Once upon a time, American presidential policymaking sought to be systematic, selfless, significant, and successful, like that most un-Trumpian Fourteen Points speech Col. E.M. House helped draft for Woodrow Wilson 100 years ago.
On Jan. 8, 1918, an anti-foreigner presidential temper tantrum would have been justified: Europeans were incorrigible. After overcoming its George-Washington-inspired isolationist wariness of getting sucked into Europe’s perma-conflicts, America had started burying some of the 116,708 soldiers who would die in this “war to end all wars.” Of course, Europe suffered worse—18 million deaths during the Great War—later called World War I. Still, the British and French desire for vengeance mocked Americans’ sacrifices—and idealism.
Rather than raving, Wilson followed his “alter ego” House’s advice—and his own best instincts. He was statesmanlike instead.
Edward M. House was a rare White House aide who understood the less-is-more Zen of presidential advising—obscurity magnifies your influence. He refused Cabinet posts. He dodged press inquiries. And he served his friend-the-president selflessly. “I very much prefer being a free lance,” House admitted—in his diary, “and to advise with him regarding matters in general, and to have a roving commission to serve wherever and whenever possible.”
The click between the Princeton professor and the Texan tycoon was surprising. They only bonded during the 1912 presidential campaign. The sickly, savvy House had a genius for friendship. Born in 1858, an heir to Texas lands who turned his good luck into a banking fortune, he advised four Texas governors and earned his honorary “Colonelship” while charming key Democrats nationally. He was an “intimate man,” one foe reported, “even when he was cutting your throat.”
It was trust at first sight. “Almost from the first, our minds vibrated in unison,” House would recall. Reciprocating with his own effusive but asexual Victorian man-crush, Wilson would call House, “my second personality” and “my independent self,” telling him: “You are the only person in the world with whom I can discuss everything.” Years later, Wilson would send House to the Paris peace talks with the ultimate compliment: “I have not given you any instructions, because I feel that you will know what to do.”
Ellen Axson Wilson’s death in August 1914, deepened the Wilson-House bond. By then House was living in the White House. House sighed about the forlorn widowed president: “His loneliness is pathetic.” But Wilson’s productivity that first term was epic. The Revenue Act created today’s Federal income tax. The Federal Reserve Act launched today’s banking system and currency. The Federal Trade Commission Act, Clayton Antitrust Act, and Federal Farm Loan Act, convinced millions that the government should micromanage the American economy, society, and life.
These reforms were “Progressive,” using government power to check competing powers while seeking fairer results. That is why many blur “progressivism” with “liberalism.” But Progressivism was more than that. It was an urban middle class revolt, trying to rationalize government and life, trusting the commodity the middle class mastered—expertise.
House and Wilson’s passion for Progressive reform and Progressive process extended to foreign policy.
As Europe exploded in 1914, Wilson dispatched his confidante to keep America out of war. House, who favored Great Britain even more than Wilson did, eclipsed the new pro-neutrality Secretary of State Robert Lansing. “How do you spell ‘Lansing’” Washingtonians scoffed: “H-O-U-S-E.”
America’s entry into the War in April, 1917 to defend Great Britain and the Allies, expanded House’s standing. As good Progressives, Wilson and House trusted academics to plan out the postwar world. That September, Wilson wrote: “we ought to go systematically to work to ascertain as fully and precisely as possible just what” the Allies seek as “final peace arrangements,” so we can “prepare our case with a full knowledge of the position of all the litigants.”
“What would you think of quietly getting about you a group of men to assist you to do this,” Wilson asked, in that boss’s way of ordering authoritatively despite the question mark. And, in the sycophant’s way of validating even if already on it, House replied: “I have been trying to in a quiet and not very efficient way what you have suggested as wanting me to do systematically and thoroughly.”
House hired 126 scholars to join “The Inquiry.” Starting in September 1917, first meeting in the New York Public Library, then at the majestic American Geographic Society headquarters at 155th Street and Broadway, these young wise men generated 2,000 reports and 1200 maps. “We are skimming the cream of the younger and more imaginative scholars,” a 28-year-old Harvard graduate organizing the effort named Walter Lippman exulted. “What we are on the lookout for is genius—sheer, startling genius, and nothing else will do.” When the war ended, one young British colleague, Harold Nicholson exclaimed: “It seemed to us that the drafting of peace would be a brisk, amicable, and hugely righteous affair.”
Alas, professions of genius often come with arrogance. These brainiacs didn’t understand some basic European realities. Critics exaggerate their mistakes—blaming them for the Second World War 20 years later and today’s Middle East mess. But The Inquiry got some things right, especially on Jan. 8, 1918, when Woodrow Wilson addressed a Joint Session of Congress.
