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

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The House-Grey Memorandum

The House-Grey Memorandum was originated by President of the United States Woodrow Wilson's diplomatic emissary to Europe, "Colonel" Edward M. House, and the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. In the late summer of 1915, in the midst of the Arabic crisis, Grey and House were regularly corresponding.  Grey, to House's mind, seemed to be hinting that the Allies would welcome American mediation in the conflict, if the U.S. was willing to seriously commit to play a role in defending a postwar international structure. On 8 October, House broached the plan with the president, who seemed receptive to it. 

From Col. House's Diary

October 8, 1915:

Col. Edward House
I outlined [to President Wilson this date] very briefly a plan which has occurred to me and which seems of much value. I thought we had lost our opportunity to break with Germany, and it looked as if she had a better chance than ever of winning and if she did win our turn would come next; and we were not only unprepared, but there would be no one to help us stand the first shock. Therefore, we should do something decisive now — something that would either end the war in a way to abolish militarism or that would bring us in with the Allies to help them do it. My suggestion is to ask the Allies unofficially, to let me know whether or not it would be agreeable to them to have us demand that hostilities cease. We would put it upon the high ground that the neutral world was suffering along with the belligerents and that we had rights as well as they, and that peace parleys should begin upon the broad basis of both military and naval disarmament. . . 

If the Allies understood our purpose, we could be as severe in our language concerning them as we were with the Central Powers. The Allies, after some hesitation, could accept our offer or demand and the Central Powers accepted, we would then have accomplished a master-stroke of diplomacy. If the Central Powers refused to acquiesce, we could then push our insistence to a point where diplomatic relations would first be broken off, and later the whole force of our Government — and perhaps the force of every neutral — might be brought against them.

The President was startled by this plan. He seemed to acquiesce by silence. I had not time to push it further, for our entire conversation did not last longer than twenty minutes.

October 11, 1915: 
Frank Polk took lunch with me. I told him something of the plan I had outlined to the President, concerning our enforcing peace before the Allies reached a position where they could not be of assistance in the event we had war with the Central Powers. I am looking at the matter from the American viewpoint and also from the broader viewpoint of humanity in general. It will not do for the United States to let the Allies go down and leave Germany the dominant military factor in the world. We would certainly be the next object of attack, and the Monroe Doctrine would be less indeed than a scrap of paper. . . . Polk thought the idea was good from every standpoint, and he hoped the President would finally put it through. . . .

House quickly gained the support of Secretary of State Robert Lansing for the scheme. Much back and forth discussion ensued, which led to Wilson sending House on a diplomatic mission to Paris, Berlin, and London. After further detailed discussions, reached an understanding on the major points to be addressed in the American initiative.

The final proposal, drafted in memo form by Grey, was an invitation from the U.S. to all those involved in the First World War to participation in a U.S.-mediated peace convention. President Wilson aimed to have a role at the peace conference in order to curb [vague] the big European powers' ambitions. If Germany declined to attend, the U.S. would probably become militarily involved in the European conflict. The final draft originally state should German rejection occur, “the United States would leave the Conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies." Wilson "approved the whole of the agreement", but added the word "probably."

Memorandum of Sir Edward Grey
22 February 1916
(Confidential )

Sir Edward Grey
Colonel House told me that President Wilson was ready, on hearing from France and England that the moment was opportune, to propose that a Conference should be summoned to put an end to the war. Should the Allies accept this proposal, and should Germany refuse it, the United States would probably [inserted by President Wilson] enter the war against Germany. Colonel House expressed the opinion that, if such a Conference met, it would secure peace on terms not unfavourable to the Allies; and, if it failed to secure peace, the United States would [probably] leave the Conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies, if Germany was unreasonable. 

Colonel House expressed an opinion decidedly favourable to the restoration of Belgium, the transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to France, and the acquisition by Russia of an outlet to the sea, though he thought that the loss of territory incurred by Germany in one place would have to be compensated to her by concessions to her in other places outside Europe. If the Allies delayed accepting the offer of President Wilson, and if, later on, the course of the war was so unfavourable to them that the intervention of the United States would not be effective, the United States would probably disinterest themselves in Europe and look to their own protection in their own way. 

I said that I felt the statement, coming from the President of the United States, to be a matter of such importance that I must inform the Prime Minister and my colleagues; but that I could say nothing until it had received their consideration. The British Government could, under no circumstances accept or make any proposal except in consultation and agreement with the Allies.... 

(initialed) E. G.
Foreign Office
22 February 1916

Grey showed the memorandum to the French ambassador Paul Cambon. Cambon believed that the memorandum was just an election tactic for Wilson who would be standing again for president that year.  In March 1916, the British government, led by Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, tacitly  vetoed the proposal as neither they, nor their French ally, wanted a return to the status quo antebellum but a victory over the German Empire.

Sources: Wikipedia and The World War I Document Archive.

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