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 his view.
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 again.
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 friend. Moreover, Wilson's health was failing. (Months later, he died from a massive stroke.)
But regardless of the causes, the outcome was the same: House was relegated to the sidelines and Wilson lost his most respected adviser.
Yet House remained a steadfast ally. As the Senate prepared to reject Wilson's cherished League of Nations, he sent the president two long letters with suggestions for rescuing the situation. But Edith Wilson intervened. The letters were never opened.
After Wilson's death, Edith Wilson and her supporters downplayed House's contributions. As a result, House's central role received comparatively little attention. Hodgson's thoughtful volume will help rescue this important figure from obscurity.
The book is based on an extensive review of both original and secondary sources and is well documented. In several places, Hodgson carefully describes scholarly disagreements and offers his own views. He writes deftly and is unsympathetic only to Edith Wilson (as are many other historians).
House is portrayed as a careful, thoughtful man trying to faithfully serve Wilson in extraordinarily difficult times. He was widely respected and trusted by all the major participants in the World War I. Indeed, the crusty and pompous French premier, Georges Clemenceau – certainly no admirer of Wilson – called House "a supercivilized person ...who sees everything, who understands everything and, while never doing anything but what he thinks fit, knows how to gain the ear and the respect of everybody...."
Unfortunately, the portrait of House focuses entirely on his professional life. His personal life is strangely absent – his wife and his children, for example, barely appear.
The book could also have benefited from more attentive editing. There are too many insignificant anecdotes, and a large number of secondary characters appear briefly only to reappear much later with an uncertain connection to events. Most readers will have trouble remembering who they are and why they are important.
But ultimately, these shortcomings do not detract from an important and absorbing work that will appeal to the scholar and the general reader alike. Hodgson adds significantly to our understanding of the efforts to shape a new world order at a decisive moment in world history.
• Terry Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.