson relationship. The details add a lot to one's knowledge of what went on behind the scenes at the negotiations and make a wonderful addendum to Margaret Macmillan's book on the conference. With so much material at hand to analyze, the author goes into every theory about why the friendship cooled. (Hint: Edith Wilson looms large.) It is clear, however, that a clash in styles was inevitable: House's more pragmatic and tactful handing of issues at the conference grated against Wilson's haughty idealism to the point where accusations and apologies were exchanged for the first time.

The book is meticulously researched, and the style is easy on the brain while still explicating profound issues. It gives credit to a unique individual whose personal charm, modesty, and intelligence were needed at the point this country was taking a lead role on the international stage. House's involvement with every important diplomatic issue of his day was disparaged by "Edith's camp" of memoirists and historians for many years, so we are grateful to Hodgson for delivering a different and thoughtful perspective on the Wilsonian era.


Originally Presented in the Fall 2009 Issue of Relevance: Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society

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