Ironically, it was not Theodore Roosevelt but rather Woodrow Wilson who presided over this breakthrough. Wilson brought to the White House not only a total lack of experience in foreign affairs but also a disinterest of similar proportion. He had been untouched by the muscular doctrines of Mahan, and he might have been content to establish his "New Freedom" only in America if it had not been for World War I. Wilson's response to that challenge contrasted sharply with the aggressive Rooseveltian style, giving point to John F. Kennedy's remark, "to govern…is to choose."
Presidents choose their advisers and weigh the advice they receive. Probably more than any president before him, Wilson focused his confidence on one adviser, "Colonel" Edward M. House, a Texan whose only title was friend of the president. House and Wilson first met late in 1911, when the former was shopping for a Democratic presidential candidate he could support. They hit it off instantly, and House managed Wilson's 1912 campaign. Thenceforth, he was Wilson's alter ego. His New York City apartment and his summer home in Magnolia, Massachusetts, were both connected by direct telephone lines to the president's study in the White House. Once, when asked whether House accurately reflected his thinking, Wilson replied: "Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one." House was the outstanding example of the species of presidential advisers whom Patrick Anderson called "distinguished outsiders."
Wilson and House had extraordinarily complementary personalities. Both were extremely ambitious, but Wilson reveled in the limelight while House preferred the shadows. Wilson's style was rhetorical, and he was at his best in public exhortation. House, on the other hand, liked to work behind the scenes; he once told an interviewer: "I do not like to make speeches. I abhor routine. I prefer the vicarious thrill which comes to me through others…. I want to be a myth." Wilson saw this as selflessness: "What I like about House," he told Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, "is that he is the most self-effacing man that ever lived. All he wants to do is serve the common cause and to help me and others."
It was House who, at the outbreak of war in Europe, tried to turn Wilson's attention to foreign affairs, arguing that the president's leadership would offer a unique opportunity to effect a revolution in international morals. House wanted Wilson to assume the mediator's role in the war: "the world expects you to play the big part in this tragedy—and so indeed you will, for God has given you the power to see things as they are."
Wilson sent House to Europe early in 1915 to sound out the leaders of the warring powers on the possibilities of a negotiated peace. That mission was unproductive but, with the end of the war in sight, in October 1918, House returned to Europe to obtain Allied acceptance of Wilson's peace program. He wrote in his diary: "I am going on one of the most important missions anyone ever undertook, and yet there is no word of direction, advice or discussion between us." Wilson had simply said: "I have not given you any instructions because I feel you will know what to do." It was Wilson and House who, on the morning of 5 January 1918, hammered out the Fourteen Points. They had the work of the Inquiry to assist them, a mountain of maps and special studies drawn up by the 150-man team of experts House had established to do the research for Wilson's reordering of Europe.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's rule that "an adviser should have a passion for anonymity" has special relevance to the break that eventually ended the Wilson-House collaboration. Wilson wanted agreement, support, and of course loyalty from his confidants; and House supplied all of these, even while sometimes recording criticism of the president in his diary. When asked for advice, House wrote early in 1918, "I nearly always praise at first in order to strengthen the president's confidence in himself which, strangely enough, is often lacking." Between the president's triumphal visit to Europe late in 1918 and his return in early 1919, most of the bloom had faded from Wilson's peace plans as nationalistic interests of the Allies asserted themselves.
As Wilson's "second personality," House fought for the Fourteen Points but realized that compromise was inevitable; he got along better with the Allied statesmen than had Wilson, and he increasingly deplored Wilson's mistakes and believed he himself could have avoided them. The attention showered on him during the president's absence produced a new and overpowering desire to "come into his own." This was probably the crucial factor in the president's withdrawal of affection from House and the end to consulting him. In the final stages of the peacemaking, Wilson consulted no one.
Colonel House had beguiled Wilson and encouraged him in the intense moral commitment that became an obsession. Wilson had depended too much on House, and then not enough; ultimately he was isolated in the destructive rigidity that defeated, and then destroyed, him.