Sunday, March 26, 2017

"These Deeply Momentous Things": United States Intervention into World War I (No. 4)

The Odd Couple: Colonel House and President Wilson Before 1917

     In reconstructing the American decision to enter the Great War, the relationship between Colonel Edward Mandell House and his "alter ego," Woodrow Wilson, is crucial. Robert Higgs has called the Colonel "one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century." House played the central role in choosing and grooming Woodrow Wilson to become a presidential candidate, a role he relished. We could regard him as a significant historical actor even if this achievement had been his only one. But the rest of the story is that House became an "intimate" friend of Woodrow Wilson, Wilson's "alter ego," as the two liked to say. Wilson's chief of staff, Joseph Tumulty, testified to this close relationship, as did dozens of others. Ultimately, House would become a special roving emissary of Woodrow Wilson in Europe from 1914 onward. In this capacity, and through a large private network of highly influential friends, House's influence on American intervention in World War I can hardly be exaggerated. So who was this very important American?
     House was a Texan. His father had immigrated to Texas in the early years of the state and had made a fortune as a blockade-runner during the American Civil War. Edward Mandell House was born in 1858 in Houston and attended elite secondary schools in England and the northeastern United States. Eventually, he ended up at Cornell University. When his father died in 1880, House returned to Texas and took over management of the family fortune of $500,000, something like eleven million dollars today. Not chicken feed, to be sure, but not a fortune that put him in the league of the individuals with whom he would soon be rubbing shoulders. Doing business in banking and railroads, House crossed paths with the J.P. Morgan more than once, and many other leading individuals of the day. 
     Before long, he left business to work in politics, but his aim was to work behind the scenes, to influence politics rather than leading as a figurehead. It may have been, as some biographers have suggested, that House considered his constitution as lacking the physical stamina for electioneering. But he certainly had a predilection for being the man behind the curtain in any case.
     In Texas, House decided to back a gubernatorial candidate in 1890. For all House's railroad and oil connections, he chose the "trust-busting" populist Democrat "Big Jim" Hogg, and he was successful. Incidentally, it was a grateful Governor Hogg who appointed him an honorary state "Colonel," designation which House adopted proudly. But the Colonel had only just begun. Masterminding the elections of four Texas governors, House decided to go East just after the turn of the century to seek out a national candidate to groom for President.
     House had long since collected a very large circle of wealthy and individual individuals, including many in the rarefied world of J. P. Morgan--by all accounts he combined a kind of introverted public view and amazing social skills, including a very sharp sense of humor. Indeed, in his later years, a short memoir dwelt lovingly and in detail on the many elaborate practical jokes of his youth and indeed through his college years, almost all of them played in such a way as to demean and control. It is worth noting that many of them were essentially double manipulations which ended by tricking his own partners in crime. "Cruel sport if you like," wrote House in memoir years later, "but one fascinating to a half grown boy." In any case, he saved his most manipulative pranks for "some boastful, arrogant, conceited boy." Actual psychologists have pondered these passages House wrote. For the armchair psychologist, it is fascinating as well, considering House's manipulations recorded in his diaries for later historians.
     By the time he entered politics, he had begun to embrace Progressivism, a doctrine of efficiency and wise leadership which was informed by the Positivist doctrine of French sociologist Auguste Comte. Progressivism became a widespread political movement in American life (as in the world as a whole), and in America it emanated from and came to characterize the wealthy and wise men of "efficiency" and "capital," chiefly from the Northeast. Indeed, in 1912 the Colonel would write a didactic novel ("not much of a novel," commented House himself to a friend). The book was Philip Dru, Administrator, whose protagonist would reshape the government of the United States, freeing it for reform by freeing it from the corrupt and ignorant element of an elected legislative branch, a constitutional element Comte himself saw as roadblock to "Positive" administration.
     Living in New York, House found Woodrow Wilson, a Progressive one-term governor of New Jersey who had been an academic. Wilson served as President of Princeton, but entered New Jersey state politics, having left Princeton under heavy criticism for his high-handed reform of the curriculum and direction of the institution, condemned by many as a self-righteous, authoritarian leader who hated compromise. In late 1911, after a first "delightful visit" with Wilson, House wrote to a confidant, "He is not the biggest man I ever met, but he is one of the pleasantest and I would rather play with him than any prospective candidate I have seen."
     House and Wilson were opposites in many ways. The quietly jovial, supercilious House and the formal, earnest but "pleasant" Wilson. The non-religious Texan admirer of heroic frontier men of violence and the Presbyterian minister's son whose life was circumscribed by a long line of church ladies. House, who reveled in recounting the practical jokes of his youth designed to belittle and control those around him, and Wilson, whose humor was of the quietest, most conventional kind. House, whose diary and letters universally groan with gourmet meals in the best restaurants with wine flowing, and the abstemious Wilson, who ate and drank little, preferring indeed to do that little within a quiet family circle.
     Yet the two men had much in common. As many historians have pointed out, both were outsiders in terms of national politics, both late-comers to the Progressive political movement, both middle-aged Southerners, and both admirers of "vigor" and efficiency in individuals and government. Both men admired Great Britain with passion. Both men hoped to make a mark in life larger than the very respectable marks that each had already made. Both House and Wilson embodied those Comtean, Positivist elements of Progressivism that relied on the certainties of social science as a means of ruling. The great project of this odd couple and their Progressive associates was the efficient organization of the world in conjunction with the needs of the many, the few, the state, and the modern mind as a whole. Both House and Wilson consistently put their faith in wise men who would LEAD, as opposed to mere representatives of the people, such as congressmen and senators and the outmoded institutions these represented.
     Whether we look at the fervid correspondence between House and Wilson, or the equally high-minded soul-directing correspondence between House and world financial visionary Willard Straight, or between wealthy dilettante roving statesman Charles R. Crane and Wilson, the same certainties and fervent enthusiasm for "the great work" emerge.

