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The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I online

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since his message was intended for the Kaiser's own ears; and ultimately
his persistence succeeded. The next Monday would be June 1st - a great
day in Germany. It was the occasion of the Schrippenfest, a day which
for many years had been set aside for the glorification of the German
Army. On that festival, the Kaiser entertained with great pomp
representative army officers and representative privates, as well as the
diplomatic corps and other distinguished foreigners. Colonel House was
invited to attend the Kaiser's luncheon on that occasion, and was
informed that, after this function was over, he would have an
opportunity of having a private conversation with His Majesty.

The affair took place in the palace at Potsdam. The militarism which
Colonel House had felt so oppressively in Berlin society was especially
manifest on this occasion. There were two luncheon parties - that of the
Kaiser and his officers and guests in the state dining room, and that of
the selected private soldiers outside. The Kaiser and the Kaiserin spent
a few moments with their humbler subjects, drinking beer with them and
passing a few comradely remarks; they then proceeded to the large dining
hall and took their places with the gorgeously caparisoned and
bemedalled chieftains of the German Army. The whole proceeding has an
historic interest, in that it was the last Schrippenfest held. Whether
another will ever be held is problematical, for the occasion was an
inevitable part of the trappings of Hohenzollernism. Despite the gravity
of the occasion, Colonel House's chief memory of this function is
slightly tinged with the ludicrous. He had spent the better part of a
lifetime attempting to rid himself of his military title, but uselessly.
He was now embarrassed because these solemn German officers persisted
in regarding him as an important part of the American Army, and in
discussing technical and strategical problems. The visitor made several
attempts to explain that he was merely a "geographical colonel" - that
the title was constantly conferred in an informal sense on Americans,
especially Southerners, and that the handle to his name had, therefore,
no military significance. But the round-faced Teutons stared at his
explanation in blank amazement; they couldn't grasp the point at all,
and continued to ask his opinion of matters purely military.

When the lunch was finished, the Kaiser took Colonel House aside, and
the two men withdrew to the terrace, out of earshot of the rest of the
gathering. However, they were not out of sight. For nearly half an hour
the Kaiser and the American stood side by side upon the terrace, the
German generals, at a respectful distance, watching the proceeding,
resentful, puzzled, curious as to what it was all about. The quiet
demeanour of the American "Colonel," his plain citizen's clothes, and
his almost impassive face, formed a striking contrast to the Kaiser's
dazzling uniform and the general scene of military display. Two or three
of the generals and admirals present were in the secret, but only two or
three; the mass of officers watching this meeting little guessed that
the purpose of House's visit was to persuade the Kaiser to abandon
everything for which the Schrippenfest stood; to enter an international
compact with the United States and Great Britain for reducing armaments,
to reach an agreement about trade and the treatment of backward peoples,
and to form something of a permanent association for the preservation of
peace. The one thing which was apparent to the watchers was that the
American was only now and then saying a brief word, but that the Kaiser
was, as usual, doing a vast amount of talking. His speech rattled on
with the utmost animation, his arms were constantly gesticulating, he
would bring one fist down into his palm to register an emphatic point,
and enforce certain ideas with a menacing forefinger. At times Colonel
House would show slight signs of impatience and interrupt the flow of
talk. But the Kaiser was clearly absorbed in the subject under
discussion. His entourage several times attempted to break up the
interview. The Court Chamberlain twice gingerly approached and informed
His Majesty that the Imperial train was waiting to take the party back
to Berlin. Each time the Kaiser, with an angry gesture, waved the
interrupter away. Despairing of the usual resources, the Kaiserin was
sent with the same message. The Kaiser did not treat her so summarily,
but he paid no attention to the request, and continued to discuss the
European situation with the American.

