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

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problems; hundreds of questions have come in from every quarter
that were never asked before. But even with them we have now
practically caught up - it has been a wonderful week!

Then the Austrian Ambassador came to give up his Embassy - to have
me take over his business. Every detail was arranged. The next
morning I called on him to assume charge and to say good-bye, when
he told me that he was not yet going! That was a stroke of genius
by Sir Edward Grey, who informed him that Austria had not given
England cause for war. That _may_ work out, or it may not. Pray
Heaven it may! Poor Mensdorff, the Austrian Ambassador, does not
know where he is. He is practically shut up in his guarded Embassy,
weeping and waiting the decree of fate.

Then came the declaration of war, most dramatically. Tuesday
night, five minutes after the ultimatum had expired, the Admiralty
telegraphed to the fleet "Go." In a few minutes the answer came
back "Off." Soldiers began to march through the city going to the
railway stations. An indescribable crowd so blocked the streets
about the Admiralty, the War Office, and the Foreign Office, that
at one o'clock in the morning I had to drive in my car by other
streets to get home.

The next day the German Embassy was turned over to me. I went to
see the German Ambassador at three o'clock in the afternoon. He
came down in his pajamas, a crazy man. I feared he might literally
go mad. He is of the anti-war party and he had done his best and
utterly failed. This interview was one of the most pathetic
experiences of my life. The poor man had not slept for several
nights. Then came the crowds of frightened Germans, afraid that
they would be arrested. They besieged the German Embassy and our
Embassy. I put one of our naval officers in the German Embassy, put
the United States seal on the door to protect it, and we began
business there, too. Our naval officer has moved in - sleeps there.
He has an assistant, a stenographer, a messenger: and I gave him
the German automobile and chauffeur and two English servants that
were left there. He has the job well in hand now, under my and
Laughlin's supervision. But this has brought still another new lot
of diplomatic and governmental problems - a lot of them. Three
enormous German banks in London have, of course, been closed. Their
managers pray for my aid. Howling women come and say their innocent
German husbands have been arrested as spies. English, Germans,
Americans - everybody has daughters and wives and invalid
grandmothers alone in Germany. In God's name, they ask, what can I
do for them? Here come stacks of letters sent under the impression
that I can send them to Germany. But the German business is already
well in hand and I think that that will take little of my own time
and will give little trouble. I shall send a report about it in
detail to the Department the very first day I can find time to
write it. In spite of the effort of the English Government to
remain at peace with Austria, I fear I shall yet have the Austrian
Embassy too. But I can attend to it.

Now, however, comes the financial job of wisely using the $300,000
which I shall have to-morrow. I am using Mr. Chandler Anderson as
counsel, of course. I have appointed a Committee - Skinner, the
Consul-General, Lieut.-Commander McCrary of our Navy, Kent of the
Bankers Trust Company, New York, and one other man yet to be
chosen - to advise, after investigation, about every proposed
expenditure. Anderson has been at work all day to-day drawing up
proper forms, etc., to fit the Department's very excellent
instructions. I have the feeling that more of that money may be
wisely spent in helping to get people off the continent (except in
France, where they seem admirably to be managing it, under Herrick)
than is immediately needed in England. All this merely to show you
the diversity and multiplicity of the job.

I am having a card catalogue, each containing a sort of who's who,
of all Americans in Europe of whom we hear. This will be ready by
the time the _Tennessee_[62] comes. Fifty or more stranded
Americans - men and women - are doing this work free.

I have a member of Congress[63] in the general reception room of
the Embassy answering people's questions - three other volunteers as

We had a world of confusion for two or three days. But all this
work is now well organized and it can be continued without
confusion or cross purposes. I meet committees and lay plans and
read and write telegrams from the time I wake till I go to bed.
But, since it is now all in order, it is easy. Of course I am
running up the expenses of the Embassy - there is no help for that;
but the bill will be really exceedingly small because of the
volunteer work - for awhile. I have not and shall not consider the
expense of whatever it seems absolutely necessary to do - of other
things I shall always consider the expense most critically.
Everybody is working with everybody else in the finest possible
spirit. I have made out a sort of military order to the Embassy
staff, detailing one man with clerks for each night and forbidding
the others to stay there till midnight. None of us slept more than
a few hours last week. It was not the work that kept them after the
first night or two, but the sheer excitement of this awful
cataclysm. All London has been awake for a week. Soldiers are
marching day and night; immense throngs block the streets about the
government offices. But they are all very orderly. Every day
Germans are arrested on suspicion; and several of them have
committed suicide. Yesterday one poor American woman yielded to the
excitement and cut her throat. I find it hard to get about much.
People stop me on the street, follow me to luncheon, grab me as I
come out of any committee meeting - to know my opinion of this or
that - how can they get home? Will such-and-such a boat fly the
American flag? Why did I take the German Embassy? I have to fight
my way about and rush to an automobile. I have had to buy me a
second one to keep up the racket. Buy? - no - only bargain for it,
for I have not any money. But everybody is considerate, and that
makes no matter for the moment. This little cottage in an
out-of-the-way place, twenty-five miles from London, where I am
trying to write and sleep, has been found by people to-day, who
come in automobiles to know how they may reach their sick
kinspeople in Germany. I have not had a bath for three days: as
soon as I got in the tub, the telephone rang an "urgent" call!

