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

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Tannenberg. By December 4th Washington had evidently made up its mind to
move again.

_From Edward M. House_
115 East 53rd Street,
New York City.
December 4th, 1914.


The President desires to start peace parleys at the very earliest
moment, but he does not wish to offend the sensibilities of either
side by making a proposal before the time is opportune. He is
counting upon being given a hint, possibly through me, in an
unofficial way, as to when a proffer from him will be acceptable.

Pressure is being brought upon him to offer his services again, for
this country is suffering, like the rest of the neutral world, from
the effects of the war, and our people are becoming restless.

Would you mind conveying this thought delicately to Sir Edward Grey
and letting me know what he thinks?

Would the Allies consider parleys upon a basis of indemnity for
Belgium and a cessation of militarism? If so, then something may be
begun with the Dual Alliance.

I have been told that negotiations between Russia and Japan were
carried on several months before they agreed to meet at Portsmouth.
The havoc that is being wrought in human lives and treasure is too
great to permit racial feeling or revenge to enter into the
thoughts of those who govern the nations at war.

I stand ready to go to Germany at any moment in order to sound the
temper of that government, and I would then go to England as I did
last June.

This nation would not look with favour upon a policy that held
nothing but the complete annihilation of the enemy.

Something must be done sometime, by somebody, to initiate a peace
movement, and I can think of no way, at the moment, than the one

I will greatly appreciate your writing me fully and freely in
regard to this phase of the situation.

Faithfully yours,

To this Page immediately replied:

_To Edward M. House_
December 12th, 1914.


The English rulers have no feeling of vengeance. I have never seen
the slightest traces of that. But they are determined to secure
future safety. They will not have this experience repeated if they
can help it. They realize now that they have been living under a
sort of fear - or dread - for ten years: they sometimes felt that it
was bound to come some time and then at other times they could
hardly believe it. And they will spend all the men and all the
money they have rather than suffer that fear again or have that
danger. Now, if anybody could fix a basis for the complete
restoration of Belgium, so far as restoration is possible, and for
the elimination of militarism, I am sure the _English_ would talk
on that basis. But there are two difficulties-Russia wouldn't talk
till she has Constantinople, and I haven't found anybody who can
say exactly what you mean by the "elimination of militarism."
Disarmament? England will have her navy to protect her incoming
bread and meat. How, then, can she say to Germany, "You can't have
an army"?

You say the Americans are becoming "restless." The plain fact is
that the English people, and especially the English military and
naval people, don't care a fig what the Americans think and feel.
They say, "We're fighting their battle, too - the battle of
democracy and freedom from bureaucracy - why don't they come and
help us in our life-and-death struggle?" I have a drawer full of
letters saying this, not one of which I have ever answered. The
official people never say that of course - nor the really
responsible people, but a vast multitude of the public do. This
feeling comes out even in the present military and naval rulers of
this Kingdom - comes indirectly to me. A part of the public, then,
and the military part of the Cabinet, don't longer care for
American opinion and they resent even such a reference to peace as
the President made in his Message to Congress[107]. But the civil
part of the Cabinet and the responsible and better part of the
public do care very much. The President's intimation about peace,
however, got no real response here. They think he doesn't
understand the meaning of the war. They don't want war; they are
not a warlike people. They don't hate the Germans. There is no
feeling of vengeance. They constantly say: "Why do the Germans
hate us? We don't hate them." But, since Germany set out to rule
the world and to conquer Great Britain, they say, "We'll all die
first." That's "all there is to it." And they will all die unless
they can so fix things that this war cannot be repeated. Lady
K - - , as kindly an old lady as ever lived, said to me the other
day: "A great honour has come to us. Our son has been killed in
battle, fighting for the safety of England."

Now, the question which nobody seems to be able to answer is this:
How can the military party and the military spirit of Germany be
prevented from continuing to prepare for the conquest of Great
Britain and from going to work to try it again? That implies a
change in the form, spirit, and control of the German Empire. If
they keep up a great army, they will keep it up with that end more
or less in view. If the military party keeps in power, they will
try it again in twenty-five or forty years. This is all that the
English care about or think about.

They don't see how it is to be done themselves. All they see yet is
that they must show the Germans that they can't whip Great Britain.
If England wins decisively the English hope that somehow the
military party will be overthrown in Germany and that the Germans,
under peaceful leadership, will go about their
business - industrial, political, educational, etc. - and quit
dreaming of and planning for universal empire and quit maintaining
a great war-machine, which at some time, for some reason, must
attack somebody to justify its existence. This makes it difficult
for the English to make overtures to or to receive overtures from
this military war-party which now _is_ Germany. But, if it he
possible so completely to whip the war party that it will somehow
be thrown out of power at home - that's the only way they now see
out of it. To patch up a peace, leaving the German war party in
power, they think, would be only to invite another war.