[Illustration: Walter H. Page, from a photograph taken a few years
before he became American Ambassador to Great Britain]

[Illustration: The British Foreign Office, Downing Street]

The subject that had mainly aroused the Imperial warmth was the "Yellow
Peril." For years this had been an obsession with the Kaiser, and he
launched into the subject as soon as Colonel House broached the purpose
of his visit. There could be no question of disarmament, the Kaiser
vehemently declared, as long as this danger to civilization existed. "We
white nations should join hands," he said, "to oppose Japan and the
other yellow nations, or some day they will destroy us."

It was with difficulty that Colonel House could get His Majesty away
from this subject. Whatever topic he touched upon, the Kaiser would
immediately start declaiming on the dangers that faced Europe from the
East. His insistence on this accounted partly for the slight signs of
impatience which the American showed. He feared that all the time
allotted for the interview would be devoted to discussing the Japanese.
About another nation, the Kaiser showed almost as much alarm as he did
about Japan, and that was Russia. He spoke contemptuously of France and
Great Britain as possible enemies, for he apparently had no fear of
them. But the size of Russia and the exposed eastern frontier of Germany
seemed to appal him. How could Germany join a peace pact, and reduce its
army, so long as 175,000,000 Slavs threatened them from this direction?

Another matter that the Kaiser discussed with derision was Mr. Bryan's
arbitration treaty. Practically all the great nations had already
ratified this treaty except Germany. The Kaiser now laughed at the
treaties and pooh-poohed Bryan. Germany, he declared, would never accept
such an arbitration plan. Colonel House had particular cause to remember
this part of the conversation three years afterward, when the United
States declared war on Germany. The outstanding feature of the Bryan
treaty was the clause which pledged the high contracting parties not to
go to war without taking a breathing spell of one year in which to think
the matter over. Had Germany adopted this treaty, the United States, in
April, 1917, after Germany had presented a _casus belli_ by resuming
unrestricted submarine warfare, could not have gone to war. We should
have been obliged to wait a year, or until April, 1918, before engaging
in hostilities. That is, an honourable observance of this Bryan treaty
by the United States would have meant that Germany would have starved
Great Britain into surrender, and crushed Europe with her army. Had the
Kaiser, on this June afternoon, not notified Colonel House that Germany
would not accept this treaty, but, instead, had notified him that he
would accept it, William II might now be sitting on the throne of a
victorious Germany, with Europe for a footstool.

Despite the Kaiser's hostile attitude toward these details, his general
reception of the President's proposals was not outwardly unfriendly.
Perhaps he was sincere, perhaps not; yet the fact is that he manifested
more cordiality to this somewhat vague "get-together" proposal than had
any of his official advisers. He encouraged Colonel House to visit
London, talk the matter over with British statesmen, and then return to

"The last thing," he said, "that Germany wants is war We are getting to
be a great commercial country. In a few years Germany will be a rich
country, like England and the United States. We don't want a war to
interfere with our progress."

Any peace suggestion that was compatible with German safety, he said,
would be entertained. Yet his parting words were not reassuring.

"Every nation in Europe," he said, "has its bayonets pointed at Germany.
But - " - and with this he gave a proud and smiling glance at the
glistening representatives of his army gathered on this brilliant
occasion - "we are ready!"

Colonel house left Berlin, not particularly hopeful; the Kaiser
impressed him as a man of unstable nervous organization - as one who was
just hovering on the borderland of insanity. Certainly, this was no man
to be entrusted with such powers as the American had witnessed that day
at Potsdam. Dangerous as the Kaiser was, however, he did not seem to
Colonel House to be as great a menace to mankind as were his military
advisers. The American came away from Berlin with the conviction that
the most powerful force in Germany was the militaristic clique, and
second, the Hohenzollern dynasty. He has always insisted that this
represented the real precedence in power. So long as the Kaiser was
obedient to the will of militarism, so long could he maintain his
standing. He was confident, however, that the militaristic oligarchy was
determined to have its will, and would dethrone the Kaiser the moment he
showed indications of taking a course that would lead to peace. Colonel
House was also convinced that this militaristic oligarchy was determined
on war. The coolness with which it listened to his proposals, the
attempts it made to keep him from seeing the Kaiser alone, its repeated
efforts to break up the conversation after it had begun, all pointed to
the inevitable tragedy. The fact that the Kaiser expressed a wish to
discuss the matter again, after Colonel House had sounded London, was
the one hopeful feature of an otherwise discouraging experience, and
accounts for the tone of faint optimism in his letters describing the

_From Edward M. House_

Embassy of the United States of America,

May 28, 1914.