     To make a long story short, the two became "intimates," as they were both fond of saying. After House helped get the one-term Governor elected President in 1912, a Washington insider asked the new President about House's apparent authority to make political commitments about the future. Wilson replied:"Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one."  
    And from behind the scenes House ramrodded the new administration's legislation implementing the Federal Reserve and much else. His communications with the Governor, as he continued to address his presidential friend, were always flattering, always indirect, always purposeful, and full of sage advice. His role in managing William Jennings Bryan was especially important: gaining Bryan's endorsement the election, persuading Wilson to appoint him Secretary of State, keeping the unpredictable but powerful populist off balance and isolated from the President's inner circle.
     But soon House found a still larger stage and with Wilson's agreement, roamed Europe with the full authority of the President's intimate and special emissary, meeting with kings, prime ministers, intellectuals, and others, "planting," as he said, “the seeds of peace." As Walter Millis pointed out in his 1935 analysis of House's "diplomatic" efforts, the Colonel was a supreme political operative in the United States, but knew European international politics a little, and the craft of diplomacy not at all. Millis suggested that for all the "seeds" the Colonel planted with European leaders, none of them had the least chance of germinating.  
     Once the war broke out in August 1914, House concentrated on putting Woodrow Wilson in a position to mediate the terrible war raging in Europe, a feat that would have made Wilson in some ways the chief benefactor of the world.  Theodore Roosevelt had brokered the end to a much less extensive war (the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904-5) and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Both House and Wilson considered Wilson the far greater man.
     Of course any mediation by Wilson would come from a country that was supplying one side of the conflict exclusively with money, arms, ammunition, food, and other necessities of war. Even so, the Germans seemed tempted to take up Wilson's mediation offers at several points. Indeed, from Wilson's point of view, he made progress in mediation in the coming months and after more U-Boat sinkings of armed civilian vessels in designated zones. In the spring of 1916, he was able to pressure the Germans to drop their unlimited submarine warfare program.
     In spite of increasing talk of "preparedness" and anti-German sentiment in the United States, Americans were on the whole far from ready to see their country intervene directly in the war. There was in any case, an election campaign to wage in 1916. But the stage was being set for American intervention in "the great crusade for democracy" being carried out by Britain, France, and the Russian "Tsar and Autocrat of All the Russias."
     Yet long before 1916, three months before the Lusitania sinking, House had met in London with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey, and made an amazing commitment. The Colonel had vague instructions from Wilson to persuade the British to lift the Blockade. Instead, as historian Justus Doenecke has commented, "Secretly defying the President, House uncritically supported Britain's war effort. More significantly, he committed his nation, under certain conditions, to enter the conflict on the Allied side."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Quick advertisment--two books of interest

We will indeed be dealing with House and Wilson, Wilson and House in the in the next entry.