[Illustration: No. 6 Grosvenor Square, the American Embassy under
Mr. Page]

[Illustration: Irwin Laughlin, Secretary of the American Embassy at
Longon, 1912-1917, Counsellor 1916-1919].

Upon my word, if one could forget the awful tragedy, all this
experience would be worth a lifetime of commonplace. One surprise
follows another so rapidly that one loses all sense of time: it
seems an age since last Sunday. I shall never forget Sir Edward
Grey's telling me of the ultimatum - while he wept; nor the poor
German Ambassador who has lost in his high game - almost a demented
man; nor the King as he declaimed at me for half-an-hour and threw
up his hands and said, "My God, Mr. Page, what else could we do?"
Nor the Austrian Ambassador's wringing his hands and weeping and
crying out, "My dear Colleague, my dear Colleague."

Along with all this tragedy come two reverend American peace
delegates who got out of Germany by the skin of their teeth and
complain that they lost all the clothes they had except what they
had on. "Don't complain," said I, "but thank God you saved your
skins." Everybody has forgotten what war means - forgotten that
folks get hurt. But they are coming around to it now. A United
States Senator telegraphs me: "Send my wife and daughter home on
the first ship." Ladies and gentlemen filled the steerage of that
ship - not a bunk left; and his wife and daughter are found three
days later sitting in a swell hotel waiting for me to bring them
stateroom tickets on a silver tray! One of my young fellows in the
Embassy rushes into my office saying that a man from Boston, with
letters of introduction from Senators and Governors and
Secretaries, et al., was demanding tickets of admission to a
picture gallery, and a secretary to escort him there.

"What shall I do with him?"

"Put his proposal to a vote of the 200 Americans in the room and
see them draw and quarter him."

I have not yet heard what happened. A woman writes me four pages to
prove how dearly she loves my sister and invites me to her
hotel - five miles away - "please to tell her about the sailing of
the steamships." Six American preachers pass a resolution
unanimously "urging our Ambassador to telegraph our beloved,
peace-loving President to stop this awful war"; and they come with
simple solemnity to present their resolution. Lord save us, what a

And this awful tragedy moves on to - what? We do not know what is
really happening, so strict is the censorship. But it seems
inevitable to me that Germany will be beaten, that the horrid
period of alliances and armaments will not come again, that England
will gain even more of the earth's surface, that Russia may next
play the menace; that all Europe (as much as survives) will be
bankrupt; that relatively we shall be immensely stronger
financially and politically - there must surely come many great
changes - very many, yet undreamed of. Be ready; for you will be
called on to compose this huge quarrel. I thank Heaven for many
things - first, the Atlantic Ocean; second, that you refrained from
war in Mexico; third, that we kept our treaty - the canal tolls
victory, I mean. Now, when all this half of the world will suffer
the unspeakable brutalization of war, we shall preserve our moral
strength, our political powers, and our ideals.

God save us!


Vivid as is the above letter, it lacks several impressive details.
Probably the one event that afterward stood out most conspicuously in
Page's mind was his interview with Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign
Secretary. Sir Edward asked the American Ambassador to call Tuesday
afternoon; his purpose was to inform him that Great Britain had sent an
ultimatum to Germany. By this time Page and the Foreign Secretary had
established not only cordial official relations but a warm friendship.
The two men had many things in common; they had the same general outlook
on world affairs, the same ideas of justice and fair dealing, the same
belief that other motives than greed and aggrandizement should control
the attitude of one nation to another. The political tendencies of both
men were idealistic; both placed character above everything else as the
first requisite of a statesman; both hated war, and looked forward to
the time when more rational methods of conducting international
relations would prevail. Moreover, their purely personal qualities had
drawn Sir Edward and Page closely together. A common love of nature and
of out-of-door life had made them akin; both loved trees, birds,
flowers, and hedgerows; the same intellectual diversions and similar
tastes in reading had strengthened the tie. "I could never mention a
book I liked that Mr. Page had not read and liked too," Sir Edward Grey
once remarked to the present writer, and the enthusiasm that both men
felt for Wordsworth's poetry in itself formed a strong bond of union.
The part that the American Ambassador had played in the repeal of the
Panama discrimination had also made a great impression upon this British
statesman - a man to whom honour means more in international dealings
than any other consideration. "Mr. Page is one of the finest
illustrations I have ever known," Grey once said, "of the value of
character in a public man." In their intercourse for the past year the
two men had grown accustomed to disregard all pretense of diplomatic
technique; their discussions had been straightforward man-to-man talks;
there had been nothing suggestive of pose or finesse, and no attempts at
cleverness - merely an effort to get to the bottom of things and to
discover a common meeting ground. The Ambassador, moreover, represented
a nation for which the Foreign Secretary had always entertained the
highest respect and even affection, and he and Page could find no
happier common meeting-ground than an effort to bring about the closest
co√ґperation between the two countries. Sir Edward, far-seeing statesman
that he was, had already appreciated, even amid the exciting and
engrossing experiences through which he was then passing, the critical
and almost determining part which the United States was destined to play
in the war, and he had now sent for the American Ambassador because he
believed that the President was entitled to a complete explanation of
the momentous decision which Great Britain had just made.

