19: Wind-Up in Paris and a Two-Way Mission to Washington
<< 18: The Conference Runs into Heavy Weather || Appendices
May 7, 1919
The ceremony this afternoon in the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles when the peace
terms were handed over to the Germans was most certainly not a pleasant spectacle. Indeed
it has proved almost as unpleasant for the victors as it must have been for the
vanquished. The Tiger stood on his feet and was formal and dignified as he handed over the
historic document, but unfortunately the attitude of the German plenipotentiary was
contemptuous and the long rambling discourse which he read was in the worst possible
taste. He remained seated throughout the ceremony and no explanation was offered for what
many considered a gross discourtesy.
The general verdict seems to be that in the peace campaign the Germans have suffered
another "defeat at the Marne." As he listened intently to the diatribe of hate
that issued from the trembling lips of the speaker the President's face was a study. For
the first time since he came to France it betrayed passion and at the end he is reported
to have said, "Now I m ready to admit that I hate the Germans." "Beasts
they were and beasts they are," was Balfour's comment. "how in the world can we
contrive to live in the same world with them?"
House was greatly distressed and as is his habit tried to take a kindly view of the
incident. "The man must be mad or ill or drunk. But what a calamity, whatever the
explanation may be. He has played into the hands of those who would wipe the German people
off the face of the earth and made the task of those of us who seek to establish an
understanding that might lead to friendship simply impossible."
I lean to the opinion that Brockdorff-Rantzau, German minister to Denmark throughout
the war, was both ill and drunk. For weeks we have heard of the enormous quantities of
cognac he consumes daily and but a glance at his deadly white face, his sunken chest, his
hollow shoulders reveals what must have been his physical condition for a long time past.
Cambon thinks that personal pique had something to do with the sorry exhibition. "He
hoped to play the role of Talleyrand at the Vienna Congress and instead he was placed
behind a stockade. How wise that precaution was he probably does not appreciate. When you
recall the atrocities the Horde committed on French and Belgian soil it is almost a
miracle that our Surete were able to protect this representative of frightfulness from
what I can only admit would have been just retribution."
The Colonel asked me to drive back with him from Versailles. "Our work is
over," he said, "although some details may have to be adjusted. Some of our
demands are harsh, but if we remember what took place in Belgium, in northern France, and
elsewhere they are only what was to be expected. I shall try to 'iron things out' [his
favorite expression] but of course we shall not make a complete job of it until the League
gets down to work under more favorable conditions.
"What I am now hearing from Washington is, I must admit, disquieting. What we have
accomplished here is, I fear, not well understood there. I see some defects, too, and I am
aware that in some respects we have not lived up to our ideals, but we have been dealing
with men and not with angels. As the treaty carries with it the machinery for its
correction, before it is ratified and before the Covenant is generally recognized as the
hope of our civilization, I think it unwise to point out and dwell upon the defects and
the shortcomings of our work, although I am aware at least of some of them. I had thought
of going home myself, but the President told me yesterday that I must remain until the
treaty is signed and that then he wanted me to go to London as his representative on the
Mandate Commission: 'I shall want you to curb the land-grabbers who will gather there,'
the President said.
"I want you to be with me," added House, "and in the meantime in a few
days I shall ask you to go to Washington, secure your discharge from the army, and above
all keep your ears and your eyes open. When I reach London I shall cable you to join me,
and I hope you will."
I told the Colonel I would be glad to fall in with his plans. I had been separated from
my family for more than a year and, as the war was over, I had hoped and indeed expected
that normal conditions would be resumed. Mrs. Bonsal had not been allowed to come to
Paris, the rule excluding the wives of those in the armed forces having been rigidly
enforced. The Colonel said he was very grateful that I was willing to absent myself from
the crowning day of our work, which would be when the Germans signed the treaty in
Versailles. I told him to dismiss any thought of this from his mind; that I personally
would prefer to be in Washington on the great day.
That evening I had a seance of an hour with the Colonel in which he emphasized the
favorable aspects of the negotiations, which he wished rue to impress upon senators and
others. He read me excerpts from letters recently received from Philips of the State
Department and from Tumulty in the White House; both were evidently depressed at the
outlook for ratification and said so quite frankly. He told me to make what preparations
were necessary and that in a few days he would ask Chaumont for my travel orders. I was
delighted and walked on air for several days and then, as so often the case before, there
ensued a period of uncertainty and delay.
