COLONEL HOUSE: A BIOGRAPHY OF WOODROW WILSON’S SILENT PARTNER by Charles E. Neu

(President Woodrow Wilson and Colonel Edward House, campaigning in 1912)

One of the most tragic endings to any presidency in American history is that of Woodrow Wilson.  Elected twice the former president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey continued progressive reform that had marked the earlier administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft.  In addition, Wilson guided the United States through the Great War and developed a plan to make it “the war to end all wars.”  However, Wilson suffered a stroke while trying to sell his postwar plan to the American people as he battled to overcome partisan congressional opposition to the League of Nations and never regained the emotional balance to compromise with his detractors.  In the end Wilson became a bitter man and the fight over the League of Nations overshadowed the positive impact his presidency had on American history.  During Wilson’s administration a “counselor” emerged who had no official title or rank but has often been labeled as Wilson’s “silent partner.”  This individual helped shepherd through Wilson’s domestic agenda through congress, but he remained in the background throughout that process.  It was in the arena of foreign affairs that he became known to the general public.  The man, Edward House was a wealthy Texas politician and businessman who was fascinated by the organizational side of politics, rather than the achievement political power in of itself.  Nicknamed the “Colonel” based on an honorary National Guard rank the governor of Texas bestowed upon him, Colonel House became one of the most powerful and controversial presidential advisers in history.  Until now the literature on House lacked a comprehensive and masterful biography, with the publication of Charles E. Neu’s COLONEL HOUSE: A BIOGRAPHY OF WOODROW WILSON’S SILENT PARTNER that void has been filled.

Neu has written a biography that should remain the definitive source on Colonel House for years to come.  The book is based on assiduous research that includes the leading secondary works on all aspects of American history that House was a part of.  It took Neu years to research and write and it is reflected in the primary materials he examined, particularly the over 3000 page diary that House prepared on a daily basis until 1921 when the Versailles Conference ended.  Neu points out that throughout his life that House was most interested in the “process rather than the substance of politics, fascinated with tactics and personalities.” (11)  As he worked his way through Texas politics he created what he referred to as “our crowd,” a group of advisors and sycophants who would remain with him throughout his career.  In his relationship with Wilson he took on many tasks that the President found distasteful.  Wilson, whom was not a warm individual saw in House an individual that possessed the capacity for human relations that he lacked and relied upon his “counselor” to smooth the way for legislation as well as diplomatic relationships.  One would think that Wilson and House would have spent a great deal of time together during the course of their friendship, but Neu reveals that most of their communication was by letter and telephone.  Fortunately House’s diaries have provided historians a record of their warm feelings for each other that today might be categorized as a “bromance!”

(President Wilson and his cabinet)

Neu correctly develops the theme that House’s greatest contribution to his relationship with the president was his assessment of European events as he repeatedly traveled to Europe between 1913 and 1917 as the United States tried to navigate a policy of neutrality during World War I.  House became the key to American mediation efforts, though his judgment was often clouded by his enamourment with England and its Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and the policies of Lloyd George.  Wilson relied on House as his “personal emissary” but at times House missed the larger historical forces that shaped the policies of the European powers as the war continued.  House’s relationship began with Wilson in 1911 as he grew tired of the policies offered by the Republican Party.  For a number of years through the prism of Texas and national politics he searched for a progressive Democrat who was electable.  The search brought him in contact with Governor Wilson of New Jersey and their relationship blossomed.  With the disarray in the Republican Party in 1912 whoever secured the Democratic nomination was likely to be elected president.  Neu provides a detailed summary of the 1912 election and correctly concludes that it was “one of the most intense campaigns on both a personal and intellectual level that has ever occurred in American political history.” (66)  After the election House had to reinvent himself from the Texas politician who focused on the acquisition of power, relying on personal loyalty, patronage and the manipulation of the system to an advisor dealing with a progressive agenda.  House made the conversion easily and his relationship with Wilson would continue to blossom until the president’s first wife passed away.

 (President Woodrow Wilson, his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, and Colonel Edward House)

Wilson’s relationship and remarriage to Edith Bolling Galt in 1915 altered Wilson’s relationship with House.  What amazed me was the intimate relationship the two men shared until Wilson remarried.  Neu includes numerous excerpts from letters the two sent to each other in the narrative and the sincerity and emotional nature of their correspondence reflects how dependent they were on each other, i.e., on Christmas day, 1914 Wilson and House exchanged telegrams.  “I wish, I could see brought into your life some happiness and blessing equal to those you have brought into mine by your wonderful friendship.  You have kept faith and strength in me.”  House replied, “Your message has made the day a happy one for me.  May God’s blessings fall upon you and yours abundantly during the coming years.” (164)   Once Edith Galt, a controlling woman entered the picture the relationship between the two men would suffer.  Neu conjectures that despite Wilson’s efforts, Galt was not inclined to share her love for him with another person and her attitude from the start toward House was negative, as she told the president that “I know I am wrong but I can’t help feeling he is not a very strong character….he does look like a weak vessel and I think that he writes like one very often.” (201)   Galt’s relationship with House would be glossed over by her husband but it would never be the same.  Neu does a remarkable job cataloguing the relationship throughout the war and the peace process and concludes that once Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919 her influence on the president was detrimental to the country as she reinforced his negativity that was in part caused by his illness.