The meeting took place at three o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, August
4th - a fateful date in modern history. The time represented the interval
which elapsed between the transmission of the British ultimatum to
Germany and the hour set for the German reply. The place was that same
historic room in the Foreign Office where so many interviews had already
taken place and where so many were to take place in the next four years.
As Page came in, Sir Edward, a tall and worn and rather pallid figure,
was standing against the mantelpiece; he greeted the Ambassador with a
grave handshake and the two men sat down. Overwrought the Foreign
Secretary may have been, after the racking week which had just passed,
but there was nothing flurried or excited in his manner; his whole
bearing was calm and dignified, his speech was quiet and restrained, he
uttered not one bitter word against Germany, but his measured accents
had a sureness, a conviction of the justice of his course, that went
home in almost deadly fashion. He sat in a characteristic pose, his
elbows resting on the sides of his chair, his hands folded and placed
beneath his chin, the whole body leaning forward eagerly and his eyes
searching those of his American friend. The British Foreign Secretary
was a handsome and an inspiring figure. He was a man of large, but of
well knit, robust, and slender frame, wiry and even athletic; he had a
large head, surmounted with dark brown hair, slightly touched with gray;
a finely cut, somewhat rugged and bronzed face, suggestive of that
out-of-door life in which he had always found his greatest pleasure;
light blue eyes that shone with straightforwardness and that on this
occasion were somewhat pensive with anxiety; thin, ascetic lips that
could smile in the most confidential manner or close tightly with
grimness and fixed purpose. He was a man who was at the same time shy
and determined, elusive and definite, but if there was one note in his
bearing that predominated all others, it was a solemn and quiet
sincerity. He seemed utterly without guile and magnificently simple.

Sir Edward at once referred to the German invasion of Belgium.

"The neutrality of Belgium," he said, and there was the touch of
finality in his voice, "is assured by treaty. Germany is a signatory
power to that treaty. It is upon such solemn compacts as this that
civilization rests. If we give them up, or permit them to be violated,
what becomes of civilization? Ordered society differs from mere force
only by such solemn agreements or compacts. But Germany has violated the
neutrality of Belgium. That means bad faith. It means also the end of
Belgium's independence. And it will not end with Belgium. Next will come
Holland, and, after Holland, Denmark. This very morning the Swedish
Minister informed me that Germany had made overtures to Sweden to come
in on Germany's side. The whole plan is thus clear. This one great
military power means to annex Belgium, Holland, and the Scandinavian
states and to subjugate France."

Sir Edward energetically rose; he again stood near the mantelpiece, his
figure straightened, his eyes were fairly flashing - it was a picture,
Page once told me, that was afterward indelibly fixed in his mind.

"England would be forever contemptible," Sir Edward said, "if it should
sit by and see this treaty violated. Its position would be gone if
Germany were thus permitted to dominate Europe. I have therefore asked
you to come to tell you that this morning we sent an ultimatum to
Germany. We have told Germany that, if this assault on Belgium's
neutrality is not reversed, England will declare war."

"Do you expect Germany to accept it?" asked the Ambassador.

Sir Edward shook his head.

"No. Of course everybody knows that there will be war."

There was a moment's pause and then the Foreign Secretary spoke again:

"Yet we must remember that there are two Germanys. There is the Germany
of men like ourselves - of men like Lichnowsky and Jagow. Then there is
the Germany of men of the war party. The war party has got the upper

At this point Sir Edward's eyes filled with tears.

"Thus the efforts of a lifetime go for nothing. I feel like a man who
has wasted his life."

"This scene was most affecting," Page said afterward. "Sir Edward not
only realized what the whole thing meant, but he showed that he realized
the awful responsibility for it."

Sir Edward then asked the Ambassador to explain the situation to
President Wilson; he expressed the hope that the United States would
take an attitude of neutrality and that Great Britain might look for
"the courtesies of neutrality" from this country. Page tried to tell him
of the sincere pain that such a war would cause the President and the
American people.