May 16, 1919
In the bag which the courier from Washington brought this morning there was more bad
news, and for a time the Colonel was depressed over the political situation at home. But
soon he was arguing stoutly, "Everything will come out all right once the 'Governor
returns and gets in touch with the people. How the days have slid by! How long he has been
away!" At last it is plain the Colonel is growing anxious over the bitter battle for
the ratification of the treaty in the Senate, even now under way, although as yet the
exact terms of the great document have not been settled upon here. This seemed an
opportune moment to broach my personal problem that had hung fire for ten days, so I said,
"When do I shove off?"
"Let s take a walk," answered the Colonel, and soon we were strolling in the
gardens of the Tuileries as so often before when decisions had to be reached. After a few
moments of silence the Colonel began:
"When, as we returned from Versailles on May 7 I asked if you were willing to go
to Washington, I thought, indeed we all thought, the Treaty would be signed in two weeks
at the latest, and so if you went you would not be missing the great scene in the Hall of
Mirrors. But there have been delays and, as you know, the fault is not entirely with the
Germans. Some weeks may elapse before the final text of the new world charter upon which I
think the fate of civilization depends is settled."
"I Wrote Frank Cobb about it and he too wants you to look over the situation in
the Senate, which he thinks needs watching, but I must tell you that he also cabled it
would not be fair if you, whom he calls the veteran 'events man,' were to miss the
historic moment at Versailles - one which you have earned the right to witness and to
chronicle. And Frank is right on both counts. They need light in Washington, particularly
under the Capitol dome, and you could bring it. On the other hand, the sacrifice I would
be asking of you is too great."
I helped the Colonel all I could. "On the great day," I argued, "I would
only be an idle spectator, one among hundreds. I have seen all the great actors at close
quarters when they were not on dress parade. The pageantry will not escape the camera and
what they may have to say will be carried to the ends of the earth. But at home in
Washington, as a Mandarin-Help-Discuss, I might be useful."
The Colonel seemed to waver, so I advanced with what I hoped would be a winning
argument. "Of course it will be a great spectacle, but frankly on that glorious day I
would rather, much rather, be at home with those from whom I have been separated for so
many months of these war-racked years. I would prefer to share the rejoicings of the home
folks than to see the illuminations and the fountains playing in the town of the French
I then told him some of the personal and very cogent reasons why wished to return home,
reasons which hitherto I had not mentioned from fear of in some slight measure
inconveniencing him. But now hat the text of the Treaty was in the main established, I
would like, indeed I was most anxious, to get out of harness - and here was presented the
Colonel House then went on: "As you know, every mail brings the letters from
Washington and even more of them from politically pivotal states as to what the outlook
will be when the Treaty reaches the Senate. They are interesting, far from reassuring, and
so contradictory. So my thought is (if I let you go) that while in Washington getting out
of the army, which I understand requires at least two to three weeks, you would have an
excellent opportunity to inform yourself as to the real situation there and to spread
light as to the many difficulties we have had to contend with here. You have many contacts
and I shall be able to suggest others - men who will play their part in the ratification
struggle, and certainly nothing would be more helpful to the President and to me than to
have the situation both here and there clarified. As you know, the President in several
respects has revised the Covenant to conform to the wishes of some of the hesitating
senators, but as you also know at least two of their suggestions he has not thought it
advisable to comply with. What the feeling is in the Senate and what the score is likely
to be when the senators come to vote on the question of ratification is most important.
Indeed I think it is the most important question in the world today. I hope you will be
able to shed light on it - if I finally decide to let you go.
Seeing that my fate still hung in the balance, knowing my Colonel's weak side, I now
shot my bolt. "I am raring to go," I insisted. "I do not care to see the
Hall of Mirrors in gala dress. I want to witness the miracle of spring in northern
Westchester to which I have been too long a homesick stranger. I want to feast my eyes on
the white oaks, to hear the spring floods from the Stony Hills rushing through our gorge,
to breathe in the perfume of the balsam pines..."
I had indeed grown lyrical, amid that my Colonel could never resist. He put his arm
affectionately upon my shoulder and said, I think you ought to be there when the Great
Captains capitulate, but I shall never forget your willingness to miss it and go to
Washington." [And he never did.]
May 17, 1919
This afternoon the President came in and paid the Colonel a long visit. Then the Signal
Corps men who are tinkering with his private telephone to the Paris White House came in
also, and so the great men adjourned to my room. Soon it was quite apparent to me that
they were engaged in drawing up a confidential memorandum, what the Colonel called
"graveyard stuff," and so, not wishing to eavesdrop, I withdrew.