Neu does an exceptional job describing the diplomatic and military events dealing with World War I.  He deftly examines the major political and military characters involved and makes numerous insightful comments.  He integrates House’s role in mediation efforts and policy decisions nicely and correctly concludes that in most situations House had an overblown sense of his own importance and influence that at times led to inaccurate reports back to Washington.  This inflated estimate of himself, in part was the fault of Wilson who had a habit of dispatching House on his European missions with only vague instructions and carelessly monitored his negotiations.   Neu has an excellent command over the details of House’s ventures overseas be it to mediate the war before US entrance or managing the allied coalition once the US became a combatant.  A case in point was House’s mediation effort after Wilson was reelected in 1916.  Neu’s analysis of London and Berlin seem very credible and he seems to have mastered the military and political nuances in each capital.  In Berlin, Generals Ludendorff and von Hindenburg views on strategy and implementation of U-boat warfare and the declining influence of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg are accurately presented by the author.  Neu goes on to state that House’s evaluation of Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour led him to believe that he understood the war better than the president.  House also believed that Wilson was not preparing the country for war, which he believed was inevitable, also setting him apart from the president.  Despite these differences it appears that House had Wilson’s full support as he had him prepare for a post war peace conference which would take place after Germany’s defeat

(Colonel Edward House, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, President Woodrow Wilson)

Neu’s knowledge of war events is especially useful as he places the Wilson-House relationship in the context of events overseas.  Whether discussing the diplomacy dealing with Germany’s U-boat policy, events in Russia as the Czarist regime collapses, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the policy of unconditional surrender the author’s narrative is impeccable.  Once the war ends Neu spends a great deal of time on the evolution of the negotiations in Paris and points out the errors that were made.  First, having the conference in Versailles instead of a neutral site like Geneva; having Wilson as the head of the American delegation, and not bringing a prominent Republican as a member of the American commission.  All these errors that House relayed to Wilson are discussed and their negative effect on the final outcome embodied in the Treaty of Versailles are examined.  Wilson’s stubbornness and inflexibility are ever present, but so is House’s inability to convey an accurate portrayal of what was to be expected before negotiations began.  The relationship between the two men would not survive the conference as House was not given a prominent role in the day to day diplomacy as Wilson put him in charge of writing a constitution for the future League of Nations.  However, when Wilson returned to the United States to deal with Republican opposition to the League, House’s role in territorial negotiations is enhanced.  However once Wilson returned to Paris he felt that while he was away that House overly accommodated the French and Italians violating the principle of self-determination.  This heightened their disagreements over policy and House’s illusions about his own effectiveness resulted in his failure to carry out some of Wilson’s wishes embodied in the Fourteen Points, “succumbing to Clemenceau’s flattery and his own conviction that he was the master of the negotiating process.” (422)

Apart from the sections on diplomacy and war, Neu examines many important relationships and personal views of the major historical figures that House dealt with.  House’s relationship to other key administration figures is explored especially Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who both Wilson and House lacked respect for and his replacement, Robert Lansing who was seen as weak and whose opinions were repeatedly bypassed.  Both the President and House had little use for US ambassador to England, Walter Hines Page and the feelings were mutual.  House’s use of the term “love” in describing his opinion of French President Georges Clemenceau and English Foreign Secretary Edward Grey reflects a lack of objectivity that is very bothersome.  In addition, House’s views of Jews comes across as very anti-Semitic as he speaks about Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Bernard Baruch, who skills Wilson employed in organizing the United States domestically for war.  Military figures such as General John J. Pershing, Sir Alexander Haig, and General Joseph Joffre are all explored.  American politicians like Henry Cabot Lodge, Warren G. Harding, John W. Davis and many others are also painted by Neu’s historical brush as the politics of peace and presidential campaigns are rendered in detail.

(President Woodrow Wilson visiting London in February, 1918)

Once the issues of the war are settled, Neu describes House’s career and retirement in the last section of the book.  What is most interesting is House’s obsession with his place in history and he how he established a warm working relationship with Yale University historian Charles Seymour who would edit his private papers into four volumes.  As House grew older he repeatedly reexamined the break with Wilson, accepting no responsibility he blamed it on Edith Galt and her coterie of advisors that surrounded the stricken president.  The book may come across as encyclopedic to some readers, but Neu’s ability to turn a phrase and write clear and concise sentences will allow the novice historian to enjoy the results of years of the author’s work in creating a superb biography of one of the most important figures in 20th century American political history.  The key to Neu’s success is that he lets House’s record as a private advisor and diplomat tell its own story and the reader can judge for themselves how important House may have been to the era in which he lived.

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