Since before the outbreak of war, Woodrow Wilson, the idealistic American President, had desperately tried first to avert and then to end a conflict which he thought would be the ruin of civilization and the rule of law. In the autumn of 1915 it seemed that the war was reaching a deadlock, and conditions for peace occupied his mind even more. Lacking a definite plan, however, he turned to his intimate friend. Colonel Edward House for advice.
House, always an Anglophile, believed that Imperial Germany was a diehard autocracy which would find no place in the new order following a peace settlement. In October 1915, he explained to the President that Britain and France should and could be convinced of the essential identity of interests between themselves and America; a tripartite understanding should be reached, according to which the United States would call for a peace conference. If the Germans cooperated, a compromise peace might yet be achieved without American belligerency, but if they prov'ed recalcitrant, the United States could intervene on the Allied side under the banner of a moral crusade against the Kaiser.
Colonel House thought that the war could be ended on terms that would include the establishment of a League of Nations to monitor the peace settlement, universal disarmament, and a territorial settlement which would restore the prewar frontiers. Wilson readily agreed to the scheme, though their views on the specifics of a peace settlement differed more than cither man realized. For example. House already believed that American participation on the Allied side was all but inevitable, while Wilson still hoped to use moral rather than physical persuasion.
In January 1916 House was received in London with considerable scepticism and reserve. Grey, the Foreign Secretary and a close friend of House, and Balfour, First Lord of the Admiralty, pointed out that America’s efforts to settle the conflict would meet entrenched resistance from Allied governments and peoples alike. The British were fully aware that German occupation of considerable French and Russian territory meant that a return to the 1914 status quo was the very most that could be expected. This boded ill for Allied war aims, which by now encompassed much in the way of revision of borders and redistribution of power. Above all, the Allies still believed that they could win, and this was infinitely preferable to a compromise arranged by a government which, howev'er friendly, appeared increasingly interfering and naive.
In Berlin, House encountered similar obstinacy, though more subtle Germans tried to convince him that Allied obstructiveness was all that prevented peace, and that in consequence the United States ought to remain neutral. In Paris he was told bluntly that his efforts were coming at an entirely inappropriate time. Still, he left the impres, sion both in Paris and London that America would back the Allies to the hilt.
On 22 February House and Grey produced a memorandum, agreeing that some time in the unspecified future the Allies would ask America to call a peace conference. The general feeling was that German non-cooperation would probably result in America’s entering the war on the Allied side. (It is significant that the conditional ‘probably’ was omitted by House, but added by Wilson.) The terms which would be put to the Germans would include the restoration of Belgian and Serbian independence and sovereignty, the retrocession of Alsace-Lorraine to France, the cession of Constantinople to Russia, and the establishment of an independent Poland. Germany would receiv'e extra colonies in compensation for these losses. A postwar security system would be established, including the abolition of competitive armaments, and guarantees against unprovoked aggression.
To London the signing of the memorandum meant a welcome postponement of American
Below: The Indomitable and Injleuble mosc in lor the kill. Below centre: The Invincible is hit. Bottom: The Iminable sinks. The torpedo boat Badger approaches to pick up the six sure ivors.
Demands, but Washington was more optimistic. ,s it happened, howe er, the. Allies ne er in ited the President to issue his peace appeal.