Dear Page:

. . . I have done something here already - not much, but enough to
open negotiations with London. I lunch with the Kaiser on Monday. I
was advised to avoid Admiral von Tirpitz as being very
unsympathetic. However, I went directly at him and had a most
interesting talk. He is a forceful fellow. Von Jagow is pleasant
but not forceful. I have had a long talk with him. The Chancellor's
wife died last week so I have not got in touch with him. I will
write you more fully from Paris. My address there will be Hotel



_From Edward M. House_

Hotel Ritz, 15, Place Vend√іme, Paris.

June 3, 1914.

Dear Page:

I had a satisfactory talk with the Kaiser on Monday. I have now
seen everyone worthwhile in Germany except the Chancellor. I am
ready now for London. Perhaps you had better prepare the way. The
Kaiser knows I am to see them, and I have arranged to keep him in
touch with results - if there are any. We must work quickly after I
arrive, for it may be advisable for me to return to Germany, and I
am counting on sailing for home July 15th or 28th. . . . I am eager to
see you and tell you what I know.



Colonel House left that night for Paris, but there the situation was a
hopeless one. France was not thinking of a foreign war; it was engrossed
with its domestic troubles. There had been three French ministries in
two weeks; and the trial of Madame Caillaux for the murder of Gaston
Calmette, editor of the Paris _Figaro_, was monopolizing all the
nation's capacity for emotion. Colonel House saw that it would be a
waste of energy to take up his mission at Paris - there was no government
stable enough to make a discussion worth while. He therefore immediately
left for London.

The political situation in Great Britain was almost as confused as that
in Paris. The country was in a state approaching civil war on the
question of Home Rule for Ireland; the suffragettes were threatening to
dynamite the Houses of Parliament; and the eternal struggle between the
Liberal and the Conservative elements was raging with unprecedented
virulence. A European war was far from everybody's mind. It was this
utter inability to grasp the realities of the European situation which
proved the main impediment to Colonel House's work in England. He met
all the important people - Mr. Asquith, Mr. Lloyd George, Sir Edward
Grey, and others. With them he discussed his "pact" proposal in great

Naturally, ideas of this sort were listened to sympathetically by
statesmen of the stamp of Asquith, Grey, and Lloyd George. The
difficulty, however, was that none of these men apprehended an immediate
war. They saw no necessity of hurrying about the matter. They had the
utmost confidence in Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London,
and Von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor. Both these men were
regarded by the Foreign Office as guarantees against a German attack;
their continuance in their office was looked upon as an assurance that
Germany entertained no immediately aggressive plans. Though the British
statesmen did not say so definitely, the impression was conveyed that
the mission on which Colonel House was engaged was an unnecessary one - a
preparation against a danger that did not exist. Colonel House attempted
to persuade Sir Edward Grey to visit the Kiel regatta, which was to take
place in a few days, see the Kaiser, and discuss the plan with him. But
the Government feared that such a visit would be very disturbing to
France and Russia. Already Mr. Churchill's proposal for a "naval
holiday" had so wrought up the French that a hurried trip to France by
Mr. Asquith had been necessary to quiet them; the consternation that
would have been caused in Paris by the presence of Sir Edward Grey at
Kiel can only be imagined. The fact that the British statesmen
entertained so little apprehension of a German attack may possibly be a
reflection on their judgment; yet Colonel House's visit has great
historical value, for the experience afterward convinced him that Great
Britain had had no part in bringing on the European war, and that
Germany was solely responsible. It certainly should have put the Wilson
Administration right on this all-important point, when the great storm

The most vivid recollection which the British statesmen whom Colonel
House met retain of his visit, was his consternation at the spirit that
had confronted him everywhere in Germany. The four men most
interested - Sir Edward Grey, Sir William Tyrrell, Mr. Page, and Colonel
House - met at luncheon in the American Embassy a few days after
President Wilson's emissary had returned from Berlin. Colonel House
could talk of little except the preparations for war which were manifest
on every hand.