But to pause for a moment, I would like to suggest my recently updated and retitled book about World War I, The Great War: Western Front and Home Front (Palgrave, 2016). It is an expanded version of my 2003 book on the Western Front.

If you are interested in a historical adventure novel, I have written one of those too. It deals with some deep precursors to World War I, and is set in the British Empire in the 1880s.  It is called Anima and the Goat. You can buy it in a good paperback edition or a Kindle ebook on Amazon.

Also, Anima and the Goat is on sale right now on the huge indie book site, Smashwords.  Smashwords has all important e-Book forms, so you can download in any of those. The "sale" lasts until the end of March 2017. Feel free to write a review of the novel, either on Smashwords or Amazon or BOTH.

(For that matter, thousands of books in e-format are on sale for cheap or free during March at Smashwords. Take a look!)

OK, back to American Intervention in the Great War.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"These Deeply Momentous Things" United States Intervention into World War I (No. 3)

World Power, World Policy, and the United States in 1917

In the early sixties, German historian Fritz Fischer famously raised an intense historiographical controversy by asserting, in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht (Bid for World Power), that Germany did in fact bear the major responsibility for starting the First World War, a claim that had long since been discredited as Allied propaganda. The ensuing decades-long "Fischer Thesis Controversy" had its own life and meaning. In terms of the present series about American intervention into the Great War, I bring it up to introduce the conception of explicit "world power" policies as this conception relates to the U.S. entry into the war.

The "Thesis" that spawned the controversy was Fischer's assertion that Germany's guiding elites--much influenced by American naval officer/intellectual Alfred Thayer Mahan as well as other social darwinists--adopted the outlook that marking time was no good in the struggle for national survival of the fittest. Hence, the German elites, according to Fischer, produced a national vision fundamentally altered from Bismarckian Germany's essential conservative pragmatism. That is, they began to discuss "Weltpolitik" (World Policy) as a way for Germany to survive in a world dominated by powerful empires, like those of Britain and Russia. To do this, Germany would have to build a fleet many times larger than its small coastal navy. And the German Empire would go on to do so, after much national discussion, beginning with the passage of the First Navy Law in 1898. In these same terms of great conflict, though, the new navy could only be aimed at the British, who sensed this, made defensive arrangements with the French and Russians, which in turn... all the way to the assassination of the Archduke.

Unlike many acrimonious debates, and in spite of promoting some very one-sided and parti pris historical arguments, the Fischer dispute did actual raise some very useful points. I would argue that the most useful was the recognition--at the end--that most, if not all, of the belligerents had elites doing these kinds of social darwinist calculations and pushing expansive, imperialistic programs based on some idea of the survival of the fittest. The British had in a sense invented such planning long before Darwin, and they were still engaging it in the years leading to World War I. The French were both aggrieved at losing to Germany in 1871 and anxious to prove themselves through overseas empire in the pre-war years. Russian Pan-Slavist aggressive policies before 1914 acted as a kind of social darwinist cover over the old Romanov house rules of expansion. Of course, each of these world power programs was handsomely veneered with benevolent justifications and slogans couched in the language of "duty," "the nation," "liberty and civilization," "God With Us," and the like.

So everyone was in the same game. Let me say here, editorially, that considering the aggressive, expansive origins of the modern state and the rapidly expanding technologies in weapons, transportation, and communications of the late nineteenth century, the only surprise in this scenario comes in the few cases in which we can point to members of elites who were counseling non-aggression, limited governance, individual autonomy, and peace. And there were such individuals and entities among within all of the rising "world powers," even if they were relatively few and far between.

