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commiserate us. It's a constant humiliation. Of course this aspect
of it doesn't worry me much - I've got hardened to it. But it is a
good deal of a real handicap, and it adds that much dead weight
that a man must overcome; and it greatly lessens the respect in
which our Government and its Ambassador are held. If I had known
this fully in advance, I should not have had the courage to come
here. Now, of course, I've got used to it, have discounted it, and
can "bull" it through - could "bull" it through if I could afford to
pay the bill. But I shouldn't advise any friend of mine to come
here and face this humiliation without realizing precisely what it
means - wholly apart, of course, from the cost of it. . . .

My dear House, on the present basis much of the diplomatic
business is sheer humbug. It will always be so till we have our own
Embassies and an established position in consequence. Without a
home or a house or a fixed background, every man has to establish
his own position for himself; and unless he be unusual, this throws
him clean out of the way of giving emphasis to the right things. . . .

As for our position, I think I don't fool myself. The job at the
Foreign Office is easy because there is no real trouble between us,
and because Sir Edward Grey is pretty nearly an ideal man to get on
with. I think he likes me, too, because, of course, I'm
straightforward and frank with him, and he likes the things we
stand for. Outside this official part of the job, of course, we're
commonplace - a successful commonplace, I hope. But that's all. We
don't know how to try to be anything but what we naturally are. I
dare say we are laughed at here and there about this and that.
Sometimes I hear criticisms, now and then more or less serious
ones. Much of it comes of our greenness; some of it from the very
nature of the situation. Those who expect to find us brilliant are,
of course, disappointed. Nor are we smart, and the smart set (both
American and English) find us uninteresting. But we drive ahead and
keep a philosophical temper and simply do the best we can, and, you
may be sure, a good deal of it. It _is_ laborious. For instance,
I've made two trips lately to speak before important bodies, one at
Leeds, the other at Newcastle, at both of which, in different ways,
I have tried to explain the President's principle in dealing with
Central American turbulent states - and, incidentally, the American
ideals of government. The audiences see it, approve it, applaud it.
The newspaper editorial writers never quite go the length - it
involves a denial of the divine right of the British Empire; at
least they fear so. The fewest possible Englishmen really
understand our governmental aims and ideals. I have delivered
unnumbered and innumerable little speeches, directly or indirectly,
about them; and they seem to like them. But it would take an army
of oratorical ambassadors a lifetime to get the idea into the heads
of them all. In some ways they are incredibly far back in
mediævalism - incredibly.

If I have to leave in the fall or in December, it will be said and
thought that I've failed, unless there be some reason that can be
made public. I should be perfectly willing to tell the reason - the
failure of the Government to make it financially possible. I've
nothing to conceal - only definite amounts. I'd never say what it
has cost - only that it costs more than I or anybody but a rich man
can afford. If then, or in the meantime, the President should wish
me to serve elsewhere, that would, of course, be a sufficient
reason for my going.

Now another matter, with which I shall not bother the President - he
has enough to bear on that score. It was announced in one of the
London papers the other day that Mr. Bryan would deliver a lecture
here, and probably in each of the principal European capitals, on
Peace. Now, God restrain me from saying, much more from doing,
anything rash. But if I've got to go home at all, I'd rather go
before he comes. It'll take years for the American Ambassadors to
recover what they'll lose if he carry out this plan. They now laugh
at him here. Only the President's great personality saves the
situation in foreign relations. Of course the public here doesn't
know how utterly unorganized the State Department is - how we can't
get answers to important questions, and how they publish most
secret despatches or allow them to leak out. But "bad breaks" like
this occur. Mr. Z, of the 100-years'-Peace Committee[44], came
here a week ago, with a letter from Bryan to the Prime Minister! Z
told me that this 100-year business gave a chance to bind the
nations together that ought not to be missed. Hence Bryan had asked
him to take up the relations of the countries with the Prime
Minister! Bryan sent a telegram to Z to be read at a big 100-year
meeting here. As for the personal indignity to me - I overlook that.
I don't think he means it. But if he doesn't mean it, what does he
mean? That's what the Prime Minister asks himself. Fortunately Mr.
Asquith and I get along mighty well. He met Bryan once, and he told
me with a smile that he regarded him as "a peculiar product of your
country." But the Secretary is always doing things like this. He
dashes off letters of introduction to people asking me to present
them to Mr. Asquith, Mr. Lloyd George, etc.

