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MR. WILSON’S PRESENCE AT THE PEACE CONFERENCE

Early in October, 1918, it required no prophetic vision to perceive that the World War would come to an end in the near future. Austria-Hungary, acting with the full approval of the German Government, had made overtures for peace, and Bulgaria, recognizing the futility of further struggle, had signed an armistice which amounted to an unconditional surrender. These events were soon followed by the collapse of Turkish resistance and by the German proposals which resulted in the armistice which went into effect on November 11, 1918.

In view of the importance of the conditions of the armistice with Germany and their relation to the terms of peace to be later negotiated, the President considered it essential to have an American member added to the Supreme War Council, which then consisted of M. Clemenceau, Mr. Lloyd George, and Signor Orlando, the premiers of the three Allied Powers. He selected Colonel Edward M. House for this important post and named him a Special Commissioner to represent him personally. Colonel House with a corps of secretaries and assistants sailed from New York on October 17, en route for Paris where the Supreme War Council was in session.

Three days before his departure the Colonel was in Washington and we had two long conferences with the President regarding the correspondence with Germany and with the Allies relating to a cessation of hostilities, during which we discussed the position which the United States should take as to the terms of the armistice and the bases of peace which should be incorporated in the document.

It was after one of these conferences that Colonel House informed me that the President had decided to name him (the Colonel) and me as two of the American plenipotentiaries to the Peace Conference, and that the President was considering attending the Conference and in person directing the negotiations. This latter intention of Mr. Wilson surprised and disturbed me, and I expressed the hope that the President’s mind was not made up, as I believed that if he gave more consideration to the project he would abandon it, since it was manifest that his influence over the negotiations would be much greater if he remained in Washington and issued instructions to his representatives in the Conference. Colonel House did not say that he agreed with my judgment in this matter, though he did not openly disagree with it. However, I drew the conclusion, though without actual knowledge, that he approved of the President’s purpose, and, possibly, had encouraged him to become an actual participant in the preliminary conferences.

The President’s idea of attending the Peace Conference was not a new one. Though I cannot recollect the source of my information, I know that in December, 1916, when it will be remembered Mr. Wilson was endeavoring to induce the belligerents to state their objects in the war and to enter into a conference looking toward peace, he had an idea that he might, as a friend of both parties, preside over such a conference and exert his personal influence to bring the belligerents into agreement. A service of this sort undoubtedly appealed to the President’s humanitarian instinct and to his earnest desire to end the devastating war, while the novelty of the position in which he would be placed would not have been displeasing to one who in his public career seemed to find satisfaction in departing from the established paths marked out by custom and usage.

When, however, the attempt at mediation failed and when six weeks later, on February 1, 1917, the German Government renewed indiscriminate submarine warfare resulting in the severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany, President Wilson continued to cherish the hope that he might yet assume the rôle of mediator. He even went so far as to prepare a draft of the bases of peace, which he purposed to submit to the belligerents if they could be induced to meet in conference. I cannot conceive how he could have expected to bring this about in view of the elation of the Allies at the dismissal of Count von Bernstorff and the seeming certainty that the United States would declare war against Germany if the latter persisted in her ruthless sinking of American merchant vessels. But I know, in spite of the logic of the situation, that he expected or at least hoped to succeed in his mediatory programme and made ready to play his part in the negotiation of a peace.

From the time that Congress declared that a state of war existed between the United States and the Imperial German Government up to the autumn of 1918, when the Central Alliance made overtures to end the war, the President made no attempt so far as I am aware to enter upon peace negotiations with the enemy nations. In fact he showed a disposition to reject all peace proposals. He appears to have reached the conclusion that the defeat of Germany and her allies was essential before permanent peace could be restored. At all events, he took no steps to bring the belligerents together until a military decision had been practically reached. He did, however, on January 8,1918, lay down his famous “Fourteen Points,” which he supplemented with certain declarations in “subsequent addresses,” thus proclaiming his ideas as to the proper bases of peace when the time should come to negotiate.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of the final triumph of the armies of the Allied and Associated Powers, the President, in the spring of 1917, directed the organization, under the Department of State, of a body of experts to collect data and prepare monographs, charts, and maps, covering all historical, territorial, economic, and legal subjects which would probably arise in the negotiation of a treaty of peace. This Commission of Inquiry, as it was called, had its offices in New York and was under Colonel House so far as the selection of its members was concerned. The nominal head of the Commission was Dr. Mezes, President of the College of the City of New York and a brother-in-law of Colonel House, though the actual and efficient executive head was Dr. Isaiah Bowman, Director of the American Geographical Society. The plans of organization, the outline of work, and the proposed expenditures for the maintenance of the Commission were submitted to me as Secretary of State. I examined them and, after several conferences with Dr. Mezes, approved them and recommended to the President that he allot the funds necessary to carry out the programme.