"I feel as though I had been living near a mighty electric dynamo,"
Colonel House told his friends. "The whole of Germany is charged with
electricity. Everybody's nerves are tense. It needs only a spark to set
the whole thing off."

The "spark" came two weeks afterward with the assassination of the
Archduke Ferdinand.

* * * * *

"It is all a bad business," Colonel House wrote to Page when war broke
out, "and just think how near we came to making such a catastrophe
impossible! If England had moved a little faster and had let me go back
to Germany, the thing, perhaps, could have been done."

To which Page at once replied:

"No, no, no - no power on earth could have prevented it. The German
militarism, which is _the_ crime of the last fifty years, has been
working for this for twenty-five years. It is the logical result of
their spirit and enterprise and doctrine. It had to come. But, of
course, they chose the wrong time and the wrong issue. Militarism has no
judgment. Don't let your conscience be worried. You did all that any
mortal man could do. But nobody could have done anything effective.

"We've got to see to it that this system doesn't grow up again. That's


[Footnote 54: Mr. and Mrs. Francis B. Sayre, son-in-law and daughter of
President Wilson.]

[Footnote 55: Ex-President of the University of California, Roosevelt
Professor at the University of Berlin, 1909-10.]

[Footnote 56: James A. O'Gorman was the anti-British Senator from New
York State at this time working hard against the repeal of the Panama
tolls discrimination.]

[Footnote 57: In February, 1915, William S. Benton, an English subject
who had spent the larger part of his life in Mexico, was murdered in the
presence of Francisco Villa.]

[Footnote 58: Mr. Irwin Laughlin, first secretary of the American
Embassy in London; at this time spending a few weeks in the United

[Footnote 59: Obviously President Wilson.]

[Footnote 60: Mr. Hugh C. Wallace, afterward Ambassador to France, and
Mrs. Wallace. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace accompanied Mr. and Mrs. House on
this journey.]



In the latter part of July the Pages took a small house at Ockham, in
Surrey, and here they spent the fateful week that preceded the outbreak
of war. The Ambassador's emotions on this event are reflected in a
memorandum written on Sunday, August 2nd - a day that was full of
negotiations, ultimatums, and other precursors of the approaching

Bachelor's Farm, Ockham, Surrey.
Sunday, August 2, 1914.

The Grand Smash is come. Last night the German Ambassador at St.
Petersburg handed the Russian Government a declaration of war. To-day
the German Government asked the United States to take its diplomatic and
consular business in Russia in hand. Herrick, our Ambassador in Paris,
has already taken the German interests there.

It is reported in London to-day that the Germans have invaded Luxemburg
and France.

Troops were marching through London at one o'clock this morning. Colonel
Squier[61] came out to luncheon. He sees no way for England to keep out
of it. There is no way. If she keep out, Germany will take Belgium and
Holland, France would be betrayed, and England would be accused of
forsaking her friends.

People came to the Embassy all day to-day (Sunday), to learn how they
can get to the United States - a rather hard question to answer. I
thought several times of going in, but Greene and Squier said there was
no need of it. People merely hoped we might tell them what we can't tell

Returned travellers from Paris report indescribable confusion - people
unable to obtain beds and fighting for seats in railway carriages.

It's been a hard day here. I have a lot (not a big lot either) of
routine work on my desk which I meant to do. But it has been impossible
to get my mind off this Great Smash. It holds one in spite of one's
self. I revolve it and revolve it - of course getting nowhere.