When the President had left I returned to my desk and the Colonel expressed regret I
had not stayed with them. "We have been drawing up a memo," he said, "which
is to be transmitted to leading men at home who are in need of light. It is right up your
alley. It contains many talking points that would be helpful to you in the contacts I hope
you will make while in Washington. If what came in the bag this morning is based on fact
and not on fanciful fears, friends and foes alike are in great need of information, in
need of what the President calls "re-education."
For an hour or two we sat over the memo amid I took many notes, stressing certain
phrases which the Colonel regarded as bugle calls. About half of them, particularly those
dealing with the treatment of the suppliants at the Conference, I reproduce here.
Emphasize [wrote the President] that this treaty is not intended merely to end this
war. It is intended to prevent all wars. It is unique because it seeks the redemption of
the weak nations and not the aggrandizement of the strong. For the first time in history
the rights of those who cannot enforce them, who cannot stand alone, are safeguarded. We
are fighting for the oppressed nationalities who submerged or standing alone could never
have secured their freedom.
Poland alone could never have won her independence. Unaided Bohemia could not have
thrown off the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian overlords. The Slavic peoples of the Balkan
Peninsula were often crushed when, standing alone, they asserted their nationality and
demanded freedom. The little nations were always suppressed by the old alliances and by
those who battened on the balance-of-power principle.
We say now that all these people have the right to live their own lives under
governments which they themselves choose to set up. That is the American principle. I was
glad to fight for it and I believe the American people will back us up. There is a
disturbing element, I admit; some among the so recently "redeemed" say they want
and indeed must have certain positions strong from a military point of view, but I claim,
indeed I insist, that when we have established the League of Nations they will not need
those key military positions. If it fails, I admit the military view will prevail - also
that there will be no peace.
I maintain we are not merely punishing Germany for her hideous crimes and for the
great wrongs she has committed. We are seeking to rectify the age-old wrongs that
characterize the history of Europe. There are some I frankly admit that we cannot take up,
some which most certainly ought to be righted. We cannot take them up for the moment
because we can only deal with the countries which were engulfed in this war. But the turn
of those people will come - and soon. At them the Covenant is aimed. It is their plank of
The feature of our achievement most worthy of praise is the fact that this is the
first treaty not made by the Great Powers exclusively in their own favor. I claim that we
have secured world-wide endorsement of the fundamental American principle: that nobody has
the right to impose sovereignty upon anybody else; that every people must be its own
master. We are giving this boon of free choice to people unfortunately placed who unaided
could not have won it. And the Covenant is the bulwark as well as the sword and buckler of
It is true that, while amazing, ours is not a complete victory. Many delegations
wanted to be heard by the Peace Conference and many, very many of them, had very real
grievances to present, grievances which should be carefully weighed and promptly
redressed. But unfortunately in some instances we had to point out that these matters did
not come within the present area of settlement, and so, with our hands fully occupied by
the immediate tasks, we had with regret and real sorrow to turn away from problems which
should be discussed and must be settled in the way in which world opinion has definitely
decided to act.
All these matters are taken care of, or will be shortly I trust, by Article XI of
the Covenant, which is my favorite article because it is full of promise and gathers up
all the loose ends. This article says that any and every question that affects the peace
of the world is everybody s business and that it is the friendly right of any nation to
bring before the League any problem that is likely to disturb the peace of the world or
the good understanding between the nations upon which future peace depends. We proclaim
and we shall maintain this position: that every nation has the right to present any of
these problems to the League whether, and please mark this, whether the problem concerns
the nation that rings the alarm bell or whether it is merely a matter of general concern.
What a change that is! Here it seems to me indeed a miracle has been wrought.
Recall for a sad moment what has been hitherto the state of international law. Under it no
nation has enjoyed the right to call to the attention of the civilized world any problem
that did not directly affect its own national interest. If it did it would be told, and
how often that has happened, to mind its own business. Today the prospect is very
different. Under our Covenant there is not an oppressed people in the world that is not
assured a hearing before our court and all must know what that will mean if the cause
presented is just.
By now all must appreciate what obstacles, what cunning pitfalls to the goal of
peace, the secret treaties presented and are still presenting. Now it is agreed that there
shall be no more of them. Here indeed our victory is complete.