In addition to the subjects which were dealt with by this excellent corps of students and experts, whose work was of the highest order, the creation of some sort of an international association to prevent wars in the future received special attention from the President as it did from Americans of prominence not connected with the Government. It caused considerable discussion in the press and many schemes were proposed and pamphlets written on the subject. To organize such an association became a generally recognized object to be attained in the negotiation of the peace which would end the World War; and there can be no doubt that the President believed more and more in the vital necessity of forming an effective organization of the nations to preserve peace in the future and make another great war impossible.

The idea of being present and taking an active part in formulating the terms of peace had, in my opinion, never been abandoned by President Wilson, although it had remained dormant while the result of the conflict was uncertain. When, however, in early October, 1918, there could no longer be any doubt that the end of the war was approaching, the President appears to have revived the idea and to have decided, if possible, to carry out the purpose which he had so long cherished. He seemed to have failed to appreciate, or, if he did appreciate, to have ignored the fact that the conditions were wholly different in October, 1918, from what they were in December, 1916.

In December, 1916, the United States was a neutral nation, and the President, in a spirit of mutual friendliness, which was real and not assumed, was seeking to bring the warring powers together in conference looking toward the negotiation of “a peace without victory.” In the event that he was able to persuade them to meet, his presence at the conference as a pacificator and probably as the presiding officer would not improbably have been in the interests of peace, because, as the executive head of the greatest of the neutral nations of the world and as the impartial friend of both parties, his personal influence would presumably have been very great in preventing a rupture in the negotiations and in inducing the parties to act in a spirit of conciliation and compromise.

In October, 1918, however, the United States was a belligerent. Its national interests were involved; its armies were in conflict with the Germans on the soil of France; its naval vessels were patrolling the Atlantic; and the American people, bitterly hostile, were demanding vengeance on the Governments and peoples of the Central Powers, particularly those of Germany. President Wilson, it is true, had endeavored with a measure of success to maintain the position of an unbiased arbiter in the discussions leading up to the armistice of November 11, and Germany undoubtedly looked to him as the one hope of checking the spirit of revenge which animated the Allied Powers in view of all that they had suffered at the hands of the Germans. It is probable too that the Allies recognized that Mr. Wilson was entitled to be satisfied as to the terms of peace since American man power and American resources had turned the scale against Germany and made victory a certainty. The President, in fact, dominated the situation. If he remained in Washington and carried on the negotiations through his Commissioners, he would in all probability retain his superior place and be able to dictate such terms of peace as he considered just. But, if he did as he purposed doing and attended the Peace Conference, he would lose the unique position which he held and would have to submit to the combined will of his foreign colleagues becoming a prey to intrigue and to the impulses arising from their hatred for the vanquished nations.

A practical view of the situation so clearly pointed to the unwisdom of the President’s personal participation in the peace negotiations that a very probable explanation for his determination to be present at the Conference is the assumption that the idea had become so firmly embedded in his mind that nothing could dislodge it or divert him from his purpose. How far the spectacular feature of a President crossing the ocean to control in person the making of peace appealed to him I do not know. It may have been the deciding factor. It may have had no effect at all. How far the belief that a just peace could only be secured by the exercise of his personal influence over the delegates I cannot say. How far he doubted the ability of the men whom he proposed to name as plenipotentiaries is wholly speculative. Whatever plausible reason may be given, the true reason will probably never be known.

Not appreciating, at the time that Colonel House informed me of the President’s plan to be present at the Conference, that the matter had gone as far as it had, and feeling very strongly that it would be a grave mistake for the President to take part in person in the negotiations, I felt it to be my duty, as his official adviser in foreign affairs and as one desirous to have him adopt a wise course, to state plainly to him my views. It was with hesitation that I did this because the consequence of the non-attendance of the President would be to make me the head of the American Peace Commission at Paris. There was the danger that my motive in opposing the President’s attending the Conference would be misconstrued and that I might be suspected of acting from self-interest rather than from a sense of loyalty to my chief. When, however, the armistice went into effect and the time arrived for completing the personnel of the American Commission, I determined that I ought not to remain silent.

The day after the cessation of hostilities, that is, on November 12, I made the following note:

“I had a conference this noon with the President at the White House in relation to the Peace Conference. I told him frankly that I thought the plan for him to attend was unwise and would be a mistake. I said that I felt embarrassed in speaking to him about it because it would leave me at the head of the delegation, and I hoped that he understood that I spoke only out of a sense of duty. I pointed out that he held at present a dominant position in the world, which I was afraid he would lose if he went into conference with the foreign statesmen; that he could practically dictate the terms of peace if he held aloof; that he would be criticized severely in this country for leaving at a time when Congress particularly needed his guidance; and that he would be greatly embarrassed in directing domestic affairs from overseas.”

I also recorded as significant that the President listened to my remarks without comment and turned the conversation into other channels.

For a week after this interview I heard nothing from the President on the subject, though the fact that no steps were taken to prepare written instructions for the American Commissioners convinced me that he intended to follow his original intention. My fears were confirmed. On the evening of Monday, November 18, the President came to my residence and told me that he had finally decided to go to the Peace Conference and that he had given out to the press an announcement to that effect. In view of the publicity given to his decision it would have been futile to have attempted to dissuade him from his purpose. He knew my opinion and that it was contrary to his.