In the United States we know Mr. Bryan. We know his good points,
his good services, his good intentions. We not only tolerate him;
we like him. But when he comes here as "the American Prime
Minister" [45] - good-bye, John! All that we've tried to do to gain
respect for our Government (as they respect our great nation) will
disappear in one day. Of course they'll feel obliged to give him
big official dinners, etc. And -

Now you'd just as well abandon your trip if he comes; and (I
confess) I'd rather be gone. No member of another government ever
came here and lectured. T.R. did it as a private citizen, and even
then he split the heavens asunder[46]. Most Englishmen will regard
it as a piece of effrontery. Of course, I'm not in the least
concerned about mere matters of taste. It's only the bigger effects
that I have in mind in _queering_ our Government in their eyes. He
must be kept at home on the Mexican problem, or some other.

Yours faithfully,


P.S. But, by George, it's a fine game! This Government and ours are
standing together all right, especially since the President has
taken hold of our foreign relations himself. With such a man at the
helm at home, we can do whatever we wish to do with the English, as
I've often told you. (But it raises doubts every time the
shoestring necktie, broad-brimmed black hat, oratorical, old-time,
River Platte kind of note is heard.) We've come a long way in a
year - a very joyful long way, full of progress and real
understanding; there's no doubt about that. A year ago they knew
very well the failure that had saddled them with the tolls trouble
and the failure of arbitration, and an unknown President had just
come in. Presently an unknown Ambassador arrived. Mexico got worse;
would we not recognize Huerta? They send Carden. We had nothing to
say about the tolls - simply asked for time. They were very
friendly; but our slang phrase fits the situation - "nothin' doin'."
They declined San Francisco[47]. Then presently they began to see
some plan in Mexico; they began to see our attitude on the tolls;
they began to understand our attitude toward concessions and
governments run for profit; they began dimly to see that Carden was
a misfit; the Tariff Bill passed; the Currency Bill; the President
loomed up; even the Ambassador, they said, really believed what he
preached; he wasn't merely making pretty, friendly speeches. - Now,
when we get this tolls job done, we've got 'em where we can do any
proper and reasonable thing we want. It's been a great three
quarters of a year - immense, in fact. No man has been in the White
House who is so regarded since Lincoln; in fact, they didn't regard
Lincoln while he lived.

Meantime, I've got to be more or less at home. The Prime Minister
dines with me, the Foreign Secretary, the Archbishop, the Colonial
Secretary - all the rest of 'em; the King talks very freely; Mr.
Asquith tells me some of his troubles; Sir Edward is become a good
personal friend; Lord Bryce warms up; the Lord Chancellor is
chummy; and so it goes.

So you may be sure we are all in high feather after all; and the
President's (I fear exaggerated) appreciation of what I've done is
very gratifying indeed. I've got only one emotion about it
all - gratitude; and gratitude begets eagerness to go on. Of course
I can do future jobs better than I have done any past ones.

There are two shadows in the background - not disturbing, but
shadows none the less:

1. The constant reminder that the American Ambassador's homeless
position (to this Government and to this whole people) shows that
the American Government and the American people know nothing about
foreign relations and care nothing - regard them as not worth buying
a house for. This leaves a doubt about any continuity of any
American policy. It even suggests a sort of fear that we don't
really care.

The other is (2) the dispiriting experience of writing and
telegraphing about important things and never hearing a word
concerning many of them, and the consequent fear of some dead bad
break in the State Department. The clubs are full of stories of the
silly and incredible things that are _said_ to happen there.

After all, these are old troubles. They are not new - neither of
them. And we are the happiest group you ever saw.


Page's letters of this period contain many references to his inability
to maintain touch with the State Department. His letters remained
unacknowledged, his telegrams unanswered; and he was himself left
completely in the dark as to the plans and opinions at Washington.

To Edward M. House

February 28, 1914.


. . . _Couldn't the business with Great Britain be put into
Moore's[48] hands_? It is surely important enough at times to
warrant separate attention - or (I might say) attention. You know,
after eight or nine months of this sort of thing, the feeling grows
on us all here that perhaps many of our telegrams and letters may
not be read by anybody at all. You begin to feel that they may not
be deciphered or even opened. Then comes the feeling (for a
moment), why send any more? Why do anything but answer such
questions as come now and then? Corresponding with Nobody - can you
imagine how that feels? - What the devil do you suppose does become
of the letters and telegrams that I send, from which and about
which I never hear a word? As a mere matter of curiosity I should
like to know who receives them and what he does with them!

I've a great mind some day to send a despatch saying that an
earthquake has swallowed up the Thames, that a suffragette has
kissed the King, and that the statue of Cromwell has made an
assault on the House of Lords - just to see if anybody deciphers it.

Alter the Civil War an old fellow in Virginia was tired of the
world. He'd have no more to do with it. He cut a slit in a box in
his house and nailed up the box. Whenever a letter came for him,
he'd read the postmark and say "Baltimore - Baltimore - there isn't
anybody in Baltimore that I care to hear from." Then he'd drop the
letter unopened through the slit into the box. "Philadelphia? I
have no friend in Philadelphia" - into the box, unopened. When he
died, the big box was nearly full of unopened letters. When I get
to Washington again, I'm going to look for a big box that must now
be nearly full of my unopened letters and telegrams.