American troops celebrate after capturing a Korean fort, 1871
Certainly, the United States had developed its own scientific and moral rationale for "world power." From a territorial standpoint, of course, the United States expanded massively in the nineteenth century, and where the German wars of unification had left a peacemaking, consolidating Bismarck in charge, the American war of unification seemed to lend a spirit of state-building, moral rightness, and the spread of "American ideals" to the bombastic and self-righteous calls for Manifest Destiny and other world power slogans. And these slogans were hardly empty rhetoric. Seward's Folly of 1867, for example, was no folly, but a bold act of an expansionist Secretary of State. And the complicated expansion of American power into the Pacific that followed the were likewise carefully thought out by American elites (including state-supporting and supported commercial and industrial elites, soon backed and eventually piloted by financial elites).

Almost immediately, in the late 1860s, American naval forces had already projected American power to the mainland of Asia. Korea was the first target. A shadowy filibuster expedition to Korea failed obscurely in the late sixties, whereupon in 1871 an American "punitive expedition" invaded Korean territory. The raid was quite purposely carried out at the behest of Seward's successor, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. The American commander was hard pressed to find a fight but eventually succeeded in provoking a battle between his flotilla and a number of Korean forts. Though the two-day battle was small by most standards, it left much wreckage and over 250 Korean soldiers dead. The justifications were complicated but "humanitarian." (See Gordon H. Chang's account from 2003 in the Journal of American History).

Other significant expansionary efforts in the Pacific came in the efforts to seize Hawaii (beginning in the 1880s and ending with an American coup in 1893) and Samoa, divided between Germany and the United States in 1889, also for humanitarian reasons, naturally. A related piece of this world power policy was the expansion of the U.S. Navy. Just fourteen busy years after the acquisition of Alaska, in 1881, the United States began a continuous expansion and modernization of the Navy. The moderate expansion turned out to be the prelude to the Naval Bill of 1890, which historian Daniel Smith described as "truly epoqual."
So if the Spanish-American War kicked U.S. expansionary activity into high gear, the previous century represented much more of a continuum in that direction than the "isolation" often imagined. American expansion in both the Pacific and in Latin America predated McKinley's prayerful war with Spain. Yet the vast acquisitions of the splendid little war accelerated these tendencies, and its aftermath put the American empire on a footing with the European empires in many ways. And in a parallel to the British and French techniques of financial manipulation and control perfected in the 1880s, the United States engaged in "dollar diplomacy" (shorthand for the politics of big loans and big loan guarantees), which played a continuous role after 1909, with the expanding naval power always hovering in the background. By the time Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913, the Empire was extensive and complex, but wholly justified in the public sphere by a range of moralistic and social-darwinist as well as strategic justifications. The Anti-Imperialist League and the jeremiads of its most famous member, Mark Twain, had been drowned out by the (in large part Progressive) arguments for American world power from McKinley to Wilson. Wilson himself--these days seen as a peacemaker--enunciated a policy which emphasized national self-determination and "peace" the world over, but this policy in the end "forced" him to authorize invasions, occupations, or other military interventions in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and finally Mexico (in 1914 and again on a much larger scale in 1916).

U.S.S. Denver landing force in Nicaragua, 1912
Hence, in the larger view, by the time Europeans were killing each other by the ten thousand in Flanders, Picardy, East Prussia, Serbia, elsewhere, the United States--by now the most materially powerful country in the world--had developed habits of projecting its power across much more extensive distances. And these distances were far more daunting and difficult than the week-long ocean voyage from New York to Le Havre which was now standard.

So, clearly, there were multiple vast plans for world power among the great powers of the earth. Indeed, to the European great powers, we can add not only the United States, but Japan, which joined the war on the Entente side on August 25, 1914. The Japanese government declared war on the Central Powers on the condition that Japan could seize all German possessions and territorial leases in China and the whole Pacific. In the weeks after joining the Entente's Great Crusade for Civilization, Japan snapped up much of German-controlled Shandong province in China and numerous island possessions of Germany.

When Lenin and his friends called the Great War an imperialist war, they were not wrong. Readers will no doubt have apprehended that many of the parts and pieces of these multiple plans were mutually exclusive, even among powers on the same side in the conflict. And these factors of long-term world policy planning affected military strategies as well as long-term diplomatic considerations. In particular they were critical in the timing and manner of entering the war for all belligerents.

This short background to the American version of world power is necessary to understand the nature of some very personal decisions made to intervene in the conflict in Europe. The decision revolves around the intimate relationship of the American President and his "alter ego," Colonel House, the subject of the next installment of this series.