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MR. WILSON'S PRESENCE AT THE PEACE
Early in October, 1918, it required no prophetic vision to perceive that the World War would come to an end in the near future. Austria-Hungary, acting with the full approval of the German Government, had made overtures for peace, and Bulgaria, recognizing the futility of further struggle, had signed an armistice which amounted to an unconditional surrender. These events were soon followed by the collapse of Turkish resistance and by the German proposals which resulted in the armistice which went into effect on November 11, 1918.
In view of the importance of the conditions of the armistice with Germany and their relation to the terms of peace to be later negotiated, the President considered it essential to have an American member added to the Supreme War Council, which then consisted of M. Clemenceau, Mr. Lloyd George, and Signor Orlando, the premiers of the three Allied Powers. He selected Colonel Edward M. House for this important post and named him a Special Commissioner to represent him personally. Colonel House with a corps of secretaries and assistants sailed from New York on October 17, en route for Paris where the Supreme War Council was in session.
Three days before his departure the Colonel was in Washington and we had two long conferences with the President regarding the correspondence with Germany and with the Allies relating to a cessation of hostilities, during which we discussed the position which the United States should take as to the terms of the armistice and the bases of peace which should be incorporated in the document.
It was after one of these conferences that Colonel House informed me that the President had decided to name him (the Colonel) and me as two of the American plenipo tentiaries to the Peace Conference, and that the President was considering attending the Conference and in person directing the negotiations. This latter intention of Mr. Wilson surprised and disturbed me, and I expressed the hope that the President's mind was not made up, as I believed that if he gave more consideration to the project he would abandon it, since it was manifest that his influence over the negotiations would be much greater if he remained in Washington and issued instructions to his representatives in the Conference. Colonel House did not say that he agreed with my judgment in this matter, though he did not openly disagree with it. However, I drew the conclusion, though without actual knowledge, that he approved of the President's purpose, and, possibly, had encouraged him to become an actual participant in the preliminary conferences.
The President's idea of attending the Peace Conference was not a new one. Though I cannot recollect the source of my information, I know that in December, 1916, when it will be remembered Mr. Wilson was endeavoring to induce the belligerents to state their objects in the war and to enter into a conference looking toward peace, he had an idea that he might, as a friend of both parties, preside over such a conference and exert his personal influence to bring the belligerents into agreement. A service of this sort undoubtedly appealed to the President's humanitarian instinct and to his earnest desire to end the devastating war, while the novelty of the position in which he would be placed would not have been displeasing to one who in his public career seemed to find satisfaction in departing from the established paths marked out by custom and usage.
When, however, the attempt at mediation failed and when six weeks later, on February 1, 1917, the German Government renewed indiscriminate submarine warfare resulting in the severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany, President Wilson continued to cherish the hope that he might yet assume the rôle of mediator. He even went so far as to prepare a draft of the bases of peace, which he purposed to submit to the belligerents if they could be induced to meet in conference. I cannot conceive how he could have expected to bring this about in view of the elation of the Allies at the dismissal of Count von Bernstorff and the seeming certainty that the United States would declare war against Germany if the latter persisted in her ruthless sinking of American
merchant vessels. But I know, in spite of the logic of the situation, that he expected or at least hoped to succeed in his mediatory programme and made ready to play his part in the negotiation of a peace.
From the time that Congress declared that a state of war existed between the United States and the Imperial German Government up to the autumn of 1918, when the Central Alliance made overtures to end the war, the President made no attempt so far as I am aware to enter upon peace negotiations with the enemy nations. In fact he showed a disposition to reject all peace proposals. He appears to have reached the conclusion that the defeat of Germany and her allies was essential before permanent peace could be restored. At all events, he took no steps to bring the belligerents together until a military decision had been practically reached. He did, however, on January 8, 1918, lay down his famous “Fourteen Points,” which he supplemented with certain declarations in “subsequent addresses,” thus proclaiming his ideas as to the proper bases of peace when the time should come to negotiate.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of the final triumph of the armies of the Allied and Associated Powers, the President, in the spring of 1917, directed the organization, under the Department of State, of a body of experts to collect data and prepare monographs, charts, and maps, covering all historical, territorial, economic, and legal subjects which would probably arise in the negotiation of a treaty of peace.
. This Commission of Inquiry, as it was called, had its
offices in New York and was under Colonel House so far as the selection of its members was concerned. The nominal head of the Commission was Dr. Mezes, President of the College of the City of New York and a brother-in-law of Colonel House, though the actual and efficient executive head was Dr. Isaiah Bowman, Director of the American Geographical Society. The plans of organization, the outline of work, and the proposed expenditures for the maintenance of the Commission were submitted to me as Secretary of State. I examined them and, after several comferences with Dr. Mezes, approved them and recommended to the President that he allot the funds necessary to carry out the programme.
In addition to the subjects which were dealt with by this excellent corps of students and experts, whose work was of the highest order, the creation of some sort of an international association to prevent wars in the future received special attention from the President as it did from Americans of prominence not connected with the Government. It caused considerable discussion in the press and many schemes were proposed and pamphlets written on the subject. To organize such an association became a generally recognized object to be attained in the negotiation of the peace which would end the World War; and there can be no doubt that the President believed more and more in the vital necessity of forming an effective organization of the nations to preserve peace in the future and make another great war impossible.