"I came away," the Ambassador afterward said, "with a sort of stunned
sense of the impending ruin of half the world[64]."

The significant fact in this interview is that the British Foreign
Secretary justified the attitude of his country exclusively on the
ground of the violation of a treaty. This is something that is not yet
completely understood in the United States. The participation of Great
Britain in this great continental struggle is usually regarded as having
been inevitable, irrespective of the German invasion of Belgium; yet the
fact is that, had Germany not invaded Belgium, Great Britain would not
have declared war, at least at this critical time. Sir Edward came to
Page after a week's experience with a wavering cabinet. Upon the general
question of Britain's participation in a European war the Asquith
Ministry had been by no means unanimous. Probably Mr. Asquith himself
and Mr. Lloyd George would have voted against taking such a step. It is
quite unlikely that the cabinet could have carried a majority of the
House of Commons on this issue. But the violation of the Belgian treaty
changed the situation in a twinkling. The House of Commons at once took
its stand in favour of intervention. All members of the cabinet,
excepting John Morley and John Burns, who resigned, immediately aligned
themselves on the side of war. In the minds of British statesmen the
violation of this treaty gave Britain no choice. Germany thus forced
Great Britain into the war, just as, two and a half years afterward, the
Prussian war lords compelled the United States to take up arms. Sir
Edward Grey's interview with the American Ambassador thus had great
historic importance, for it makes this point clear. The two men had
recently had many discussions on another subject in which the violation
of a treaty was the great consideration - that of Panama tolls - and there
was a certain appropriateness in this explanation of the British Foreign
Secretary that precisely the same point had determined Great Britain's
participation in the greatest struggle that has ever devastated Europe.

Inevitably the question of American mediation had come to the surface in
this trying time. Several days before Page's interview with Grey, the
American Ambassador, acting in response to a cablegram from Washington,
had asked if the good offices of the United States could be used in any
way. "Sir Edward is very appreciative of our mood and willingness," Page
wrote in reference to this visit. "But they don't want peace on the
continent - the ruling classes do not. But they will want it presently
and then our opportunity will come. Ours is the only great government in
the world that is not in some way entangled. Of course I'll keep in
daily touch with Sir Edward and with everybody who can and will keep me

This was written about July 27th; at that time Austria had sent her
ultimatum to Serbia but there was no certainty that Europe would become
involved in war. A demand for American mediation soon became widespread
in the United States; the Senate passed a resolution requesting the
President to proffer his good offices to that end. On this subject the
following communications were exchanged between President Wilson and his
chief adviser, then sojourning at his summer home in Massachusetts. Like
Mr. Tumulty, the President's Secretary, Colonel House usually addressed
the President in terms reminiscent of the days when Mr. Wilson was
Governor of New Jersey. Especially interesting also are Colonel House's
references to his own trip to Berlin and the joint efforts made by the
President and himself in the preceding June to forestall the war which
had now broken out.

_Edward M. House to the President_

Pride's Crossing (Mass.),

August 3, 1914. [Monday.]

The President,

The White House, Washington, D.C.

Dear Governor:

Our people are deeply shocked at the enormity of this general
European war, and I see here and there regret that you did not use
your good offices in behalf of peace.

If this grows into criticism so as to become noticeable I believe
everyone would be pleased and proud that you had anticipated this
world-wide horror and had done all that was humanly possible to
avert it.

The more terrible the war becomes, the greater credit it will be
that you saw the trend of events long before it was seen by other
statesmen of the world.

Your very faithful,
E.M. House.

P.S. The question might be asked why negotiations were only with
Germany and England and not with France and Russia. This, of
course, was because it was thought that Germany would act for the
Triple Alliance and England for the Triple Entente[65].

_The President to Edward M. House_

The White House,

Washington, D.C.

August 4th, 1914. [Tuesday.]

Edward M. House,

Pride's Crossing, Mass.

Letter of third received. Do you think I could and should act now and if
so how?

Woodrow Wilson.

_Edward M. House to the President_


Pride's Crossing, Mass.

August 5th, 1914. [Wednesday.]

The President,

The White House, Washington, D.C.

Olney[66] and I agree that in response to the Senate resolution it
would be unwise to tender your good offices at this time. We
believe it would lessen your influence when the proper moment
arrives. He thinks it advisable that you make a direct or indirect
statement to the effect that you have done what was humanly
possible to compose the situation before this crisis had been
reached. He thinks this would satisfy the Senate and the public in
view of your disinclination to act now upon the Senate resolution.
The story might be told to the correspondents at Washington and
they might use the expression "we have it from high authority."

He agrees to my suggestion that nothing further should be done now
than to instruct our different ambassadors to inform the respective
governments to whom they are accredited, that you stand ready to
tender your good offices whenever such an offer is desired.

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 23 of 32)