After the President departed I made a note of the interview, in which among other things I wrote:

“I am convinced that he is making one of the greatest mistakes of his career and will imperil his reputation. I may be in error and hope that I am, but I prophesy trouble in Paris and worse than trouble here. I believe the President’s place is here in America.”

Whether the decision of Mr. Wilson was wise and whether my prophecy was unfulfilled, I leave to the judgment of others. His visit to Europe and its consequences are facts of history. It should be understood that the incident is not referred to here to justify my views or to prove that the President was wrong in what he did. The reference is made solely because it shows that at the very outset there was a decided divergence of judgment between us in regard to the peace negotiations.

While this difference of opinion apparently in no way affected our cordial relations, I cannot but feel, in reviewing this period of our intercourse, that my open opposition to his attending the Conference was considered by the President to be an unwarranted meddling with his personal affairs and was none of my business. It was, I believe, the beginning of his loss of confidence in my judgment and advice, which became increasingly marked during the Paris negotiations. At the time, however, I did not realize that my honest opinion affected the President in the way which I now believe that it did. It had always been my practice as Secretary of State to speak to him with candor and to disagree with him whenever I thought he was reaching a wrong decision in regard to any matter pertaining to foreign affairs. There was a general belief that Mr. Wilson was not open-minded and that he was quick to resent any opposition however well founded. I had not found him so during the years we had been associated. Except in a few instances he listened with consideration to arguments and apparently endeavored to value them correctly. If, however, the matter related even remotely to his personal conduct he seemed unwilling to debate the question. My conclusion is that he considered his going to the Peace Conference was his affair solely and that he viewed my objections as a direct criticism of him personally for thinking of going. He may, too, have felt that my opposition arose from a selfish desire to become the head of the American Commission. From that time forward any suggestion or advice volunteered by me was seemingly viewed with suspicion. It was, however, long after this incident that I began to feel that the President was imputing to me improper motives and crediting me with disloyalty to him personally, an attitude which was as unwarranted as it was unjust.

The President having determined to go to Paris, it seemed almost useless to urge him not to become a delegate in view of the fact that he had named but four Commissioners, although it had been arranged that the Great Powers should each have five delegates in the Conference. This clearly indicated that the President was at least considering sitting as the fifth member of the American group. At the same time it seemed that, if he did not take his place in the Conference as a delegate, he might retain in a measure his superior place of influence even though he was in Paris. Four days after the Commission landed at Brest I had a long conference with Colonel House on matters pertaining to the approaching negotiations, during which he informed me that there was a determined effort being made by the European statesmen to induce the President to sit at the peace table and that he was afraid that the President was disposed to accede to their wishes. This information indicated that, while the President had come to Paris prepared to act as a delegate, he had, after discussing the subject with the Colonel and possibly with others, become doubtful as to the wisdom of doing so, but that through the pressure of his foreign colleagues he was turning again to the favorable view of personal participation which he had held before he left the United States.

In my conversation with Colonel House I told him my reasons for opposing the President’s taking an active part in the Conference and explained to him the embarrassment that I felt in advising the President to adopt a course which would make me the head of the American Commission. I am sure that the Colonel fully agreed with me that it was impolitic for Mr. Wilson to become a delegate, but whether he actively opposed the plan I do not know, although I believe that he did. It was some days before the President announced that he would become the head of the American Commission. I believe that he did this with grave doubts in his own mind as to the wisdom of his decision, and I do not think that any new arguments were advanced during those days which materially affected his judgment.

This delay in reaching a final determination as to a course of action was characteristic of Mr. Wilson. There is in his mentality a strange mixture of positiveness and indecision which is almost paradoxical. It is a peculiarity which it is hard to analyze and which has often been an embarrassment in the conduct of public affairs. Suddenness rather than promptness has always marked his decisions. Procrastination in announcing a policy or a programme makes cooeperation difficult and not infrequently defeats the desired purpose. To put off a decision to the last moment is a trait of Mr. Wilson’s character which has caused much anxiety to those who, dealing with matters of vital importance, realized that delay was perilous if not disastrous.

Of the consequences of the President’s acting as one of his own representatives to negotiate peace it is not my purpose to speak. The events of the six months succeeding his decision to exercise in person his constitutional right to conduct the foreign relations of the United States are in a general way matters of common knowledge and furnish sufficient data for the formulation of individual opinions without the aid of argument or discussion. The important fact in connection with the general topic being considered is the difference of opinion between the President and myself as to the wisdom of his assuming the rôle of a delegate. While I did not discuss the matter with him except at the first when I opposed his attending the Peace Conference, I have little doubt that Colonel House, if he urged the President to decline to sit as a delegate, which I think may be presumed, or if he discussed it at all, mentioned to him my opinion that such a step would be unwise. In any event Mr. Wilson knew my views and that they were at variance with the decision which he reached.