Regretfully I admit there are some shortsighted and I think weakhearted people who
say, "It is not our business to take care of the weak nations." No, but it is
our urgent business to prevent war, and if we do not take care of the weak nations there
will be wars world wars. Ours is not a combination for war as some misled or ill-informed
people assert. Ours is a combine of nations for arbitration and for open discussion, and
war only follows if the piratical nations persist in their aggression. And weigh carefully
how powerful are the weapons of peace that our agreements place in the hands of those who
follow the paths of righteousness. We boycott the would be aggressors. Their commerce is
interrupted; they cannot communicate with the world. They are shut in; they are ostracized
and entrance to their territory is forbidden. Until they repent and see the error of their
way s they are cast out of the comity of civilized nations. With these powerful weapons in
our hands I do nor think it will be necessary to go to the battlefield. No, this is not a
war document. Our Covenant will secure peace in the only way it can be secured.
I must admit the President looked wretched and evidently he's very tired, but there is
still plenty of fight in him. It is a thousand pities he was not given an opportunity to
recuperate from that strange illness that overtook him early in April. My chief told him
that I was leaving for Washington in a few hours with the purpose of getting out of the
army, and then as the Colonel put it to "spread enlightenment." The President
thought both were excellent ideas but offered a word of caution. "Tell him,"
said the President, "that no more changes in the Treaty will be considered. Here I
am. Here I have dug in."
I thought the President, basing my opinion upon what I heard and upon the memorandum
which the Colonel later showed me, defended his work intelligently and sympathetically,
and I find myself believing that once he gets home, mounts the rostrum in Congress, and
resumes contact with the people, he will dispel the many doubts and fears and the honest
misgivings which were voiced in the bagful of letters which came to House from Washington
yesterday. The President has the gift of carrying conviction.
[The memorandum from which these notes were taken was never used as a whole nor was it,
so far as I know, ever published. In July, 1920, Colonel House told me that the
President had used it as the source book for his brilliant speeches during his tour across
the country in September, 1919, which ended so disastrously for the President,
for the people of the United States, and for all peace-loving nations.]
When later I went in to say good-by I found my Colonel in the salle where the
new world charter had with so much difficulty been drafted. All that was water over the
mill, and now he was as busy as a bee with other matters. Two young naval officers were
displaying buntig and bringing together red stripes and blue bars out of which, following
the Colonel's suggestions, the standard which is soon to fly over the new world where
peace and plenty should reign was being fashioned. He asked my opinion as to one of the
combinations of colors to which he was favorably inclined, but I stalled. "It s like
a woman s bonnet," I stuttered, "it all depends upon the features beneath
"True, true,"commented my Chief, "but the new world we are inaugurating
must have a braw brave flag."
Then he led me into his study. "You are off on a two-way mission of the utmost
importance. You are to take information to where it is needed and in a few weeks I hope
you will join me in London with good news, which is also greatly needed. There we shall
work out the mandates that have been decreed by the Conference in rather general terms. We
shall select the trustees and the guardians for those unfortunate and long-submerged
peoples who as yet cannot be expected to stand alone. It will not be easy to put the
decrees of the Council of the Great Powers into practical shape. We shall have to be
realistic, perhaps we shall have to be 'tough.' We are, as I have saith so often before,
not dealing with angels but with men who have survived four years of barbarous warfare and
have not come through it unscathed. Tell them in Washington we must do our part. We
cannot, even if we would, crawl back into our shell. We must keep the flag that gives
promise of peace flying, flying high! Else, as you know from your contacts here better
than most, what will happen."
This new mission was very welcome to me. And I was glad it had been finally decided
upon. It fell in with my deep-felt wishes. As a bearer of important dispatches and armed
with what were, to say the least, unusual credentials which promised quick transit through
the port of embarkation, I reached Brest within forty-eight hours.
But one last scene in Paris as I drove to the station filled me with regret. My cab was
held up by a dashing troop of cuirassiers, with flowing horse-hair plumes, who were
escorting to the Peace Table the belated delegation from Abyssinia, or rather from
Ethiopia, as the land of Prester John and the Lion of Judah is generally called here. The
delegates were all tall, magnificent-looking men, dark of skin but with Aryan features and
robed in long white gowns.
These latter day suppliants have come as Homer describes in his great songbook from
"the most distant land of the Ethiopians." They are or rather were then, as the
Greek bard sings, "the remotest of mankind." But how changed is our world! The
once-secluded Ethiopians are right in the midst of things today. How our so-called
civilized world has grown in space and how it has dwindled in transit time!