If you can get over this point, you can bring the English around in
ten minutes. But they are not going to take any chances on it. Read
English history and English literature about the Spanish Armada or
about Napoleon. They are acting those same scenes over again,
having the same emotions, the same purpose: nobody must invade or
threaten England. "If they do, we'll spend the last man and the
last shilling. We value," they say truly, "the good-will and the
friendship of the United States more than we value anything except
our own freedom, but we'll risk even that rather than admit copper
to Germany, because every pound of copper prolongs the war."

There you are. I've blinked myself blind and talked myself hoarse
to men in authority - from Grey down - to see a way out - without
keeping this intolerable slaughter up to the end. But they stand
just where I tell you.

And the horror of it no man knows. The news is suppressed. Even
those who see it and know it do not realize it. Four of the crack
regiments of this kingdom - regiments that contained the flower of
the land and to which it was a distinction to belong - have been
practically annihilated, one or two of them annihilated twice. Yet
their ranks are filled up and you never hear a murmur. Presently
it'll be true that hardly a title or an estate in England will go
to its natural heir - the heir has been killed. Yet, not a murmur;
for England is threatened with invasion. They'll all die first. It
will presently be true that more men will have been killed in this
war than were killed before in all the organized wars since the
Christian era began. The English are willing and eager to stop it
if things can be so fixed that there will be no military power in
Europe that wishes or prepares to attack and invade England.

I've had many one-hour, two-hour, three-hour talks with Sir Edward
Grey. He sees nothing further than I have written. He says to me
often that if the United States could see its way to cease to
protest against stopping war materials from getting into Germany,
they could end the war more quickly - all this, of course,
informally; and I say to him that the United States will consider
any proposal you will make that does not infringe on a strict
neutrality. Violate a rigid neutrality we will not do. And, of
course, he does not ask that. I give him more trouble than all the
other neutral Powers combined; they all say this. And, on the other
side, his war-lord associates in the Cabinet make his way hard.

So it goes - God bless us, it's awful. I never get away from
it - war, war, war every waking minute, and the worry of it; and I
see no near end of it. I've had only one thoroughly satisfactory
experience in a coon's age, and this was this: Two American ships
were stopped the other day at Falmouth. I telegraphed the captains
to come here to see me. I got the facts from them - all the facts. I
telephoned Sir Edward that I wished to see him at once. I had him
call in one of his ship-detaining committee. I put the facts on the
table. I said, "By what right, or theory of right, or on what
excuse, are those ships stopped? They are engaged in neutral
commerce. They fly the American flag." One of them was released
that night - no more questions asked. The other was allowed to go
after giving bond to return a lot of kerosene which was loaded at
the bottom of the ship.

If I could get facts, I could do many things. The State Department
telegraphs me merely what the shipper says - a partial statement.
The British Government tells me (after infinite delay) another set
of facts. The British Government says, "We're sorry, but the Prize
Court must decide." Our Government wires a dissertation on
International Law - Protest, protest: (I've done nothing else since
the world began!) One hour with a sensible ship captain does more
than a month of cross-wrangling with Government Departments.

I am trying my best, God knows, to keep the way as smooth as
possible; but neither government helps me. Our Government merely
sends the shipper's ex-parte statement. This Government uses the
Navy's excuse. . . .

At present, I can't for the life of me see a way to peace, for the
one reason I have told you. The Germans wish to whip England, to
invade England. They started with their army toward England. Till
that happened England didn't have an army. But I see no human power
that can give the English now what they are determined to
have - safety for the future - till some radical change is made in
the German system so that they will no longer have a war-party any
more than England has a war-party. England surely has no wish to
make conquest of Germany. If Germany will show that she has no wish
to make conquest of England, the war would end to-morrow.

What impresses me through it all is the backwardness of all the Old
World in realizing the true aims of government and the true
methods. I can't see why any man who has hope for the progress of
mankind should care to live anywhere in Europe. To me it is all
infinitely sad. This dreadful war is a logical outcome of their
condition, their thought, their backwardness. I think I shall never
care to see the continent again, which of course is committing
suicide and bankruptcy. When my natural term of service is done
here, I shall go home with more joy than you can imagine. That's
the only home for a man who wishes his horizon to continue to grow

All this for you and me only - nobody else.