It will revive our shipping. In a jiffy, under stress of a general
European war, the United States Senate passed a bill permitting American
registry to ships built abroad. Thus a real emergency knocked the old
Protectionists out, who had held on for fifty years! Correspondingly the
political parties here have agreed to suspend their Home Rule quarrel
till this war is ended. Artificial structures fall when a real wind

The United States is the only great Power wholly out of it. The United
States, most likely, therefore, will be able to play a helpful and
historic part at its end. It will give President Wilson, no doubt, a
great opportunity. It will probably help us politically and it will
surely help us economically.

The possible consequences stagger the imagination. Germany has staked
everything on her ability to win primacy. England and France (to say
nothing of Russia) really ought to give her a drubbing. If they do not,
this side of the world will henceforth be German. If they do flog
Germany, Germany will for a long time be in discredit.

I walked out in the night a while ago. The stars are bright, the night
is silent, the country quiet - as quiet as peace itself. Millions of men
are in camp and on warships. Will they all have to fight and many of
them die - to untangle this network of treaties and affiances and to blow
off huge debts with gunpowder so that the world may start again?

A hurried picture of the events of the next seven days is given in the
following letter to the President:

_To the President_
London, Sunday, August 9, 1914.


God save us! What a week it has been! Last Sunday I was down here
at the cottage I have taken for the summer - an hour out of
London - uneasy because of the apparent danger and of what Sir
Edward Grey had told me. During the day people began to go to the
Embassy, but not in great numbers - merely to ask what they should
do in case of war. The Secretary whom I had left in charge on
Sunday telephoned me every few hours and laughingly told funny
experiences with nervous women who came in and asked absurd
questions. Of course, we all knew the grave danger that war might
come but nobody could by the wildest imagination guess at what
awaited us. On Monday I was at the Embassy earlier than I think I
had ever been there before and every member of the staff was
already on duty. Before breakfast time the place was
filled-packed - like sardines. This was two days before war was
declared. There was no chance to talk to individuals, such was the
jam. I got on a chair and explained that I had already telegraphed
to Washington - on Saturday - suggesting the sending of money and
ships, and asking them to be patient. I made a speech to them
several times during the day, and kept the Secretaries doing so at
intervals. More than 2,000 Americans crowded into those offices
(which are not large) that day. We were kept there till two o'clock
in the morning. The Embassy has not been closed since.

Mr. Kent of the Bankers Trust Company in New York volunteered to
form an American Citizens' Relief Committee. He and other men of
experience and influence organized themselves at the Savoy Hotel.
The hotel gave the use of nearly a whole floor. They organized
themselves quickly and admirably and got information about
steamships and currency, etc. We began to send callers at the
Embassy to this Committee for such information. The banks were all
closed for four days. These men got money enough - put it up
themselves and used their English banking friends for help - to
relieve all cases of actual want of cash that came to them. Tuesday
the crowd at the Embassy was still great but smaller. The big space
at the Savoy Hotel gave them room to talk to one another and to get
relief for immediate needs. By that time I had accepted the
volunteer services of five or six men to help us explain to the
people - and they have all worked manfully day and night. We now
have an orderly organization at four places: The Embassy, the
Consul-General's Office, the Savoy, and the American Society in
London, and everything is going well. Those two first days, there
was, of course, great confusion. Crazy men and weeping women were
imploring and cursing and demanding - God knows it was bedlam
turned loose. I have been called a man of the greatest genius for
an emergency by some, by others a damned fool, by others every
epithet between these extremes. Men shook English banknotes in my
face and demanded United States money and swore our Government and
its agents ought all to be shot. Women expected me to hand them
steamship tickets home. When some found out that they could not get
tickets on the transports (which they assumed would sail the next
day) they accused me of favouritism. These absurd experiences will
give you a hint of the panic. But now it has worked out all right,
thanks to the Savoy Committee and other helpers.

Meantime, of course, our telegrams and mail increased almost as
much as our callers. I have filled the place with stenographers, I
have got the Savoy people to answer certain classes of letters, and
we have caught up. My own time and the time of two of the
secretaries has been almost wholly taken with governmental

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 22 of 32)