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Behind every powerful person is a great second banana. History remembers the names of a few legendary sidekicks: Mark Antony, Scottie Pippen, Janis Ian...you get the idea.
From the start, there was no one closer to President Woodrow Wilson than Edward House. He started as a wealthy Texas businessman and Democratic political operative. He somehow received the nickname "Colonel" from a Texas governor, despite having no military background—sort of like if we decided to name this website Shmoop Officer Training.
House then latched onto Wilson's presidential campaign, helping to put the nation's hottest new Democrat in the Oval Office. (Source)
House traveled to Europe before, during, and after World War I. He negotiated with European leaders, but his attempts to settle down the great powers all failed. When the world blew up in 1914 he suggested to Wilson that America should be prepared.
European nations had spent years building up their militaries, and House accurately predicted that America would need to get into the ring sooner or later (source). He became the leading liberal voice for war within the Wilson administration…and the president started to listen.
Wilson appointed House as the executive director of the Inquiry…which sounds like an assembly of Bond villains, but really was a massive study of Europe, World War I, and international affairs that employed over a hundred academics and scholars. Under House's leadership, they came up with the ideas that eventually ended up in Wilson's Fourteen Points speech.
They were the Santa's Elves of political speechwriting.
House believed that the war had been caused by Europe's aristocracies, monarchies, and empires. The elites of Europe, he argued, had forced the war on the people, who would have been better off making their own decisions. These beliefs translated to the eventual product of the Fourteen Points—House suggested political realignment and self-determination: he envisioned empires giving their subjects the chance to become independent and free. Wilson would present these ideas to Congress and world leaders. (Source)
House's mindset might have doomed him and the rest of the world. As a freedom-loving American, he scoffed at the powerful nobles who had plunged Europe into war. What, he imagined, was all the fuss about these kings, princes, and dukes?
But when the war ended and peace negotiations began, House found that Europeans didn't share his dim view of their history. France and Britain weren't interested in redrawing the world map; they preferred sticking it to Germany. The Inquiry had failed to anticipate this; many of the academics had little background in European affairs, especially when it came to all those little tiny countries with unpronounceable names. (Source)
As a result, House backed down on many of the Fourteen Points' key ideas. When it came to negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, he compromised much of Wilson's vision. The failure of the peace process soured the two men's relationship, and Wilson forced House out of his administration. (Source)
So was House's career a spectacular success? He was the brains behind the international peace-building process. On the other hand, his "peace" eventually ended in the resurgence of Germany and the Second World War. At the end of his life, House reportedly said:
My hand has been on things. (Source)
True, although he could have phrased that a bit better. Maybe something like "Whoops, that went south fast. And that's (partially) my bad."