The Man Who Helped Shape Wilson's Foreign Policy

Article excerpt


President Bush's focus on spreading democracy throughout the world has reawakened interest in the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, one of the first chief executives to make that principle a cornerstone of his foreign policy. A key architect and executor of Wilson's diplomatic efforts was his confidant and alter ego, Col. Edward M. House, one of history's most influential non-elected public servants.

House is regularly discussed in books about Wilson and in diplomatic assessments of the World War I era. He has not, however, been the subject of a biography since the 1960s. Godfrey Hodgson's "Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life Of Colonel Edward M. House" is a timely contribution to our understanding of key public and behind-the-scenes events of the early 20th century.

Mr. Hodgson, a British journalist who has written extensively about American politics and history, combines prodigious research with a lively writing style to produce a spirited, though not uncritical, defense of his subject.

House, whose military title was honorific, at first handled mundane political tasks for Wilson. Once having proven his effectiveness, the president gave him vastly increased responsibilities.

His diplomatic career, however, started ominously. House worked hard, though ultimately unsuccessfully, to broker a diplomatic solution that might have avoided the outbreak of war.

The author chides House and his allies for exaggerating his efforts in this area. "He dreamed of being a peacemaker, and he also knew that if he could make Wilson the man who saved Europe from its own furies, he would earn the gratitude not only of the president, but also of an American people always keen to show themselves wiser and more virtuous than the stuffed shirts and cocked hats of Europe,'' Mr. Hodgson writes.

In some ways House, who never held an official position in the Wilson administration, was an unusual choice to be a major diplomat. He was a wealthy kingmaker and fixer in his native Texas and won the confidence of Wilson by attending to many of the day-to-day tasks of the 1912 presidential campaign. He then helped Wilson chose Cabinet and staff members.

The two men of quite different temperaments became so close that in 1916, Wilson referred to his friend as "my second personality. He is my independent self, His thoughts and mine are one.''

That relationship, coupled with Wilson's inexperience in foreign policy and mistrust of the State Department, would have wide-ranging implications for both American and global politics.

Much of this book focuses on House's extensive efforts at helping negotiate the treaty that ended World War I and drafting the charter of the League of Nations. …