Heartily yours,

Probably Page thought that this statement of the case - and it was
certainly a masterly statement - would end any attempt to get what he
regarded as an unsatisfactory and dangerous peace. But President Wilson
could not be deterred from pressing the issue. His conviction was firm
that this winter of 1914-1915 represented the most opportune time to
bring the warring nations to terms, and it was a conviction from which
he never departed. After the sinking of the _Lusitania_ the
Administration gazed back regretfully at its frustrated attempts of the
preceding winter, and it was inclined to place the responsibility for
this failure upon Great Britain and France. "The President's judgment,"
wrote Colonel House on August 4, 1915, three months after the
_Lusitania_ went down, "was that last autumn was the time to discuss
peace parleys, and we both saw present possibilities. War is a great
gamble at best, and there was too much at stake in this one to take
chances. I believe if one could have started peace parleys in November,
we could have forced the evacuation of both France and Belgium, and
finally forced a peace which would have eliminated militarism on land
and sea. The wishes of the Allies were heeded with the result that the
war has now fastened itself upon the vitals of Europe and what the end
may be is beyond the knowledge of man."

This shows that the efforts which the Administration was making were not
casual or faint-hearted, but that they represented a most serious
determination to bring hostilities to an end. This letter and the
correspondence which now took place with Page also indicate the general
terms upon which the Wilson Administration believed that the mighty
differences could be composed. The ideas which Colonel House now set
forth were probably more the President's than his own; he was merely the
intermediary in their transmission. They emphasized Mr. Wilson's
conviction that a decisive victory on either side would be a misfortune
for mankind. As early as August, 1914, this was clearly the conviction
that underlay all others in the President's interpretation of events.
His other basic idea was that militarism should come to an end "on land
and sea"; this could mean nothing except that Germany was expected to
abandon its army and that Great Britain was to abandon its navy.

_From Edward M. House_
115 East 53rd Street,
New York City.
January 4th, 1915.


I believe the Dual Alliance is thoroughly ready for peace and I
believe they would be willing to agree upon terms England would
accept provided Russia and France could be satisfied.

They would, in my opinion, evacuate both Belgium and France and
indemnify the former, and they would, I think, be willing to begin
negotiations upon a basis looking to permanent peace.

It would surprise me if the Germans did not come out in the open
soon and declare that they have always been for peace, that they
are for peace now, and that they are willing to enter into a
compact which would insure peace for all time; that they have been
misrepresented and maligned and that they leave the entire
responsibility for the continuation of the war with the Allies.

If they should do this, it would create a profound impression, and
if it was not met with sympathy by the Allies, the neutral
sentiment, which is now almost wholly against the Germans, would
veer toward them.

Will you not convey this thought to Sir Edward and let me know what
he says?

The President is willing and anxious for me to go to England and
Germany as soon as there is anything tangible to go on, and
whenever my presence will be welcome. The Germans have already
indicated this feeling but I have not been able to get from Spring
Rice any expression from his Government.

As I told you before, the President does not wish to offend the
sensibilities of any one by premature action, but he is, of course,
enormously interested in initiating at least tentative

Will you not advise me in regard to this?

Faithfully yours,

_From Edward M. House_
115 East 53rd Street,
New York City.
January 18, 1915.


The President has sent me a copy of your confidential dispatch No.
1474, January 15th.

The reason you had no information in regard to what General French
mentioned was because no one knew of it outside of the President
and myself and there was no safe way to inform you.

As a matter of fact, there has been no direct proposal made by
anybody. I have had repeated informal talks with the different
ambassadors and I have had direct communication with Zimmermann,
which has led the President and me to believe that peace
conversations may be now initiated in an unofficial way.

This is the purpose of my going over on the _Lusitania_, January
30th. When I reach London I will be guided by circumstances as to
whether I shall go next to France or Germany.

The President and I find that we are going around in a circle in
dealing with the representatives in Washington, and he thinks it
advisable and necessary to reach the principals direct. When I
explain just what is in the President's mind, I believe they will
all feel that it was wise for me to come at this time.

I shall not write more fully for the reason I am to see you so

I am sending this through the kindness of Sir Horace Plunkett.

Faithfully yours,

P.S. We shall probably say, for public consumption, that I am
coming to look into relief measures, and see what further can be
done. Of course, no one but you and Sir Edward must know the real
purpose of my visit.