In mid-December, developing what became Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech, the experts organized themselves into six committees: on politics and government; economics and business; social science; including history; international law; geography and strategy. Later, they assessed 49 geographical hot spots. The categories reflected the project’s ambition. Wilson blamed the war on the rotting imperial system, too many secret treaties, the burgeoning arms trade, heavy-handed colonialism, national bullying at sea, and other perennial problems requiring sweeping reforms.
Wilson also faced two central leadership challenges. The Allies had to remain united, resisting separate deals with the Germans. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians had to remain motivated. “The great task before us is to preserve our national will to win the war and to protect our Allies against social collapse and the dangers incident to a lessening capacity for resistance and resolution,” the University of Virginia’s president Edwin A. Alderman wrote to House, hoping to maintain America’s “moral ascendancy.”
Wilson and House met late on Jan. 5, 1918. “We actually got to work at half-past ten,” House noted, “and finished remaking the map of the world, as we would have it, at half-past twelve o’clock.”
Wilson’s address, which echoed The Inquiry and inspired the Allies, is a model of American idealism—and overreach. Contrasting American openness and legalism with European machinations, Wilson demanded “open covenants of peace,” “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas,” free trade, arms reduction, and, most influential in shaping today’s world, “an adjustment of all colonial claims” respecting the majority native populations. He then addressed eight territorial challenges. Finally, he proposed “an association of nations,” what became the League of Nations.
European cynics sneered. Le bon Dieu n’en avait que dix, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau sighed, bored by Wilson’s commandments: The Good Lord only required Ten!
Here, the historical debate reaches a crossroads. In the short-term, the speech succeeded, girding Americans and their allies for the hellish fight ahead. “The President’s words,” the normally critical New York Tribune gushed, “are the words of a hundred million.” The speech proves that good policy makes good politics and good PR. Thousands of copies of the speech fluttered over Berlin and other cities, trumpeting America’s triumphal idealism. And in the long-long term, in championing self-determination, Wilson transitioned the 19th-century world of imperialism and colonialism into today’s world of nationalism and much more liberalism.
Donald Trump is half-right. Great leaders lead from the gut. But that’s not enough, especially as president. While a president with no guts may have no heart; a president with no moral compass has no soul and a president with no plan has no brains. At his best, when he and E.M. House were working together smoothly, Woodrow Wilson had it all.
Sadly, the speech a century ago may have been his peak. Wilson’s League of Nations plan ran into trouble, thanks to Henry Cabot Lodge and the Republicans. Wilson’s health deteriorated, thanks to a series of strokes. And Wilson became rigid, paranoid, and isolated—even breaking House’s heart by breaking up with him—thanks to his neurology misfiring, and his new wife’s maneuvering.
Wilson and House hoped that all their plans would guarantee smooth negotiations. Sent by Wilson to the Paris peace talks in November 1918, once the war ended, House boasted to the British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey that he was approaching the conference like “political conventions in the past; that while they were seemingly spontaneous, as a matter of fact nothing was left to chance.”
At a time when American presidents stayed home, Wilson set sail for Europe a month later. The ship only had room for 23 scholars from The Inquiry. Jealous State Department diplomats organizing the sleeping arrangements confined all “to quarters in the lower deck.”
On his own, House indulged the vindictive English and French. “House has given away everything I had won,” Wilson fumed. “I will have to start all over again...”
Wilson was growing more paranoid, jettisoning once-trusted aides. And his new wife Edith, who always resented House, made her move. Using a flattering London newspaper profile of House to feed her husband’s insecurity, she claimed House was building himself up at the president’s expense. House and Edith Wilson quarreled—and never spoke again. House and Woodrow Wilson never had a cinematic showdown—but never spoke again after they returned to Washington.
Wilson died in 1924. House outlived him by 14 years—never renouncing his friend in public. “I began with him before he became President and I have never relaxed my efforts. At every turn, I have stirred his ambition to become the great liberal leader of the world,” House would write. That phrase captures the symbiosis that worked well, culminating in the Fourteen Points. It also reflects the grandiosity in both men that first fed off one another, then soured—and whose overstretch left the world less stable and more cynical.
This story teaches another relevant lesson. The White House involves policymaking. The Inquiry begat The Council of Foreign Relations, shaping the world of think tanks and the culture of diplomatic intellectuals, Wise Men, for better and worse. The Fourteen Points shows thoughtful, intellectual, policymaking—that worked. It showcases American idealism—that worked. And illustrates American moral leadership—that worked.
But the White House also involves personalities, politics, and presidential family politics. Wonks who cook up the absolute right solutions in think tanks must remember that politics, the White House, and the world are also shark tanks. Getting it done is far harder than getting it right. Still, if you don’t get it right in the first place, why bother trying to get it done?
FOR FURTHER READING
Charles E. Neu, Colonel House: A Biography of Woodrow Wilson’s Silent Partner, 2014.
Edward Mandell House, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House, 1926.
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House, 2006.