The real reason why the Ambassador wished to remain in London was to
assist in undoing a great wrong which the United States had done itself
and the world. Page was attempting to perform his part in introducing
new standards into diplomacy. His discussions of Mexico had taken the
form of that "idealism" which he was apparently having some difficulty
in persuading British statesmen and the British public to accept. He was
doing his best to help bring about that day when, in Gladstone's famous
words, "the idea of public right would be the governing idea" of
international relations. But while the American Ambassador was preaching
this new conception, the position of his own country on one important
matter was a constant impediment to his efforts. Page was continually
confronted by the fact that the United States, high-minded as its
foreign policy might pretend to be, was far from "idealistic" in the
observance of the treaty that it had made with Great Britain concerning
the Panama Canal. There was a certain embarrassment involved in
preaching unselfishness in Mexico and Central America at a time when the
United States was practising selfishness and dishonesty in Panama. For,
in the opinion of the Ambassador and that of most other dispassionate
students of the Panama treaty, the American policy on Panama tolls
amounted to nothing less.

To one unskilled in legal technicalities, the Panama controversy
involved no great difficulty. Since 1850 the United States and Great
Britain had had a written understanding upon the construction of the
Panama Canal. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which was adopted that year,
provided that the two countries should share equally in the construction
and control of the proposed waterway across the Isthmus. This idea of
joint control had always rankled in the United States, and in 1901 the
American Government persuaded Great Britain to abrogate the
Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and agree to another - the Hay-Pauncefote - which
transferred the rights of ownership and construction exclusively to this
country. In consenting to this important change, Great Britain had made
only one stipulation. "The Canal," so read Article III of the Convention
of 1901, "shall be free and open to the vessels of commerce and war of
all nations observing these rules, on terms of entire equality, so that
there shall be no discrimination against any such nation, or its
citizens or subjects, in respect of the conditions or charges of
traffic, or otherwise." It would seem as though the English language
could utter no thought more clearly than this. The agreement said, not
inferentially, but in so many words, that the "charges" levied on the
ships of "all nations" that used the Canal should be the same. The
history of British-American negotiations on the subject of the Canal had
always emphasized this same point. All American witnesses to drawing the
Treaty have testified that this was the American understanding. The
correspondence of John Hay, who was Secretary of State at the time,
makes it clear that this was the agreement. Mr. Elihu Root, who, as
Secretary of War, sat next to John Hay in the Cabinet which authorized
the treaty, has taken the same stand. The man who conducted the
preliminary negotiations with Lord Salisbury, Mr. Henry White, has
emphasized the same point. Mr. Joseph H. Choate, who, as American
Ambassador to Great Britain in 1901, had charge of the negotiations, has
testified that the British and American Governments "meant what they
said and said what they meant."

In the face of this solemn understanding, the American Congress, in
1912, passed the Panama Canal Act, which provided that "no tolls shall
be levied upon vessels engaged in the coastwise trade of the United
States." A technical argument, based upon the theory that "all nations"
did not include the United States, and that, inasmuch as this country
had obtained sovereign rights upon the Isthmus, the situation had
changed, persuaded President Taft to sign this bill. Perhaps this line
of reasoning satisfied the legal consciences of President Taft and Mr.
Knox, his Secretary of State, but it really cut little figure in the
acrimonious discussion that ensued. Of course, there was only one
question involved; that was as to whether the exemption violated the
Treaty. This is precisely the one point that nearly all the
controversialists avoided. The statement that the United States had
built the Canal with its own money and its own genius, that it had
achieved a great success where other nations had achieved a great
failure, and that it had the right of passing its own ships through its
own highway without assessing tolls - this was apparently argument
enough. When Great Britain protested the exemption as a violation of the
Treaty, there were not lacking plenty of elements in American politics
and journalism to denounce her as committing an act of high-handed
impertinence, as having intruded herself in matters which were not
properly her concern, and as having attempted to rob the American public
of the fruits of its own enterprise. That animosity to Great Britain,
which is always present in certain parts of the hyphenated population,
burst into full flame.

Clear as were the legal aspects of the dispute, the position of the
Wilson Administration was a difficult one. The Irish-American elements,
which have specialized in making trouble between the United States and
Great Britain, represented a strength to the Democratic Party in most
large cities. The great mass of Democratic Senators and Congressmen had
voted for the exemption bill. The Democratic platform of 1912 had
endorsed this same legislation. This declaration was the handiwork of
Senator O'Gorman, of New York State, who had long been a leader of the
anti-British crusade in American politics. More awkward still, President
Wilson, in the course of his Presidential campaign, had himself spoken
approvingly of free tolls for American ships. The probability is that,
when the President made this unfortunate reference to this clause in the
Democratic programme, he had given the matter little personal
investigation; it must be held to his credit that, when the facts were
clearly presented to him, his mind quickly grasped the real point at
issue - that it was not a matter of commercial advantage or
disadvantage, but one simply of national honour, of whether the United
States proposed to keep its word or to break it.