Why was Colonel House so confident that the Dual Alliance was prepared
at this time to discuss terms of peace? Colonel House, as his letter
shows, was in communication with Zimmermann, the German Under Foreign
Secretary. But a more important approach had just been made, though
information bearing on this had not been sent to Page. The Kaiser had
asked President Wilson to transmit to Great Britain a suggestion for
making peace on the basis of surrendering Belgium and of paying for its
restoration. It seems incredible that the Ambassador should not have
been told of this, but Page learned of the proposal from Field Marshal
French, then commanding the British armies in the field, and this
accounts for Colonel House's explanation that, "the reason you had no
information, in regard to what General French mentioned was because no
one knew of it outside of the President and myself and there was no safe
way to inform you." Page has left a memorandum which explains the whole
strange proceeding - a paper which is interesting not only for its
contents, but as an illustration of the unofficial way in which
diplomacy was conducted in Washington at this time:

* * * * *

Field Marshal Sir John French, secretly at home from his command of the
English forces in France, invited me to luncheon. There were his
especially confidential friend Moore, the American who lives with him,
and Sir John's private secretary. The military situation is this: a
trench stalemate in France. Neither army has made appreciable progress
in three months. Neither can advance without a great loss of men.
Neither is whipped. Neither can conquer. It would require a million more
men than the Allies can command and a very long time to drive the
Germans back across Belgium. Presently, if the Russians succeed in
driving the Germans back to German soil, there will be another trench
stalemate there. Thus the war wears a practically endless outlook so far
as military operations are concerned. Germany has plenty of men and
plenty of food for a long struggle yet; and, if she use all the copper
now in domestic use in the Empire, she will probably have also plenty of
ammunition for a long struggle. She is not nearly at the end of her rope
either in a military or an economic sense.

What then? The Allies are still stronger - so long as they hold together
as one man. But is it reasonable to assume that they can? And, even if
they can, is it worth while to win a complete victory at such a cost as
the lives of practically all the able-bodied men in Europe? But can the
Allies hold together as one man for two or three or four years? Well,
what are we going to do? And here came the news of the lunch. General
French informed me that the President had sent to England, at the
request of the Kaiser, a proposal looking toward peace, Germany offering
to give up Belgium and to pay for its restoration.

"This," said Sir John, "is their fourth proposal."

"And," he went on, "if they will restore Belgium and give
Alsace-Lorraine to France and Constantinople will go to Russia, I can't
see how we can refuse it."

He scouted the popular idea of "crushing out militarism" once for all.
It would be desirable, even if it were not necessary, to leave Germany
as a first-class power. We couldn't disarm her people forever. We've got
to leave her and the rest to do what they think they must do; and we
must arm ourselves the best we can against them.

Now - did General French send for me and tell me this just for fun and
just because he likes me? He was very eager to know my opinion whether
this peace offer were genuine or whether it was a trick of the Germans
to - publish it later and thereby to throw the blame for continuing the
war on England?

It occurs to me as possible that he was directed to tell me what he
told, trusting to me, in spite of his protestations of personal
confidence, etc., to get it to the President. Assuming that the
President sent the Kaiser's message to the King, this may be a suggested
informal answer - that if the offer be extended to give France and Russia
what they want, it will be considered, etc. This may or may not be
true. Alas! the fact that I know nothing about the offer has no meaning;
for the State Department never informs me of anything it takes up with
the British Ambassador in Washington. Well, I'll see.

* * * * *

These were therefore the reasons why Colonel House had decided to go to
Europe and enter into peace negotiations with the warring powers.
Colonel House was wise in taking all possible precautions to conceal the
purpose of this visit. His letter intimates that the German Government
was eager to have him cross the ocean on this particular mission; it
discloses, on the other hand, that the British Government regarded the
proposed negotiations with no enthusiasm. Sir Edward Grey and Mr.
Asquith would have been glad to end hostilities on terms that would
permanently establish peace and abolish the vices which were responsible
for the war, and they were ready to welcome courteously the President's
representative and discuss the situation with him in a fair-minded
spirit. But they did not believe that such an enterprise could serve a
useful purpose. Possibly the military authorities, as General French's
remarks to Page may indicate, did not believe that either side could win
a decisive victory, but this was not the belief of the British public
itself. The atmosphere in England at that time was one of confidence in
the success of British arms and of suspicion and distrust of the British
Government. A strong expectation prevailed in the popular mind, that the
three great Powers of the Entente would at an early date destroy the
menace which had enshrouded Europe for forty years, and there was no
intention of giving Germany a breathing spell during which she could
regenerate her forces to resume the onslaught. In the winter of 1915
Great Britain was preparing for the naval attack on the Dardanelles, and

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 31 of 32)