The United States was on the brink of war with Germany when President Woodrow Wilson wrote to Col. Edward M. House, his friend and trusted adviser, with important news.
“Here is an astounding dispatch which I want you to see,” Wilson wrote in a letter dated Feb. 26, 1917. “We shall probably publish it (that is, let it be published) on Wednesday.”
The “dispatch” at issue was the Zimmerman Telegram — a secret coded message between German diplomats that proposed a German-Mexican alliance in the event the United States entered the war. The message, which was intercepted and decoded by the British, suggested Germany would help Mexico reclaim the territory it lost in the Mexican-American War.
“I am not surprised to read the despatch [sic] concerning the German proposal to Mexico,” House responded on Feb. 27. “I have been satisfied for a long time that they have laid plans to stir up all the trouble they could in order to occupy our attention in case of eventualities.”
House encourages Wilson to release the decoded telegram to the press, predicting it would “make a profound impression both on Congress and the country.”
This exchange is among a voluminous correspondence between Wilson and House preserved in House’s papers, which are housed in the Manuscripts and Archives department at the Yale University Library.
The archive features originals of 383 letters and telegrams from Wilson and copies of more than 1,000 letters from House. The Wilson-House correspondence is just one facet of this vast record of American history during the World War I era.
House corresponded regularly with prominent diplomats, politicians, journalists, and world leaders, including French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The archive also includes his writings — he anonymously published “Philip Dru: Administrator,” a futuristic political novel, in 1912 — political papers, and personal diaries of his daily activities from 1912 and 1919.
Kingmaker and confidant
Born in Houston in 1856, House was a successful businessman and a kingmaker in Texas politics before he moved to New York City in the early 1900s. He befriended Wilson while the latter was governor of New Jersey. (House addresses Wilson as “Governor” in his letters to the president.) He helped Wilson secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912 and became his confidant.
House, who went by “colonel” despite having never served in the military, advised Wilson on foreign affairs throughout World War I. He helped to draft Wilson’s Fourteen Points — the principles meant to guide the establishment of peace — and served as the president’s chief negotiator in Europe after America entered the war. After the armistice ceased hostilities, House figured prominently at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that produced the Treaty of Versailles. House’s papers, particularly the diaries, capture these historic events in vivid detail.
In the weeks preceding America’s entry into the war, House diligently reported to Wilson on the officials, diplomats, and dignitaries he was communicating with, including future president Herbert Hoover, who managed U.S. relief efforts in war-torn Belgium; Sir William Wiseman, an influential British businessman and intelligence agent; and Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States.
He offered the president advice on policy and public relations.
For example, in a letter dated March 1, 1917, House addressed fallout among the press from the release of the Zimmerman Telegram, which was leaked exclusively to the Associated Press.
“The United Press people feel hurt beyond measure because the Associated Press were given the Zimmerman cable,” he wrote.
He suggested “the next sensation” be given to the United Press exclusively as “the A.P. has never shown any partiality for the Administration.”
House’s dairies, which are digitized, reveal his thoughts and take readers behind closed doors as the Wilson administration prepared to go to war.
The entry for April 2, 1917 — the day Wilson delivered his “War Message” to a joint session of Congress — is a blow-by-blow account of a momentous day at the White House.
“I arrived in time for breakfast,” House began. “The President and Mrs. Wilson were ready to play golf and I saw him for a moment only.”
House stated that Wilson had consulted him about the content of the speech, though the president had shared the text with nobody.
“We outlined it together when I was here last week and I have the substance but not the form of it,” he wrote.
Later in the day, presumably after golf, Wilson shared the address with House.
“It is needless to say that no address he has yet made pleases me more than this one, for it contains all that I have been urging upon him since the war began,” he wrote.
Waiting consumed most of the day, according to House.
“The president was apparently calm during the day, but, as a matter of fact, I could see signs of nervousness,” he wrote. “Neither of us did anything except ‘Kill time’ (sic) until he was called to the Capitol.”
House pondered whether the president appreciated, or even realized, his role in crafting the speech’s message.
“It would be interesting to know how much of his address the President thinks I suggested,” he wrote. “He does not indicate, in any way, that he is conscious that I had any part in it. I think it is quite possible that he forgets from what source he receives ideas and suggestions.”
Wilson and House dined at 6:30 p.m. and “talked of everything excepting the matter at hand.” They visited the Capitol after dinner.
In his address, Wilson emphasized Germany’s resumption the previous day of unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. He also mentioned its effort, as revealed in the Zimmerman telegram, “to stir up enemies against us at our very doors.”
“The world must be made safe for democracy,” he told Congress.
Following the speech, House accompanied Wilson to the White House.
“When we returned from the Capitol, the President, Mrs. Wilson, Margaret [Wilson’s eldest daughter] and I foregathered in the oval room and talked it over as families are prone to do after some eventful occasion,” he wrote. “I could see the President was relieved that the tension was over and the die cast. I knew this would happen.”
On April 4, the U.S. Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war. Two days later, the House of Representatives passed the war resolution by a vote of 373 to 50.
'Autocracy is dead'
Wilson relied on House’s counsel while the American military helped seal Germany’s defeat. House practically deifies Wilson in a jubilant note sent on Nov. 11, 1918 — the day the armistice ending hostilities was signed.
“Autocracy is dead,” he wrote. “Long live democracy and its immortal leader — In this great hour my heart goes out to you in pride, admiration and love.”
Wilson and House’s relationship deteriorated during the contentious negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference. In his diary, House began to express doubts about Wilson’s leadership and the president’s commitment to the principles set forth in the Fourteen Points.
“The feeling has become fairly general that the President’s actions do not square with his speeches,” stated a May 30, 1918 entry. “There is a bon mot going the round in Paris and London, ‘Wilson talks like Jesus Christ and acts like [British Prime Minister David] Lloyd George.’”
After returning to the United States, the two men never saw or spoke to each other again. House began transferring his papers to Yale in 1922. They were opened for research in 1940. He died in 1938, aged 79.
See also: Yale remembers World War I