Senior advisers to the president of the United States are very
public figures. Their impact on public policy is widely recognized,
and the media often accords them more attention than cabinet
secretaries and members of Congress.
This was not always so. Col. Edward House, arguably the most
influential presidential adviser in American history, is virtually
unknown today except among professional historians. But this quiet,
private man had an enormous influence on President Woodrow Wilson
and American foreign policy before, during and after World War I.
According to the British scholar Godfrey Hodgson, House "was the
ablest diplomat the U.S. had produced up to his time and one of the
ablest it has ever bred." Strong praise, to say the least. But in
Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand, Hodgson makes a strong case to support
House was a kingmaker in Texas politics who longed to play on a
bigger stage. He met Woodrow Wilson in 1911 and instantly found
someone he liked and admired. Wilson held House in similar regard,
and the Texan quickly became his most trusted adviser, confidant,
and "the man to see" as the Democrats sought to reclaim the White
House after a long absence.
The two men complemented each other perfectly. Wilson was a
scholar with "ideals and ideas" but with almost no experience in the
daily business of governing. House, according to Hodgson, shared
Wilson's political vision but had "an instinctive talent for
political action" and "saw how things could be done."
Wilson and House sought to keep Europe from falling into the
abyss that was World War I and then sought to keep the US out. After
the US entered, they organized America's war effort and, finally,
sought to establish a peace to ensure that it would never happen
They believed that the way to avoid future wars was to establish
a mechanism for resolving disputes without violence and ensure that
foreign policy was conducted in accordance with the principle of
"self determination." Ironically, it was the effort to secure this
vision - the "Fourteen Points" and the League of Nations - that
destroyed their relationship.
The break came during the Paris Peace Conference that was
convened at the war's end.
When Wilson left Paris in February 1919 to return to the United
States, he instructed House to negotiate on his behalf. By all
accounts, House did so ably. But when Wilson returned a month later,
he was dismayed by the compromises made. House, the experienced,
practical politician, gave ground on small points to win the larger
issue. But Wilson was unwilling to bend at all.
And there were other pressures. Edith Galt Wilson, President
Wilson's second wife, was deeply suspicious of her husband's closest