Page's contempt for the hair-drawn technicalities of lawyers was
profound, and the tortuous effort to make the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty mean
something quite different from what it said, inevitably moved him to
righteous wrath. Before sailing for England he spent several days in the
State Department studying the several questions that were then at issue
between his country and Great Britain. A memorandum contains his
impressions of the free tolls contention:

"A little later I went to Washington again to acquaint myself with
the business between the United States and Great Britain. About
that time the Senate confirmed my appointment, and I spent a number
of days reading the recent correspondence between the two
governments. The two documents that stand out in my memory are the
wretched lawyer's note of Knox about the Panama tolls (I never read
a less sincere, less convincing, more purely artificial argument)
and Bryce's brief reply, which did have the ring of sincerity in
it. The diplomatic correspondence in general seemed to me very dull
stuff, and, after wading through it all day, on several nights as I
went to bed the thought came to me whether this sort of activity
were really worth a man's while."

Anything which affected British shipping adversely touched Great Britain
in a sensitive spot; and Page had not been long in London before he
perceived the acute nature of the Panama situation. In July, 1913, Col.
Edward M. House reached the British capital. A letter of Page's to Sir
Edward Grey gives such a succinct description of this new and
influential force in American public life that it is worth quoting:

To Sir Edward Grey

Coburg Hotel, London.

[No date.]


There is an American gentleman in London, the like of whom I do not
know. Mr. Edward M. House is his name. He is "the silent partner"
of President Wilson - that is to say, he is the most trusted
political adviser and the nearest friend of the President. He is a
private citizen, a man without personal political ambition, a
modest, quiet, even shy fellow. He helps to make Cabinets, to shape
policies, to select judges and ambassadors and suchlike merely for
the pleasure of seeing that these tasks are well done.

He is suffering from over-indulgence in advising, and he has come
here to rest. I cannot get him far outside his hotel, for he cares
to see few people. But he is very eager to meet you.

I wonder if you would do me the honour to take luncheon at the
Coburg Hotel with me, to meet him either on July 1, or 3, or 5 - if
you happen to be free? I shall have only you and Mr. House.

Very sincerely yours,


The chief reason why Colonel House wished to meet the British Foreign
Secretary was to bring him a message from President Wilson on the
subject of the Panama tolls. The three men - Sir Edward, Colonel House,
and Mr. Page - met at the suggested luncheon on July 3rd. Colonel House
informed the Foreign Secretary that President Wilson was now convinced
that the Panama Act violated the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty and that he
intended to use all his influence to secure its repeal. The matter, the
American urged, was a difficult one, since it would be necessary to
persuade Congress to pass a law acknowledging its mistake. The best way
in which Great Britain could aid in the process was by taking no public
action. If the British should keep protesting or discussing the subject
acrimoniously in the press and Parliament, such a course would merely
reënforce the elements that would certainly oppose the President. Any
protests would give them the opportunity to set up the cry of "British
dictation," and a change in the Washington policy would subject it to
the criticism of having yielded to British pressure. The inevitable
effect would be to defeat the whole proceeding. Colonel House therefore
suggested that President Wilson be left to handle the matter in his own
way and in his own time, and he assured the British statesman that the
result would be satisfactory to both countries. Sir Edward Grey at once
saw that Colonel House's statement of the matter was simply common
sense, and expressed his willingness to leave the Panama matter in the
President's hands.

Thus, from July 3, 1913, there was a complete understanding between the
British Government and the Washington Administration on the question of
the tolls. But neither the British nor the American public knew that
President Wilson had pledged himself to a policy of repeal. All during
the summer and fall of 1913 this matter was as generally discussed in
England as was Mexico. Everywhere the Ambassador went - country houses,
London dinner tables, the colleges and the clubs - he was constantly
confronted with what was universally regarded as America's great breach
of faith. How deeply he felt in the matter his letters show.

To Edward M. House

August 25, 1913.


. . . The English Government and the English people without regard to
party - I hear it and feel it everywhere - are of one mind about
this: they think we have acted dishonourably. They really think
so - it isn't any mere political or diplomatic pretense. We made a
bargain, they say, and we have repudiated it. If it were a mere
bluff or game or party contention - that would be one thing. We
could "bull" it through or live it down. But they look upon it as

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 18 of 32)