This was the thirty-eighth delegation that had come to the Great Assizes asking for
peace and suing for justice. I would have liked to help them as I am confident they had
very substantial grievances against their encroaching neighbors. I took what comfort there
was in the thought that had I stayed on I would have proved in all probability as little
helpful to them as I have been to my other friends. I could only hope that
"clear-eyed Athene" would have pity and guide them with her wisdom. They will
certainly need it.
New York, May 30, 1919
Within an hour after reaching the old Breton port, where only a few months before we
had arrived with such high hopes, it was brought home to me that we had not made the world
safe for democracy, at least not in Brest. The stevedores strike had developed into a long
succession of riots. Apparently the police were either unreliable or inefficient and
marine soldiers had been brought in from the French fleet to restore law and order.
Occasionally the rip-rap of musketry fire reverberated through the damp and foggy streets.
I was told the strikers had hoisted the red flag and were singing the Internationale hymn.
However, I neither saw the red flag nor heard the revolutionary hymn. Our town major and
the transport officer were greatly depressed. The town major mumbled something about the
war having been won by Moscow and called my attention to the instruction to all Americans.
We are to keep off the streets as much as possible.
All units and organizations as they arrived were being marched out along the narrow
duckboards to the dreary cantonment in the suburbs, always enveloped in wet mist and
surrounded by a sea of mud. In view of the exceptional orders that I brought with me (in
military language they announce that the first transport sailing would have to carry me or
else - ), I was permitted to billet myself in a dark room not far from the dock from where
I could keep an eye on all shipping. With the credentials which I carried for the nonce I
was an important person and, knowing how transitory was my importance, I determined to
avail myself of it to the fullest extent for the few fleeting moments that it lasted.
However, I agreed that I would not wander around the streets after curfew. Many men and
at least two officers had been slugged and robbed for this indiscretion. But in the
afternoon, with my teeth chattering (in May!) and the water dripping from the walls of my
room, in desperation I sallied forth. The desultory firing continued amid the streets were
quite deserted. When it began to rain, and this time it was real rain, I took refuge in an
estaminet. In front it displayed the cabalistic lettering Y.M.C.A. (to which it had no
right). With this reassurance I entered. At least this place was not out of bounds.
Inside there were two doughboys; one was tossing down drinks of a mysterious character.
He was a North Carolinian and he announced to all who would listen that he lived on the
Tar River in God's country. With each drink he became more melancholy. Suddenly he said,
"Colonel, we hev made a big, a mighty big mistake." They sandbagged my buddy
last night and took all his dough. We have saved the hides of a lot of anarchists and what
are we getting our of it? We are getting sandbagged and short-changed."
The other soldier when he opened his mouth revealed a glittering array of gold fillings
and the fact that he came from the deep, the far deeper South. "Mebbe, mebbe" he
said. I said nothing.
That night I boarded the Imperator. A great gaudy ship that had been the
German Vaterland I believe and had been interned in Hoboken when war was
declared. On board when everyone, even the thousands of soldiers down below near the
double bottoms, were preparing to enjoy such comforts. as were available, a rumor, a
rather alarming rumor, spread and it turned out to be true. The engines of the Imperator
were of a new and complicated character and our machinists had been forced to admit they
did not understand them and could not make them work. Twenty-five interned German
engine-room men had been brought on board from the fleet at Scapa Flow and of course they
would sink the ship when we put to sea.
"I have thought of that," said our naval commander, "and I have placed
guards by the life boats and the rafts. I have told the Germans if anything happens they
would go down with the ship - admittance to the life boats would be strengst verboten.
So I do not think we have anything to fear from sabotage."
Ten days later we crawled into New York harbor and once again saluted Liberty, firmer
than ever on her tall pedestal. The experimental engines of the Imperator were
not a success; it was clear they would not revolutionize marine techniques. Even the
Germans from Scapa Flow (before the scuttling of the fleet) did not understand them. The
Kiel technicians admitted sadly, "They looked 'wunful' in the shop and they worked
'buful' in the Basin," but out on the stormy Atlantic "nicht so gut."
Perhaps in this there is a lesson to all of us who took part in drawing up the Treaty
in more or less serene surroundings. I wonder what will happen when it gets out into the
stormy seas that lie ahead.
(Subsequent entries in the Diary, describing things heard and seen in Washington and
London, in Paris and Berlin, appear in Unfinished Business, Doubleday, Doran and
Company, Inc., 1944.)
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